Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America is often considered one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking plays of the modern era. Combining a great many themes and motifs that resonate with modern audiences, Kushner seeks to elevate the gritty reality of the 1990s and beyond with the gravitas and glory due to it. The play is subtitled ” A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” – this is a very accurate descriptor for the play itself, and denotes the varying elements that come together to form this singular piece of work. In this paper, the three attributes the subtitle attaches to the play – ‘gay,’ ‘fantasia,’ and ‘national themes’ – will be examined in terms of how they are expressed within the play itself.
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First, we must explore the ‘gay’ aspect of Angels in America. Homosexuality is a very prominent component of the play, as many of the characters deal with their sexuality and their attitude towards it. Prior and Louis are a committed gay couple struggling with Prior’s progressing AIDS. Joe Pitt is a married Mormon man still struggling with his homosexuality, despite having a wife. Roy Cohn is a high-powered lawyer who also has AIDS from having sex with a man – he is constantly in denial about his homosexuality. These four primary characters face unique and troubling obstacles on their way to accepting who they are – gay.
Prior is the character most at home with his homosexuality – this is contrasted by his long-standing suffering and gradual diminishing from AIDS. Louis has a bit more trouble accepting his homosexuality, much as he has trouble with his identity as a whole. Louis, to a point, accepts that he is gay, but he feels guilty for being that way, and about his own selfishness.
Joe Pitt has a direct conflict between his Mormon beliefs and his own homosexuality, and that shows throughout his own progression in the play. In his eyes, he shouldn’t be gay, and is constantly fighting his impulses and attraction towards men.
One of the biggest struggles with being gay comes from Roy Cohn, who is a loud, abrasive, aggressive and mean-spirited man who is denying to the world (and himself) that he has AIDS. Along with that point, he refuses to think or admit that he is gay. In a tirade to his doctor Henry in the first act, Roy identifies who he is, or who he thinks he is: ” I have sex with men; but, unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. Because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys” (45).
Secondly, the play is a fantasia. A fantasia is often defined as a piece of music that does not have a set structure, or one that contains many songs or bits that are commonly known to people. In this respect, the play is absolutely a fantasia – the structure of the play is fairly aimless, or at least fluid. The play consists of series of scenes involving these various characters encountering their issues and their problems, often with a loose connection to the other characters.
At the same time, the attitudes and motifs of the play are well known to people who have experienced them, and are common parts of life. The play itself tackles love, greed, loneliness, guilt, loss and other things that are universal to the human experience. The characters simply live in their world, and the story is about them experiencing their lives, instead of the story being plot-driven. The characters are not working together to achieve some overall goal; instead, they merely inhabit the time spent in the play. Prior attempts to hold on despite his deteriorating state; Roy tries to keep his own AIDS and homosexuality a secret. Louis tries to reconcile many of his political issues and his idealism with his own actions – abandoning Prior, etc., while Joe reconciles his own homosexuality with his Mormonism.
The word ‘fantasia’ also conjures up images of the fantastic and the presentational; these supernatural and incredible events are also present in the play. Prior is often beset with fantastic images of an angel warning him of the impending millenium – ” Greetings Prophet, the Great Work Begins: The Messenger has arrived” (p. 47). Roy Cohn also is haunted by spirits, in the form of Ethel Rosenberg, the famous Jewish American communist who was assassinated for espionage. Harper Pitt, Joe’s wife, suffers from hallucinations induced by Valium prescribed due to her anxiety. These fantastic elements are present in a normally down to earth and realistic play, highlighting those events and making them more significant by making them the portent of huge, incredible events to come.
Finally, the play itself deals greatly with national themes, consisting of both social and historical issues that were at the forefront of political and social thought at the time, and continue to be into the twenty-first century. Homosexuality and AIDS were relatively new in terms of social acceptance and open dialogue at the time this play was released; issues of acceptance and the complexity of gay relationships were very rarely talked about in media and theatre to this degree before the play came out. In this respect, Angels in America taps onto these national themes of dealing with the desire for homosexuals to be accepted in normal society.
The issue of AIDS is a major theme in the play, being carried by Prior and Roy, and feared by Louis. The status of AIDS infection of the characters almost becomes synonymous with their homosexuality; as their disease progresses, the more they are forced to confront it. The significant presence of AIDS in the play is deeply synonymous with the confrontation American society was having with the disease at the time. Many who contracted AIDS were derided as immoral, or were told that they ” deserved” it; Kushner’s play puts these opinions on trial by presenting people from all walks of life who have the disease – both high-powered lawyers and poor, openly gay bohemians.
Religion is another important national theme that is tackled in Angels in America; both the Jewish and Mormon faiths are examined in terms of their progressiveness and ability to tolerate other viewpoints. Much of the discussion regarding Judaism falls to Louis and Roy Cohn; Louis’ Judaism is often used to project his own idealistic liberal viewpoints on the world, using that as a smokescreen for owning up to his responsibility to Prior and himself. Roy, on the other hand, is incredibly insensitive to minorities, including other Jews homosexuals, and places himself above them due to his status and money. His own animosity extends even to Ethel Rosenberg, the persecuted Communist Jew, almost as an extension of
Joe’s Mormonism is another way in which religion and homosexuality’s conflicting values intersect. Joe is a Republican and a lawyer; deeply closeted, he has to reconcile his desires for men with what he believes to be right in terms of his religion – having a family and a wife, living for God, etc. Even within this religion, he finds imagery to fuel his desires. ” I had a book of Bible stories when I was a kid. There was a picture I’d look at twenty times every day: Jacob wrestles with the angelJacob is young and very strong. The angel isa beautiful man, with golden hair and wings, of course” (11). Joe is troubled by what his religion and his feelings tell him; the traditional pull of religion clashes with the newfound prevalence of an open and prominent homosexual culture. These aspects and more are the national themes that the play’s subtitle implies.
In Angels in America, these three factors – gay, fantasia, and national themes – combine to create a comprehensive portrait of the postmodernist world, where a new brand of acceptance for homosexuals clashes with traditional ideas of love, marriage and success. With society at a turning point between traditionalism and progressiveness, the characters of the play form many different opinions about the direction of civilization as it pertains to homosexuality and other national themes. The ‘fantasia’ comes from the loosely structured cornucopia of subplots that coalesce into a larger whole. The play is character-driven instead of plot-driven, and that allows for an ephemeral and complex interweaving of character journeys that deal thematically with the presence and progression of the homosexual experience. Combining that issue with the AIDS epidemic, the influence of religion, and other themes that pertain to the status of this nation, Kushner creates the aforementioned ‘gay fantasia on national themes’ that sums up the play so perfectly.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes – Part One: Millenium Approaches. 1993.