Kushner, Tony. Angels in America.
The play is written for eight actors, each of them takes on two or more roles.
- Roy M. Cohn: a successful New York lawyer, unofficial power broker. Closeted homosexual, Jew, McCarthyist.
- Joseph Porter Pitt: chief clerk for Justice of the Court of Appeals. Latent homosexual, Mormon, Republican.
- Harper Amaty Pitt: Joe’s dependent wife, an agoraphobic addicted to Valium. Heterosexual, Mormon.
- Louis Ironson: a word processor at the Federal Court of Appeals. Homosexual, Jew.
- Prior Walter: Louis’s boyfriend for the last four years. Homosexual, Jew. Dying of AIDS.
- Hannah Porter Pitt: Joe’s mother, originally resident in Salt Lake City. Mormon.
- Belize: a former drag queen, now a registered nurse. Prior’s former lover. Homosexual, black.
- The Angel: the Continental Principality of America.
- Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz: an orthodox Jewish rabbi. Played by the actor playing Hannah.
- Mr Lies: Harper’s imaginary friend, a travel agent. Played by the actor playing Belize.
- The Man in the Park: played by the actor playing Prior.
- Prior I: the ghost of a dead Prior Walter from the 13th century. Played by the actor playing Joe.
- Prior II: the ghost of a dead Prior Walter from the 17th century. Played by the actor playing Roy.
- Ethel Rosenberg: played by the actor playing Hannah.
- The Eskimo: played by the actor playing Joe.
Part One: Millennium Approaches. (1991).
Act One: ‘Bad News’.
Autumn 1985. Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz of the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrew performs a funeral ceremony for Sarah Ironson, the grandmother of Louis. After the ceremony, Louis and his boyfriend Prior talk. Prior is missing his cat whom Louis called Little Sheba. Prior is dying of AIDS and he fears that Louis will leave him because of the disease. Louis talks to the Rabbi to find out what the Scriptures have to say to a person who abandons someone he loves at a time of need. The Rabbi refuses to help him and sends him to confess to a priest:
Louis: ‘But I’m not a Catholic, I’m a Jew.’
Rabbi: ‘Worse luck for you, bubbulah. Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt.’
Roy offers his protégée Joe a promotion to Washington. Joe must consult his wife Harper first. Harper is a housewife and she hates to be left alone. She dreams of travelling without her husband. Mr Lies, her hallucinatory travel agent, appears, ready to arrange for a trip for her. When Joe tells Harper about Washington, she refuses to move. Addicted to Valium, she is emotionally unstable and is often visited by hallucinations. She miscarried and she wishes to have a baby.
Joe comes across Louis crying in the men’s room in the building of the Court. Joe tries to show sympathy. Louis unexpectedly accuses him of being a homosexual, Joe denies. Prior has a nightmare and Harper has a hallucination, the result is that they get to talk to each other in the dream. Harper, at the ‘threshold of revelation’, recognizes that Prior is dying. In turn, Prior gives Harper the revelation that her husband is a homosexual. Suddenly a feather falls from up above and the voice of the angel orders Prior to get prepared.
Roy learns from his doctor that he has AIDS. His reaction is strangely calm, though the doctor tells him frankly that there is nothing he could do for him. Roy is concerned but for his social status, he refuses to be labelled as a homosexual: ‘Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.’ He makes the doctor have his disease officially called liver cancer because AIDS is what homosexuals and drug addicts have and not what a person with his connections could advertise.
Act Two: ‘In Vitro’.
Winter 1985-86. Prior grows much worse and must be hospitalized. Louis cannot bear it and he leaves Prior without even saying goodbye. He walks out to a park where he has sex with a stranger. He does not care about the risk of infection now. Prior is taken care for by Belize, a black male nurse, his former lover. Prior misses Louis and wants him back. Prior has hallucinations, each night he hears a beautiful voice of the angel which always arouses him sexually. The voice tells him to prepare, not for death, but for a task. When Louis comes to the hospital to tell Prior that he is moving out from their flat, Prior hates him for it and refuses to hear Louis’s reasons:
Louis: ‘You can love someone and fail them. You can love someone and not be able to...’
Prior: ‘You can, theoretically, yes. A person can, maybe an editorial ‘you’ can love, Louis, but not you, specifically you, I don’t know, I think you are excluded from that general category.’
