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Embedded deep within American culture is a multitude of internalized subjects that, for a time, seemed to be tearing individuals apart; examples of these topics are religion, sexuality, race, gender, economic class, and far more. Tony Kushner’s magnum opus, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, throws all of these matters onto a stage, analyzes them, humanizes them, and ultimately brings his characters into a unified coexistence despite the forces keeping them apart. This unified coexistence, Kushner argues, is progress, and the audience grows to understand Kushner’s hypothesis: that progress can be achieved by the fundamental act of forgiveness. The play is set in the 1980s, one of the most dividing ages in American history, and contains characters who are forced to overcome this age of internalized irony in order for the world to survive chaos. The endings of both parts of the play are crucial to this idea, as they shape the actions of the play’s events into Kushner’s aforementioned thesis of progress and growth. The analysis of character in the age of irony and the importance of the ending parallel each other through the play before amalgamating in the epilogue. The final scene exhibits for the audience four characters (Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah) who specifically triumph over previously restrictive ironies and brings the activity of the play into summation in order to convey Kushner’s true point: individuals must keep the world in it’s state of “painful progress” by forgiving themselves and each other.
In order to discuss the importance of the triumph over irony, it is necessary to divulge on the age the play is set in: the 1980’s, sometimes called the “Me Decade”. It is the age of consumerism, with the rise of the “yuppie” character and cultural emphasis on flaunting wealth and status, seemingly supported by the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. It is an economically ironic time, with the rich becoming very rich and the poor are still, if not more, poor. Thus, the country is in an economically polarized state of being, drawing the ire of many who recognize the inequality. Abroad, communism remains the perennial threat held over American capitalism, despite its apparent victory in parts of the American experience. Meanwhile, the discovery of AIDS in 1981 turns a national ambivalence toward homosexuality into a full-blown war between heterosexuals and homosexuals, thus dividing the country into an even more divided state of being. In summation, the 1980s was a decade that characterized itself by deepening rifts between all types of people. The characters of Angels in America are confronted with these issues head-on, and slowly discover that unity is the only way to survive what could potentially be the death of American society.
Prior Walter is one of the many characters forced to face the irony within him in order to survive the time he lives in. He describes himself as a WASP, a societal group usually connected to heterosexuality, and is so well bred that his family goes, “Back to he Norman Conquest…there’s a Prior Walter stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry” (Kushner I, 135). Despite this apparent social distinction, Prior unknowingly separates himself from it by living as a gay man, and even more so by living as a gay man with AIDS. This description of Prior is solidified in Millennium Approaches, where the ravages of his disease, his heartbreak when Louis leaves him, and eventually his call from the Angel shown him being acted upon. This serves only to isolate himself from the things that characterize him other than his disease and his sexuality, such as his breeding and economic status. Prior becomes a fighter throughout Perestroika in many ways, such as learning to curb the effects of his disease and making amends with Louis. By coming to terms with the realities of his life and making the best of them, Prior reconciles the themes that divided his inner self in Act I. The Angels have asked Prior to be their voice in the world and to tell the world to stop moving. In reclamation of his own self, Prior tells them after rejecting their request, “Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do” (Kushner II, 135). Prior has forgiven his inner ironies and resolved that to live with them is better than not living at all, and this is brought into universality in the epilogue.
Louis, a cappuccino intellectual with endless views on everything from his left wing politics to philosophy, is ironic in two aspects: his attraction to a closeted republican and his disconnected relationship with Judaism. While he and Joe attempt to be happy despite their differences, their differences prove to be their inner-foundations, thus barring them from a life of coexistence. The irony of their relationship is something that neither of them can work through; it’s seen when Louis confronts Joe with his homophobic ghost writings and Joe can only yell back “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME! I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU” (Kushner II, 110). With Joe unable to face the contradictions he lives by, the relationship ultimately fails because it is fundamentally paradoxical to Kushner’s idea of progress and growth. Meanwhile, Louis’ disconnection from Judaism is symbolized by the death of his grandmother, about whom he says, “I pretended for years that she was already dead…I abandoned her” (Kushner I, 24). The quote is a metaphor of his abandonment of Judaism; a religion that Rabbi Chemelwitz says advocates “guilt” (Kushner I, 25). Louis finally understands this idea of guilt after abandoning Prior, but in the end of Perestroika he reconciles himself with Prior and finally with Judaism by reciting the Kaddish with Ethel Rosenberg over Roy Cohn’s body. In this scene, Louis symbolically takes responsibility for abandoning his lover (who was temporarily in the afterlife at the time) and his religion, displaying a major growth in moral character. Though Louis cannot fix what he has done, his inner development is a progressive journey that leads to his placement in the epilogue.
