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Angels in America | Themes

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Denial

Denial takes many forms in Angels in America as characters seek to escape the reality of painful situations. Louis cannot deal with Prior's AIDS symptoms. He tries to escape by abandoning Prior in favor of cruising Central Park for sex and having an affair with Joe. Harper uses Valium to escape the fact that her marriage to Joe is disintegrating. Joe, in turn, is in the closet, or in denial, about his sexual orientation throughout much of the play. Roy Cohn can admit his desire for men in private, but he denies it in public, acknowledging that he has sex with men, but claiming he doesn't want to identify as homosexual because homosexuals are looked down upon by society. To Roy, who prides himself on being a power broker, homosexuals have "zero clout."

Some characters in the play are able to evolve beyond their denial; others cannot. Joe's denial of his sexuality begins to give way gradually as he admits his homosexuality to his mother, Hannah; he has an affair with Louis, and he tells Harper that he has no sexual response to her. On the other hand, even as it is evident that he is dying of AIDS, Roy refuses to identify himself as a homosexual or acknowledge others as such.

Justice

Angels in America centers on a grave injustice: the untimely and agonizing deaths caused by the AIDS epidemic. This leads to a consideration in the play of what justice means on personal and political levels and how to attain it. Some characters seek social justice (Prior and Belize), some attempt to circumvent justice for their own ends (Roy Cohn), while others represent how murky, and therefore hard to achieve, justice can be (Louis and Joe).

The play's mention of Reagan's slowness to respond to the AIDS crisis points to the political injustices surrounding the AIDS epidemic. Initially associated with homosexuality, AIDS was used to marginalize and demonize gay men as diseased "others" whose lifestyle was somehow to blame for their disease. This lack of empathy allowed for the reinforcement of homophobia and discrimination against gays.

Angels in America also raises the question of how just a society is that encourages gays to conceal their identities and how this does an injustice to them and to others. While some characters in the play choose to remain closeted, others, like Belize, are open about their homosexuality. Along with Prior, who is also out of the closet, Belize is the play's most outspoken critic of social injustice. It is also Belize and Prior who provide the play's most grounded notion of justice, by putting it into action. To convince Louis to say a prayer for Roy, Belize insists they need to forgive their defeated enemy. "Forgiveness ... is maybe where love and justice meet," he says. By the end of the play, Prior, Belize, Louis, and Hannah form a new social alliance to seek a more just world.

Human Suffering

Angels in America puts the suffering of AIDS patients front and center: characters discuss the horrible details of AIDS and the often equally horrible drugs used to treat the disease; Prior and Roy collapse and writhe in their own blood onstage. Prior not only suffers the indignities of the disease but watches his lover Louis walk out on him because of it. The play also focuses on the marginalization and discrimination faced by AIDS victims in America due to homophobia.

But these aren't the only forms suffering takes in the play. In Part One of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Louis talks to Rabbi Chemelwitz about Jewish burial customs. Why, he asks, are there just two little pegs holding his grandmother's coffin shut? The rabbi replies, "Don't worry, Mister. The life she had, she'll stay put. She's better off." The rabbi's dry wit becomes even funnier when the audience recalls that the rabbi didn't know Sarah Ironson; he has no idea what kind of "life she had." But because she's human, the rabbi can be sure she suffered.

Suffering is seen as a condition all human beings must endure, and all the characters in the play face pain and loss in some form. Harper, for example, suffers as her marriage fails. In the end, not just victims of AIDS but all of humanity is seen as suffering and thus connected to one another. The blessing Prior gives the audience at the end of the play is not solely for AIDS sufferers, but for humanity in general.

Migration

Migration represents motion and progress. Angels in America explores the theme of migration in three overlapping ways: migration is a metaphor for the experience of minorities, for personal transformation, and for political and social progress. Millennium Approaches begins with a story of migration, and Perestroika concludes with Prior saying, "The world only spins forward."

Rabbi Chemelwitz, who eulogizes Louis's grandmother, notes how "every day" people cross just as many miles metaphorically as immigrants who came to America did literally. This is because they face exile and otherness as minorities in America. They must make the journey from margin to center every day as they struggle to be recognized by, and included in, mainstream America.

Migration is also a metaphor for personal transformation, for better or worse. Two couples watch their relationships crumble. Joe's ongoing struggle with his homosexuality causes his marriage to fall apart. Louis's abandonment of Prior destroys their relationship. In Act 2 of Perestroika, the Angel brings Prior a prophecy of "stasis," the end of motion, and thus of migration and perhaps of suffering. Only when Prior rejects this prophecy of stasis does he become free of his paralyzing fear of death and re-embraces life, which also means embracing suffering.

Throughout Angels in America, migration also represents political and social progress, but how this occurs is open to debate. Louis says, "the power preserved at the top of the pyramid" in the United States moves inevitably "downward and outward"—down to the people and out to the margins. Belize disagrees, pointing out that African Americans forced to migrate to become slaves might feel differently. "Some of us didn't exactly choose to migrate, know what I'm saying." He favors asserting political and social change from the margins rather than waiting for it to come from the top down. By the end of the play, Prior has also sparked social change, establishing a new social order made up of marginalized people who stand together to establish a more diverse and just world.

Blessing

In Angels in America many characters demand blessings, and the audience receives a blessing at the end of the play from Prior. A blessing traditionally is the way an older generation acknowledges and makes room for the younger one. Thus Roy tells Joe his father should have blessed him.

But AIDS puts the orderly succession of generations in upheaval; young men and women die before their parents. What the younger generation wants—more life—and what they expect—to take the older generation's place—are suddenly no longer possible. In the case of those in the closet, they live and die without the older generation's blessing. Thus it becomes crucial for Prior to demand, and give, a blessing.

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