Angels in America

Angels in America
Tony Kushner
Ronald Reagan’s America
Reagan’s adverts for his 1984 re-election:
‘It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are
proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives
that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of
government. It is time for us to realize that we are too great a
nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We are not, as some
would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do
not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do.
I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So,
with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an
era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our
courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our
hope.’ (Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Address, Tuesday January
20, 1981.)
America’s sacred position
‘America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred
position among nations. And people aren’t
ashamed of that like they used to be. This is a
great thing. The truth restored. Law restored.
That’s what President Reagan’s done, Harper. He
says “Truth exists and can be spoken proudly.”
And the country responds to him. We become
better. More good.’ (Joe Pitt, I.5.)
‘[The play] came out of a very dark and terrible time. It
came during a period when the President of the United
States [Ronald Reagan] had been President for seven
years before he uttered a word about AIDS. When I wrote
the play nothing had been said about it. […] There was an
ugly current all around the world that this was a visitation
of evil on a group of ugly people who had really deserved
it, who had earned it by their misbehaviour. And there
seemed to me to be a certain kind of consonance, and
also a kind of irony, that this powerful, conservative
counter-revolution was taking place at exactly the
moment when we were being hit by the greatest
biological disaster of the twentieth-century.’ (‘Tony
Kushner’, in Richard Eyre, Talking Theatre: Interviews with
Theatre People (London: Nick Hern Books, 2009), p.148.)
‘[Kushner’s plays showed that] what the AIDS crisis
was revealing wasn’t a moral flaw on the part of gay
men, as the conservatives running the country
would have it, but rather a moral failing in American
itself – [this] may not have come as a surprise to
many in those first audiences, but it came as a
profound relief to many that someone, finally, was
delivering [this message] with such fervor.’ (Daniel
Mendelsohn, ‘Winged Messages’, The New York
Review of Books, 12 February, 2004, 42.)
Personal and political histories
‘The problems the characters face are finally
among the hardest problems – how we let go of
the past, how to change and lose with grace,
how to keep going in the face of overwhelming
suffering’. (‘A Note about the Staging’, in Angels
in America, Part Two: Perestroika (London: Nick
Hern Books, 1994, n.p.)
Political change and writing
‘I was a member of a generation that I think was
allowed to come of age during a time of a kind of,
you know, enormously exciting social ferment and
cultural revolution, the civil rights movement. There
was a great deal in my formative years that I could
look to as sources of inspiration for a conviction
that the world could be improved upon, that people
working in concert could make the world better,
that there was a reason for political struggle.’
(Tony Kushner, ‘Angels in America, 20 Years Later’,
Ideals and utopias
 Reagan: Americans are the chosen people, ‘special among the nations of
the Earth’.
 Several main characters are Jewish (according to the Bible, ‘God’s chosen
 Several are Mormons, whose prophet, Joseph Smith was visited by the
angel Moroni in the 19th century, and told of the location of the golden
plates, upon which were written the Book of Mormon (compare Prior’s
visitation in Act Two of Perestroika), and whose version of Christianity is
intended to realign the church away from the misdirections that other
strands of the faith had taken.
 In addition, Mormonism suggests an utopia in America, and Mormonism is
an American religion. Kushner has said: ‘I think the title, as much as
anything else, suggested Mormons, because the prototypical American
angel is the angel Moroni.’ (In Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman,
Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights
(Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1996), p.310.)
 Kushner sets up his own ideas/ideals against those of the ruling
conservatives, with a base in interconnection.
The effect of Angels
Marcia Gay Harden played Harper in the original
Broadway production:
Things to consider
 Consider the character list and the doubling that goes on in the play. Pick
two acts of doubling and explain what their effects are, and why Kushner
chose to link the characters.
 Who are the ‘Others’ in the play (i.e. not white, Protestant/Catholic,
middle class)? Why does Kushner involve these Others?
 ‘When people were more than ever having to explore the extent to which
we were really interconnected, the reigning ideology was one of complete
selfishness and disconnection.’ (Talking Theatre, p.149.) What examples of
interconnection can you find in the play?
 How is history treated in the play? How can Walter Benjamin’s description
of history (an inspiration for Kushner) be connected with the play?
 A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is
about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are
staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel
of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events,
he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and
hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make
whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got
caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The
storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the
pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
(Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt,
trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), p.257.)