Hannah’s presence in the play is one characterized by rebirth, first by her initial call to purify her son and instead renewing herself. Hannah is shown to believe that her purpose is to help other people, regardless of whether they ask or not. Ironically, she is entirely unable to “straighten out” her son despite her intentions, and inadvertently becomes the protector of Prior. Even though her first words to him are, “We’re closed. Go away” (II, 98), Hannah finds herself helping him within a matter of sentences when he has a fever and she helps him to the hospital. Not only does the sequence reflect on Hannah’s naturally altruistic nature, it is completely ironic that she is helping a homosexual (a way of being she doesn’t condone or understand) and that it was purely by accident, never by intention. The acceptance of the irony of their relationship, rather than the rejection of it, is what causes Hannah’s rebirth, put into action during her lesbian encounter with the Angel, which is made possible by her companionship with Prior. Their relationship leaves Hannah a reawakened person, which is elaborated upon in the epilogue.
The character of Belize is remarkably different from the rest of the characters, even the other three who appear at the end. He is at odds with the world racially as a black man, sexually as a gay man, and gender-wise as a former drag queen. Despite these themes that isolate him, Belize has already resolved his inner ironies and instead acts to resolve the ironies within others. As a nurse at New York Hospital, he must care for Roy Cohn, despite their obvious hatred for each other and Roy’s unwillingness to admit his true self. He plays the confidant and adversary to Louis, even though the two disagree constantly and as Prior’s former lover, Belize should be on Prior’s side of the argument. Belize’s constant efforts to heal others are summed up in his request that Louis recite the Kaddish for Roy, saying, “He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe…A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn’t that what the Kaddish asks for?” (II, 124). Belize’s role in the age of irony is not for him to reconcile himself; his character’s purpose is to help others mend the rifts that tear people apart, which he says is only achieved through forgiveness. Belize’s presence as a guiding light to the other characters is a crucial mechanism of Kushner’s to prepare the audience for the play’s conclusion, and thus the stating of its purpose.
Kushner gives the audience two scenes preceding the epilogue to signify the conclusion of the play. In the first scene, Prior descends from Heaven and wakes up with his fever broken, to which Nurse Emily exclaims, “Well look at this. It’s the dawn of man” (II, 139). The scene, and this quote specifically, let’s the audience know that all of the action in the play has drawn to a close and that man finally has the foundation to rebuild society. To conclude Harper’s storyline and show the inevitability of this progress, Harper is shown on a night flight to San Francisco, where she remarks that, “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress” (II, 144). To show a character like Harper, who has been terrified of movement throughout the play, embarking on a major journey forward in her life is symbolic of the unavoidable progression humanity must take on in order to rebuild their lives and their world. Because neither scene fully shows the ideal society that Kushner attempts to convey, an epilogue is necessary to wrap up his argument. However, both sequences are crucial to the plot as they conclude the action of the play and make way for the epilogue to reveal Kushner’s speculative world.
The epilogue is set at a pivotal time in world history, in January of 1990; as Louis describes, “The Berlin Wall has fallen. The Ceausescu’s are out. He’s building democratic socialism. The New Internationalism…Remember back four years ago? The whole time we were feeling everything everywhere was stuck, while in Russia! Look! Perestroika! …The whole world is changing!” (II, 145). Louis’ explanation addresses what Kushner believes to have been the overarching problem of the 1980s; that it was stagnant, that nothing was moving. Millennium Approaches addresses this issue, as the main characters were (mostly) succumbing to the perils of the age, and if they were to move in any direction, it would almost certainly be downhill. This is what the Angels want, the stop of progression in the world so that God can be found once more. But what Kushner has proven in Perestroika is that, as Prior puts it, “We’re not rocks- progress, migration, motion is…modernity” (II, 132). It isn’t possible to live in a world that doesn’t move, a world that encompassed the 1980s, in Kushner’s view. For the characters and for Kushner, that first month of 1990 marks the beginning of this modernity, this embracing of migration. For the audience, a scene that takes place in a new era signifies not only the end of the play, but also the beginning of a new world.
