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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Ethel Rosenberg feel about Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2?

Ethel hates Roy, who made sure she and her husband, Julius, were sent to the electric chair. (Roy was an attorney in the case; he boasts to Joe that he illegally communicated with the judge, persuading him to hand down a death sentence.) Ethel claims her hatred for Roy is so intense it has become a star in the sky: "the star of Ethel Rosenberg's Hatred ... It burns acid green" (Perestroika, Act 4, Scene 11). However, Ethel also sympathizes with the reviled and isolated Roy when he becomes ill. She calls an ambulance for him, and she sings a lullaby to him in his final moments as he lies dying in the hospital. When she helps Louis recite the Kaddish for Roy, her ambivalent feelings are expressed in the words she adds to the end of the prayer, spoken with a mixture of sorrow and disdain: "You sonofabitch" (Perestroika, Act 5, Scene 3).

What is the significance of Roy Cohn's first speech in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Act 1, Scene 2, when he says, "I wish I was an octopus"?

When Roy Cohn first appears in the play in Act 1, Scene 2 of Millennium Approaches, he is juggling multiple phone calls. His comment about the octopus is a simple joke; more limbs would mean an ability to handle more phone calls. But the way Roy phrases the wish reveals something else about him; "I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers." Roy is greedy; he likes grabbing and having. Having more arms would mean the chance to acquire even more of whatever he wants, such as power and influence. The imagery also contains a sexual overtone, as if Roy wants not only to do more deals but to have more sex. He would be multi-limbed and therefore, hypersexual (with his many "loving arms").

In Act 1, Scene 1 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, what is the effect of putting Rabbi Chemelwitz on stage alone?

The stage directions specify the rabbi is alone on stage. Thus the rabbi makes his remarks not just to the play's fictional mourners but to the audience watching the play. As a result, the audience takes on the role of mourners, an important role in a play about the deadly AIDS epidemic. Now his remarks do not apply just to Sarah Ironson and those who mourn her but, by extension, to people in general. Because he is alone onstage, the rabbi's remarks to the present-day generation of assimilated Jews ("you ... with the goyische [non-Jewish] names") are also addressed to the play's audience. So, what the rabbi says about the struggle of Jews to assimilate also applies to the struggle of homosexuals or any other marginal group in society to interact with the dominant culture: "you cross ... Every day. In you that journey is." The notion of migration could also apply to anyone undergoing a struggle or change of some kind. The ability to change, or the failure to do so, is a key idea throughout the play.

How does the message "the Great Work begins" change from Part 1 of Angels in America to Part 2?

The phrase is said twice: by the Angel at the end of Millennium Approaches and by Prior at the end of the Epilogue to Perestroika. The Angel who crashes through Prior's bedroom ceiling at the end of Millennium Approaches in Act 3, Scene 7 proclaims "the Great Work begins." In Perestroika, the nature of the Angel's message about the great work becomes clear: Prior is to prophesy a halt to migration and the end of progress. Prior rejects the prophesy. When Prior repeats the same words at the end of Perestroika, therefore, it is not a calling imposed on him but his own choice. Here, as at the end of Millennium Approaches, the audience does not entirely know what the "Great Work" is to which Prior refers, but in the context of Prior's speech, it could have multiple meanings. Following Prior's previous declaration of "We will be citizens," the "Great Work" could refer to gay liberation, particularly as a defiant gesture in the age of AIDS. As Prior makes his speech, Belize, Louis, and Hannah are also onstage, a disparate group of people who have formed a new kind of community together. In this context, the "Great Work" could also refer to bringing people of varying backgrounds together to form a new, more interconnected society. Prior's reference to the "Great Work" also follows his blessing to the audience ("More Life"), suggesting that the act of living more fully and deeply, even in the face of death, is the "Great Work" at hand.

What is the effect of casting the same actor as both Prior and the man in the park in Act 2, Scene 4 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

In Act 2, Scene 3 of Millennium Approaches, Louis leaves the gravely ill Prior alone in the hospital. He wants to escape from Prior because Louis cannot handle illness or death. Even though it is 1 a.m., he flees to Central Park to escape into a world of anonymous sex. In the next scene, Louis picks up the man in the park, played by the same actor who plays Prior. If a different actor played the man in the park, he would be a distinct character with no ties to Prior. This might represent exactly what Louis wants—an escape into sexual pleasure with no strings attached or messy emotions to confront. The last thing Louis wants is to be reminded of the very person he wants to escape. Having the same actor play both parts emphasizes how Louis cannot escape Prior, Prior's illness, or the significance of their relationship.

What is the importance of the intertwining of the real and the imaginary in Harper's visions in Angels in America: Parts 1 and 2?

