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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What is the significance of having the same actor play Belize and Mr. Lies in Angels in America: Perestroika?

Belize often plays the role of a foil, or a character who is contrasted with another in order to reveal something about that character. For example, in contrast to Louis with his high-flown abstractions, Belize is a practical truth-teller who points out tough political realities. In Act 4, Scene 5 of Perestroika, when Louis waxes poetic about American values, Belize observes the word free is on a difficult-to-reach high note in the National Anthem, and that's fitting: "Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me." In Act 4, Scene 3 Belize performs a similar function as Roy Cohn's "negation," the openly gay person of color who contrasts with and challenges the straight white dominant culture with which closeted Roy aligns himself. Mr. Lies performs a similar negating function in Harper's escapist fantasy of Antarctica. While Harper fantasizes, Mr. Lies is in touch with what's real. When Harper wants to see an Eskimo, Mr. Lies points out that Eskimos live in the North, in the Arctic region, not in Antarctica, which is in the South (Act 1, Scene 3). When the Brooklyn police come for Harper because she is burning an "Antarctic" pine tree, it is Mr. Lies who recognizes the reality of the situation, warning her the police have arrived. Despite his name, Mr. Lies has a grasp on truth, like his counterpart, Belize.

What does Harper think the approach of the millennium represents in Act 1, Scene 3 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

The term millennium can refer to a thousand-year period since the death of Christ. This is what Harper means when she remarks, "Fifteen years till the third millennium." But there are also beliefs that such an anniversary will be the end of time and the beginning of an apocalypse or a utopia. Harper considers such worlds; maybe there will be "early figs to eat ... maybe new life." And then again, Harper fears the millennium might usher in the end of the world: "Maybe the troubles will come, and the end will come, and the sky will collapse." Harper is no prophet; she is too even handed. Her millennial fascination seems to be only a screen to cover the major ambivalence in her life: "maybe Joe loves me ... or maybe not."

Why does Prior compare the Angel's arrival to a Spielberg movie in Act 3, Scene 7 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

The stage directions for Act 3, Scene 7 of Millennium Approaches say before the Angel herself appears "thunderous chords" resound and Prior's bedroom is "saturated with colored light." In response to the lights and sound, Prior says, "God almighty. Very Spielberg." Angels in America emerged during a time when blockbuster movies loaded with special effects reached more people than theater. Steven Spielberg films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., for example, ruled the box office in the 1980s. The Spielberg reference is also humorous and momentarily punctures the mood of awe. The quip might represent Kushner's attempt to have his transcendent cake and eat it too, presenting a spectacle and then comically undercutting it. It might also signal an ambition to go beyond Spielberg's crowd-pleasing spectacles: Kushner's play can put on a light show, but it can also be critical of its own illusions.

What is the significance of Harper's connection with Antarctica in Angels in America: Parts 1 and 2?

Harper is childless and sometimes pretends to be pregnant; Antarctica is imagined as a barren continent. It has life forms, but it lacks agriculture. Mr. Lies calls it a "cold shelter for the shattered." Harper is also fascinated with the ozone layer and its role in protecting the Earth—"a shell of safety for life itself," she says. She is concerned that damage to the ozone layer will be a threat to the environment. When the Continental Principalities appear, Angel Antarctica is the one who shares Harper's environmental concerns. Antarctica is also a place where the ozone layer is damaged. Harper envisions the souls of the dead setting out to repair the damage, fixing the ozone layer with their combined spectral bodies. This metaphor extends to her own need for healing and that of other characters in the play, like Prior, who are trying to come to terms with traumatic events they have experienced, such as AIDS, and seek the community of others to do so.

How does Louis prepare to leave Prior in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

Louis persistently tests out the idea of abandoning Prior during Millenium Approaches. In Act 5, Scene 1 he tries to get his breakup preapproved by the rabbi, as if the rabbi could preemptively forgive the pain Louis plans to inflict on Prior by leaving him. Louis essentially does the same thing with Prior in Act 1, Scene 8, asking, "What if I walked out on this? Would you hate me forever?" These seemingly speculative questions are a way for Louis to deny he is already gone in all but the most formal sense, thereby softening the guilt he feels by abandoning Prior in his time of need. When Prior is first admitted to the hospital in Act 2, Scene 3, Louis gives Emily a roundabout excuse for leaving him there. He compares himself to Prior's ancestor Mathilde, weaving the Bayeux Tapestry while she waits for her husband to return from war. Mathilde would have accepted her husband in any condition, says Louis, wounded or scarred or dead. He seems to berate himself for not being as perfect as she: "So what the fuck is the matter with me?" Louis admits his imperfection, but this admission is partly a masquerade because it isn't intended to inspire him to stay with Prior. Perhaps it allows him to let himself off the hook to some extent by admitting the truth, and therefore give himself permission not to change his behavior. He leaves Prior alone at the hospital and goes to cruise for sex in Central Park.

