When I was at college I did a course that meant I had to write a 4000-word research essay, it could be about anything. I picked English as my subject or research, and having seen about 5 minutes of footage from the National Theatre 50 Years on Stage thingymajig, decided I was going to write about Angels in America. I should say that I am not currently a drama student, nor am I a student of literature. I do history, and this is the methodology I wanted to use. I got the text, read it, and to say I fell head-over-heels in love with it would be an understatement. A year later, when I’d finished writing my essay, I was still in love with it. Angels is a play that can be pulled to pieces and becomes all the richer for it.
Anyway, I really liked the topic, and I’m still fascinated by the play, particularly in anticipation of the new production at the National Theatre this year. I wanted to return to my thoughts about the politics of the play; examining the specifics of the world Tony Kushner puts on stage. I lost the draft that I submitted for my course, so this is a new essay that uses the same skeleton; I don’t remember the nuances of my original argument, even less so the specific quotes I used. This essay is certainly more informal than the original, and I felt freer to talk about the characters as if they were real people. I know they aren’t, don’t worry. Hopefully there’s no self-plagiarism. I wanted to write this introduction – I don’t analyse every play to death like this, but then again, most plays couldn’t take it.
You’d have to search far to find anyone willing to argue that Angels in America is not a massively significant piece of drama. Its impact on the theatrical world was huge, sweeping the American awards in the early 90s, earning Tony Kushner a Pulitzer and two Tony awards in a couple of years – but more than this, it has left a colossal imprint on American culture. People know that Angels in America exists, however that is, through the stage productions or Mike Nichols’ television adaptation for HBO. It’s hard to think of a play since then that has made such an impact, certainly not a British play.
The New York of the early 1980s was ripe for literary representation, its narcissistic impulses extrapolated into violence in Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious American Psycho, its excesses mocked in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and recent work (including Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire) has discussed the art world that was bourgeoning at the time. Even as they mock the zeitgeist, they all find something celebratory in New York, something about life. The New York of Angels in America is a place of death. Cities themselves are linked to apocalypse, abandoned by God, with hope carried in the people that populate the landscape. In other words, the biological disaster of AIDS is equated with the political catastrophe of Reaganism.
The population of Angels’ New York is specifically diverse: there is Prior, the WASP; Louis, the Kushner (gay, liberal, Jewish) stand in; Belize, the apparent stereotype that subverts expectation; Joe, the conservative but closeted; Harper, the eternal optimist; and Roy Cohn, a man with no soul left to save. Each of these characters represent something specific about Reagan’s America; a world where white heterosexual men and women behaving like them assumed themselves the true heirs to whatever power could be grabbed.
The play opens with a eulogy. An elderly rabbi is talking about the death of a “whole kind of person,” that is specifically, Sarah Ironson, and generally, the wave of Jewish immigrants into America from Russia. Sarah Ironson is the grandmother of Louis Ironson, one of the central characters of the play, who clings to his Jewish heritage. Notably, he is also – demographically at least – the character most like Kushner – gay, liberal and Jewish. We are introduced to him at the funeral, all seriousness, laden with grief. He’s passive, either complacent or too exhausted to try and stop Prior, his long-term boyfriend from chatting absolute shite. But his reaction to trauma, we learn, is to explode. When Prior tells him he has AIDS, Louis refuses to let go of him, before pushing him away and swearing at him. His reaction is to deny – four times he says “Fuck you,” to Prior. Immediately after, he has to go.
Leaving Prior is always a possibility for Louis, he seems to consider it from the moment he’s told about the diagnosis. It crops up several times in dialogue, with Prior – presumably catching on to the threat – telling him that such an act would be unforgivable. The emotional stakes are so high for Prior; Louis leaving him makes him completely alone. It also serves as a reminder of the reality many gay men went through, suddenly becoming carers for their partners, who were living with horrific symptoms. Kushner puts AIDS on stage in all its ugliness, allowing Louis’ actions to be contextualised, if never justified. Louis is always just on the edge, on the verge of hysteria, so when the physical trappings of AIDS are made immediate to him, it’s the final straw. But we are never in any doubt of the sheer, shameless audacity of Louis leaving Prior to “save [my]self.”
