Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Context



AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is a disease of the immune system. The body of a person with AIDS cannot fight off infection; people with AIDS usually die of such infections and cancers as tuberculosis, pneumonia, or invasive cervical cancer (women). A virus called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS. HIV gets into blood cells through very close contact with blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk. People exposed to HIV do not necessarily develop AIDS.

AIDS is a recently discovered disease. The earliest known human blood sample containing HIV dates to 1959, but the AIDS disease went unrecognized until the late 20th century. In June 1981 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published news of five gay men in Los Angeles coming down with a rare form of pneumonia. In September 1981 the medical journal Lancet reported on five cases of the rare cancer Kaposi's sarcoma in eight gay men in New York. Such rare infections and cancers are now known to be symptoms of AIDS. By 1992 when Kushner's Angels in America premiered, AIDS was the leading cause of death among males ages 25 to 44 in the United States. At first AIDS was little understood; HIV was not discovered until 1983. Because of AIDS's prevalence among gay men at the time, the media often called it "the gay plague" or "gay cancer."

As in Millennium Approaches, Part One of Angels in America, often people did not know they were sick until they got a late-stage symptom of AIDS like Kaposi's sarcoma, usually a series of discolored patches on the skin, or thrush, white patches in the throat. Diagnosis came late, so the progress toward death was terrifyingly swift. The high mortality rates, lack of effective treatments, and spread of infection caused sorrow and devastation among gay communities in the 1980s and early '90s. Scientists discovered in 1984 that heterosexual sex could also transmit HIV, but AIDS remained a "gay plague" in the popular imagination. Fundamentalist pastor Jerry Falwell called AIDS "the wrath of God upon homosexuals." The prejudice extended to other people with AIDS, in addition to gay people; in 1984 teenager Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS acquired by blood transfusion; a community uproar tried to prevent his return to high school. Many funeral homes refused to provide burial services for AIDS victims, or charged extra money. In 1986 a ballot measure in California proposed an official registry of HIV "carriers" and their removal from certain jobs or government positions. It was in this climate of fear, sorrow, and stigma that Kushner wrote Angels in America.

Gay Liberation Movement

Until 2003 many states had anti-sodomy laws, some dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. However, sodomy laws were not aimed at only same-sex relationships. Although the penalties were severe, gay people were not explicitly or exclusively targeted by these laws. In 2003, however, the Supreme Court ruled that intimate consensual sexual conduct is constitutionally protected, nullifying most sodomy laws which had been designed through history to try to prevent certain sexual acts.

During and immediately after World War II, the draft and the booming economy brought young people to cities in great numbers; urban gay and lesbian subcultures flourished. Soon a conformist backlash attempted to rein in gay and lesbian life. Oral sex was added to sodomy laws, making arrests and prosecutions easier. Vice squads raided bars frequented by homosexuals and lesbians. The Uniform Code of Military Justice enacted in 1950 made it illegal for soldiers to have sexual relations with members of the same sex.

Twentieth-century attempts by gays and lesbians to come together and protect themselves against discrimination were initially few and quiet. The Stonewall Riots of the late 1960s changed that. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided a New York City gay bar called the Stonewall Inn and began hauling its patrons into paddy wagons. New York had laws against public homosexuality and such raids were common; arrested patrons typically either fled or passively accepted arrest. The Stonewall Inn was not just any gay bar; it also welcomed "drags" and "queens," or transgender people and effeminate gay men. On that June night, young gay men, lesbians, drag queens, and transgender people resisted arrest, throwing bottles and shouting such slogans as "gay power." Overwhelmed police barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall Inn as the crowd outside demonstrated, not dispersing until riot police arrived. The next night a crowd of 1,000 protested outside the Stonewall Inn, and in subsequent days there were demonstrations elsewhere in the city. Collectively, these six days of protest and demonstration became known as the Stonewall Riots, the start of an international gay liberation movement. In 2016 President Obama declared the Stonewall Inn a national monument. Angels in America touches on elements of public gay culture: coming out, cruising for gay dates at New York beaches, and throwing extravagant celebrations, for example. These public expressions could not have existed without the movement that began at the Stonewall Inn.

Ronald Reagan

Millennium Approaches begins in 1985 in the middle of Ronald Reagan's two-term presidency (1981-89). Reagan had been a film actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG); as SAG president, he testified to Congress about a "small clique" of SAG members who seemed communist. In his later career as a politician, he remained a fervent anticommunist; his policies were seen as a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

As a politician, Reagan was a Republican and a conservative. Conservatism is a political philosophy that emphasizes the importance of preserving traditional institutions. Conservatism is often opposed to liberalism, a political philosophy that emphasizes the freedom of the individual and the government's role in safeguarding that freedom. In his 1981 inauguration speech, Reagan said "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." Some previous, liberal presidents had seen government as the solution. They emphasized government spending as the way to stimulate the economy and cure social ills. For example, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal increased government spending on infrastructure, regulated banking, and put artists and writers to work in public works projects. This was all part of an effort to halt the Great Depression, an intense, long-lasting, worldwide economic downturn that left many Americans unemployed. The New Deal also regulated strikes and granted workers the right to unionize. These laws contained and restricted the right to strike, but the recognition of unions caused some to refer to the New Deal as socialism.

