Angels in America

Angels in America

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Angels Symbol Icon

Angels are among the most explicit and evocative symbols in Kushner’s play. To begin with, it’s important to note that angels are hermaphrodites, neither male nor female. This is important because Kushner’s play centers around questions of sexual identity: just as many of the play’s characters waver between homosexual and heterosexual behaviors (and masculine and feminine personae), the angels exemplify the ambiguity in all sexual identity. But paradoxically, in representing a kind of “ideal humanity” (neither masculine nor feminine, neither gay nor straight), the angels also come to symbolize the absence of genuine humanity. Angels are immortal, have glorious orgasms, etc., and yet Kushner’s angels are also bored, joyless, and—most importantly—incapable of making free decisions. The angels’ very perfection renders their lives dull—only human beings themselves can experience the joy of uncertainty. It’s also important to keep in mind that the angels in the play might be completely imaginary—the product of Prior Martin’s feverish imagination. In this way, we might say that angels symbolize humanity’s potential to be perfect—to imagine or aspire to perfection—and yet they also end up symbolizing the futility (and undesirability) of actually realizing that potential.

Angels Quotes in Angels in America

The Angels in America quotes below all refer to the symbol of Angels. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Theatre Communications Group edition of Angels in America published in 2013.
Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics…

Related Characters: Louis Ironson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Angels
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louis talks to Belize, the friend of Prior Walter. Louis delivers a long, babbling, self-contradictory speech in which he condemns the state of contemporary liberalism in the United States. When Louis claims there are no "angels in America" (giving the play its title!), he's trying to say that race is a political issue, not a cultural or a religious one--i.e., America doesn't have a history of basing one's religious or cultural identity on one's race. Louis--rigid and abstract in his thinking--reduces all of life to a political struggle. Religious fervor, racial pride, and community solidarity are, in his view, just distractions from the basic political struggle for freedom and power.

Louis is, as always, reductive in his thinking (and being particularly insensitive given that he's preaching about race to an openly gay black man). Politics are important to American life, but they're not the only issue, as Louis believes. And yet the notion that there are no angels in America has many different interpretations beyond the one Louis offers. Louis statement implies that modern American life is immoral and ruthless--there are no kind, generous people left anymore. In the AIDS crisis, however, Louis's cynical wisdom is proven incorrect: AIDS brought out the kindness and selflessness in many people.

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Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 7 Quotes

Greetings Prophet;
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived.

Related Characters: The Angel of America (speaker), Prior Walter
Related Symbols: Angels
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the first part of Angels in America, Prior Walter is visited by a mysterious figure, the Angel of America. We still have a lot of questions: why the Angel has come to Earth; why she's visiting Prior specifically; whether the Angel is "real," at least within the world of the play, etc.

In spite of the uncertainties surrounding the Angel's visit, her appearance reinforces the sense of prophecy and hope that's been a guiding theme of the play so far. Many of the play's characters feel a strong sense that something is going to happen, even if they have no idea what. So it's entirely appropriate that the play should end with "something" happening--an angel coming down to Earth, apparently from Heaven--even if we don't know what the angel's message will be.

Furthermore, the angel's presence reminds us of the ambiguity in Kushner's use of dream sequences. At times, dreams represent an escape for the characters; elsewhere, dreams help the characters address the problems of their waking lives with greater clarity and conviction. Which kind of dream is this? Or is it a dream at all? Kushner leaves us to wonder whether the angel is real and what effect it will have on Prior's life--and he also encourages us to feel the same vague sense of anticipation we've felt all along.

Perestroika: Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

Bored with His Angels, Bewitched by Humanity, In Mortifying imitation of You, his least creation, He would sail off on Voyages, no knowing where.

Related Characters: The Angel of America (speaker), Prior Walter
Related Symbols: Angels
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Angel of America paints a bizarre portrait of the supernatural world. The Angel claims that God created humans long ago, and immediately became enamored with them. Instead of paying attention to his angels, God spent all his time with human beings. The reason that God loved humans better than angels, the Angel claims, is that humans have the power of free will: they can choose who to love, where to go, and how to spend their time. Angels lack free will, and thus simply aren't very interesting.

The Angel's speech to Prior is an early sign that the Angel's message for Prior might not be an entirely friendly one. On the contrary, the Angel seems rather antagonistic to Prior and Prior's species. Thus, the Angel's behavior in this passage challenges some of the naive optimism that the characters felt earlier in the play (as well as the general idea that angels are trustworthy messengers of God--in fact these angels seem to be going behind God's back). Yes, an angel is going to deliver a great message to humanity--but there's no guarantee this message will be good.

