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.
Prophets and Prophecies Theme Icon

Right away, it’s clear that Angels in America is a play about prophecies and the people who make them (or refuse to make them). The play’s protagonist, Prior Walter, is a reluctant prophet being forced to spread a “great work” around the world. Another main character, Joe Pitt, is a Mormon: Mormonism is a religion based on the Angel Moroni’s speech to Joseph Smith, a prophecy that impelled Smith to lead a group of settlers across the country. Then there are more subtle allusions to prophecy; for instance, Communism (frequently discussed in Perestroika) is based on Karl Marx’s “prophecy” of a worldwide proletarian revolution. Even the Reagan presidency was celebrated with the slogan, “It’s morning in America,” suggesting that an old prophecy had been fulfilled and a new age had dawned. How should we understand these different kinds of prophecies?

One of the ironies of prophecies—and the cultures that arise around them—is that although they’re visions for the future, they also encourage people to look back to the past. More often than not, a prophet’s vision for the future is designed to restore an old status quo—a “second” coming. As Kushner demonstrates, one of the best examples of this paradox is the Reagan presidency itself. Reagan presented himself as an energetic, forward-thinking leader, committed to realizing his “vision” for America. And yet Reagan himself (more than 70 years old for most of his time in the White House), was the very embodiment of old-fashioned, “traditional moral values.”

This tension in the nature of prophecy—the tension between looking ahead and turning back the clock—can be dangerous. Prophets don’t just ask their followers to wait passively for the future; they urge their followers to make big changes in their lives and work to achieve this future (or avoid a prophesized apocalypse!). In other words, prophecy always comes with strings attached: the price for a happy future is often limiting human happiness, here and now. As Louis Ironson insightfully points out, most prophets and their followers function like cults: a heap of arbitrary laws and rules that supposedly lead to a big reward in the future. As Kushner sees it, Christianity—Mormonism in particular—is a perfect example of this problem. Christianity teaches people to fight their sexual feelings (in particular, their homosexual feelings), so that God will reward them in Heaven. Such a big restriction on human freedom can only lead to suffering, and during the play, we see Joe Pitt, a closeted homosexual man, go through this suffering. The most extreme example of prophecy gone wrong is the restriction on all human freedom that the Angel of America wants Prior Martin to pass on to humanity: “Stop moving” (in other words, die).

Although it’s important to look ahead to the future with optimism and excitement, humans can’t limit their lives in the ways that prophets often demand. Kushner’s play suggests that prophets should question and challenge their supposed prophecies, just as Prior Martin does in the play’s climax. Prior challenges the angels’ mandate that mankind should stop moving, ultimately convincing them to change their minds about their own prophecy. In the play’s epilogue, we see an example of how humans can look to the future without actually obeying prophecy at all. Prior, addressing the crowd directly, explains that while he looks forward to a great, wonderful future, he has absolutely no idea what this future holds for him. It can be comforting to subscribe to a prophecy, because prophecy gives life a sense of order and structure. And yet by questioning (or outright rejecting) prophecy, humans earn themselves a new sense of freedom, which is arguably far more valuable.

Prophets and Prophecies ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Angels in America related to the theme of Prophets and Prophecies.
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 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 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 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 1, Scene 1 Quotes

The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come.

Related Characters: Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (speaker)
Related Symbols: Perestroika, Funerals
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Part II of the play, we're introduced to a strange, comical figure, Aleksii Altedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, who presides over the Kremlin in Moscow. In an ironic call-back to the opening scene of the play, Aleksii seems to be organizing a funeral--but this funeral is for the Soviet Union, not an individual person. By the late 1980s, it was clear to many that the Soviet Union was on its last legs: after decades of instability, it was finally going under.

What, we might well ask, does the collapse of the Soviet Union have to do with Kushner's play--a play about the AIDS crisis, the Reagan Administration, and the state of modern America? Without ever saying so explicitly, Kushner suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union--just like the other major historical events of his play--was greeted as an opportunity for grand, historical change. For decades, the Soviet Union--a country founded on left-wing values--had been a rallying point for leftists in the United States, but after the 1950s, when news of the country's brutality became widely known, the left in America stopped praising Russia. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the question on everybody's mind was--what will become of left-wing values in the world?

In short, the opening scene of the play establishes a sense of uncertainty, both for the world and for liberals in particular. As millennium approaches, the characters in the play sense that a great change is coming--but nobody can agree on what this change will look like.

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 4, Scene 3 Quotes

I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I'll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s got to love something.

Related Characters: Belize / Norman Ariago (speaker), Louis Ironson
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Belize tells Louis that he hates America. Belize is speaking somewhat metaphorically--he certainly doesn't seem to despise the idea of America; the idea of a country in which everybody is free and equal, protected by the same laws and the same authorities. But Belize knows perfectly well that such an idea is just that--an idea, an illusion. Where Louis naively believes that America's courts and congresses protect all races and sexual orientations equally, Belize knows better. The law does not apply equally to everyone, contrary to what patriots claim: heterosexuals are better taken care of than homosexuals; whites are better protected than blacks, etc. The idea of America is a sinister fable, designed to hide the concrete facts of racism and homophobia in the country--and nobody who's in touch with the real world, Belize implies, could believe in such an idea.

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.

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.