On top of all this, he’s a flirt. Politics is a barb and sex is a weapon, as we learn in his first encounter with Joe, in a bathroom at their office. Even as he is in visible distress over Prior, Louis cannot help but flirt with Joe, teasing him about “Reaganite heartless macho asshole lawyers.” When Joe pulls him up on this, Louis can’t help but joke. “[What’s unfair?] Heartless? Macho? Reaganite? Lawyer?” He cares very deeply about politics, or the illusion of politics; after all, he can only love “big ideas.” The sense is that Louis cares, but because he can hold these things at arm’s length, he is somewhat removed, detached, and therefore insensitive to the actual human cost of the things he is joking about.
The centrepiece of the third act of Millennium Approaches is the conversation between Louis and Belize on the nature of democracy. It is fascinating politically, but more than that, it unravels Louis’ entire character. By this point, he has left Prior, and is determined to defend his position – on absolutely everything. He cannot shut up. He talks for pages on the nature of democracy in America, making a statement “Why has democracy succeeded in America?” and then immediately qualifying it, “I mean comparatively…” He proceeds to rally against liberalism, and tolerance because it is politics that divides. He confuses and contradicts himself. He is desperate, and panicking. Determined to play the victim, he has the nerve to make a racist claim to Belie, then says “You hate me because I’m a Jew.” Simultaneously, he seeks Belize’s approval, “race here is a political question, right?” In this bit of Shavian social theorising, Kushner can examine both the state of liberal politics in America – subscribers to which were the bulk of his audience – and give Louis’ character enough depth that his character could appear only in this seen and still be fully fleshed out. You could write a thesis on this scene alone.
Louis is self-destructive, and he claims he hates himself, but to suggest this is simply an act of self-loathing is to underestimate the character. He cannot be described as a stereotypical, emasculated, self-hating Jew. He can clearly ‘pass’ as straight with his family, acts “butch.” Moreover he has a sexual confidence when he is with Joe that suggests he doesn’t suffer from a lack of self-confidence. His self destructive acts, most vividly in the scene where he solicits a stranger in Central Park for sex, and encourages him to “infect [him].” It’s twisted, and abject. Sex in Angels is largely unsatisfying and unromantic, this being the first instance. Interestingly, the only scene where you get the impression anyone is actually enjoying the sex is also with Louis, in his first scene with Joe in Perestroika. Additionally, the man Louis solicits in Central Park is played by the same actor that plays Prior, suggesting that what Louis is largely guilty of is guilt itself. He commits an act which he recognises crosses a line, but does it anyway, just so he can a sensation comparable to Prior. Louis wants to suffer; he wants a reason to whinge.
The irony is, Louis has reason to whinge. All around him, friends are dying; he himself is a gay man in the middle of an era not short of stigma. But rather than take up the fight for his friends, he makes it about him. Ultimately, Louis becomes Reaganistic selfishness and liberal hypocrisy personified. Everything has to be about him. It is only when he starts to shift, to become aware that it is not in fact about him, that he regains his dignity. This occurs largely when he confronts Joe, having finally learnt of his links to Roy Cohn. He has gone through Joe’s cases, and throws particularly despicable ones back in his face, including one where a gay man was cheated of his army pension. He incenses Joe to such an extent that he is left bloodied and bruised on the ground, but even then, it is not clear if he does it to be forgiven by Prior, or if he is being sincere. Either way, he cannot go back to Prior, but is nevertheless accepted into the family of the Epilogue. He is unresolved, implicitly discontent. It is arguably this that gives tension to the ending; Louis is never going to stop.
Harper Pitt is always slightly otherworldly. She is the first to invoke the apocalypse, speaking specifically of the destruction of the ozone layer; she sees the whole world, “Everywhere, things are collapsing,” she says in her first scene. She recognises there is no hope in reality, and as such is perfectly content to live in an illusion, because her reality consists of popping Valium and being frightened and alone. She has no desire for change, because her idea of change means the world tipping over the edge of the precipice into apocalypse. She is desperately sad.
