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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Millennium Approaches, Act 1, Scenes 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

The title of Part One, Millennium Approaches, refers both to the time the play takes place (1985) and to the coming of a utopian reign of peace and happiness.

Scene 1

Alone on the stage, Rabbi Chemelwitz gives a eulogy for Sarah Ironson, a resident of the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews. The rabbi did not know Sarah, but he says she represents a "whole kind of person." She was part of a generation of Jewish immigrants to New York at the turn of the 20th century. The rabbi reminds the present generation that Sarah represents their roots in immigrant culture, "In you that journey is."

Scene 2

Roy Cohn fields multiple phone calls, cursing and cheating and manipulating his unseen clients. Joe Pitt, a Mormon and clerk to a federal judge, tries to get in a few words, finally managing to insist Roy not "take the Lord's name in vain." Roy offers Joe a job at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.; to set it up, all Roy has to do is call "Ed" (Attorney General Edwin Meese). Joe says he must first consult his wife.

Analysis

Scene 1 functions as a prologue. The rabbi's eulogy gives the play's historical backdrop: immigrating from Europe and finding a place in the United States. The rabbi's speech thus establishes the theme of migration, of journeying from one place to another. Some migrations are literal, as in the case of the Jewish immigrants, like Sarah Ironson, who came to America from other countries. Other migrations are figurative. The rabbi also says "you cross ... [e]very day." This "crossing" can represent the plight of minorities who must attempt to negotiate between otherness and assimilation every day. He is talking about Jews in America, but placing the rabbi alone onstage extends his address to another group of outsiders, the gay men among the audience. As the play progresses, migrations may also involve personal or social changes, a shift in the way individuals think or feel or in the way society operates.

In Scene 2, Roy has many more lines than Joe, reflecting their power dynamic: the subordinate Joe waits while Roy wraps up his own business in no particular hurry. Roy's conversations with his clients reveal a great deal about him: He is narcissistic (he refers to himself as "Roy Cohn" and expects his name to impress people), and he's powerful (on a first-name basis with "Ed," the Attorney General Edwin Meese). He cheats his clients (billing them for a vacation trip), and he has contempt for them (the foolish musical Cats is good enough for them). There are hints about Roy's homosexuality (Roy has an insider's appreciation of the play La Cage aux Folles, about a gay couple), and there are hints about AIDS (Roy vacations in Haiti, a place ravaged by AIDS in the early years of the disease's outbreak).

Roy shares characteristics with the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew: greedy, cunning, and sexually outside the mainstream. Gay otherness and Jewish otherness are not identical, but Angels in America shows how they can be interrelated.

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