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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the effect of making Heaven resemble San Francisco in Act 2, Scene 2 of Perestroika?

In Act 2, Scene 2 of Perestroika, the Angel says Heaven "is a City Much Like" San Francisco; in fact, they're almost exactly alike. "Heavenquakes" have reduced the celestial city to rubble, like the earthly San Francisco after its 1901 Great Earthquake. The Angel describes Heaven as looking like San Francisco before the quakes as well: "House upon house depended from Hillside,/From Crest down to Dockside,/The green Mirroring Bay." San Francisco was also one of the epicenters of the AIDS crisis. This is perhaps what motivates Kushner to have the Angel describe San Francisco-like Heaven in terms of its fragility: "Undulant Landscape over which/The Threat of Seismic Catastrophe hangs:/More beautiful because imperiled." The Angel says God was fascinated by humans because, unlike angels, they too are imperiled by death because they are mortal, infected carriers of the "Virus of TIME."

Why is Prior's relationship to the Angel sexual in Angels in America: Perestroika?

Kushner could have given Prior any number of ways to sense the Angel's presence: tingling fingertips, an aching knee, the sound of a heavenly choir. But Kushner chose an erection as Prior's "infallible barometer" of angelic proximity, and he has Prior and the Angel copulate in Perestroika, Act 2, Scene 2. The fact that AIDS affected so many gay men in the 1980s made gay sex suspect. Even after it was proven heterosexual sex could also transmit HIV, gay sex remained linked with disease in the media. Kushner's depiction of angelic sex reverses this stigma. Because the Angel is hermaphroditic, the union with Prior also explodes traditional definitions of sexuality. Additionally some people have viewed procreative sex as morally superior to sex that is not. Prior's celestial hookup reverses this assumption as well. Prior tells Belize, "When angels cum they make something called ... plasma orgasmata." In turn, plasma orgasmata creates "protomatter ... Which is what makes ... Everything else .... Creation." Heterosexual sex may be a big deal for making babies; Prior has sexual contact with the stuff of all Creation.

What is the significance of Prior's finding his cat in Heaven in Act 5, Scene 2 of Angels in America: Perestroika?

In Act 1, Scene 4 of Millennium Approaches, Prior tells Louis his cat, Little Sheba, is still missing. The cat's name is a punning reference to the 1952 movie Come Back Little Sheba. The movie starred Shirley Booth, and Prior acknowledges this connection when he says, "I did my best Shirley Booth this morning ... 'Come back, Little Sheba, come back.'" The line from the film refers to a missing dog. In discussing the runaway cat, Louis says cats aren't as smart as dogs; Prior counters that cats know when something is wrong. "They know," says Prior. "That's why Little Sheba left, because she knew." When Louis asks what the cat knew, Prior deflects his question and instead makes his Shirley Booth reference. Soon after that, Prior tells Louis his bad news: he has AIDS and is dying. Presumably he thinks that is what Little Sheba knew. So in Act 5, Scene 2 of Perestroika, her return in Heaven might mean Prior is awaited in Heaven, or it might mean whatever danger Little Sheba's disappearance signaled is over.

Why is Act 3 of Angels in America: Perestroika titled "Borborygmi"?

Borborygmi are the sounds made by the intestines in the ordinary process of digestion. In Millennium Approaches, Roy tells Joe politics is "intestinal" and "gastric juices churning ... enzymes and acids." Politics for Roy is not an ideal of the head or the heart. It is a blind, amoral, unconscious life process, like digestion, representing Roy's constant need to consume and process the world around him in order to satisfy his hunger for power. In Act 3, Scene 2 of Perestroika, Roy shows Belize his private stash of AZT. Not only has he finagled his way into the AZT trial, he has acquired, as Belize remarks, a 50-year stash of the drug, more than he can ever use. He also taunts Belize with the sight of his stash; he is a "dragon atop the golden horde," says Belize. Roy is nearly on his deathbed and in pain from intestinal cramps, a negative twist on boborygmi. But as a political being, Roy's boborygmi are still rumbling along as Roy continues to demonstrate his political power—getting, acquiring, and flaunting as he always has.

What is the significance of the name Prior in Angels in America: Parts One and Two?

A prior is the head monk in a monastery. As a person with AIDS, must Prior be celibate from now on, like a monk? Or is his destiny to have a religious vocation? The stage directions refer to Prior's "prophet garb," the robe-like garments he takes to wearing after his encounter with the Angel. But such robes are also the garb of a monk or prior. Additionally, if Prior is the head of a fraternal order of monks, perhaps those in his order are the gay men of America, or persons with AIDS. Ultimately the audience, whatever their status and identities, are called together as members in Prior's order when he says, "You are fabulous creatures ... And I bless you."

