Angels in America

Angels in America

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Angels in America, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Theme Icon

In a key scene from Act Two of Perestroika, Prior Walter and Belize attend a funeral for a drag queen they both knew. The funeral is a lavish, gaudy affair—the attendees, many of whom are gay or transvestites themselves, sing and dance joyfully, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. After the funeral, Prior complains that the attendees shouldn’t be so cheerful about dying—they have nothing to look forward to but death, after all. Belize takes a different point of view, arguing that people should celebrate life, even when they’re commemorating death. Prior’s criticism of the drag queen’s funeral could be—and has been—applied to Angels in America itself. In other words, one could argue that there’s something indecent about making such a vibrant, lively “fantasia” about such a serious topic. In general, Kushner is fascinated by the relationship between tragedy, playfulness, and fantasy.

It would take pages and pages to classify all the different kinds of fantasy in Angels in America. But as the funeral scene in Perestroika suggests, many of these fantasies, especially in the play’s beginning, are “defense mechanisms” that the characters fashion for themselves. One of Kushner’s most important ideas is that people rely upon fantasy and imagination to escape from the tragedies of the real world. After her husband Joe Pitt comes out as gay, Harper Pitt hallucinates a vivid “escape” in which her imaginary friend, Mr. Lies, helps her run away from Joe and move to Antarctica (in reality, just Prospect Park in Brooklyn). One of human beings’ greatest strengths is that when the real world becomes too painful to endure, they can create shelters for themselves in their own imaginations.

And yet as the play goes on, it becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to Kushner’s idea of fantasy than mere escapism. More often than not, the characters’ fantasies don’t take the form of escapes per se; rather, they’re designed to reunite them with people they’ve lost touch with, or (more surreally) to introduce them to characters they don’t even know yet. After Louis Ironson leaves Prior, Prior has a long dream in which he imagines dancing with Louis—reuniting with the man who refuses to see him in real life. In an even stranger dream sequence, Harper hallucinates that she’s meeting Prior Walter, who’s also having a dream—in other words, Harper “sneaks into” Prior’s dream, just as Prior finds his way into Harper’s hallucination. There’s no “psychological” explanation for Harper and Prior’s meeting—somehow, almost supernaturally, these two strangers have met each other in the realm of fantasy.

This points us to broader point about fantasy in Angels in America: fantasy doesn’t conceal harsh truth so much as it points us toward a higher truth. In the play’s climax, Prior Walter appears before a panel of angels—a panel that may, in fact, be a product of his feverish imagination. Whether or not Prior’s appearance is, strictly speaking, “real,” he uses it to make an impassioned plea for the value of human life—one of the most compelling and, it must be said, truest speeches in Kushner’s play. In the end, then, Kushner seems to side with Belize’s opinion about the funeral, not Prior’s. There’s nothing indecent about celebration and fantasy in the face of tragedy. By writing a big, over-the-top play about the AIDS crisis, Kushner reveals some profound truths (about not only AIDS, but morality, love, and the Reagan era) that a more modest, “realistic” work wouldn’t have dared to touch.

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Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy appears in each scene of Angels in America. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Quotes in Angels in America

Below you will find the important quotes in Angels in America related to the theme of Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy.
Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

Harper Pitt: I'm undecided. I feel . . . that something's going to give. It's 1985. Fifteen years till the third millennium. Maybe Christ will come again. Maybe seeds will be planted, maybe there'll be harvests then, maybe early figs to eat, maybe new life, maybe fresh blood, maybe companionship and love and protection, safety from what's outside, maybe the door will hold, or maybe . . . Maybe the troubles will come, and the end will come, and the sky will collapse and there will be terrible rains and showers of poison light, or maybe my life is really fine, maybe Joe loves me and I'm only crazy thinking otherwise, or maybe not, maybe it's even worse than I know, maybe . . . I want to know, maybe I don't. The suspense, Mr. Lies, it's killing me.
Mr. Lies: I suggest a vacation.