The play’s attitudes towards gender are fascinating. Kushner is clearly trying to shift the attitudes of American theatre away from silencing women and forcing them into the background; Harper is crucial to the plot, her hallucinations being equally crucial to the larger ideas and philosophical debates of the play, and they privilege her position in regards to the protagonist. She unquestionably makes her own choices and is never without agency. Nevertheless, it does replicate traditional structures: Harper is pathologized, she is hysterical in the literal sense of the word. She is what Barbara Creed might describe as a ‘monstrous womb,’ she talks about giving birth to a pill instead of a baby. She is, in all senses, a complete contradiction. The feminine is repeatedly other-ed in Angels in America; the men are gay, the women are there largely because of their association with men. But most obviously this is the case with the Angel of America herself. If the Angels are female – and Kushner uses female pronouns throughout, despite describing them as “hermaphroditally equipped” – then femininity is associated with stasis, and men are the agents of progress, even as it is the male body that is destroyed by AIDS.
She never wishes Joe, her husband, pain, but she is terrified by him. We learn that she has had a miscarriage, and was probably abused as a child. No wonder then, that she takes refuge in imagination, where she can claim the space as her own, with her imaginary friend Mr Lies. When Joe wants to leave for Washington, Harper is horrified, because she is “happy enough,” in New York. We come to realise that Harper and Joe’s marriage is built on doubt, possibly due to their religion; their faith is in something external, not in each other, because if it was it would be exposed as a lie. She is always on “the very threshold of realisation.” Her last appearance in Millennium is her wandering an imaginary Antarctica, transported to the site of impending apocalypse, in the glare of the UV caused by the hole in the ozone layer.
When in Millennium she drifted, in Perestroika she rages. Harper was always impulsive but when we are reintroduced to her in Perestroika, she is feral. Her fantasies have gone too far and “tore a big old hole in the sky,” she is left abandoned by Joe and his mother, Hannah, is left to pick up the pieces. Hannah tries to communicate to Harper that life is disappointing, but Harper either chooses not to or is incapable of listening. Is she fundamentally an optimist? She can cross space and time (P.3.1) and reality and imagination, why would she ever choose a disappointing reality? She is made cynical by the abandonment, in the diorama scene (P.3.3) she is described as a “flawed” and “inferior” Mormon. Reality continues to fracture, Louis wanders in and interacts with a mannequin who is also Joe, and both things are real and artifice simultaneously. But as the scene collapses in on itself – incidentally, I’ve read it god knows how many times and I still don’t understand the scene totally – she chooses imagination again, and she steps into the diorama, into the artifice.
“Flood’s not the answer,” she claims, on the promenade in a dress as a storm comes in “Fire’s the answer. The Great and Terrible Day. At last.” She is desperate for the end, perhaps because it means her vision will stop, she will stop see reality as bleak and imagination as horror. But she comes to recognise that devastation is necessary for migration, for progress, for change. At the end of the play, having been ruined by Joe and then regained herself, she decides to leave him. The very last thing she does is to hurt him, physically with a slap, then by handing him a Valium. Then she walks out.
Her last speech, which ends the play proper, is on a night flight to San Francisco. We cannot trust that it is real, but we hope so. She talks of “souls rising, from the earth far below… and they floated up like skydivers… the souls of these departed joined hands… and formed a web, a great net of souls” The dead, the disenfranchised repair the threadbare ozone layer, sealing the world off from harm, forming a protective layer. “Nothing’s lost forever… At least I think that’s so.” She has doubt. In other words, nothing is absolutes – reality/imagination – she is at peace with doubt, but has a capacity for optimism. She, like Prior, gives more life – to herself.
Kushner has spoken about how E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime allowed him to force history and fiction together; they do not have to exist separately, nor does history have to serve only as backdrop. Indeed, history is often transformed through literature, as figures are appropriated for larger philosophical, theological ideas – most prominently through Shakespeare, for example. In Angels, this idea manifests itself most successfully, and most horrifyingly, in the characterisation of Roy Cohn. By portraying Cohn in the way he does, Kushner makes the claim that the gay and PWA (People With AIDS) community was non-homogenous, in a way that an earlier AIDS play like The Normal Heart did/had to. It’s also a way to reclaim Cohn – to ‘pinklist’ him, if you will – from the liberal homophobia of his obituaries. When he died, his sexual liaisons were equated with his political depravity (he was Donald Trump’s mentor for God’s sake.) In the play, Cohn is demonised because he does awful things, not because he is a closeted gay man.