Another example of government spending was seen during President Lyndon Johnson's years in office. His War on Poverty created Medicare and Medicaid and increased Social Security.

Reagan, in contrast, championed decreased spending on social programs and increased tax cuts; in "trickle-down economics," what was good for the wealthy was thought to eventually benefit the poor. In Millennium Approaches, a lawyer named Martin remarks of Reaganism, "It's really the end of Liberalism. The end of New Deal Socialism." However, Reagan was unable to dismantle or reduce Medicare or Social Security.

Characters in Angels in America are passionate about Reagan's policies; Joe is a believer, and Louis is a severe critic. But Reagan's significance for the play may lie more in his lack of leadership during the AIDS crisis. An actor at ease with public speaking, Reagan was known as "the Great Communicator" during his presidency, but he was notably silent about AIDS. In a White House press briefing in 1982 a reporter asked Reagan's press secretary, Larry Speakes, about "A-I-D-S." By then the disease had claimed hundreds of lives. Speakes responded with jokes, and then he stated no one in the White House knew anything about the disease. In 1983 Reagan's chief of communication, Pat Buchanan, wrote in an op-ed in the New York Post, "The poor homosexuals—they have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution." Neither Buchanan nor the administration retracted the statement's implication that homosexuals were unnatural and deserving of death. Not until 1985 did Reagan briefly mention AIDS, at a press conference. Reagan did not address AIDS in an official speech until 1987, years into the crisis. His silence was viewed by AIDS activists as contributing to the disease's stigma and sanctioning inaction during a health crisis.


The title of Part Two, Perestroika, refers to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 1980s policy of economic and government reorganization that transformed the country. Gorbachev wanted the Soviet Union to be more in line with other westernized nations in Europe and with the United States, politically and economically. He established perestroika, along with glasnost (meaning "openness," or a policy of greater freedom of expression) to accomplish this goal. Together, these policies led to the end of the Soviet Union's rivalry with the United States known as the Cold War and indirectly contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Perestroika helped establish democratic local elections and an economy that more strongly resembled the free-market, capitalist economies of other western nations. Glasnost encouraged greater freedom of expression by decreasing government censorship of the media and criticism of the government. The reference to perestroika in the title of Part Two of Angels in America reflects the way characters in the play band together to form a diverse group that crosses boundaries of race, sexual orientation, and gender to reorganize society into a newer, more liberated form.

Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy

The play's character Roy Cohn is based on a historical figure. In the 1950s Senator Joe McCarthy began an investigation to ferret out Communists, supposedly disloyal or treasonous people, in government and entertainment. McCarthy was aided in these efforts by his lawyer, Roy Cohn. The investigation was called the "Red Scare" because communism is associated with the color red. Cohn and McCarthy's Red Scare also included a "Lavender Scare," during which they denounced homosexuals in government posts. Cohn and McCarthy claimed these men and women presented a security risk because Communists could easily blackmail them into committing treason. Many men and women were fired from their jobs as a result of Cohn and McCarthy's efforts.

McCarthy's power came to an end with the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. The United States Army accused McCarthy and Cohn of trying to use their influence to get special favors for their friend G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide who had recently been drafted into the Army. Cohn and McCarthy argued the Army was retaliating for their wide-ranging investigation into hidden communism. The Army's lawyer for the hearings, Joe Welch, asked McCarthy on camera, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" Welch's justified and eloquent outrage discredited McCarthy in the eyes of the public.

Cohn, however, went on to a long career as a lawyer and power broker. Like the play's character, Cohn was a closeted homosexual who used his power and influence to oppress other homosexuals. In his position as McCarthy's lawyer, he persecuted actual and suspected homosexuals; decades later, when gay rights legislation was proposed in New York City, Cohn lobbied against it. Reportedly he once called a city council member and said, regarding gay rights legislation, "You've got to get off this fag stuff, it's very harmful to the city." Cohn went on to become a lawyer to gangster John Gotti and then-mogul Donald Trump.

The play finds Cohn back in New York, wheeling and dealing even from his deathbed. He is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. In 1951 Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, were charged with giving secrets about U.S. nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. As one of the trial's prosecuting attorneys, Cohn distinguished himself, especially in his examination of Ethel's brother, Daniel. Under Cohn's questioning, Daniel identified Ethel as a member of a Soviet spy ring. The Rosenbergs were found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death. In the two years before their executions were carried out, they appealed and their case was also debated worldwide in public opinion. The Rosenbergs, both Communists, were thought by some to have been victimized by the FBI. For years afterward the case remained a touchstone of left and liberal sympathizers; judging by the play, Kushner seems to have been among them.

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