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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Millennium Approaches, Act 3, Scenes 1–4 | Summary

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Summary

Scene 1

Two of Prior's long-dead ancestors, also named Prior, visit him at night in his bedroom. Prior 1 is a farmer from the 13th century, and Prior 2 an "elegant ... Londoner" from the 17th; both lived through plague times in England. Prior 2 assures present-day Prior this is not a fever dream. Both ancestral Priors declare present-day Prior is a prophet; they end by chanting the same words as the voice Prior has been hearing: "prepare" and "Glory to."

Scene 2

In another split scene, Emily examines Prior in the hospital while, in a coffee shop, Louis rants at Belize about politics. Prior's routine medical exam goes haywire when he hears Emily speaking Hebrew; she seems to be saying the Mourner's Kaddish for Prior, a Jewish prayer for the dead. But Emily tells him she doesn't know Hebrew.

Louis makes many cogent, nuanced points about AIDS, democracy, politics, and freedom. An increasingly restless Belize snaps in frustration and attempts to cut the conversation short. Their talk devolves into mutual accusations of racism and anti-Semitism. Back in the hospital room, a book made of steel rises up through the floor; the book is topped by a burning Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This unearthly vision suddenly disappears. Louis and Belize grow calmer as Belize remarks that soon snow will blanket everything.

Scene 3

In Antarctica Harper wishes for the company of an Eskimo; Mr. Lies says Eskimos live in the North, but an Eskimo appears anyway, further emphasizing Harper's Antarctica is a dream or delusion. Harper feels her baby kicking, and she speculates she and her baby will "mend together."

Scene 4

Hannah has arrived in New York; Joe failed to meet her at the airport. Trying to find Joe's apartment in Brooklyn, Hannah gets lost and ends up in the Bronx. A mentally ill homeless woman directs her to the Mormon Visitors Center in Manhattan.

Analysis

Prior is from an old Norman family (Normans were the French invaders of England) and has deep roots in history. But Prior 1 recites a kind of prayer in Hebrew, praising God, and he says the words Zefirot and Zazahot, which have significance in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. However, Prior's transcendent experience is not solely Jewish. Prior 1, who recites the Hebrew words, is played by the actor who plays Joe, the Mormon. Kushner could easily have cast the parts differently and had the actor who plays Roy speak the Hebrew words. He didn't, because Prior's transcendent experience isn't necessarily about a specific religion; if Prior is a prophet, he will be a prophet of a "gay fantasia" that finds a queer strand in national life.

By having actors play several parts, Kushner's play harkens back to Shakespeare, who often doubled parts. When the audience sees the same actor in another role in the same play, there are two effects. One is an "alienation effect," a technique of German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), who wanted audiences to keep their critical thinking alert and not become emotionally swept away by theatrical illusion. Seeing the same actor again reminds the audience that this is an actor and not a character. Kushner, the playwright, makes this point in the notes to his play, which emphasize that this is an "actor-driven event" in which the audience sees the craft of the play at work, as with the play's big special effects; thus, he writes, "[I]t's OK if the wires show."

The other effect of doubling parts is to remind audience members of one character while they watch another. Kushner specifies in the stage directions which parts to double, so it's not an accident that the Mormon Joe recites the Kaddish, a prayer spoken by mourners. In this way, the Jewish prayer recited to Prior is also associated with a homegrown American religion, creating a fascinating blend of the two.

The important thing about Louis's rant in Scene 2 is not his ideas about democracy, but the person he chooses to rant at—Belize. Belize is Prior's friend, and so Louis's real aim is to find out about Prior. Louis is thus using Belize as a means to an end rather than treating him as a person. Louis does not fare much better with Belize when he hashes out his progressive theories about America—"Racists just try to use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It's not really about race." Belize fights back, referring to such difficult moments in black-Jewish relations as "Hymietown." In 1984 Jesse Jackson, a black politician and preacher, was reported to have referred to Jews in an anti-Semitic remark using the offensive term "Hymies" and referring to New York as "Hymietown." The scene exposes Louis's misguided politics and his blindness to other people.

Emily's Hebrew speech is from the Prayer for the Soul of the Departed, an Ashkenazy Jewish funeral prayer. Prior hears Emily insert his name in the place the prayer specifies; "Es nishmas Prior sheholoch leolomoh," says Emily, praying for "the soul of Prior, who has gone to his celestial world." But Emily denies knowing Hebrew. The prayer seems to come from Prior's mind, though Prior, as a non-Jew, is unlikely to have memorized it either. Thus the prayer is a subjective illusion that belongs to no one onstage.

In Scene 3, Harper's rebellion against her circumstances is ambiguous. She is a "Jack Mormon," as she describes herself later in Perestroika, meaning a fallen or non-practicing Mormon. In fleeing to her illusory, lifeless Antarctica in Scene 3, Harper dramatizes how unlivable is her barren marriage to a closeted gay man. But Harper also does her wifely "duty" by producing a child, even though her child too is an illusion.

Hannah could have wandered anywhere in Scene 4; Kushner chose to set her loose in the Bronx, even though no other scenes in the play are set there. In relation to the Manhattan of the 1980s the Bronx is the wilderness, still ravaged by the financial downturn and arson fires of the 1970s, when the Bronx lost a fifth of its population. At the Mormon Visitors' Center, Hannah will find a diorama of a Mormon pioneer family traveling through the wilderness. Detached from her son and uncertain of her purpose, Hannah also journeys through a wilderness of her own.

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