We are introduced to him in a largely comedic scene; he is rapidly punching buttons on his phone, talking to clients, secretaries, trying to talk to Joe in person. He is made ridiculous, but always a physical threat. He loves chaos, because he thinks he can control and thrive in it. He makes a comment on the phone “No you wouldn’t like La Cage, trust me, I know.” Only to call it almost immediately after “Fabulous. Best thing on Broadway. Maybe ever.” It’s funny. But it gets at the conflict within Cohn; the need to pretend, but also the seeking of companionship. He’s telling Joe because he’s already sussed, two minutes into their meeting, that Joe is interested in him. The whole charade with the phone acts as a ploy for Roy to discover if Joe has a wife or not.
Everything is about power for Roy. Even in a doctor’s office, being given life-changing news he has to play at power. He is vulnerable, and clearly terrified, and turns the tables, making a game out of it. He wants the doctor to say that he’s gay, but threatens to destroy him utterly if he dares do it. He makes threats, and there should be no doubt that means them. Cohn isn’t gay, he says, because he has “clout.” And homosexuals “have zero clout.” Labels don’t have anything to do with sexuality, he suggests, they are only to do with your standing on the ladder of power. “What I am is defined entirely by who I am.” He is Roy Cohn, and therefore he is Roy Cohn. In a later scene, he insists that nothing should be allowed to stand in a person’s way. It would be empowering if he wasn’t so despicable.
Roy is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he had executed alongside her husband. We learn that executing her is his proudest achievement because he “fucking hates traitors.” By doing so, he “forced [his] way into history,” but as Ethel warns him, “history is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.” Constructed history means nothing if there’s a big gaping lie at the middle of it. The only thing scarier to Roy than dying, is dying without power – essentially, dying without his reputation intact. Because his power relies on the subjugation of others, he lashes out, calling Belize a “dim black mother…” “Watch. Yourself.” Belize can hold his own, but Roy is increasingly repellent. Racists, nonetheless are too rigid for his tastes, but he would still prefer a WASP doctor.
The second part of Angels is called Perestroika; it translates as restructuring. The old politics f the cold war is thawing, and Roy’s world I collapsing with it. When he is informed in his hospital that his power may be slipping, that he may be disbarred, he cannot comprehend it. He still expects/assumes authority even as the person at the other end of the phone line us telling him his position is failing. Roy refuses to give Belize a bottle of AZT pills for Prior, which escalates into him racially abusing Belize, which subsequently turns into both throwing the worst expletives at each other. Only then does Roy permit Belize to take a bottle. “That’s America,” he says “It’s just no country for the infirm.”
As he nears death, his visions become more vivid. He sings about John Brown, the father of American terrorism to all intents and purposes. He is disbarred moments before he dies, the last of his power slipping from his grasp as his health finally fails him. But even then, he can’t resist one final moment of relish, feigning his death before joking about it in a truly postmodern sense. He dies instantly afterwards, pressing an imaginary hold button. “Better he had never lived at all” says Ethel. But forgiveness is needed for progress, Kushner suggests, and Ethel and Louis together say the Kaddish over Roy’s body, restoring him to his culture, to humanity. His is forgiven, but the distinctly non-Aramaic addition to the end “you sonofabitch” suggests that forgetting is not on the agenda.
Prior Walter is certainly the protagonist of the play; he is the man we witness going through obstacles and emerging at the end. But he is no Hamlet – he’s funnier, for a start, and he does not exist in isolation. He’s a prophet, but a reluctant one. Although I had pulled this play to pieces before, it’s been a while, and I’d forgotten how much Prior – and particularly his humour – ground the play. In many ways, Angels is a play about things that happen to Prior, as opposed to things brought on by his decisions. He’s sort of insoluble, and I imagine a bitch to play. He doesn’t shut up, for starters.