Why is Belize present at Prior's encounter with the Angel during Act 2, Scene 2 of Angels in America: Perestroika?

Belize is an outsider to the interaction between Prior and the Angel in Act 2, Scene 2 of Perestroika. Thus Belize stands in for the audience, testing Prior's story with his own skeptical observations. Belize fears Prior's encounter with the Angel means he is succumbing to AIDS-related dementia. He also reacts like an insightful playgoer; when the Angel tells Prior that God abandoned the angels, Belize notices the parallel to Louis's abandoning Prior. "I smell a motif," says Belize. His remark casts doubt on Prior's story, suggesting Prior invented the Angel as a psychological projection of his negative situation with Louis. At the same time, Belize's remark points out how neatly constructed the play is, reminding the audience that this is a play. Belize is simultaneously inside and outside Prior's encounter with the Angel; he is a character in the play watching the encounter of Prior and the Angel as if it is a play. Just so, the audience is simultaneously inside and outside the stories in Angels in America, drawn in emotionally, but aware it is a staged spectacle.

Why does an angel statue replace the Angel in the Epilogue to Angels in America: Perestroika?

The Angel is a troubling, terrifying, and yet magnificent creature. She pushes the frightened Prior to confront the possibilities of his future, which has a transformative effect on him. However, she also upends Prior's life, much like his AIDS diagnosis. She insists he is a prophet, and she tries to convince him to proclaim a message of "stasis," or anti-migration with no sense of its effect on him. The significance of the statue of the angel Bethesda in the Epilogue to Perestroika is twofold. As Prior remarks, the statue's wings are feathered but made of iron; she is light and heavy at the same time. Similarly the statue of the angel is simultaneously backward-looking and forward-looking. The inclusion of the angel statue in the Epilogue is a backward-looking reminder of the Angel and her actions in the earlier part of the play. But the angel of Bethesda also looks forward to the "capital-M Millennium," when peace will reign and the healing waters of the Bethesda fountain will flow again.

What is revealed about Joe in his first conversation with Roy in Act 1, Scene 2 of Millennium Approaches?

Joe barely gets a word in edgewise while Roy curses and flatters and rants. Even after Roy gets off the phone, he still does most of the talking. Joe's silence already reveals a lot about him; he is aware of his subordinate status relative to Roy, and he accepts it. But Joe also reveals he is a devout Mormon; he is offended by Roy's taking "the Lord's name in vain." Joe is also a devoted husband; when Roy offers him a job, he says he must first check with his wife. Joe's mention of his wife also identifies him as a conventional heterosexual, although this is clearly not the case as the play goes on and his struggle with his attraction to men becomes evident.

What do Harper's reasons for not moving to Washington reveal about her in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

Harper resists change; when Joe suggests moving to Washington in Act 1, Scene 5 of Millennium Approaches, Harper counters, "We're happy." When Joe points out this is untrue, Harper clings to her hopeless position: "Well, happy enough! Pretend happy." Harper is satisfied with a pretense of happiness, as befits a straight woman married to a closeted gay man. Harper's other reasons for not moving to Washington are even more irrational. She claims all of Washington is "a giant cemetery" and mentions that the movie The Exorcist was filmed there. Finally, the switch between the two kinds of fantasies—pretend happiness and illusory fears—is significant. When Harper gets too close to the truth of her marriage, she distracts herself with scary illusions. Later in the play Joe recognizes this pattern of Harper's. In response to her imagining men with knives who want to attack her, Joe says, "I'm the man with the knives," recognizing how he causes her pain.

What is Joe's and Harper's relationship to the Mormon religion in Millennium Approaches?

At first, when Joe asks Roy not to take the Lord's name in vain in Act 1, Scene 2, he reveals himself as devout. He potentially risks social rejection in order to stand by his religious beliefs as a Mormon and announce those beliefs to an outsider. Ultimately, however, Joe and Harper "fail to measure up" to Mormon ideals. Joe is a homosexual, which runs counter to his Mormon beliefs. Harper describes herself in Act 3, Scene 3 as a "Jack Mormon," that is, a nonpracticing Mormon, but she is also a practicing prescription drug addict, which also goes against Mormon beliefs. In fact, Joe tells Roy he is attracted to the way Harper doesn't "fit in" as a Mormon: "Maybe what I really love in her is the part of her that's farthest from the light, from God's love" (Act 2, Scene 4). Moreover, Joe tells Roy, he had a hard time "passing" as a good Mormon in Salt Lake City, as "someone cheerful and strong," whose heart is "open ... unclouded by secrets and struggles."

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