Related Characters: Harper Pitt (speaker), Mr. Lies (speaker), Joe Pitt
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to Harper Pitt, the frustrated Mormon housewife who spends most of her day high on Valium. Although Harper isn't exactly a model human being, she brings up one of the most important themes of the play. Harper has a constant sense that something important is about to happen: it's almost the year 2000, and it seems reasonable to think that some major event is going to occur as the millennium approaches.

Harper's belief that "something is going to happen" has an obvious religious flavor--she frames her belief in traditional Christian terms. Her naive optimism is both admirable and strangely pathetic--it's as if by focusing so exclusively on the future, Harper is turning her back on the "here and now." And as Mr. Lies--the imaginary character Harper sees when she takes too many pills--implies, Harper's desire for a second coming is a kind of "vacation" from the real world. Harper fantasizes about the future so that she doesn't have to face the consequences of her actions in the present.


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Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 7 Quotes

Harper Pitt: I don't understand this. If I didn't ever see you before and I don't think I did, then I don't think you should be here, in this hallucination, because in my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn't be able to make up anything that wasn't there to start with, that didn't enter it from experience, from the real world. Imagination can't create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions . . . Am I making sense right now?
Prior Walter: Given the circumstances, yes.
Harper Pitt: So when we think we've escaped the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness of our lives, it's really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth. Nothing unknown is knowable.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker), Harper Pitt (speaker)
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Harper Pitt experiences a bizarre, vivid hallucination in which she crosses paths with Prior Walter--a homosexual man whom she's never met before, and who's also having a vidi hallucination. During their hallucinated encounter, Prior and Harper discuss the nature of hallucination itself. Harper claims that hallucinations are just rearranged versions of the real world--in other words, one can't hallucinate anything that isn't already in the real world to begin with.

Harper's observations complicate the way we should interpret the dream sequences throughout the play. On one level, Kushner implies that the characters' dreams are just hallucinations and imagination--they're opportunities for the characters to mull over their real lives and reach surprising insights (many of the characters' epiphanies arrive in dreams, not waking life). This fits in with Harper's statements here. But on another level, there is a real fantastical element to the dream scenes. Harper and Prior have never met in real life, but they meet in this hallucination--the dream is producing something that didn't exist in either character's mind before.

Harper's observations about dreams also act as a kind of thesis statement for Angels in America itself. Kushner's play may be a work of fiction, and yet it's also a distillation of American culture during the age of AIDS. By watching the "fantasia" of the play, audiences can come to some surprising insights about their culture and their country.

Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 8 Quotes

Harper Pitt: I'm going to have a baby.
Joe Pitt: Liar.
Harper Pitt: You liar. A baby born addicted to pills. A baby who does not dream but who hallucinates, who stares up at us with big mirror eyes and who does not know who we are.
Joe Pitt: Are you really ... ?
Harper Pitt: No. Yes. No. Yes. Get away from me. Now we both have a secret.

Related Characters: Joe Pitt (speaker), Harper Pitt (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Joe has a fight with his wife, Harper. Joe and Harper have been trying to have a child for some time now, and they've failed--in part because Joe is gay, and so doesn't want to have sex with Harper, and in part because Harper seems not to want a child. Here Harper claims that she's pregnant, then contradicts herself again and again--still clearly living half in the world of fantasy, and half in reality.

The exchange between Joe and Harper might symbolize the state of American society during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. For many, AIDS threatened the continued survival of the human race--the untreatable disease could wipe out America. And for many in the gay community, AIDS only reinforced familiar themes of survival and reproduction, since homosexual couples couldn't have children. For the gay community, and America as a whole, AIDS prompted a lot of questions--What will happen after we die?; will our community survive, or will it disappear forever? Harper's ambiguous answer to such a question (Yes. No. Yes.) reflects the grim uncertainty of American society at the time.

