Angels in America

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"Greetings, Prophet;
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived."

The Angel

Angels in America (subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes) is a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play written by Tony Kushner. It is presented in two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, each of which runs roughly three hours long. The two parts premiered in California in 1991 and 1992, respectively, and were produced on Broadway together in 1993.

The play is set in New York City from the fall of 1985 into spring of 1986, during the rise of AIDS awareness, and focuses on an enormous variety of topics, from politics to religion to dysfunctional families. The main story line follows a young gay man named Prior Walter, who has just discovered he is HIV-positive. After subsequently being abandoned by his lover Louis, he receives a vision from Heaven, in which an Angel visits him. She tells him that Heaven once was a paradise, but that human progress creates "earthquakes" in Heaven and after a particularly severe one, God abandoned them. She compels him to go out into the world and tell his fellow humans to stop moving forward, so that God may return.

The play is one of the most celebrated theatrical works of the 20th century, and a crucial piece of American theatre in particular, as the title would suggest. Both parts won back-to-back Tony awards and Drama Desk awards for Best Play, and the first was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Since its enormous success on Broadway, it has been adapted into a Miniseries and an Opera. It merited inclusion as the last entry in Harold Bloom's highly controversial list of what he considered the greatest works of literature in his book The Western Canon.

Tony Kushner specifically notes in the published versions of the script that any and all fantasy elements of the story should be performed as such, as full theatrical special effects. As such, between this and the play's sheer length and complexity, mounting a production is an incredibly daunting task, and productions are few and far between for a play of its notoriety.

The cast of the original New York City production in 1992 and 1993:

Ron Liebman as Roy Cohn et. al.
David Marshall Grant as Joe Pitt et. al.
Marcia Gay Harden as Harper Pitt et. al.
Jeffrey Wright as Belize et. al.
Joe Mantello as Louis Ironson et. al.
Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter et. al.
Kathleen Chalfant as Hannah Pitt et. al.
Ellen McLaughlin as The Angel et. al.

A Miniseries based on the play aired on HBO in 2003, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Patrick Wilson, and original cast member Jeffrey Wright. It went on to surpass Roots for most Emmys won by a program in a single year.

This play also has a character sheet.

Tropes used in Angels in America include:
  • Adaptation Distillation: Kushner himself, as writer of the Miniseries, cut a good deal of material from the Perestroika segments, most of it unnecessary, and most of it Kushner recommends to be cut on stage as well (if time is an issue) in the published script.
  • All Just a Dream/Or Was It a Dream?: Played with using Harper's Valium-induced hallucinations and Prior's visions. The work as a whole, however, is not.
  • Amoral Attorney: Roy Cohn.
  • And You Were There: The line is recited word for word by Prior, though it's done more to lampshade the Loads and Loads of Roles than anything else.
  • The Atoner: Louis and Joe.
  • Audience Monologue: Harper's final speech, and Prior's.
  • Bastard In Sheeps Clothing: Joe is closeted political conservative, sure, but he's also a bit of a woobie. Then he abandons his wife hallucinating around New York only for her to be bailed out and taken in by his timely-arriving mother, and eventually, Louis after some legal library work reveals him not just to be closeted and nominally socially conservative, but to be a evil Rules Lawyer.
  • Be All My Sins Remembered: Louis.
  • Black Best Friend: Belize to Prior.
  • Blonde Republican Sex Kitten: Joe Pitt is a rare male example of this trope. He's a conservative Mormon who is handsome, well-groomed and works for Roy Cohn, an infamous Republican lawyer.
  • Bury Your Gays: Averted. Though funerals are shown (or alluded to) for Prior, Louis, and Belize's friends who've died of AIDS, the only one of the main gay cast to die is the morally reprehensible (and deeply closeted) Roy Cohn.
  • But Not Too Gay: in the miniseries.
  • Butt Monkey: Louis. Every time Louis starts to get emotional, Belize or Prior will unfailingly tell him that he isn't capable of real feelings.
  • Cast Full of Gay: All five men have/have had sex with men. Make of that what you will.
    • It's also implied that Joe's mother may be a lesbian.
  • Catch Phrase: Prior Walter 1's "He/She's counting the bastards!"
  • Council of Angels: The Principalities.
  • Crosscast Role: Kushner specifies that several minor roles are to be played by actors of the opposite gender:
    • The actress playing Hannah also plays Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Roy's doctor Henry, and Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world's Oldest Bolshevik.
    • The actress playing Harper plays Justice Department flackman Martin Heller.
    • The actor playing Louis also plays his dead grandmother, Sarah Ironson.
    • The actress playing the Angel also provides the voice of Orrin, one of the Mormon boy mannequins in the Diorama Room.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Roy and Ethel Rosenberg.
  • Determinator: Prior becomes this, both in his fight with AIDS and with the Angel of America, who gives up more out of annoyance than defeat.
  • Due to the Dead: Belize insists that Louis say the Kaddish for Roy. Louis agrees, but follows it up with "You son of a bitch."
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Joe pulls this card when Roy Cohn casually confesses to him about how he broke every single rule that a lawyer is supposed to abide by in ensuring that Ethel Rosenberg was executed.
  • Evil Mentor: Roy Cohn.
  • Faking the Dead: Roy pulls this trick on the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who pushes the nurse's call button and starts rejoicing--only to have Roy spring back to life and gloat at it having worked. Subverted when the monitors he's hooked up to then flatline, and he dies for real, in a very violent fashion.
  • Flamboyant Gay: Belize; Prior, to a lesser extent.
  • Gay Conservative: Roy and Joe. Both are shown as having deep amounts of Gayngst, but Joe at least lets himself fall in love.
  • Generation Xerox: Like his two ghostly ancestors of the same name, Prior suffers from a terrible disease, and he's afraid he might die from it, alone, like them.
    • Justified by statistic probability; he's the 34th Prior Walter!