We are introduced to him at the funeral of Louis’ grandmother. He reeks of sarcasm. Everything seems a joke, and it is only when he reveals the first lesion on his arm that the tone plunges into tragedy. Humour is his way of coping, by laughing about the biology, in contrast to Louis’ humour, which removes him from the situation. AIDS grants him these extraordinary visions, including one where he is in drag and is visited by Harper. She tells him “in my church we don’t believe in homosexuals.” He responds “in my church we don’t believe in Mormons.” He has an extraordinary wit, and going hand in hand with that is his absolute conviction in his beliefs. He doesn’t spout political speeches in the way Louis does, but he does believe in compassion, and in community. It is why his abandonment is so traumatic.
There is a sense of the weight of history about him, referenced by his name ‘Prior,’ always just before something else. The ghosts of his ancestors appear to him in act three of Millennium, linking together the plagues of the 13th, 17th and 20th centuries. History is calling to prepare the way… for what? The capital-M Millennium? Prior I recites part of the Kaddish to him, suggesting that yes, Prior is connected to a WASP tradition dating back to the Norman Conquest but he is far more of an amalgamation; he references all sorts of politics, religion and popular culture – from Streetcar to Shirley Booth and Spielberg to Maria Ouspenskaya.
When he first hears the voice, it connects with him on a primal, sexual level. When the angel appears to him at the end of Millennium, and when we see the aftermath in Perestroika, we realise that Prior is connected to the Angel in many senses – they are each part of the other. The Angel leaves him with hope – and an orgasm.
With Prior, we see the biology of AIDS. We see the effects; the blood, the shit, the vomit. It is never, not for a second, played for sentiment. Prior is toxic, and is terrified at the prospect of never being touched. But more importantly is that we see Prior living with AIDS. He (SPOILER ALERT) doesn’t die, he learns to want to live. Perestroika concentrates on him learning to do this. At the start, he is somewhat embittered. He is more serious, dresses in dark robes. His encounter with the Angel has changed him – he’s fucking furious at the world: “It’s 1986 and there’s a plague.” He is unforgiving towards Louis: “fuck you you little shitbag,” and he’s immune to sentiment. Louis’ ‘bruises on the inside’ mean nothing to him, because in the end, Prior is the only one without a true carer. He wants Louis to bleed, because nothing emotional comes close to the biological and physical devastation of AIDS. His bravery is held in sharp contrast to Roy’s cynicism.
He is the one to wrestle with the Angel – stasis itself, and gains access to heaven. When he confronts the Angels, he realises that yes, life can be horror, but we are addicted. He wants More Life – and how dare God leave mankind to its fate. How dare he leave. He rejects the prophecy. Mankind must migrate, he argues. Change is painful, but necessary.
In the epilogue, Angels establishes itself more firmly as a history play by jumping forward five years to 1991. Prior has been living with AIDS for five years. His last speech, directed to the audience, is an extension of political imagination. “We will be citizens” he says. It is an act of transgression. A threat, even. Then he blesses us. The play begins with a funeral and ends with “more life.” Prior’s life.
Belize is the link. He connects all the characters, and acts often as their conscience. But as a character himself, he is something of an enigma. Even his name is not his – and old drag name that stuck, according to Kushner’s notes. His real name, Norman Ariaga, is never invoked. He has no past, except that with Prior, barely any present, and no family. He is also the most transgressive; gay, black, effeminate. And, he is the most stable. He acts as the play’s moral centre, his beliefs and statements often going unquestioned as truths. If he was a real person, he would be one of probably three genuinely ‘good’ people in the play. It may be hidden by wit and sass, but Belize has a heart that would beat for the world if it could.
We don’t meet him until the second act of Millennium, when he swans into Prior’s hospital room. He immediately starts to affectionately insult Prior, it is clear their relationship is strong. Prior wants Louis, and Belize is reassuring. He is clearly very loyal, when he says “I will be here for you,” you believe him. Because for Belize, politics is human relationships. It’s not about huge ideas and concepts, warring philosophies and great debates, it’s about how people treat each other.