Millennium Approaches: Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

In the whole entire world, you are the only person, the only person I love or have ever loved. And I love you terribly. Terribly. That's what's so awfully, irreducibly real. I can make up anything but I can't dream that away.

Related Characters: Harper Pitt (speaker), Joe Pitt
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Harper Pitt tells Joe that she's leaving him. Harper seems to sense that Joe is gay, and definitely senses that Joe doesn't really love her romantically. And yet Harper continues to love Joe--indeed, Joe was the only person she ever really loved.

In many ways, the passage is a critique of the culture that would lead a homosexual man like Joe to pretend to be heterosexual. Joe has spent most of his life deluding himself into believing that he's straight--in the process, causing misery to many, including Harper. And yet Joe isn't to blame for Harper's misery--he, too, is a victim of the heteronormative culture that forces gays to stay in the closet, and so the person being caused the most misery is arguably Joe himself.

The passage also reinforces the relationship between dreams and reality. Dreams aren't really an escape from the real world at all--on the contrary, dreams just intensify the joys and pains of reality. Thus, Harper's dreams aren't a source of solace for her--whether she's awake or not, she's conscious that Joe doesn't love her, but she loves Joe.

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.

Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 6 Quotes

Prior: Are you... a ghost, Lou?
Louis: No. Just spectral. Lost to myself. Sitting all day on cold park benches. Wishing I could be with you. Dance with me, babe...

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker), Louis Ironson (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous dream sequence, Prior Walter reunites with his boyfriend, Louis Ironson. Louis has abandoned Prior because Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS, and Louis is frightened of contracting the disease himself. But in the realm of dreams, Louis is no longer afraid of Prior. Prior dreams of dancing with Louis--death and AIDS are no longer a danger for either one of them.

The passage is also a good example of how dreams can help humans escape from the pain of their day-to-day lives. At times, dreams help the characters confront reality with a new depth of insight. But here, the point isn't that Prior is gaining some new insight (although what Louis says about cold park benches is true)--rather, Prior dreams about Louis so that he can feel happier. Of course, it's tragic that Prior and Louis can safely engage in an act as simple as dancing only in the world of dreams. The very simplicity of their reunion reinforces how greatly AIDS has fractured and endangered the gay community.

Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 7 Quotes

I think, if you touch me, your hand might fall off or something. Worse things have happened to people who have touched me.

Related Characters: Louis Ironson (speaker), Joe Pitt
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Joe and Louis tentatively begin a relationship. Joe has spent his entire life in the closet, despite the fact that he feels gay desires. Louis is more open about his homosexuality, but he's clearly wracked with guilt at having abandoned his boyfriend, Prior Walter, after Prior was diagnosed with AIDS. We can see Louis's guilt as he warns Joe about touching him. The last person to "touch" Louis was Prior--who's been diagnosed with AIDS and abandoned by his friends and family.

The irony of the passage is that Louis is behaving like an AIDS patient, despite the fact that he doesn't have AIDS at all. It's as if Louis is blaming himself for Prior's having contracted the AIDS virus. Louis seems to think of his own selfishness as a hideous disease--a more dangerous, toxic disease than AIDS itself. Louis is attracted to Joe, but on some level, he thinks that he doesn't deserve to begin a relationship with Joe--he knows he's not strong enough to stand by his boyfriend's side.

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 1 Quotes

That ludicrous spectacle in there, just a parody of the funeral of someone who really counted. We don't; faggots; we're just a bad dream the world is having, and the real world's waking up. And he's dead.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker), Belize / Norman Ariago
Related Symbols: Funerals
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Prior and Belize have just come from a funeral for an AIDS-diagnosed drag queen they both knew. In contrast to the funeral in the first part of the play, the drag queen's funeral is glitzy, glamorous, and defiantly optimistic--despite the tragedy of the occasion. Prior finds the spectacle of the funeral to be disgusting and indecent--how dare the mourners sing and have a good time?