Prior Walter 2: In a family as long-descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by the plague.

Prior 1: You have no wife, no children.
Prior: I'm gay.
Prior 1: So? Be gay, dance in your altogether for all I care, what's that to do with not having children?
Prior: Gay homosexual, not bonny, blithe and...NeverMind.

  • Have You Seen My God?: After he is chosen as a prophet by the Angel of America, Prior learns that God abandoned Heaven on the day of the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake. The Angels, who believe it was because humanity was more interesting, want Prior to tell humanity to stop moving, in the hopes that God will then become bored and return home.
  • Historical Domain Character: Roy. Except for the ghostly visions, the portrayal of the last year of Roy Cohn's life is pretty accurate.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: In the miniseries, the angel's hair catches on fire during "plasma orgasmada".
  • Loads and Loads of Roles: The play is written for a cast of eight to perform. It is rather symbolic, particularly when, say, the man who Louis hires to have sex with him in Central Park is played by Prior's actor. Lampshaded when Prior wakes up after having returned the book of Prophecy to Heaven. See And You Were There above.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Subverted. When Joe walks in on Louis crying in the courthouse bathroom, Louis, after some dialogue between the two, comes to the conclusion that Joe is gay. Subverted in that he's right, but Joe is a member of the LDS Church, and is thus deeply closeted.
  • Karmic Death: Roy
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Belize's pre-drag name was Norman Arriaga; Kushner notes it in the character list, but it is only said onstage once.
  • Parental Neglect: Hannah describes herself as lacking pity, and Joe clearly has some issues with her emotional harshness, which he akins to the desert.
  • Parental Substitute: Roy for Joe. At first Roy really pushes it on Joe, but Joe comes to think of Roy as a true substitute father.
  • Polar Bears and Penguins: Harper visits Antarctica in one of her hallucinations and sees an Eskimo.
  • Raging Stiffie: The Angel's approach makes men...turgid.
  • Rules Lawyer: Joe is the evil sort - "It's law not justice, it's power not the merits of its exercise..."
  • Shout-Out: The play makes several references to The Wizard of Oz. In addition to "And You Were There" (see above), Prior also says "people come and go so quickly here" after Harper vanishes in their mutual dream scene, and he, Belize, and the Angel say "If you cannot find your desire in your own backyard, you never lost it to begin with" in Act 2 of Perestroika. Belize and Prior also both quote A Streetcar Named Desire: in Millennium Approaches, Belize says "Stella for star," while in Perestroika, Prior says Blance DuBois' famous line "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
  • Spirit Advisor: A few. Prior has his ancestors (two of the previous Prior Walters) as the Heralds of the Angel of America; Ethel Rosenberg subverts this somewhat with Roy Cohn, then plays it straight with Louis.
    • Really, she seems to just possess Louis for a few seconds to say a prayer for the dead. Louis is afterwards surprised.
  • Invisible to Gaydar: Joe.
  • Stairway to Heaven: Prior ascends a burning ladder into heaven in the last act of Perestroika
  • Strawman Political: Most Republicans in the play. It's not very strong, but they're almost universally shown to be selfish and concerned only with their own power. Roy Cohn, the Gay Conservative stands out.
    • However, it is also worth noting that while Louis is, in the end, a sympathetic character, one of his most annoying qualities is his self-righteous liberal philosophizing.
  • Screw Destiny: Prior.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections: Upon learning he has AIDS, Roy Cohn uses his connections to be forced into the experimental trials of AZT. When he finds out that it's a double blind study (and that he might be getting placebos), he uses his connections to secure himself a massive private stash of the drug.
  • Tell Me About My Father: Joe to Hannah, a bit.
  • The Social Darwinist: Roy
  • Title Drop: In one of Louis' ramblings, he says "There are no angels in America", in reference to the fact that the US does not have a single spiritual tradition due to its nature as a "melting pot".
    • "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" also get their own title drops in their respective plays. The first is said by Ethel Rosenberg while taunting Roy, and the second by Louis when discussing the fall of the Berlin Wall in the last scene.
  • Transparent Closet: Roy gives a rather twistedly brilliant speech to the doctor who diagnoses him with AIDS, redefining "homosexuality" as a class defined by its lack of political power, which no one would accuse Roy of not having.
  • Unfazed Everyman: Prior Walter: just your average (albeit dying) young gay man in America, who just happens to be chosen to be The Prophet by the Council of Angels.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Joe
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Joe is the only main character left out of the epilogue (except Roy since he was dead). However, this probably has to due with the fact that he wasn't meant to be as sympathetic as he was portrayed in the miniseries, although since Kushner wrote both of them, he may have tried to fix that a little with Joe's extra scene near the end in the miniseries.