Something to wrestle with, this is a play that deals with the transition between AIDS and post AIDS, of powerful ideologies becoming less believed and the dialectic between ideological certainty and human uncertainty and the chaos that ensues.
The playwright misdirects us and then questions our misdirections.
Views amongst our group varied. Some found it compelling. Kushner was likened to Brecht. Others found it to be hard work and one simply didn’t like it because it was full of stereotypes. Despite this, our discussion of this play made it, probably, our longest meeting ever.
The opposition between stasis and change is Kushner’s favourite theme.
The anti-migratory impulse is voiced by Rabbi Chemelwitz, Emily the nurse and Sister Ella Chapter, and most spectacularly by the Angels.
America needs to embrace even those changes that frighten some people—especially the growth of a politically active and culturally accepted gay and lesbian minority. In the Reagan ere, a rainbow coalition could have changed things and we need to make new alliances. The politically naïve need challenging, much as they were in Britain when Thatcher’s Section 28 mobilised protests.
With its overarching story about angels, God and Heaven, this play is studded with specific references to the Bible. Louis asks Rabbi Chemelwitz what the Scriptures say about someone who abandons a loved one; Joe tells the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel; Louis compares a wound on his forehead to the Mark of Cain; Roy mentions the story of Isaac and Jacob and the Book of Isaiah.
The sceptical audience member is like Prior listening to Hannah describe the appearance of an angel to Joseph Smith.
Biblical allusions foreshadow the real events of the play, so that Joe’s description of Jacob’s encounter with the angel lays the groundwork for Prior’s—like Jacob, he wrestles the Angel into submission and discovers a ladder leading to Heaven.
Roy tells Joe that unlike Isaac, he gives his blessing freely—but the comparison proves more apt a moment later when Joe reveals he is living with a man, and Roy feels the pang of a father at what he perceives as the missteps of a wayward son.
Mormons and Jews Both are separated from the wider society by their own inward focus as well as by prejudice and lack of understanding. Both make epic migrations both faiths make moral demands commandment to loyalty overshadows both Louis and Joe after they leave their partners, traditionally frown on homosexuality, adding to the characters’ lack of self-esteem.
The antagonists are most importantly, Roy Cohn and the Angel; more generally, homophobia and intolerance, lack of community, and the ravages of AIDS. Roy Cohn portrays the stereotypical image of the Jew as a heartless, greedy middleman . He is not abandoned to the wilds of isolation: his death unwittingly links him to communities he had abandoned. He is reclaimed.
Henry is Roy’s doctor, whom Roy threatens with destruction lest he refer to him as a homosexual. Roy’s tirade to his doctor is a succinct example of his view of the world. Roy imagines that he has no connection to other homosexual men because he sits at the right hand of Nancy Reagan. In Roy’s deluded world, values like love, honor and trust are irrelevant, and all human relationships can be tallied up by favors granted or seconds needed to return a phone call.
Doctor: You have AIDS, Roy.
Cohn: No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.
ROY. Everyone who makes it in this world makes it because somebody older and more powerful takes an interest.
Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean. AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. No. Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?
He contrasts unfavourably with the charity and generosity of Belize, who cares for Prior not because he thinks he will get something in return but because he is a friend.
Ironically, as much as he believes himself to be distinct from the gay community, his opponents on the disbarment committee see him as just another “faggot.” And while his clout secures him a private stash of AZT, it is ultimately worthless since it cannot protect him from disease and death.
He is the play’s most vicious and disturbing character, a closeted homosexual who disavows other gays and cares only about amassing clout. His lack of ethics led him to illegally intervene in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg, which resulted in her execution. He represents the opposite of community, the selfishness and loneliness all too endemic to American life.
He is forgiven (though not exonerated) in the play’s moral climax, in part two, Perestroika, after his death (from AIDS) unwittingly reconnects him to the gay community from which he always distanced himself.
We see the ferocious pain of his life and the secrets bottled up within. He also fits with more modern stereotypes of Jews as quietly influential overlords. He has an affection for the musical La Cage Aux Folles and unprofessed but profound loneliness.
Emily is a nurse who attends to Prior in the hospital. Emily is one of several characters who give voice to the same anti-migratory impulse as the Angel, she tells Prior in no uncertain terms to stay put.
The Angel of America seeks a prophet to overturn the migratory impulse of human beings. Their constant motion and change have driven God to abandon creation.
Martin Heller, a Justice Department official and political ally of Roy’s. Martin is fundamentally spineless, allowing Roy to manipulate him in order to impress Joe and then taking the abuse that Roy heaps on him along with a blackmail threat.
Sister Ella Chapter is a real estate agent who handles the sale of Hannah’s house in Salt Lake. Like Emily, she urges her friend to settle down and remain at home.
The protagonists include Sarah Ironson, Louis’s grandmother. Her funeral takes place in the first scene of Millennium. Prior encounters her in Heaven, in part two, playing cards with Rabbi Chemelwitz.
In a play whose title promises a discussion of national themes, Louis is the character who most consistently examines the big picture. Louis Ironson most resembles Tony Kushner: a young, progressive, Jewish New Yorker whose wordiness feels like an affectionate parody of the playwright’s own rambling prose style. It is easy enough to reduce Louis to a caricature—the idealist who loudly discusses virtue but reneges on his own responsibilities. His abandonment of Prior is weak, selfish and insensitive. Louis’s guilt is genuine. Belize berates Louis for his “Big Ideas,” the meting out of eternal justice. His is the eventual answer to Roy’s and Joe’s amoral veneration of pure law. He voices most of the play’s ideas about politics and is a spokesman for a brand of democratic optimism who makes the journey from callous heartbreaker to sincere penitent. Prior’s journey to the afterlife and back is mirrored by Louis’s voyage to self-awareness. Louis’s comical monologue in Act Three, Scene Two: there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to manoeuvre around the inescapable battle of politics
By deflating Louis’s secular claim, Kushner seems to be connecting his populist optimism with a sense of spirituality. The America the characters are striving for is as transcendent as it is democratic.
A “word processor”, he embodies all the stereotypes of the neurotic Jew: anxious, ambivalent and perpetually guilty. Yet that guilt does not prevent him from leaving his lover Prior when he contracts AIDS.
His idealistic faith in American democracy is often naive or self-absorbed. Prior accuses Louis of crying without endangering himself, a meaningless performance of emotion.
Louis and Joe abandon their partners and then repent.
Joe Pitt is a Mormon and a Republican lawyer at the appeals court. Joe grapples with his latent homosexuality, leaving his wife Harper for Louis and being left in turn by Louis. Louis is at first drawn to Joe’s ideology but ultimately turns on him because he is a conservative and an intimate of the hated Roy Cohn. His initial naiveté is challenged by Roy’s unethical behavior and his painful love affair.
Joe’s path in the play (from self-sufficient and strong to helpless and dependent) is in some ways the opposite of Prior’s trajectory. The play finally seems to abandon Joe, excluding him from its vision of the good society because of his ideology—an omission that comes off as uncharacteristically narrow and intolerant.
Prior Walter, the boyfriend Louis abandons after Prior reveals that he has AIDS, becomes a prophet when he is visited by an Angel of God, but he eventually rejects his prophecy and demands a blessing of additional life. His ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage, representing the notion of being rooted and stable.
wiser than the Angels in rejecting their doctrine of stasis in favour of the painful necessity of movement and migration. He is as genuinely decent and moral as Louis is flawed. In part two, he manages to transcend victimhood, surviving and becoming the centre of a new, utopian community at the play’s end. An effeminate man, he is also the victim of social prejudice as epitomized by the self-hating but extremely powerful Roy. So the meek inherit this earth and he defiantly delivers the play’s final, stirring monologue. His speech in Heaven is the clearest statement of the theme of stasis versus change that predominates throughout the play, and the firmest rejection of stasis offered throughout.
I look like a corpse. A corpsette. Oh my queen; you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag.
PRIOR. I … I’m sorry. I usually say, Fuck the truth’, but mostly, the truth fucks you
Harper Pitt is Joe’s wife, a Valium-addicted agoraphobe trapped in a failing marriage who hallucinates and invents imaginary characters to escape her troubles. She ends the play the farthest from where she began: as an independent, confident woman newly in love with life and setting off to build her own life in San Francisco. After its earthquake, San Francisco was almost immediately rebuilt, ceaseless energy and determination of human beings longed-for ideal society Harper is migrating even farther west, The gathering on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain could have easily been staged in San Francisco’s Castro District—both locations represent voluntary community, inclusion, civic participation, and personal promise.
HARPER. It’s my time, and there’s no blood. I don’t really know. I suppose it wouldn’t be a great thing. Maybe I’m just not bleeding because I take too many pills. Maybe I’ll give birth to a pill. That would give a new meaning to pill-popping, huh?
HARPER. Oh! In my church we don’t believe in homosexuals. PRIOR. In my church we don’t believe in Mormons.
Belize is a black ex-drag queen and registered nurse, Prior’s best friend and, quite against Belize’s will, Roy’s caretaker. She is the most ethical and reasonable character in the play and to us, feels less like an individual than a symbol of marginalized groups.
BELIZE. You better tell the doctor. Or I will.
PRIOR. No no don’t. Please. I want the voice; it’s wonderful. It’s all that’s keeping me alive. I don’t want to talk to some intern about it.
You know what happens? When I hear it, I get hard. BELIZE. Oh my.
PRIOR. Comme ca. (He uses his arm to demonstrate.) And you know I am slow to rise.
BELIZE. My jaw aches at the memory.
Hannah Pitt is Joe’s mother. She moves from Salt Lake City to New York after Joe confesses he is gay in a late-night phone call. She tends sternly to Harper but blossoms after she encounters Prior. Her chilly demeanor is melted by Prior and by a remarkable sexual encounter with the Angel.
“and I asked the driver was this Brooklyn, and he nodded yes but he was from one of those foreign countries where they think it’s good manners to nod at everything even if you have no idea what it is you’re nodding at, and in truth I think he spoke no English at all, which I think would make him ineligible for employment on public transportation. The public being English-speaking, mostly. Do you speak English?
HANNAH. Shut up. Please. Now I want you to stop jabbering for a minute and pull your wits together and tell me how to get to Brooklyn. ……I am sorry you’re psychotic but just make the effort — take a deep breath — DO IT!
Ethel Rosenberg was a real-life Jewish woman who was executed for treason during the McCarthy era. The Ethel of the play returns as a ghost to take satisfaction in the death of her persecutor, Roy. Ethel hates Roy with a “needlesharp” passion, yet on his deathbed she musters enough compassion to sing to him. Her recitation of the Kaddish with Louis indicates her forgiveness.
Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz is the elderly rabbi who delivers the eulogy at the funeral of Sarah Ironson,
RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ …….She was … Well, in the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews are many like this, the old, and to many I speak but not, to be frank, with this one. She preferred silence. So I do not know her and yet I know her. We are all the same, of this generation. We are the last of our kind……In her was — not a person but a whole kind of person — the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania — and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. ….. she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue
The rabbi is wrong on one count, when he says that “such Great Voyages…do not any more exist.” The entire play, of course, is the story of many Great Voyages: Louis’s transgression and his attempt to overcome it, Joe’s emergence from the closet, Roy’s journey to what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country,” Harper’s growing self-confidence and assurance, culminating in her night flight to San Francisco; and most importantly, Prior’s voyage to Heaven and back, his painful decision that he does indeed want more life. The play is a voyage in the political sense, too, documenting the struggle for full citizenship by gays and lesbians and by people with AIDS
RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ. Please, mister. I’m a sick old rabbi facing a long drive home to the Bronx. You want to confess, better you should find a priest.
LOUIS. But I’m not a Catholic, I’m a Jew.
RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ. Worse luck for you, bubbulah. Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt.
Kushner has said that at a time when an inadequate health care system and longer life expectancy are forcing more and more Americans to care for aging or sick relatives, he wanted to dramatize the simple truth that not everyone is a born healer and caretaker.