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At the first scene of Tony Kushner’s drama Angels in America (1993), Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz’s eulogy for Sarah Ironson exposes the play’s crucial themes and motifs. The Rabbi, a member of the “Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews” (Millennium, 9), commemorates Sarah’s life and in particular her great voyage to America. However, he continues to express pessimism about the present world by saying, “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist” (Millennium, 10). However, due to the Rabbi’s age and his clear bias against today’s life in “the melting pot where nothing melted” (Millennium, 10), his speech is juxaposed with one of the play’s re-definition of identity. The Rabbi may be correct in stating that there are no longer physical voyages of mass migration in the world; however, when concerning metaphysical voyages, the play’s primary characters present the antithesis to Rabbi Chemelwitz’s theory. Today’s life journeys no longer pertain to physical expansion, but rather mental expansion, which lead us into discovering our personal identities while at the same time resisting social expectations and standards. Harper, Louis, and Joe best exemplify this inward expansion of identity despite overwhelming social pressures.
Harper Pitt travels frequently throughout the play in order to find her true identity and escape her marriage. Subsequently, she cathartically breaks free from Joe in order to pursue her individuality. Upon meeting Harper for the first time, the audience is aware of her strange disposition and fear of solitude. In her first scene, Mr. Lies, her imaginary travel agent, appears to directly reflect her subconscious need to voyage far away from her husband and her current lifestyle. Furthermore, Harper goes on various voyages with the help of her Valium addiction. She travels to Antarctica, and even into Prior’s dream on her trips, which further stresses Harper’s desire to get away from her current lifestyle. The play also portrays her dependence on Valium as more than just an addiction, but also as a desperate method of escape. When Harper finally breaks free from her marriage with Joe, she has reached the turning point in her voyage. She decides to give her entire stash of Valium to Joe because she no longer needs to escape through drugs, and instead will escape on her own, without the help of the pills or Mr. Lies. Harper is next seen on an airborne jumbo jet, which effectively ties Harper’s metaphysical life voyage with a physical one.
Louis Ironson’s voyage of identity is both dynamic and contradictive, which results in a journey that is successful in some areas, but still incomplete at the play’s close. While he thinks his inward journey is complete and he has come to terms with the world, he progresses from selfishness to a level of extreme remorse. This supplies his character with contradicting qualities. In Perestroika, Louis criticizes Joe for hiding his sexuality; however, in Millennium, Prior reveals to us that Louis has an overtly “butch” facade at family events in attempt to hide his own sexuality. Louis is an extreme liberal who is somehow attracted to a sexually confused republican. Furthermore, while he was raised as Jewish, he considers himself an agnostic and can’t seem to find a religion that suits him. These contradicting character traits augment the confusion of Louis’s voyage. Louis begins the play in fear of Prior’s disease, showing his weakness and selfishness; however, as the plot progresses, Louis finds himself missing Prior and his guilt growing. Louis finally does realize his mistakes, and attempts to apologize despite Prior’s appropriate harassment, and Louis goes as far as to cover himself in bruises and cuts to match the physical pain that Prior has been feeling. While Louis has made strides in improving himself, he was unable to complete his journey in the course of the play. Louis’s voyage successfully resulted in his self-improvement, but at the conclusion of the play, Louis is still arguing politics and religion with Belize, which reflects the ongoing search for his true identity.
Joe Pitt’s identity crisis is perhaps the most interesting and clearly represented voyage in the play, as he progresses from trying to change his identity to ultimately accepting it. Similar to Louis, Joe is a character full of contradictions regarding his lifestyle. Being raised Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, it is apparent that Joe’s homosexuality is not an appropriate practice within his cultural context. When Joe comes out to his mother over the phone, she rebukes him by categorizing his identity as “a sin” and she claims she “thought [she] raised [him] better than that” (Millennium, 16). Not only does Joe try to hide his homosexuality from his mother, he tries to deny it by marrying Harper. Furthermore, he is employed through a law firm that denies rights to homosexuals. Upon meeting Louis, Joe becomes infatuated, and they even share a short relationship together despite his marriage to Harper. Joe shares an immensely important moment with Louis on the beach in which they are discussing Joe’s Mormon faith. Louis notes the temple garment that Joe is wearing and Joe refers to it as “Protection” and “A second skin” (Perestroika, 69). In a rush of utter ecstasy, Joe removes the garment saying “No past now. I could give up anything” (Perestroika, 73). This portrays Joe’s sincerity in his voyage, and his willingness to commit to becoming a new person. However, at the play’s conclusion, Joe is unable to reap the benefits of his identity reformation despite his attempts to shed his “skin”. He is ultimately left with two unsuccessful relationships, both homosexual and heterosexual.
While the Rabbi argues there are no more great voyages in our generation, he excludes the growing social dissatisfaction toward personal orientations, and inward struggles in the approach of the new millennium. Overcoming societal pressures in order to reach a true personal identity is the true voyage of our time. Joe’s voyage is unsuccessful at the close of the play because Joe knew he needed change, but he did not know what to change. Whereas Harper knew exactly what she wanted, and consequently she achieved it. The concept of change is a powerful theme in the play; however, without knowledge of what lies ahead change is a futile attempt.
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