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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Angels in America | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Angels in America is the story of a gay man, Prior Walter, a 30-year-old New Yorker, whose lover, Louis, abandons him when he falls ill with AIDS. Transcendent forces—visions and angels—help transform Prior from a man dying of AIDS to a man living with AIDS. Along the way, several romantic and platonic couples come apart, and the final social configuration of the play comprises a loose band of multigenerational, multiracial, queer friends. In the end, Prior delivers a blessing to the audience in favor of "more life."

Part One: Millennium Approaches

It's October 1985 in New York City, and Prior attends the funeral of his lover Louis's grandmother, Sarah. After the eulogy, Prior tells Louis he has AIDS. Louis panics at the news. Several weeks later, Prior is hospitalized, and Louis abandons Prior.

Meanwhile, Joe, a Mormon, Republican, closeted gay lawyer, is being groomed for career success by closeted gay lawyer and power broker Roy Cohn. Joe is married to a woman, Harper, and is in denial about his sexual desires. Roy has sex with men but is determined to keep it a secret. Roy offers Joe a job in Washington, D.C. The job offer puts a strain on Joe's marriage to Harper, a relationship already burdened by her tranquilizer addiction and his secret homosexuality. Harper often retreats into fantasy. In a "mutual dream scene," she and Prior meet and discuss their lives.

Louis and Joe work at the same federal courthouse—Louis as a word processor and Joe as a law clerk. In the first week of November they meet in the restroom at work, where Louis is crying about his sick "friend" Prior. Later Joe calls his mother, Hannah, and tells her he's gay. In response, Hannah sells her house in Salt Lake City and moves to New York. Harper leaves Joe (the start of a protracted breakup that concludes only at the end of Part Two, Perestroika). In late November, Roy's doctor, Henry, diagnoses him with AIDS. At the end of Millennium Approaches, on a night in late December, Joe and Louis meet in the park and kiss. Louis invites Joe home with him.

From November to the end of December 1985, Prior's symptoms get worse. He also sees and hears increasingly strange things: ghosts of his ancestors, a magical book, and a divine voice telling him to "prepare the way." At first Prior thinks these are delusions caused by his illness. Millennium Approaches concludes in late December 1985, when the Angel crashes through Prior's bedroom ceiling and addresses him as a prophet, telling him "the Great Work begins."

Part Two: Perestroika

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the oldest living Bolshevik, rails against progress and insists the world must not change. In December 1985, on the same night as the end of Millennium Approaches, Joe and Louis arrive at Louis's new apartment in the East Village, where they make love. Harper, lost in an Antarctic fantasy, is arrested in Brooklyn. Hannah goes to the police station to help her. Prior wakes in his bedroom; the Angel is gone, and he has had a wet dream. He calls Belize, a nurse and former drag queen. Belize is busy with Roy's doctor, Henry, who is admitting Roy to the hospital with "liver cancer," disguising Roy's AIDS.

In the hospital, Roy is attended by Belize, who despises his politics and Roy's being in the closet. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg appears. She hates Roy for his part in her execution for treason in 1953. But Ethel and Belize also comfort Roy. Roy uses his connections to enroll himself in a study for the experimental AIDS drug AZT. Belize tells Roy that double-blind studies give some patients a placebo; Roy pulls strings to get himself a private stash of AZT.

In January 1986, three weeks after Prior's encounter with the Angel, Prior shares with Belize what happened that night in December. After crashing through the ceiling, the Angel hands Prior a book with steel pages. The Angel's celestial nature gives Prior an erection, and they have sex. The Angel tells Prior that God abandoned Heaven after he made humans. The Angel wants Prior to proclaim a message: humans must stop migrating and progressing. If humans stop doing so, the Angel thinks God will return to Heaven. Belize thinks the event was a dream or the beginning of AIDS dementia; Prior insists it was real. He has begun to dress like a prophet even though he is unsure whether he agrees with the prophecy.

On the same early January day, Joe tells Louis he's a Mormon. A few days later, Belize tells Louis that Joe is Roy Cohn's protégé. That same day Prior collapses at the Mormon Visitors' Center, and Hannah takes him to the hospital. Joe and Harper reconcile, temporarily. Louis confronts Joe about his connection to Roy Cohn and his participation in writing unfair legal decisions; Joe punches Louis. Later that night Roy dies in the hospital.

Late that same night, the Angel appears to Prior in the hospital. Hannah advises Prior to wrestle the Angel for a blessing. The Angel reveals a ladder to Heaven, and Prior climbs it. The Angel remains behind to kiss Hannah. That same night Belize calls Louis to the hospital; Louis is to say the Kaddish (the Jewish prayers for mourning) for Roy and steal Roy's AZT. In Heaven, Prior meets with the angels. Prior returns the book, refuses the prophecy, and asks for a blessing, which the angels perform. Prior returns to his hospital bed, where it is early morning. Hannah, Emily (another nurse), Belize, and Louis surround him.

That same morning Harper leaves Joe for good, and Louis tells Prior he loves him. Prior returns his love but refuses to have Louis back. Harper leaves for San Francisco. She has a vision of the souls of the dead repairing the ozone layer.

On a bright winter day in January 1990, Prior is in Central Park with Belize, Louis, and Hannah. Prior tells the audience he has lived with AIDS for five years now. He gives the audience a blessing—"More Life"—and tells the audience, "the Great Work Begins."

Angels in America Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Prior Walter tells his lover, Louis Ironson, he has AIDS.

Rising Action

2 Prior hears a divine voice.

3 Roy Cohn is diagnosed with AIDS.

4 Prior is hospitalized, and Louis abandons him.

5 Joe Pitt comes out as gay to his mother, Hannah.

6 The Angel crashes through Prior's ceiling.

7 Joe and Louis become lovers.

8 Roy Cohn dies.


9 Prior refuses the prophecy.

Falling Action

10 Harper leaves her husband, Joe.

11 Prior refuses to take Louis back.


12 Prior gives the audience his blessing.

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