Joe hesitates to accept the Washington job because of his wife, even though Roy advises him not to have her stand in his way to success. Joe does not intend to leave Harper, but Harper tells him frankly that she plans to leave him herself. Roy presses Joe to accept the job because he needs a help. Roy is to be tried for not returning a loan to one of his clients and he is threatened with being disbarred. Roy expects Joe to interfere in his new Washington job and support him. Joe refuses to do so because it is unethical.
Joe calls his mother Hannah home to Salt Lake City in the middle of the night. He is drunk. He requires to be told whether his father loved him. His father was in the army, a cold and strict man. Joe does not receive any direct answer. He goes on to tell Hannah that he is a homosexual. Hannah suddenly responds that his father did not love him and that he should go home to his wife and forget this call. Joe tells his wife that he has known himself to be a homosexual even before he married her. Harper suggests that Joe should go to Washington without her.
Act Three: ‘Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning’.
Winter 1986. Louis starts seeing Belize so that he could learn from him news about Prior’s health.
Hannah sells her house in Salt Lake City in order to join her son and her daughter-in-law in New York.
Harper finds herself in Antarctica with Mr Lies. She likes it and starts fantasizing how she will live here.
Joe refuses the new job. After several coincidental meetings with Louis, they agree to make each other a company.
Roy is visited by the hallucination of Ethel Rosenberg for whose execution he is responsible. He is not scared:
Roy: ‘I’m immortal. Ethel. I have forced my way into history. I ain’t never gonna die.’
Ethel: ‘History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.’
Prior has a hallucination in which he is visited by Prior I and Prior II, the ancestors from his ancient family. The two also died of pestilence but unlike Prior, they had children and someone to be with them at their deathbeds. They perform a chant, call Prior a prophet, and then disappear. In another hallucination, Prior sees a great book with steel pages mounted on a pillar. There is the letter Aleph written on its pages, which bursts into flames and the book disappears. The play concludes with the angel showing herself to Prior as a messenger coming to a prophet.
Part Two: Perestroika. (1992).
Act One: ‘Spooj’.
Winter 1986. The play opens with a speech by the Oldest Living Bolshevik who condemns the western culture and urges not to move ahead. As in the conclusion of the First Part, the angel reveals herself to Prior, but he sends her away, not interested in becoming a prophet. When Prior wakes up, he realizes he has been having a wet dream with a woman, the angel. Roy is in the same hospital as Prior, taken care for by the same nurse, Belize. He refuses Belize at first and requires a white nurse. Belize, not himself knowing why, advises Roy the best medication for his disease, new experimental pills which are extremely difficult to get at.
Harper has been missing for three days. She is seen in her imaginary Antarctica, dragging a small tree that she fell with her own teeth. She misses Joe who appears to her in the shape of an Eskimo. Back in reality, she is arrested in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and returned home to her mother-in-law. Joe is absent, he left to live with Louis.
Act Two: ‘The Epistle’.
Prior and Belize attend the funeral of their mutual friend, a drag queen. Prior wears a strange costume which gives him a biblical appearance. Prior describes to Belize his vision of the angel. The angel ordered him to get the sacred prophetic relics hidden under the tiles in the kitchen. Prior refused to cooperate so the angel cracked the tiles and procured a pair of glasses with rocks instead of lenses. The angel made Prior read from the book and while reading, Prior reached orgasm. The angel continued to chant and announced that God had left the world, like Louis left Prior. The angel urged Prior to stand still and not to move on, but Prior refused, believing that one must go on.
Act Three: ‘Borborygmi’.
(The Squirming Facts Exceed the Squamous Mind).
Harper reveals herself to Joe, who is in bed with Louis in Louis’s flat, and reproaches him for not answering her calls. When she disappears, Louis wakes up and tells Joe that he had a nightmare about Joe being a Mormon. Joe confirms that he is one. Louis is shocked and makes a scene. They both like each other but at the same time they worry about their former partners. Louis dials Prior’s number and tells him he wants to see him.
Roy got his special medication but he is suffering anyway. Ethel makes him company and watches with delight his pain. She leaves him only to attend the disbarment committee hearing in Roy’s case.
