Scene II transitions from Scene I: it’s a flashback to three weeks before, when Prior had his first encounter with the angel. The Angel tells Prior that she’s the Angel of America: here to make Prior an American prophet. Prior is terrified of the Angel, and he begs her to leave him in peace.
The notion of an American prophet recalls Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet who supposedly had a vision of an angel in New York City in the 19th century. And yet Prior, unlike Smith, isn’t willing to listen to the angel—he just wants to be left alone.
The Angel of America pays no attention to Prior’s complaints. She tells Prior to remove the “sacred implements” from their hiding place. Prior says he has no idea what this means. [Note: for the purposes of this summary, we identify the Angel as a “she.” Nevertheless, the angel is described as having hermaphroditic qualities.] The Angel is confused, as Prior was supposed to have seen the implements in his dreams. She coughs, embarrassed, and asks Prior for “a moment, please.” The Angel then rises farther above the stage and has a strange, whispered conversation with someone. Then she returns and tells Prior to look under his sink—he’ll need to tear up the tiles. Prior is reluctant to do so, but the Angel yells, “Submit to the will of heaven!”
In this comic section, the Angel of America is clearly surprised that Prior is “talking back” to her. She falters in her prepared remarks, and has to “go backstage” to consult with her peers about what to say next. Even as Kushner presents us with an impressive supernatural figure, he then immediately undercuts the authority of this figure and its words. This is very important, because a crucial part of prophecy is the idea that it’s inevitable or unbreakable—a law of the universe. By contrast, this prophecy seems to be entirely arbitrary—just the angel trying to get what she wants.
The tiles in Prior’s kitchen break. Prior complains that the Angel is releasing fluorocarbons into the air, which is “bad for the environment.” The Angel dismisses Prior’s complaints and yells that she’s made a “revision in the text”—she’s helped Prior find the implements, since he’s too physically weak to find them himself.
If the text can be revised, then the idea of a “prophecy” becomes much more fluid. Prior’s interaction with the angel suggests that there is no rigid order even in something as seemingly divine and preordained as prophecy—prophets can refuse to prophesy, and prophecies themselves can be changed.
In his now-ruined kitchen, Prior finds a leather suitcase. Inside the suitcase, there’s a pair of spectacles. Prior puts on the spectacles, noticing that there are rocks where there should be lenses. When Prior wears the spectacles, he shouts, confused by what he’s seeing, and takes them off immediately.
The imagery in this scene recalls Mormonism—Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was said to have worn a pair of magical spectacles that allowed him to interpret the Book of Mormon. But once again Prior isn’t as willing to play along with the angel as Joseph Smith was.
The Angel orders Prior to remove a book from the suitcase. Prior finds a large, shiny book that appears to be made from metal. The Angel explains that Prior is now an earthly prophet, meant to pass on Heaven’s message to the rest of the world. The Angel orders Prior, “open me.” Prior asks the Angel why he has an erection, but the Angel ignores his question. She adds that prophecy is based on “ecstatics, not physics,” and as she says this, Prior seems to become even more aroused. The Angel approaches Prior, and as they near each other, they both begin to moan with sexual ecstasy.
There’s actually a tradition of sexual encounters between humans and angels, so this scene isn’t as blasphemous as it might seem. Saint Teresa was said to have had an encounter with an angel, during which she was “penetrated with delicious fire”; Joe already mentioned enjoying the idea of “wrestling” with a male angel, based on the Biblical story of Jacob; and the “fallen angels” were said to have had children with human women in the early days of humanity (according to the Bible).
Back outside the funeral, Prior explains that Angels have eight vaginas—they’re hermaphrodites—and they live in Heaven, which is a city much like San Francisco. Angels envy humans because they have defined genders: either male or female. Because of their gender, human beings have the potential to create true randomness: unlike Angels, humans are truly free. Furthermore, human freedom has consequences for Heaven: when humans move and explore the world (celebrating their inherent randomness), it causes earthquakes in Heaven.
As the Angel sees it, gender—precisely what angels lack—is the source of all freedom and uncertainty in life. This is a provocative point, and not just because gender is increasingly less “rigidly defined” and more of a fluid concept—yet it could be argued that desire for another is a quintessentially human trait, and the source of humans’ most unpredictable and surprising behavior. There’s also an interesting idea here that humans’ actions have ramifications for angels. When humans explore the world—when they move around, going on quests for the new—the angels are hurt.
Back in Prior’s apartment in the flashback, the Angel of America explains that God has abandoned the angels because of his greater love and interest in human beings. In 1906—the year of the San Francisco earthquake—God left angels altogether. Thus, the Angel wants Prior to spread a prophecy that will force humans to stop “mingling,” thus creating a state of calm in Heaven and bringing God back to Heaven.
It’s been suggested that 1906 was the beginning of the “new” San Francisco—the world-famous gay haven, the home of Harvey Milk (the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history), etc. This is important in and of itself, as the rise of homosexuality in the U.S. parallels the fall of the angels’ way of life. This suggests a subtle antipathy between the angels and the gay community. Indeed, much like the Reagan administration, the angels want homosexuals to “stop moving”—to stop exploring new places and having sex with other people.
Back at the funeral, Belize tells Prior what he thinks of Prior’s dream-prophecy. Belize suggests that Prior is projecting his feelings for Louis onto his “visions.” Just as Prior wants Louis to come back to him, so the Angel of America wants God to return to Heaven. Prior admits that Belize could be right, but suggests that the Angel has a point—humans have to “settle down” or else create a state of total chaos and “fields of slaughter.”
While Belize could be absolutely right about Prior’s psychological projection, it’s important to think about the Angel’s words in more general terms. In its simplest form, the problem the angel proposes is the problem of conservatism versus liberalism. Conservatism argues that humans need to “settle down” or else risk chaos and violence. Some notable conservative figures, such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell, even tried to argue that AIDS was proof that liberalism (free love, homosexual liberty, etc.) just doesn’t work.
In the flashback, the Angel tells Prior to spread this prophecy: “Stop moving.” Prior asks the Angel if she wants him dead. The Angel says yes, then no, then yes again. The Angel admits that she’s going off-script now. Frustrated, Prior yells for the Angel to leave him alone. The Angel smiles sadly and tells Prior that he can’t run from her forever—she’ll always be waiting for him. Indeed, the Angel has written “The End” in Prior’s very blood.
The Angel’s indecisiveness further reinforces the flimsiness and the amateurishness of her prophecy. (It also reminds us of Harper in Part One, trying to decide whether she’s pregnant or not.) The notion of an end being written into Prior’s blood unmistakably alludes to the AIDS virus: Prior’s blood is “tainted” with disease now, and his entire body contains death, which is as inevitable as prophecy.
Back at the funeral, Belize tells Prior that he’s frightened for Prior: he’s not thinking clearly. Belize also disagrees with the Angel’s prophecy, noting “Some of us didn’t choose to migrate.” Prior admits that Belize is right—he might be losing his mind. And yet Prior suggests that he might, in fact, be a prophet after all. Prior tells Belize that he might be going blind, as all prophets do. With these words, Prior leaves Belize.
Prior’s response to the Angel (“Some of us didn’t choose to migrate”) is a good answer to bigots like Jerry Falwell who wanted the gay community to “Cease and desist” its behavior. The gay community can’t just stop behaving a certain way, Prior suggests—people don’t choose their sexuality.