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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Angels in America: Perestroika, how is "the oldest living Bolshevik" proclaiming "WE MUST NOT move ahead" an example of situational and dramatic irony?

Situational irony occurs when what one expects does not match up with reality. There is situational irony in having a Bolshevik argue against forward progress. As a member of a revolutionary political party that took over Russia and created the Soviet Union, he might be expected to look to the future and favor dynamic political change. However, he is nicknamed "the oldest living Bolshevik"; his comrades are presumably dead, and he is something of a relic. His name, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, also indicates he is out of date: antediluvian means both "before the Flood" and "unimaginably old-fashioned." Prelapsarian means "before the Fall," in an even more distant past in the Garden of Eden. There is also dramatic irony in having a play named Perestroika begin with a hard-line Bolshevik arguing against change. In 1986 the oldest living Bolshevik does not know what the play's audience does: Mikhail Gorbachev will move ahead with perestroika in the late '80s, instituting changes that will move his country away from communism, leading to the end of the Soviet Union. But the audience and the other characters are aware of the significance of perestroika.

Why does Louis talk to Prior about judgment in Act 1, Scene 8 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

In Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 8, Louis says it's not "the verdict that counts, it's the act of judgment." He associates the verdict with a concept of judgment he finds shallow; all that counts is the final decision, Louis says, which is reduced to "salvation or damnation." Louis prefers the Jewish concept of judgment, in which it is not the final decision but the "total complexity" of the situation and the deliberation of that complexity that matters. Louis talks about these contrasting notions of judgment in the context of a larger conversation. He is lying in bed with his AIDS-afflicted lover, Prior, and pondering the afterlife. His preferred kind of judgment means it is not the final decision that matters but everything that leads up to it. Louis might be engaging in special pleading: he loves Prior even if in the end he leaves him. But he is also saying there is more to Prior than a death from AIDS; there are also "the questions and shape of [Prior's] life, its total complexity," to be taken into consideration, the fullness of his humanity, even if Louis, who runs away, is not capable of being the one to embrace it.

In what ways do Roy and Prior have similar views on lawsuits in Angels in America: Perestroika?

In Act 4, Scene 1 Roy talks to Belize about why he always wanted to be a lawyer, and why he is fighting the disbarment committee so hard. "The Law," says Roy, "the only club I ever wanted to belong to." The word club pinpoints Roy's desire to join a powerful elite of lawyers, what he calls "the High Priests of America." The word club also hints at the anti-Semitism that would have kept a Jewish man of Roy's generation out of the environments in which many of the wealthy and powerful congregate, from boardrooms to country clubs. Roy asks Belize whether he's ever brought a lawsuit against anyone. When Belize says he has not, Roy advises: "Hire a lawyer, sue someone, it's good for the soul." Prior also advises the angels in Act 5, Scene 5 to sue the God who abandoned them: "Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare he. He oughta pay." Both Roy and Prior view lawsuits as a way to seek justice, while Roy also implies that doing so is a satisfying form of vengeance.

Why does Roy want to stay in the closet in Angels in America: Parts 1 and 2?

Roy is not afraid of homosexual acts, the way Joe is at the beginning of the play. He is not afraid of admitting to himself (and to certain friends) that he has sex with men. But Roy dislikes the low social standing of homosexuals in society. As he says in Act 1, Scene 9, homosexuals have "zero clout." Roy goes further, saying homosexuals are not men who have sex with men; they are just stigmatized men condemned to exist outside mainstream political power or have any serious effect on it, those "who know nobody and who nobody knows." This contrasts with Roy's image of himself as a powerful man of influence. Roy wants to distinguish between homosexual desire ("other men") and homosexual identity (men with "zero clout"). This is perceptive of Roy, if perhaps wrong-headed. He recognizes the stigma of homosexuality that is projected onto gay men by straight society. He himself is hounded in his last days by a committee of lawyers who view him as "that little faggot." But Roy is wrong to think he can evade that stigma through denial and remaining closeted.

How does the epigraph of Angels in America: Perestroika relate to the Epilogue?

The epigraph that precedes Angels in America: Perestroika is from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "On Art": "Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole." During Perestroika, Prior rejects the prophecy of stasis the Angel wants him to adopt. Emerson's quotation states that "the soul is progressive," which is to say the soul is in motion, always moving forward. This is what Prior chooses to do, opting for "more life," even with his possible death and "Apocalypse Descending." In the Epilogue, Prior joins with Belize, Hannah, and Louis to produce a "new and fairer whole." The group is diverse in terms of race, gender, and religion. It includes a Mormon woman and three gay men, one of whom is Jewish and one a person of color. As Louis says, "That's what politics is. A moving ahead." Although Belize and Louis continue to squabble about exactly what type of politics is best, the overall emphasis of this new group is on, as Hannah puts it, "interconnectedness," as well as healing, based on Belize's description of the Bethesda Fountain's legendary powers. Emerson's epigraph is also about art and therefore acts as a commentary on the play as a whole and its aim at producing "a new and fairer whole" in response to the homophobic lack of empathy to those suffering from AIDS.