Prior walks in the Mormon Visitor’s Centre and is shown around by Hannah who manages the place. Together with Harper, Prior is seated in the diorama room and watches the historically dressed dummies of Mormons with accompanying word about Mormon history. Harper comments on the performance, especially then on the father dummy who reminds her of Joe.
Act Four: ‘John Brown’s Body’.
Joe visits Roy in the hospital. Roy does not reproach him for having let him down in the disbarment committee and he even gives him the blessing that Joe did not receive from his father. Joe tells Roy that he broke up with his wife. Roy gets angry when Joe adds that he is seeing a man and orders him to cut the affair and return home to his wife.
Louis visits Prior and wants to reconcile. Prior does not believe that Louis is suffering as well, he refuses him, and tells him to return when his bruises are visible. Louis is shocked to learn that Prior knows about his seeing Joe. Prior explains that he knows because he is a prophet.
Louis and Belize meet at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Belize startles Louis when he mentions that his new lover Joe is Roy Cohn’s protégée. Louis at first does not believe the information and thinks that Belize only wants to hurt him because it was for him that Prior left Belize years ago. Belize denies it, he has a new boyfriend now. He blames Louis for being distracted with ‘big ideas’ and not paying attention to real life:
Belize: ‘Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.’
After a month of silence, Joe gather courage enough to see his mother in the Mormon Visitor’s Centre. She informs him that Harper has ran away from him. When Joe leaves, Prior enters the Centre. He wants Hannah to warn her son that his new lover Louis cannot handle sick people. He breaks down and Hannah takes him to the hospital.
Louis gets himself a file containing the decisions of the judge for whom Joe works. It is known that the decisions were made by Joe rather than by the judge. When Joe enters Louis’s flat, Louis makes a scene because he thinks many of the decisions were discriminating and unfair. There is a fight and Louis is hurt in his face.
Roy is visited by Ethel who tells him that the committee disbarred him and that he lost. Roy reacts by pretending that he takes Ethel for his mother and asks her to sing. Ethel does so and when Roy throws away the disguise, he is greatly amused and claims that he won. He dies.
Act Five: ‘Heaven, I’m in Heaven’.
Hannah sits at Prior’s bed at the hospital. The angel appears and Prior wants to refuse the vision. Hannah advises him to wrestle the angel, so he does. The angel gives up and says that the entrance to the heaven has been gained. The angel kisses Hannah on her lips and she has an orgasm. Prior ascends to heaven. It looks like San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. He meets there Harper playing with his lost cat, Little Sheba.
Belize calls Louis to Roy’s dead body to utter the Jewish prayer for the dead and thank him for the medicine that Belize intends to take for his friends who need it. Louis says the Kaddish and Ethel joins him in the recitation.
The Continental Principalities, each of them representing one continent, are seated at a table in heaven. They are listening to radio news reporting on the Chernobyl catastrophe. The angel brings in Prior. Prior addresses the Principalities, tells them that God has left the earth and will not come back, therefore he wants to keep on moving. He leaves a message for God, in case He comes back, that He should be tried by court for having left the mankind.
Prior returns from heaven and slips in his hospital bed. Louis visits him and brings him the medicine from Roy. He shows the visible scars from the fight with Joe and wants to come back. Prior refuses him.
Harper gains new independence, she is leaving Joe. The last scene shows her in the plane, saying: ‘Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.’
February 1990. Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah are sitting at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. There is an excited talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Prior has been living with AIDS for five years, which is half a year more than he lived with Louis. He addresses the audience to deliver his prophecy. When the millennium comes, the Bethesda fountain will refill and everyone in pain will be healed by its waters.
Both parts of the play started as a workshop. The actors made major contributions to its final shape, it was rewritten many times after rehearsing. The play is based on actors, it is an actor-driven event. There is minimal scenery, there are rapid scene shifts without blackouts. Several of the scenes are split in two with quick jumps from one dialogue to the other. The moments of magic are theatrical illusions, unreal not only to the audience but also to the characters of the play.
The play contains many situational and verbal jokes, it is loaded with allusions to politics, society and culture, literature, the Bible, etc. There are numerous sexually explicit scenes and rough language. The play is contemporary and topical for 1980s, it tackles the problems of AIDS epidemics, religious and social strictures, political corruption, etc.
AuthorKushner, Tony. (b. 1956).
Full TitleAngels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
First PerformedMillennium Approaches in 1991, Perestroika in 1992.