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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Perestroika, Act 4, Scenes 9–11 | Summary

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Summary

Scene 9

Harper and Joe are having an uneasy sex life. Harper says Joe fantasizes about men during sex with her. She asks Joe what he sees when he looks at her. "Nothing," he says. "Finally. The truth," she responds.

Scene 10

Joe comes to Louis's apartment. Louis confronts him about his connection to Roy Cohn. Louis quotes to Joe from records of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Louis quotes the question that finally discredited McCarthy (and Roy) in the eyes of the public: "Have you no decency, sir?" Joe does not recognize the quotation. Louis has copies of the court decisions Joe wrote, and Louis criticizes them as unjust. Louis calls Joe and Roy "stupid closeted bigots." Joe punches Louis.

Scene 11

Roy lies in his hospital bed, hooked up to an IV and singing "John Brown's Body," a Civil War anthem on the Union side. Ethel tells Roy the committee voted to disbar him. Roy tells Ethel he's scared. He pretends to cry and to mistake her for his mother; she sings him a song in Yiddish. Then he pretends to be dead, delighting in fooling Ethel. Moments later, he dies for real.

Analysis

Scenes 9 and 10 both reveal how Joe, who is struggling to accept himself, also manages to deny the humanity of others. In Scene 9, Joe says more than he knows when he tells Harper he looks at her and sees "nothing." The remark seems designed to halt her questions, but it reveals the truth of their uneasy reunion. On some level, Harper does not exist as a person to Joe, or at least not as a woman.

This notion of dehumanization carries into the next scene, but from a different angle. Joe and Louis have already broken up, but Kushner arranges another confrontation between them. This time their conflict is ideological. The scene focuses heavily on the theme of justice as Louis attacks Joe for writing clever, unjust court decisions that trampled on the civil rights of others, including women, children, and a gay soldier trying to keep his Army pension. The last decision particularly outrages Louis because, while the gay soldier is allowed to keep his pension, it is only on a technicality, because of a mistake made by the Army, not because the judges who reach the decision believe he is "entitled to equal protection under the law."

Louis also skewers Joe for associating with the corrupt Roy Cohn. Louis expresses his rage over Joe's association with Roy and over Joe's Reaganite court opinions. Although Joe punches Louis, it is Joe who serves as the punching bag in this scene: he is the proxy for Louis's anger at the injustices of the Reagan administration and the "closeted bigots" like Joe and Roy who supported them, even when it was homosexuals who were being oppressed.

Louis also points out how reprehensible Roy Cohn is by mentioning Roy's close association with Joe McCarthy, who led a notorious "witch hunt" in the early 1950s to viciously ferret out Communists in America. McCarthy often destroyed innocent lives in his feverish zeal to accuse Communist sympathizers. Roy was McCarthy's legal counsel and participated extensively in this anti-Communist campaign. During a 1954 hearing about possible espionage in the Army, McCarthy accused an Army lawyer of employing a former Communist. The lawyer's famous reply ("Have you no decency, sir, at long last?") helped inspire widespread distaste for McCarthy's methods. It is this line to which Louis refers when he asks Joe if he recognizes it.

Roy's relationship to corruption also underlies Scene 11. Roy sings the lines, "John Brown's body lies a molderin' in his grave/ His truth is marching on." He is considering what will live on after him. He thinks he will die and "cross to the other side" still a lawyer, as though he could go on being a lawyer in the afterworld. When he learns he is disbarred, nothing remains to shield him from death.

Up to his last moments on Earth, Roy is an expert manipulator. He cannot bear to think of himself as losing in any situation, so he uses trickery to manipulate the odds in his favor. When Ethel tells him he has "lost" by being disbarred, his response is to trick her into singing to him by weeping and saying he's frightened, which makes her feel sorry for him. After he pretends to die and Ethel leaves, Roy laughs maniacally that he has "won" by making Ethel sing. As he dies, Roy remains unchanged. He is doing the same thing he did when the audience first saw him in the play: talking about being an octopus and pushing the button on an (imaginary) phone.

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