It wasn't a dream. [...] I think it really happened. I'm a prophet.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Angels
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Prior tells Belize about his visions of the Angel of America. Although Prior acknowledges that his visions might just be hallucinations, brought on by his lack of sleep and his ingestion of various painkillers, he also suggests that he really is a prophet, summoned by the angels to deliver an important message to the people of the world.

Prior's speech is important because it shows him struggling to believe in his own dreams. Prior isn't a fool--he admits to Belize that he might just be hallucinating the Angel of America. And yet Prior clearly wants to believe that he's a prophet--in a time of great misery and loneliness, he wants to believe that he's special; that the gods have chosen him to complete a great task. In short, Prior both does and doesn't believe in the Angel of America. One could say the same about the audience of Kushner's play: we of course acknowledge that the play is just a fiction, and yet we connect with the play's emotional and political insights, almost as if we are meant to be prophets, passing on Kushner's message.

Perestroika: Act 5, Scene 5 Quotes

If [God] ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again. If after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century, He returned to see... how much suffering His abandonment had created, if all He has to offer is death, you should sue the bastard. [...] Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Angels
Page Number: 275-276
Explanation and Analysis:

In the climactic scene of the play, Prior Walter is summoned (or perhaps just dreams he's been summoned) before a council of Angels. The Angels want Prior to spread death and disease all over the world--in other words, one could say, they want AIDS to wipe out the human race. The angels hope that by killing humans, they'll be able to summon God back to Heaven--he's been missing for some time.

Prior responds to the angels' pleas by telling them that their real "beef" is with God, for walking out on them, not human beings. But Prior does more than simply re-direct the angels' anger. By expressing his own anger with God, he's condemning the universe itself for allowing something as awful as the AIDS crisis (and other horrors of the 20th century, like the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Holodomor, etc.) to occur. More subtly, Prior's comments could be interpreted as a criticism of organized religions, especially Christianity, that argue that everything happens for a reason. If there is a God, Prior suggests, and if everything is a part of God's plan, then God should be sued.

By the same token, Prior's words suggest his exasperation with the very notion of prophecy--with the idea that people can be "chosen" by the angels and ordered to work God's plan on Earth. Prior no longer seems to believe that there's any pre-determined order to life. Things don't happen for any particular reason, and so the belief that prophecies must be fulfilled no longer holds any currency with Prior.

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Angels Symbol Timeline in Angels in America

The timeline below shows where the symbol Angels appears in Angels in America. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Millennium Approaches: Act 2, Scene 2
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
...as a child. In one story, there was a picture of Jacob wrestling with an angel. The picture—the only thing about the story that Joe remembered—shows Jacob as a beautiful young... (full context)
Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 2
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
...political sense, not a cultural or religious sense—this is the case because “there are no angels in America.” Belize replies that Louis has said “7 or 8 things that I find... (full context)
Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 7
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
...the roof of Prior’s apartment caves in, covering Prior with plaster and dust. A beautiful angel flies in, smiling at Prior. The angel greets Prior, calling him a prophet. The angel... (full context)
Perestroika: Act 2, Scene 2
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Perestroika: Act 3, Scene 2
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Prior tells Harper that he’s come here to conduct research on angels, since he’s just had a dream about one crashing into his apartment. As he says... (full context)
Perestroika: Act 4, Scene 3
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
We’re at the Bethesda Fountain—the huge angel statue in Central Park. Belize stands with Louis, and Louis notes that the fountain is... (full context)
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
...is: he’s full of shit. Louis thinks about big ideas too much, like America and angels—Belize, on the other hands, hates these big ideas, which are always out of reach of... (full context)
Perestroika: Act 4, Scene 6
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
...leaves Prior with Hannah for a moment. Prior confesses to Hannah that he saw an angel—he’s afraid he might be insane. Hannah shakes her head and tells Prior that he’s had... (full context)
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
...Belize) comes to pick him up. Hannah sighs and agrees. She tells Prior that an angel is “a belief,” and shouldn’t be feared. (full context)
Perestroika: Act 5, Scene 5
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
We are in a strange room in Heaven. There are six angels sitting in the room. The angels listen to a radio, which reports on an upcoming... (full context)
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
...carrying a heavy book—the same book he found in the leather suitcase. Prior shows the angels his book, and says that he’s come to return it to them. He goes on... (full context)
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
Prior explains that God is never coming back, either to Earth or to the angels. God would never dare to show his face on Earth after all the suffering he’s... (full context)
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
Prior tells the angels that he wants to be healthy again. He begs the angels to prevent mankind from... (full context)
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
The angels turn to look at one another, and as they confer, Prior walks away, slowly. While... (full context)
Epilogue
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Theme Icon
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change Theme Icon
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon
Prior points to the angel statue over the fountain. He notes that he loves angel statues more than he loves... (full context)