What does Roy's mention of Broadway plays reveal about him in Act 1, Scene 2 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

In Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 2, Roy has an assistant procure seven Broadway tickets for a Mrs. Hollins, the wife of a judge. Roy is indifferent to the shows the tickets are for, as long as they are "something, anything hard to get." The transaction shows Roy's relationship to his clients and his level of power. He plies judges' wives with gifts, and he has a lackey go get the actual tickets. He thinks this Mrs. Hollins is a tasteless, easily impressed fool he can manipulate. To his assistant he says, "Cats? Ugh." He thinks the musical is lowbrow. To his client he says condescendingly, "Cats! It's about cats ... you'll love it." He has contempt for his other clients, too: "You HAG!" he curses another client, though only when she is on hold and can't hear him. Because Roy is closeted, one might expect him to avoid mention of La Cage aux Folles, a hit Broadway comedy about a gay couple. But Roy goes out of his way to praise it: "Fabulous. Best thing on Broadway. Maybe ever." He even gives himself the air of a man with insider knowledge: he calls it La Cage and dissuades his vulgar client from seeing it, telling her she wouldn't like it: "trust me. I know." A more fearful man might have avoided associating himself with La Cage, but Roy is sure enough of his power to brazenly risk doing so.

Why does Harper keep pretending to be pregnant in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

Harper tends to mention a baby when she wants to deny the fact that her marriage is in trouble. She's hardly the first person to think of this strategem, though she is unique in how she yo-yos between revealing the pregnancy is a fantasy and then insisting again it's real. In Act 1, Scene 5, Harper says it's time for her to have a baby, not long after she obliquely mentions Joe's homosexuality, his "secrets and lies." In Act 2, Scene 2, Joe asks if she is really going to have a baby, and Harper deflects the question. She says, "It's my time, and there's no blood," but then she says maybe her lack of menstruation is due to her pill habit: "Maybe I'll give birth to a pill." By joking about the pregnancy, Harper keeps the situation further suspended between reality and fantasy. In Act 2, Scene 9, Joe tells Harper, "You aren't pregnant," but in Act 3, Scene 3, the pregnancy is on again, sort of. Harper declares reality can be whatever she wants in her illusory Antarctica: "Here I can be pregnant. And I can have any kind of baby I want." Harper says her baby will have a pouch that Harper can crawl into if it's cold outside: "Like a marsupial. We'll mend together." Her idea that a child might nurture her seems doomed, but the image is also touching as a fantasy of comfort and healing in response to the decline of her marriage.

For what purpose does the mannequin family appear in Act 3, Scene 3 of Angels in America: Perestroika?

The mannequin family, which Harper refers to as "dummies," functions as a sounding board for Harper and the trauma she experiences during the breakup of her marriage to Joe. In one way, the mannequins are an ideal Mormon family; they are exemplary pioneers. A prerecorded tape describes their heroic journey. But as Harper comments on them, she tells a counter-history of loss and anguish, of undrinkable saltwater lakes and death by snake and scorpion. Harper also notes the mother and daughter mannequins cannot speak. When Prior and Hannah leave the diorama room, however, Harper stays behind to listen to the mother mannequin who now can speak. Harper calls her the Bitter Lady of the Plains, and it seems clear her voice is Harper's. Harper asks her if people change. The Bitter Lady of the Plains tells her, "God splits the skin with a ragged thumbnail from throat to belly." She contends people go on like that, with their "mangled guts" stuffed back inside them, and that is change. This could describe Harper's own situation. Harper's pill fantasies are usually daffy and sweet, an Antarctica as pleasant as Candy Land. The Mormon mannequin family reveals a darker and more profound side to Harper and her relationship to change as her marriage is painfully ripped apart.

in Act 2, Scene 2 of Angels in America: Perestroika, what is the purpose of the scene in which Prior fails to know the location of "the Sacred Prophetic Implements"?

The Angel crashes through the ceiling. She is glorious and terrifying; she then announces solemnly that Prior should "remove from their hiding place the Sacred Prophetic Implements." Prior has no idea what she means. A comedy of cross-purposes ensues. Prior was supposed to have a series of dreams, giving him instructions about the implements and their location, but the dreams never occurred. Prior also balks at ruining his kitchen floor digging up the implements like Joseph Smith digging up the gold tablets. He brings up some hilarious practical concerns. What will his downstairs neighbors think? He'll lose his security deposit. So the Angel has to amend the prophecy and improvise. The Angel is magnificent, and Kushner himself says in notes to the actors that she is not meant to be played as a joke, so this scene offers something more than comic relief. Perhaps the humor is necessary to puncture the high seriousness of the moment: the play resists being lofty in favor of being grounded and real. Prior and the Angel's comic misunderstanding about the Sacred Prophetic Implements also foreshadows Prior's later relationship to the prophecy. The climax of the play is not the receiving of the prophecy, but its rejection as Prior finds new autonomy.

Why does Prior quote Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire in Act 5, Scene 6 of Angels in America: Perestroika?

When Prior returns from Heaven in Act 5, Scene 6 of Perestroika, Belize and Hannah are there, and soon Louis. The others leave in order to give Prior and Louis some time alone. Hannah says she has things to do and Prior tells her, "You'll be back." Yet nothing is less certain; Hannah barely knows Prior, who collapsed in the Mormon Visitors' Center the day before. She has no reason to come back to help her gay son's lover's ex-boyfriend. To secure her return and bring her into the "family," so to speak, Prior insists she'll be back. And then he says Blanche DuBois's famous line from the end of A Streetcar Named Desire: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." When Blanche says this line, she is being taken away to a mental hospital, about to depart for a future in which she can expect little, if any, kindness. Her statement is fatalistic, even masochistic, reflecting the kind of emotional collapse that has as its subtext an aggressive demand to be taken care of. When Prior says it, the line is amusing, even campy. But it's still a request for Hannah's kindness; Prior would like her to return. Hannah's reply seems at first harsh; on hearing that Prior has depended on the kindness of strangers, she says, "Well that's a stupid thing to do." But she does return; in fact the Epilogue reveals she is still friends with Prior five years later. Prior isn't a helpless aging waif like Blanche, and Hannah, who becomes a friend, is not a stranger to him.

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