The end of the play is a pivotal moment in the piece; it is the moment where the audience is given the achievement striven for in the action. The achievement in Angels in America is the embodiment of Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, the embodiment created by these four characters. This “fantasia” is what Kushner believes should be America’s future, a future where the gaps between sexualities, religions, genders, and races should be mended, and Kushner presents the audience with characters who represent all four of these things. They are able to meet at the fountain that day because for those characters, those boundaries that once pulled themselves and each other apart have been mended and transcended.
Prior, Louis, Hannah, and Belize have all survived the age of irony and they are reunited in the epilogue, set at Bethesda Fountain. Prior has remained alive because of his overarching desire to live, despite the limitations his disease has given it. Louis, in his abandonment of Prior, relationship with Joe, and reconciliation with religion, has grown into someone who lives by the morals he once could only talk about rather than live by. Hannah, despite the teachings of her religion against movement, has embraced progression so much that she is a completely different person, dressing as a New Yorker. Belize, whose inner conflicts were resolved long ago, nevertheless appears at Bethesda Fountain, still working as a moral guide for the characters. These specific characters come together at the end for the same purpose: to validate the actions of the past and to reveal what Kushner hopes will be America’s future.
An important element of the epilogue that is necessary to address is the nature of homosexuality within the characters that appear, their relevance to Kushner’s Fantasia, and their relevance to the audience. Prior and Belize are the most un-closeted characters, as they have been throughout the play. It is easy to assume that Louis is still living as an openly gay, yet partially closeted man. Hannah’s orientation is harder to tell, as she is presumably still a Mormon. However, her experiences with Prior as well as her lesbian encounter with the Angel suggest that her views have evolved from what her religion initially told her. Moreover, Hannah seems to be completely comfortable with this fact. What Kushner is suggesting with the homosexuality of the epilogue is that wide acceptance of gay rights is an inevitable thing that will come with time as well as progression. As Prior valiantly proclaims, “…we are not going away…We will be citizens. The time has come” (148). For Kushner, the time has come for the world to accept homosexuals and to achieve peaceful coexistence, because they “are not going away”. Because these lines are said to the audience, Kushner bridges the divide between the stage and the seats, and puts it upon the audience to believe in the progress that is gay civil rights.
In a final analysis the epilogue, the scene itself is not a break, but a shattering of the fourth wall. Kushner is invested so heavily on the concept of progression that he makes sure that the experience of the characters become the experience of the audience, and that when they leave the audience, the action of the play is in their past as well as the pasts of the characters. But what so deeply conveys his understanding of the concept is that he knows that a play about progression should never really end at all. Because of that, Prior blesses the audience with the message of “The world only spins forward…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More life. The Great Work Begins.” (II, 148). Thus, the end of the play isn’t really the end, at least where the audience is concerned. Just like how Prior was asked by the Angel to give what was ultimately the wrong message to the world, Prior gives the audience the right message to the world: “More life”. And by ending with the same words as the Angel’s in Act I, the audience is thus commissioned to embrace the natural, “painful” progress of the world, including especially the acceptance of gay rights.
The victory over irony combines with the significance of the ending in the play’s epilogue, as the two ideas have paralleled each other through the play up until that final scene. The four characters are analyzed in depth because the audience needs to understand why their triumph over their ironies are crucial to the ending; it is each person’s journey to forgiveness of themselves and of each other that allows for the epilogue to happen. The epilogue itself is Kushner’s mechanism to end the play itself yet bestow its message upon the audience. Those characters have resolved their issues, and that resolution is put on direct display so that the audience can see what Kushner’s ideal society needs ultimately: forgiveness. That is what the audience is left with when they leave the theatre; in order for the world to move forward in the natural way it must, we must forgive each other and ourselves. Our “Great Work” begins when Angels in America ends.
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