Although Prior dislikes the funeral, Kushner evidently doesn't agree with him (as is shown in Belize's response to Prior). For Kushner, the only appropriate response to the misery unleashed by the AIDs crisis is to defy it--to respond to misery and death with life, love, and laughter. The funeral is, in short, a stand-in for Kushner's play itself: a big, over-the-top spectacle that uses humor and fantasy to address deadly serious social issues. The very fact of Kushner's play's existence proves that Kushner favors the "ludicrous spectacle" that Prior criticizes.

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 4, Scene 2 Quotes

PRIOR: I have a hobby now: haunting people. Fuck home. You wait here. I want to meet my replacement.
(Prior goes to Joe's door, opens it, steps in.)
JOE: Yes, can I—
PRIOR: You look just like the dummy. She's right.
JOE: Who's right?
PRIOR: Your wife.
JOE: What?
Do you know my—
JOE: You said my wife.
PRIOR: No I didn't.
JOE: Yes you did.
PRIOR: You misheard. I'm a Prophet.
JOE: What?
What do you do?
JOE: I'm a clerk.
PRIOR: Oh big deal. A clerk. You what, you file things? Well you better be keeping a file on the hearts you break, that's all that counts in the end, you'll have bills to pay in the world to come, you and your friend, the Whore of Babylon.
(Little pause)
Sorry wrong room.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker), Joe Pitt (speaker)
Page Number: 224-225
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Prior Walter tracks down Joe, the man with whom Louis has been conducting an affair after leaving Prior. Prior is understandably upset to be meeting his "replacement"--the fact that Louis has left him for a healthier, AIDS-free man just reinforces the fact that Prior doesn't have much longer to live.

The passage also emphasizes the connection between Prior's visions of the Angel of America and his relationship with Louis. As Belize has already pointed out, Prior seems to be imagining the Angel as a way of reconciling with Louis. As Belize suspected, Prior seems to be using his visions as a way of condemning Joe (he even calls Joe a "whore of Babylon," a reference to the Biblical embodiment of sin and sexuality), however clumsily. The scene--like so much of the play--is both tragic and comic: Prior's line, "Sorry, wrong room," is like the punchline of a joke, and yet the passage's message is deadly serious.

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.

Perestroika: Act 5, Scene 8 Quotes

I want the credit card. That's all. You can keep track of me from where the charges come from. If you want to keep track. I don't care.

Related Characters: Harper Pitt (speaker), Joe Pitt
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the play, Harper finally summons the courage to walk out on Joe Pitt, her mostly-closeted gay husband. She's suspected that Joe is gay for some time now, but the strength of her convictions--not to mention her love, and her fear of change--has kept her from leaving him behind. Now, however, Harper is ready to make a change in her life. Unlike many of the other great "changes" in the play, Harper's decision to abandon Joe isn't part of any lofty plan--she has no idea what's going to happen to her now.

Harper greedily asks Joe for his credit cards, however--proof that she's not entirely ready to live on her own. Evidently, Kushner doesn't try to glorify Harper's decision--she's brave, but not perfect.

Epilogue Quotes

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.

Related Characters: Prior Walter (speaker)
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Epilogue to the play, Prior speaks directly to the audience. He claims that he's been living with AIDS for several years now, and doesn't know how much longer he's going to last. And yet Prior refuses to cower before the possibility of death. Instead, he speaks out--bravely and boldly--about his condition and his sexuality.

By having Prior speak directly to the audience (in an homage to the theater of Bertolt Brecht), Kushner suggests the political ramifications of his play. Kushner wants to use his play to make political points and provoke political engagement in the audience. Prior seems to urge the audience to go out and fight for AIDS research and homosexual rights--a mandate that many fans of the play have taken up. At the same time, Prior's speech seems to sum up many of the play's key themes. Prior has no idea what the future holds, but in spite of his uncertainty, he looks forward to the future with a cautious optimism. In the meantime, Prior will not hide behind fantasy or delusion. Instead, he will be a citizen--he and the other members of the gay community will use political methods to fight for themselves and their allies.