Angels in America

Summary

Perestroika, Act Five, Scenes 1–5

Summary Perestroika, Act Five, Scenes 1–5

Analysis

If any reader doubts that the Angels' cosmology is deeply flawed, that doubt is dispelled by the image of Heaven presented in Act Five. It is a depressing, decaying place, trapped in the past—like a San Francisco that never rebuilt from its terrible earthquake. Without the creative force of God to lead them, the Angels live amid rubble and cracked buildings and listen to a creaky 1940s radio, as if existing on humanity's hand-me-downs. Even entertainment is deadly dull, an endless succession of card games. In Heaven, everything is known but nothing decided or settled: sitting around their junk-covered table, the Angels can recite facts about the physics and history of cathodes but cannot fix a vacuum tube. They can discuss humanity's plight but cann ot stop the destruction at Chernobyl. Their "lawsuit" against God (admittedly more of a sight gag than a seriously developed theme) can only be initiated after Prior suggests it. They embody the limited imagination that Harper bemoans in the first act of Millennium: "Nothing unknown is knowable."

Faced with such lackluster opposition, Prior's confident rejection of his prophecy loses some of its force—the Angels' philosophy is not viable or even slightly compelling. He declares that he wants more life, a decision he seems to come to almost r eluctantly; but who could possibly make a different choice when the alternative is an eternity playing Hearts with Rabbi Chemelwitz? Still, Prior's speeches in Scene Five encapsulate one of the play's key morals: Life persists and forward motion continue s despite impossible, even unbearable conditions. The Angels never change their plea, but as he leaves Heaven they make a "mystical sign" which we are free to imagine is responsible for his continuing survival in the epilogue—the guarantee of "more life" which he asks for. If this is indeed the meaning of the mystical sign, it is a tacit admission by the Angels that they have been defeated, out-reasoned by their would-be prophet.

A more impressive candidate for the play's climax is the taut, harrowing scene in which Louis and Ethel Rosenberg recite the Kaddish for Roy. The concept of forgiveness, even more than that of progress, lies at the heart of the play's moral vision. Throug hout the play, the characters have been struggling to define both love and justice—what they are, how they can be achieved, what obligations they require; now, Belize suggests that forgiveness "is maybe where love and justice finally meet." We remem ber with a shudder all the hurt that Roy tried to inflict on Belize, and yet Belize, the most ethical character in Angels, is willing to set aside his hatred. So too is Ethel, who has a lifetime's (and more) worth of reasons to despise Roy. They fo rgive, but they do not forget his sins—when the prayer is finished Louis and Ethel add, "You sonofabitch." In the same vein, Prior will forgive Louis for deserting him without letting him move back in, and Harper will signal understanding for Joe's plight while setting off to build a new life for herself alone. Forgiveness is what allows the characters finally to rebuild the society that was shattered by the betrayals and crises of Millennium.

In life, Roy angrily disavowed his homosexuality; in death it will be splashed on the front pages of the newspapers, the irony savored by those like the lawyer on the disbarment committee who always thought of him as "that little faggot." The real-life R oy Cohn is commemorated by a square on the AIDS Memorial Quilt that reads, "Coward/Bully/Victim." AIDS activists teach that all people with AIDS are innocent, even someone as flawed as Roy Cohn. In the same spirit, Belize recognizes that AIDS has brought Roy back, against his will, into connection with the gay community. And by reciting the Kaddish, Louis and Ethel also rejoin him to Judaism, another community Roy strenuously rejected. Belize, and the play itself, challenge us to expand our definition of community to include even those whom we find alien or uncomfortable.