Angels in America Brief Summary
In ‘Angels in America’ Louis, a liberal homosexual man has an affair with Joe, a married Mormon man. The affair ends when Louis, influenced by the culture around him, decides he cannot continue to make love to a married Republican who belongs to a cult, so we have the twin themes of sex and religion against the political background of the early 1990s.
Is Louis really so intolerant, or is he just going along with the norms of society as he sees it? If we accept that Joe’s reaction is the norm, can it be therefore be justified, especially in the United States of America, where there is an official separation between the state and religion, so it should be relatively easy for an American to separate his political choices from religion? As a Mormon, Joe is in a minority, and although he would see Mormonism as part of the Christian faith, many Americans would disagree with him. Mormons on the other hand would see the book of Mormon as ‘Another Testament of Jesus Christ’ and their official title is ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’( Burke, 2012).
The play ‘Angels in America’ ( Kushner 1993) has the subtitle ‘A gay fantasia’ The play, which has two parts, won a Pulitzer prize and brought its author great esteem as a major playwright. The plot explores the Aids epidemic among American homosexuals. There are eight roles, but the directions require actors to play more than one role and to play roles that are not of their own gender. It has even been performed with just two actors, which perhaps suggests the many roles we play in life.
The rights of homosexual people vary from place to place, but even where they are officially tolerated there may be problems, especially from the more conservative members of society. In this case, religion adds another dimension. A lot of this may be due to a lack of understanding, just as there is a widespread lack of knowledge and so understanding of Mormonism.
Is the lack of liberal tolerance in Louis as limited as the conservative/Christian tolerance? Kusher, himself homosexual, although New York-born, grew up in Louisiana. He claims that this made him even more aware of his particular identity than might have happened if he had grown up in a Jewish area of New York ( Spark notes 2014). Differences between reactions to homosexuality in the south as compared to liberal New York can be illustrated by the fact that when the play was performed in Carolina, it could only proceed after a court order. However local officials who wanted to prosecute the actors would have justified their actions as being the norm. In New York, however, there would be many thousands of homosexual adults living lives away from family ties and constraints. According to Spark notes ( Context, 2014) when the AIDs epidemic hit the gay community activists were shocked by the reaction of the majority, and they received no support from the governments of Presidents Reagan and George Bush senior. In 1987when the play first opened Bill Clinton was openly much more positive about the gay community and this was welcomed, but this would have made sexuality a political issue.
There are two couples in the play, Louis and his gay partner and Joe and his wife. Louis suspects that Joe is gay. In a dream sequence, Joe’s wife Harper meets Louis’s partner and he reveals to her Joe’s tendency towards homosexuality.
Another character Roy develops AIDs, but he considers homosexuals to be weaklings and cannot accept the diagnosis, declaring that he has liver cancer, not the gay disease.
Later in the play, drunken Joe admits his homosexuality to his mother by phone. She too goes into denial, but at the same time makes plans to travel to New York to sort the matter out. This reveals the common idea that homosexuality is a definite choice, rather than an innate quality. Part one ends with Louis and Joe having sex.
The affair lasts a month, but Joe tells Roy that he has left his wife for a man. Roy instantly becomes very angry and demands that the affair stops immediately. Also, Joe says he wants to see Prior once more. The climax of the play is Louis’s recital of the Jewish prayer for the dead friend Roy. He gives thanks that he has plenty of anti-AIDs drugs, but also prays for forgiveness.
There are surreal intervals in the play, as when Prior has conversations with angels in heaven. They are sympathetic, but cannot halt the disease. Prior tells Louis he cannot come back, even though he loves him. Meanwhile, Harper leaves Joe and sets out for a new life in San Francisco. So, an unresolved ending, which is what the issue of homosexuality still is for many. Despite the fact that for most Americans AIDs is not the threat it once was the question of gay marriage is by no means settled. The Reagan era bought in a greater conservatism to American society. Houpt ( 2013) links this ultra-conservatism with Fascism, and in Fascist, Germany homosexuals were killed for that reason alone. He also interviewed Kushner who remarks on the different scenarios now to twenty years ago, when the epidemic was so devastating in America and the gay community had so little real power, especially politically.
If Louis and Joe were to meet in real life today the outcome might have been different, but we will never know. There are after all still plenty of conservatives. Kushner declares that the play gave him, an openly homosexual man, a political platform such as he had never had before ( Kushner2014). He describes the play as ‘Real and yet it’s not’ which perhaps sums it up. It reveals real dilemmas, judgments we make because of our particular background, whether or not they are ethically correct in a universal way, and even whether or not they hurt us and others, but of course, it is just a play with actors who will return to their normal lives once the play is over.
Burke, D., Are Mormons Christian? It’s complicated, The Christian Century, January 2012, 18th February 2014
Houpt, S., ‘Good lefty’ Kushner reflects on Angels in America, The Globe and Mail, August 9th, 2013, 18th February 2014 <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/good-lefty-kushner-reflects-on-angels-in-america/article13692613/>
Kushner, T., Angels in America,1993.
Kushner, T. Interview, HBO Movies, Angels in America, 2014, 18th February 2014 <http://www.hbo.com/movies/angels-in-america#/movies/angels-in-america/interview/tony-kushner.html>
Spark Notes, ‘Angels in America’, Context, 2014, 18th February 2014 <http://www.sparknotes.com/drama/angels/context.html>