How does Roy manipulate Joe during their dinner in Act 2, Scene 4 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

At first Roy's persuasion takes the form of promising success and advancement to Joe. Roy tells him, "Everyone who makes it in this world makes it because somebody older and more powerful takes an interest." Roy lets Joe know he will be that someone. He also assures Joe his father loved him; by reassuring Joe he actually harps on Joe's insecurity about his difficult relationship with his father. But Joe says he can't take the job in Washington because of his wife's fragility. Roy, an expert manipulator, stops pushing at that point. He tells Joe to "do what you need to do" and also to "let [Harper's] life go where it wants to." He subtly encourages Joe to view himself as unconnected to his wife. Then Roy tells Joe he is dying of cancer. Everyone is alone, he says, telling Joe love is "a trap," and life a "horror"; he tells Joe, "nobody escapes; nobody, save yourself." The message is intended to drive a wedge between Joe and Harper, the woman who stands in the way of Roy's plans.

What are the implications of the Angel's message for gay liberation in Angels in America: Parts One and Two?

At the start of Millennium Approaches, queers are likened to immigrant Jews: every day queers migrate from their marginal outsider position in society to participate in the straight world. The Angel's message of stasis—"the Anti-Migratory Epistle"—implies queer people should stop making that daily journey. Thus her message means gay liberation should stop making progress. Kushner places even more pressure on gay liberation; not only do gay people's lives depend on gay liberation, but the orders of angels are ranged against it. Prior understandably balks at being the messenger of the news that gay liberation—and all other progress—must stop.

Why does Rabbi Chemelwitz poke fun at Joe in Act 1, Scene 5 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches?

Rabbi Chemelwitz serves as a comic foil as Louis contemplates a terrible wrong—abandoning Prior. In doing so, the rabbi contrasts with Louis, and thus reveals the truth of Louis's character. Rabbi Chemelwitz's name contains the word witz, meaning joke or wit in both Yiddish and German. The rabbi makes fun of Louis's anguished and convoluted talk. Louis takes a long time to get around to saying he's not "good with death," making detours through progress and Hegel to finally get the words out. The rabbi deflates Louis's pretensions with his wit. He uses Yiddish syntax, saying if Louis wants to confess, "better you should find a priest." When Louis replies he's not Catholic, he's a Jew, the rabbi answers with a Yiddish word, bubbulah, or "boy," that comically emphasizes Louis's Jewishness and his immaturity: "Worse luck for you, bubbulah."

How does Louis use language as a form of denial in Angels in America: Parts One and Two?

Louis frequently uses language as a form of denial in order to avoid having to admit difficult truths or take personal responsibility. He says 10 words where one will do, obfuscating his real situation by speaking abstractly or in metaphors. When he is thinking about leaving Prior in the hospital (Millennium Approaches, Act 2, Scene 3), he natters on about Prior's ancestor Mathilde, who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry. When he wants to discuss abandoning Prior altogether, he talks to Rabbi Chemelwitz about his grandmother instead or offers hypothetical statements instead of admitting they apply to him (Millennium Approaches, Act 1, Scene 5). When Prior confronts Louis for abandoning him, Louis retreats into abstraction, philosophizing, "You can love someone and fail them" (Millennium Approaches, Act 2, Scene 9). Prior calls Louis on this as well, saying "maybe an editorial 'you' can love," meaning Louis himself cannot. Louis speaks more plainly twice in Angels in America: when he seduces Joe and when Prior returns from Heaven. With Joe, Louis says, "Words are the worst things. Breathe." In Perestroika when Louis and Prior reconcile as friends, Louis talks but does not speechify or try to avoid the truth. In speaking in this more straightforward way, he's able to say he still loves Prior.

What is the significance of Roy's private stash of AZT in Act 3, Scene 2 of Angels in America: Perestroika?

Roy's stash of AZT confirms his selfishness; seeing the stash, Belize compares Roy to "the dragon atop the golden horde." But his stockpile of AZT also brings him into contact with Louis and Prior. Louis arrives to smuggle out the pills, which eventually find their way to Prior. In this way, Roy indirectly facilitates Prior's AIDS remission (although it is unclear whether Prior will take the pills.) Roy has boasted of his connections with Ed Meese and Nancy Reagan; these connections make him the play's stand-in for the Reagan administration. Thus when Roy's AZT pills wind up in Prior's hands through Louis's theft, the act is symbolic of people with AIDS taking what's owed them, the medicines and research that could halt AIDS.

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