This is most evident in the conversation he has with Louis in the café. Louis, crippled with guilt, is talking non-stop. Belize sits and lets him unravel. He gives no approval, he gives no reassurance – in fact, he’s not given a chance to say anything at all. Kushner uses Belize to expose Louis as a complete hypocrite, as he waxes lyrical about democracy and the lack of monoliths in America. Belize sits there, unimpressed. He’s not willing to argue, not because he is incapable, but because he thinks Louis is a bit pathetic. He’s not even moved to argue when Louis makes racist claims, he simply wants to go. The only time he becomes engaged is when Louis accuses him of anti-Semitism. “Are you deliberately transforming yourself into an arrogant sexual-political Stalinist-slash-racist flag waving thug for my benefit?” He is unimpressed by posturing with discourse, particularly when it is used to cover guilt, or genuine emotion. Unlike Louis, Belize has read Democracy in America. He knows what he’s on about – he could destroy Louis if he wanted to, but he recognises that’s what Louis wants. To Belize, politics is simple and life is hard. The way Louis and Belize bicker through the epilogue suggest they will go on forever. Ideas never stay still for long.
He is also Roy Cohn’s nurse, caregiver to a man diametrically opposed to him in every demographic imaginable. When Belize describes heaven to him, Belize describes it as a city like San Francisco. It’s bleak, he juxtaposes trash with jewels: “race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.” Roy is so repelled by the image that he confuses it for hell. They are so completely different, Belize appears to hate Roy, and the feeling seems to be mutual. But after Roy’s death, he is the one who encourages Louis to say the Kaddish “to thank him for the pills” they are taking for Prior. “A queen can forgive her vanquished foe,” he says. He recognises that forgiveness is necessary for progress from the beginning. “Louis, I’d even pray for you.” He needs no realisation. He offers no explanation. It is really that simple.
Belize is never racialized within the play in the same way as Louis, for example. Blackness is by no means his defining characteristic, in a way Louis’ Jewishness could be described as his defining characteristic. But he is clearly acutely aware of the way race divides in America. Louis can afford to love America, because it’s a place of ideas. Belize has to hate America, because when its politics translate into interpersonal relations, he is marginalised. He finally talks at length towards the end of Perestroika. “I hate this country… The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to aa note so high nobody can reach it… Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.” It’s a moment of what appears to be striking – if entirely justified – cynicism, except it is followed by him saying “Everybody’s got to love something.” Belize is a man who’s heart is breaking for the whole world – not because of the failure of concept, or theory, but because of the damage that it causes actual human beings.
Kushner believes the purpose of theatre to be to teach critical consciousness. This may be true, and it cannot be said that any of the characters in the play are simple, or archetypes. They are complex figures that complicate a simple world-view, or understanding of the contemporary political landscape.
If drama is fundamentally about people, and the way people interact, then politics is present, whether in an explicit capacity of not. Kushner puts the people that believed themselves entitled to power on stage next to those who are utterly without power, plays them off each other, and allows (for the most part) the politics to be expressed in domestic conversation. His politics may be drawn from Brecht and Marx, but his understanding of the playwrighting craft puts him in the lineage of O’Neill and Williams. People are crafted before politics.
The problem is, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s theology I haven’t even touched upon. I’ve left out the Mormons almost entirely. There are vast swathes of this play that are still a mystery to me, and are likely to remain so. Which is why it is so important and impressive that at the heart of this play are people, not ideas, but people. I don’t, and can’t, even think of them as characters any more.
My edition of Angels in America is the combined edition of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, published by Nick Hern Books in London on 12th April 2007.
There’s a whole load of literature and media on Angels in America and I used a lot of it:
‘Tony Kushner with Michael Friedman’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4H7nsJwnRE [accessed 2/4/17]
The dramaturgy blog for ABBEDAM’s 2013 production of Angels in America by Tony Kushner, http://abbedamangels.tumblr.com/ [accessed 16/3/17]
Andrea Bernstein’s 1995 interview with Tony Kushner, http://www.motherjones.com/media/1995/07/tony-kushner [accessed 16/3/17]
‘Essays on Kushner’s Angels,’ Per Brask (ed.) Winnipeg, Blizzard Publishing, 1995
‘The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope,’ James Fisher, London, Routledge, 2002
‘Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America,’ Deborah R. Geis and Stephen F Kruger (eds,) Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1997
… amongst many others that I have absorbed via diffusion but haven’t quoted specifically.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore.