Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
Theater Communication Group, 2013.
Summary of Work
Set in New York City in the 1980s during the Reagan years, this play centers around the judicial system: Roy M. Cohn, a power broker and successful lawyer, is trying to talk a head judicial clerk by the name of Joe Pitt into taking a job in Washington, D.C. Cohn is talking to Pitt and at the same time answering many phone calls, including one from a client from whom he took a half million dollars; she wants her money back. Cohn is using the Lord’s name in vain, and Joe gets very uncomfortable over it and asks Cohn to stop. He asks him why he doesn’t want to hear it, and Joe says that he’s Mormon and it is against his beliefs and values to use such language. At the same time, Joe tells him that he’ll have to talk to his wife about it. Cohn urges him to take the position, saying that it won’t stay available for long.
Meanwhile, Joe’s wife, Harper, is coming out of a valium high. She has dreams and hallucinations on the drugs, and she doesn’t leave the apartment. Joe gets home to talk to her, and she says she doesn’t want to go to Washington, D.C., stating all sorts of superficial reasons for not wanting to go, and at the same time starting arguments over his lack of sexual interest in her. He leaves her be and goes out for a walk. She gets back to her hallucination of selecting a vacation to go on with Mr. Lies.
In another part of town, Louis Ironson and Prior Walter sit together after the funeral of Louis’ grandmother Sarah. They argue over the loss of a cat, and then Prior tells Louis that he has been diagnosed with AIDs and he’s having to be seen for it. Louis cannot handle the news and he seriously considers leaving Prior. Even though he loves Prior and has told him that he can handle everything with Prior, he finds himself incapable.
The next day, Joe runs into Louis crying in the bathroom. He asks him how he’s doing and if he wants to talk, and Louis tells him thank you for noticing and insinuates that Joe is gay. Joe is very offended at first, but then they get talking about how Joe voted for Reagan and is Republican, and Louis, very much disliking both Reagan and Republicans, starts teasing him. Meanwhile, Harper is high on valium again, and she hallucinates Prior in her dream; she and he talk about unhappiness, and he suggests to her that her husband is gay. When Joe gets home from the office, she confronts him about it, causing a huge fight.
Roy Cohn is next seen in the doctor’s office, and he has just been diagnosed with AIDS. He insists to his doctor that he has slept with men, but is not gay, and no one can know that he has AIDS because he doesn’t have AIDS and his doctor should call it liver cancer. The doctor tells him that he can call himself and the disease whatever he wants, but it won’t change the fact that he does, in fact, have AIDS.
When Prior gets sick enough to be defecating blood on the floor in the bathroom, Louis calls an ambulance and gets him to the hospital even though Prior is insistent that he can’t go because they’ll never let him out of the hospital again. After he starts to get better but then has another episode, Louis tells the nurse to tell Prior he is sorry, but he just can’t stay. He goes to Central Park and sleeps with a man there to deal with the pain. Prior is very upset but expected it to happen, and he confides in his friend and nurse, Belize, who is a black gay man who regularly performs in drag. She makes sure he stays on the medication he wants, because it makes him hard, and he wants to experience orgasm. When he experiences this, he starts seeing past relatives and then hearing voices, who tell him that he will soon be visited by an angel.
Joe talks to Cohn and tells him that he can’t take the job, and Cohn gets upset because he wants him in Washington so that he can have someone on the inside to influence decisions and potentially court case decisions. Joe is mortified at the statement, but Cohn says that he’s been doing it in the past, and it was the reason that the last person he had executed was executed. Another politician comes in to talk, and Cohn tries to explain to Joe that power is to have people across the political spectrum at your beck and call, just like he has. He tries to tell Joe that he is throwing away his chance at greatness and he should just go to Washington and forget about what his wife wants. Joe refuses and leaves. The politician then tells Cohn that he is under investigation for his misconduct with the woman he took half a million dollars from. Cohn says that it won’t matter, that they can’t get him.
Harper and Joe fight again over Washington. She wants him to leave and she wants to leave him. They both get upset, and Joe leaves. On Sunday, he goes to the office and finds Louis there. They talk about what’s going on with Louis and then, moving past the sexual tension, they both leave. Joe goes and gets drunk and calls his mother, Hannah, in Salt Lake City to say that he and Harper aren’t fine and that he is gay. Hannah refuses to believe him, and she states that he needs to get ahold of himself. Hannah proceeds to sell her home in Utah and move to New York City to be with her son and daughter-in-law. Joe has some sort of ulcer or injury, and he has to go to the hospital.
Louis goes back to Prior to tell him that he is moving out, which infuriates Prior. He goes to talk to Belize about it and says some pretty racist things about the state of relations between black people and Jewish people in America, and it infuriates him so that Belize leaves him to his thoughts and goes back to work at the hospital to work. Prior has been sent back home because he is doing well enough, and while he is trying to sleep at home, he sees an angel come down and destroy the ceiling and speak to him and force him to go get a book of prophecy out of his kitchen floor.
Louis and Joe meet again, and after some conversation, Joe and Louis go home together, and Harper has disappeared into the city in a valium high. She has left the apartment and thinks she is in Antartica with Mr. Lies. She spends days outside in the winter cold without proper clothing, and she cuts down a tree and gets arrested for it. Hannah has just gotten into town, and she is lost in the Bronx when she should be in Brooklyn. She is upset that she has had to navigate her way around town because Joe was supposed to come get her from the airport. When she finally gets to the Pitt apartment and pays to be let in by the building manager, she receives a phone call from the police department letting her know that they are going to take Harper to the hospital to put in the mental ward, because she thinks she was in Antarctica cutting trees down with her teeth. Hannah insists that they leave her alone and she’ll be over to get her.
Prior keeps seeing angels and they keep having sex with him and telling him things that he will prophesy to the people. He goes to a funeral with Belize for a fellow drag queen, and Prior is upset and grumpy. He talks to Belize and tells him about the visions he’s been having and what is going on. Belize tries to get Prior to think that he doesn’t think he’s crazy, but somewhat fails. Prior has also been overdoing it, and is causing his health to decline even though he had been doing well getting rest in his home. Prior talks specifically about how the angel told him that the prophecy is that he should stop progressing. It scares him.
Roy Cohn ends up in the hospital after having had an episode and seeing the woman, Ethel, he had sentenced to death for being communist. Belize is his nurse, and he sees that Cohn actually has AIDS, not liver cancer. Even though he absolutely hates Cohn, he tells him that he shouldn’t let them give him radiation because it would destroy t-cells he can’t afford to lose. Cohn, both homophobic and racist, tells Belize to do his job and get out. Belize continues to talk to Cohn, telling him that the research study he’s been able to get in on for the AIDS drug is double blind, meaning that he may not be able to actually get treated, and he’ll die anyway because he’ll be given a placebo. When Belize leaves, Cohn makes a phone call to get the drug AZT, which is in experimental stages, to his hospital room. He is given a very large amount, enough to last more than his lifetime.
Prior goes to the Mormon Visitors’ Center, and Hannah is working there as a volunteer. She takes him in to see the visitor center show, and Harper is there, eating junk food even though there is no food or drink allowed in the theater. He sits by her and she says that she’s waiting for the woman in the show to talk, since the mannequin never does even though all the men do. She also says that the man in the show looks like her husband. As they watch together, they both have the vision of Louis and Joe together talking and they are talking about Mormonism in Louis’ apartment. Prior leaves, and Harper realizes that she knew the man sitting next to her because he was in one of her hallucinations.
Prior takes Belize to the courthouse and they both get a look at Joe. Prior can’t believe just how good looking and large he is. Belize realizes that he knows Joe from having seen him in Cohn’s hospital room. Joe confronts them, and they find a way to skirt out of the awkward situation. Louis and Joe are together at the beach, and Louis has just told Joe that he wants to go try and repair his relationship with Prior. Joe rips off his temple garments on the beach and yells that Louis will come back to him eventually, and Louis helps him get some clothing back on, but does leave. Prior then confronts Louis, who has come to apologize, and he tells him that he shouldn’t come back until there are literal cuts and bruises on him.
Not knowing where else to go, Joe goes back to Cohn and confides in him that he is gay. Cohn discusses ideas about father figures and disappointments and then goes into a coughing fit and Joe gets sprayed with blood on his shirt. Belize tells him to get out and to throw away the shirt because it will make him sick. Joe has just come to the realization that Cohn has AIDS, and he is upset over the deception. That evening, Cohn and Belize talk about heaven and hell, and Belize constructs the image of a more nature-like San Francisco as heaven. Cohn laughs and slings insults.
When Louis comes and talks to Belize about what has happened between him and Prior, he goes off on Louis and tells him that Joe is good friends with none other than Roy Cohn and that he stands against everything that they are. Louis at first doesn’t believe it, but then goes and pulls court decisions and files, and he realizes that Joe is the one who has written decisions that have affected LGBT rights, specifically the anti-discrimination laws. He again breaks up with Joe over it, and Joe beats Louis.
Joe goes back home to Hannah and his wife and discusses why Hannah came to New York City, and he suggests that he has everything under control and that she should leave. She doesn’t tell him that she sold her house and can’t go back to Salt Lake City. They realize that Harper has once again escaped the house, and they go out to find her. Joe and Hannah split up, and Joe is the first to find Harper, shoeless and running around. He wraps her in his arms and takes her home. Prior is also out in the rain, and he runs into Hannah and starts talking to her. When he gets so sick he needs help, Hannah goes with him to the hospital.
Prior asks Hannah to stay with him at the hospital, and despite her discomfort over his homosexuality, she promises to stay until he’s asleep. They talk and he tells her that he’s a prophet and has seen angels, and Hannah at first thinks he’s crazy, but then talks to him about how their church believes in continuing revelation so he may have actually seen an angel. When he says what should I do if I don’t want to be forced to do what the angel did, and she tells him that like a prophet of old, he should wrestle with it and not let go. Then, later that night, she sees the angel he spoke of, and watches him wrestle with it and win. Then, he climbs a ladder into heaven. She has an orgasm and then doesn’t remember anything more.
When Prior reaches heaven, which looks just as Belize described, he learns that God has left heaven and the angels don’t know why. They are listening to the radio and hearing about Chernobyl, and he tells them that they only see fear and pain and suffering because they don’t understand life or see the larger picture. He gives them their seeing stones and book back and says that Earth doesn’t want the prophecy. He also says that he will not give up and that he wants life no matter how painful it is. They allow him to go back to Earth.
Roy Cohn learns that he is disbarred for his actions just before he dies, and Ethel is the one to tell it to him. She has wanted to be able to forgive him but cannot, and instead has wanted some sort of revenge, and has been able to get it by watching his pain. Belize is with him when he dies. Belize, knowing that the medicine will be taken back since he is dead, opens up the container that holds it and takes many bottles
Joe and Harper have sex one more time, but then she determines she will be leaving him. She gets dressed and leaves him in the apartment. She goes to San Francisco. Louis returns to Prior once more, beaten up and bloodied, and Prior tells him that while he cannot let him move back in, they may be able to see each other. The play ends a year later with Hannah, Prior, Louis, and Belize are sitting at the Bethesda fountain in the park, and Prior is still alive and functioning with the aid of the drug. When Prior starts talking about the history of the Bethesda fountain, Hannah states that when the fountain becomes a living fountain again, she will take Prior to bathe him in it and heal him.
Discussion of Work
This work nearly seamlessly blends Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish belief systems and thoughts to show the complex relationships that LGBT people experience with those religions and religious concepts. The religious-secular tension of the LGBT experience is embodied in Joe, who ultimately stays still and never moves forward because of his inability to fully come to terms with both his religion and his sexuality. The language of the angels in the work is almost Shakespearean when they talk about the great unraveling of heavenly design.
Prior and Cohn are foils of each other: one wants to make sure he’s remembered as heterosexual and powerful, a lawyer of the most memorable kind, but Prior wants to remain living and experiencing the pain and pleasures of life while admitting his true identity. Hannah shows the most character growth, coming to recognize that perhaps her belief system isn’t as whole as she thought it was.
The play also contains information about a historical moment: the AIDS crisis during the Reagan era. Cohn was also a real person who did illegal things, although his character is not a perfect representation of Cohn but rather a different character and person. It does a good job of exploring how LGBT people felt during that time period and the dangers of not just the physical illness, but the societal dangers of being out in the open about non-heteronormative sexuality.