Harper is taking a lot of tranquilizers in order to escape reality, especially her crumbling marriage to Joe. Just as fragments of daily life end up in dreams, Harper seems to be reworking the contents of her ordinary reality into wish-fulfilling fantasies. Her drug-induced haze allows her to imagine she is in Antarctica, for example, when she is still in Brooklyn, and that a travel agent she once met in Utah, Mr. Lies, is there with her, when, in reality, he is not (Millennium Approaches, Act 3, Scene 3). Later in the play, when Harper finds a pine tree in her hallucination of Antarctica, she is arrested in real life in Brooklyn for mutilating an actual tree at the same time. Mr. Lies says of the approaching police, "The Law for real," as the real and imaginary converge (Perestroika, Act 1, Scene 3). Harper also delivers one of the most important and hopeful speeches in the play in Act 5, Scene 8 of Perestroika when she has a vision of souls of the dead rising up and healing the damage to the ozone layer. Harper incorporates real locations (Antarctica, the ozone layer) and people (Mr. Lies, Prior, the police) into hallucinations that become their own realities. In fact, it might be more accurate to call Harper's visions "alternate realities." They are certainly the result of the Valium she takes, but they have a larger relationship to the play as a whole. Kushner wrote Angels in America in such a way that what is real and what is imaginary in the play often overlap or blend—from Prior's encounter with the Angel, to his meeting Harper in "mutual dreams." This fusion of the real and the imaginary helps dramatize the inner lives and emotions of characters. It serves as a metaphor for how art helps ease real human suffering.

What is the significance of Roy Cohn's role as a father figure for Joe in Angels in America?

Joe's own father is dead, as he tells Roy in Millennium Approaches. Joe also tells Roy he "had a hard time with [his] father." Roy gives a reassuring answer; "But he loved you ... he did, I know this" (Millennium Approaches, Act 2, Scene 4). Roy thus sets himself up as a fatherly man who can soothe fatherless Joe's anguished heart. If Joe were confident of his own father's love, Roy's statement wouldn't affect him so strongly. But Roy has a hidden agenda. He will use anything to persuade Joe to take the Washington job: his own "liver cancer" diagnosis, Joe's marriage troubles, or Joe's insecurity about his father's love. In this sense, being a father figure is a front for Roy to get what he wants from Joe. In Perestroika, Act 4, Scene 1, while Roy is on his deathbed, he rejects Joe's news of his love affair with Louis, rather than offering sympathy or guidance as a true father figure would. But when he no longer has a hidden agenda or anything to gain from Joe, Roy offers him a father's blessing. Roy has limitations as a father figure, but he also demonstrates some unexpected "paternal" generosity as he blesses Joe.

In what ways is Louis in denial in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

Louis is out as a gay man, so he is not in denial in the same ways as the closeted characters in the play, such as Joe or Roy. But Louis is in denial about illness and death. He never visited his dying grandmother, and he tells Rabbi Chemelwitz he is not "good with death" (Act 1, Scene 5). When Prior talks about his AIDS symptoms in Act 1, Scene 8, Louis claims he is "handling it," meaning he can stand to listen to the details of Prior's illness. But someone who can handle a partner's illness doesn't have to announce this, and Prior calls him on this hidden denial: "You get too upset, I wind up comforting you." When Prior collapses with a fever, Louis panics, saying, "help me I can't I can't" (Act 2, Scene 1). Louis's flight from the hospital, where he abandons Prior, and his affair with Joe are examples of his desire to escape and thus deny reality.

What is Roy's view of gender in his discussion of father figures in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Act 2, Scene 4?

Roy sees father figures as essential to a man's success in the world. As he says to Joe, "Everyone who makes it in this world makes it because somebody older and more powerful takes an interest." In Roy's view this "somebody older and more powerful" is a man, it goes without saying; women hardly figure in this picture. Women are necessary at the start, but fathers do the real work of nurturing, of bringing their adoptive sons along: "Women are for birth, beginning, but the father is continuance." Even the unequal way Roy phrases this pair—woman/father, not mother/father—erases women's contribution as mothers.

In Act 1, Scene 5 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, what does Harper mean when she says "the world's coming to an end"?

At first Harper is only reporting to Joe in Act 1, Scene 5 what she heard that day on the radio about a hole in the ozone layer: "Skin burns, birds go blind, icebergs melt. The world's coming to an end." This remark comes at the end of the couple's conversation about their troubled marriage. This includes Harper's "emotional problems," as well as what she terms Joe's "secrets and lies." She tells Joe he "never should" have married her. Both Harper and Joe are clearly suffering. Harper turns desperately to discussing having sex with her husband, possibly hoping to ease the situation, but it is a subject Joe seems to want to avoid. She mentions hearing on the radio about how to give oral sex. Harper proposes she and Joe try it and then, without waiting for an answer, adds "this is a good time. For me to make a baby." Joe's only answer to the baby remark is to turn away and leave the room. It's then that Harper makes her gloomy apocalyptic utterance about the world's end. She refers to the damaged ozone layer as a sign of "the end of the world," but it's Harper's world as she knows it that is ending.

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