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Angels in America

  • Study Guide

Perestroika, Act Three

Summary Perestroika, Act Three


Even in his weakened state, Roy is still powerful and dangerous. Scene One averts the possibility that the audience might come to see Roy as a lovable grump or as rascally but essentially harmless. His assaults on Belize cannot be explained away as the ravings of a sick man—they are brutal, merciless and cruelly intelligent. The word "nigger" leaps off the page. So does Roy's refusal to part with even the smallest portion of his drug horde, his implicit equation of Belize with stereotypes about African-Americans and welfare. Worst of all, he succeeds in baiting Belize to sink, even briefly, to his level. It is only when Belize calls him a "greedy kike" that he parts with a bottle, a precious reward that only partially compensates for the loss Belize sustains of even more precious dignity and goodness. After this scene Roy can only be considered genuinely hateful. This is important for it helps explain Ethel's fixation on Roy more than thirty years after her death, and adds to Roy's own complexity—the sincere feeling of rejection he voices to Ethel at the end of the scene is more interesting and surprising when contrasted with his demonic potential. Most of all, it raises the stakes for the following act, making Belize's ultimate forgiveness of Roy all the more impressive and morally resounding.

For all its seriousness, Scene One has a strand of dark humor that becomes full- bodied comedy in Scene Two. As Prior and Harper watch the show, Louis appears suddenly in the diorama scene and carries on a seemingly private conversation with Joe, but their ex-lovers can both overhear them. The scene has several individually humorous elements that combine for intense effect: Harper's sarcastic asides during the show (which is ironically funny even on its own); her bland disregard for "the little creep" coupled with Prior's hysteria, which echoes the audience's own surprise at Louis's appearance; Louis and Joe's conversation, especially Louis's overreaction to Joe's Mormonism; and Hannah's perennial curtness all combine to riotous effect.

But this scene and others like it are not designed simply for comic relief. For a "serious" Broadway play, Angels in America is refreshingly funny—Louis's teasing of Joe in their first encounters, his political debate with Belize, Harper's mystified dialogue with Prior in their mutual dream sequence are all written to get big laughs. The humor, however, does not rely on comic staples like slapstick, put-downs and throwaway one-liners. It is character-based humor: Louis and Hannah are only funny in this scene because their actions provide such exaggerated confirmation of their personalities as we have come to know them. More importantly, it is a humor laced with a bitter realism. Prior's hysteria makes us smile, but to him it is genuinely painful. Harper drifts in and out of near-madness. The humor is linked to profound emotions, making it both funnier and integral to those emotions' portrayal. When the audience laughs at something that is genuinely painful for the character on the stage, the audience's relation to the material deepens significantly.

At the end of the scene, Harper leaves with the Mormon mother, whose character underlines the difficult lot of women and the sexism of Mormon (and American) society. As Harper points out, she and her daughter have no voices, and only the father dummy has moving parts. It is a literal, uncomfortable depiction of Mormonism's rigid hierarchy, helping us to understand the considerable pressure Harper herself must have faced in Salt Lake City. The women are imagined as cheerful, self-effacing, and silent. It is a cultural fantasy that appeals strongly to Harper: she sits briefly in the mother's seat, longing for the comforts of a "perfect" family, but it is only a diorama, not even a particularly realistic-looking one. When the Mormon mother speaks, particularly in Scene Five, her words illustrate the unimaginably painful reality of real pioneer women's lives. By allowing her to speak, Kushner metaphorically empowers all silenced women—although the technique is transparently obvious and un- subtle.