Literature Study GuidesAngels In AmericaMillennium Approaches Act 2 Scenes 1 4 Summary

Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Millennium Approaches, Act 2, Scenes 1–4 | Summary



Scene 1

Prior collapses at home, feverish, and he soils himself. Louis calls an ambulance, though Prior begs him not to. Louis finds blood as well and questions how much he can withstand.

Scene 2

Harper sits alone in the dark, afraid of an imagined intruder with a knife. Joe returns and assures her no one is there. He reminisces with Harper about a picture from his childhood, of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Harper says maybe she is pregnant after all. Joe says he will not leave her, but Harper announces she is leaving Joe.

Scene 3

Louis talks to Prior's nurse, Emily, about his condition and Prior Walter's unusual name. Louis talks at length about William the Conqueror's devoted wife, Mathilde, who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry while patiently waiting for her husband to return from war. Louis leaves Prior in the hospital, though the nurse questions his need to leave at 1 a.m.

Scene 4

Later that same night, Louis negotiates a hookup with a stranger in Central Park, while Roy and Joe dine in a fancy restaurant. Louis's plans with the stranger collapse: Louis doesn't want to take the man to the apartment Louis shares with Prior, and the man in leather still lives with his parents. They decide on sex in the park, but Louis calls a halt when the condom breaks. Roy showers attention on his protégé Joe, trying to convince him to take the Washington job. Joe confides about Harper's drug use; Roy tells Joe he's dying of cancer.


Scene 1 dramatizes the physical extremity of AIDS, with a feverish Prior collapsing in his own feces and blood. The staging foreshadows Louis and Prior's separation. At the start, Prior is alone onstage, calling out for Louis, but by the scene's end, Prior is unconscious, leaving Louis effectively alone. Louis takes action but he also panics, repeating "Oh God oh God oh God help me I can't I can't I can't." His panic reveals he is unlikely to stay with Prior.

Harper is enmeshed in fantasies, sometimes delightful (Antarctica) and other times frightening (knife-wielding intruders). Joe the lawyer is far more functional than his addicted, dreamy wife, but he remains in denial about his homosexuality. Harper grasps the truth better than Joe, realizing they cannot remain married.

Joe tells Harper about his obsession in his youth with a picture in a book of biblical stories of Jacob wrestling with the angel, who Joe describes as a "beautiful man." The story represents Joe's own struggle with sexuality. In Joe's interpretation, the struggle is "fierce, and unfair." The angel has a clear advantage, so there is no way for a human to win; "It's not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God's."

In the biblical story, however, the angel cannot defeat Jacob. He finally wounds Jacob and demands that Jacob let him go. Jacob will not do so until the angel blesses him, renames him "Israel," and says that Jacob has prevailed. In this story there is no winner or loser, but a powerful tension and struggle for power between the earthly and the divine. Joe's narrow interpretation of the story mistakenly equates his denial of his sexuality with protecting himself from a hurtful, losing situation.

In Scene 3 Prior is unconscious, and the nurse only partly follows Louis's rambling about Prior's family history. Supposedly Prior's ancestors are featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, a long embroidered cloth picturing events surrounding the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Louis seems to be talking about Queen Mathilde, who stitched the tapestry "for years" waiting for her husband, William the Conqueror, to return from war. In talking about the loyal and devoted Mathilde, Louis appears to be contrasting his inability to be loyal to Prior with her perfect devotion, but it doesn't change Louis's behavior one bit. In the end, he leaves Prior alone in the hospital and runs off to Central Park in search of sexual escape.

There, Louis and a stranger (a man dressed in leather) enact a ritual of domination and submission, and so do Joe and Roy. Louis tells the stranger to "Fuck me, hurt me, make me bleed;" the stranger calls him "boy" and demands to be called "sir." The serious drama of their ritual is undercut by comedy; they can't find a place for their hookup, in part because the big bad leather daddy still lives with his parents. And their hurried sex in the park provides no ecstatic union; the condom breaks and spoils the mood for Louis, and the stranger leaves.

Again, Kushner's use of a split scene invites the audience to find a connection between them. Roy and Joe's discussion is not sexual but is equally a ritual of domination and submission. Roy is the patron, a powerful man offering career advantages; Joe is the naïve and trusting young protégé, who mistakes Roy's attentions for friendship. Joe says he can't take the job in Washington because of his wife's fragility. At the end of the scene, Roy uses his own fatal illness ("cancer") to cap his persuasive argument about Joe moving to Washington. Everyone is alone, he says, telling Joe that love is "a trap" and life a "horror" in which "nobody escapes; nobody, save yourself." The message probably reflects Roy's real beliefs, but it also conveniently drives a wedge between Joe and Harper.

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