Angels in America

Angels in America

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The Clash between People and Principles Theme Analysis

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.
The Clash between People and Principles Theme Icon

One of the reasons that the AIDS crisis was so historically significant was that it put longstanding debates about politics, religion, and morality into a terrifyingly real-world context. Proponents of liberal and conservative values, religion and secularism, faced a challenge: how to treat the victims of AIDS, most of whom (at least at first) were homosexuals. It’s one thing for a Christian pastor to condemn homosexuality as an abomination, but it’s quite another for the same person to look a gay person dying of AIDS in the face and tell him that he deserves his death. On the other hand, it’s one thing for a progressive politician to say that he loves homosexuality and respects homosexuals, ands it’s another for him to shake hands with a gay person dying of AIDS. These are tough questions, and Kushner tries to answer some of them in Angels in America. In particular, Kushner poses a clash between principles and people; in other words, between morality, religion, and philosophy on one side, and living, breathing human beings on the other.

In general, Kushner is skeptical of principles and “big ideas,” because they’re too removed from real life. One of his play’s most important arguments is that people are always more impactful than principles; i.e., people decide what they believe based on the people they’ve interacted with, not the other way around. Joe Pitt spends his entire life a closeted homosexual, denying that he’s attracted to the same sex. And yet when he meets Louis Ironson, he sacrifices his religious and political beliefs and begins an affair with another man almost overnight. An especially important illustration of the relationship between people and principles comes when Belize, a gay nurse, tends to Roy Cohn, a notoriously homophobic man who’s secretly gay. Although Belize despises Cohn in almost every way, he gives Cohn some crucial advice about how to proceed with treating his AIDS. When Cohn asks Belize why he’s helping his sworn enemy, Belize explains that he’s doing it because Cohn is a fellow homosexual—he’s just “looking out for his team.” In short, Belize is more concerned with what Cohn is—i.e., his identity as a human being—than what Cohn believes—i.e., his principles.

For characters like Belize, principles always come second to people. An interesting variation on this idea comes in the character of Hannah Pitt, a devoutly Mormon woman with a gay son (Joe). When Hannah learns that her son is gay, she’s devastated, and weeps. And yet when Hannah meets Prior Martin, a gay man dying of AIDS, she volunteers to take him to the hospital and spend the night with him, in spite of her lifelong aversion to the homosexual lifestyle. Five years later, Hannah is still living in New York and spending time with Prior and Louis. It’s not that she’s abandoned her Mormonism entirely—Kushner suggests that she still believes that homosexuality is a sin—and yet Hannah doesn’t let her principles interfere with the way she interacts with other people. Even if she hates Prior’s lifestyle, she still treats him with respect and even love.

As Kushner’s play suggests, there will always be a conflict between what people believe and what they experience interacting with other people. The world is simply too complicated to be summed up with any belief system. The question then becomes, “What do we do when there is, inevitably, a clash between our principles and our life experiences?” The AIDS crisis is so serious, and its stakes are so high, that most of the characters in the play have no choice but to sacrifice some of their political and religious beliefs in favor of their natural sympathy and compassion for other human beings—or vice versa.

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The Clash between People and Principles ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Angels in America related to the theme of The Clash between People and Principles.
Millennium Approaches: Act 1, Scene 9 Quotes

I don't want you to be impressed. I want you to understand. This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I'm screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. Because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.

Related Characters: Roy Cohn (speaker), Henry , Ronald Reagan
Page Number: 46-47
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous scene, Roy Cohn--a closeted homosexual Republican who supports Reagan--claims that he's not homosexual at all. Cohn has just found out that he has AIDS, and probably won't survive much longer. And yet Cohn insists that he's not gay--he just has sex with men from time to time. (In real life, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS, but insisted that he had a rare "liver cancer" right up to the end of his life).

Cohn's argument for why he isn't gay is fascinating and contradictory. Cohn claims that homosexuality is not an act, but rather a label and a state of mind--an inability to be accepted within the American establishment. For Cohn to be accepted by Ronald Reagan is proof that he's straight and "respectable"--even if Cohn has homosexual sex.

Cohn is in denial, of course--he can't accept the fact that he has AIDS, or that he doesn't fit his own conservative ideal. Up until now, Cohn has had an easy time denying his homosexual behavior: his prominence in the Republican community expunges him. But now, Cohn has been "marked" with an undeniable proof of his homosexuality--a disease that (at least at the time) is almost exclusively a homosexual disease. Even after he's diagnosed, however, Cohn continues to cling to his old strategies of denial.


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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 2, Scene 7 Quotes

Louis: It's not really a family, the Reagans, I read People, there aren't any connections there, no love, they don't ever even speak to each other except through their agents. [...] I think we all know what that's like. Nowadays. No connections. No responsibilities. All of us... falling through the cracks that separate what we owe to ourselves and... and what we owe to love.

Related Characters: Louis Ironson (speaker), Ronald Reagan
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louis Ironson meets Joe Pitt, who works at the same law office. Louis, who was recently in a gay relationship with Prior Walter (i.e., he's closer to being "out" than Joe is), claims that Ronald Reagan's family values are just a pathetic illusion. The Reagans claim to be a big, happy family on TV, but really they don't love one another at all.

Louis has a point. Reagan based his presidency on a return to traditional, "family values"--a phrase that, many believed, was a coded attack on the homosexual community. By attacking Reagan's own family, Louis is suggesting that "family values" aren't based on love at all; just a hateful desire to destroy those deemed as different or "other." But even if Louis has a point, perhaps he's too quick to condemn Reagan's wife and children--innocent people who shouldn't really be blamed for the president's politics. Louis is so intense in his political thinking that he disrespects others under the banner of ideology.

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.

I've thought about it for a very long time, and I still don't understand what love is. Justice is simple. Democracy is simple. Those things are unambivalent. But love is very hard. And it goes bad for you if you violate the hard law of love.

Related Characters: Belize / Norman Ariago (speaker)
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of his conversation with Louis, Belize offers his own take on modern America. Belize brushes aside Louis's babble about politics and justice--such matters are simple and "unambivalent," he claims. Belize is more interested in the nature of love--something that can't be so easily understood.

Although Belize doesn't go into much depth here, his words effectively rebut everything Louis has just said. Louis sees the world in vague, abstract terms like "right," "wrong," and "politics." Louis thinks his intelligence and grasp of law will help him navigate his way through the challenges of the AIDS era. But in doing so, Louis neglects the human side of the AIDS crisis. Belize--less educated but more sensitive--sees AIDS as a challenge to humanity's capacity to love. AIDS isn't a time for easy, rigid rules of right and wrong; on the contrary, AIDS provokes individual moral dilemmas, and Belize (a nurse) sees these moral dilemmas all the time. Is it right to show love and sympathy for an AIDS victim by hugging them and feeding them, even if such behavior endangers one's own life? Is it right to care for an AIDS victim who's spent his entire life condemning homosexuals? These questions have no easy answer, and yet they're clearly guided by the ambiguous principle of love--not, as Louis believes, the hard and fast rules of politics and law.

Millennium Approaches: Act 3, Scene 5 Quotes

Yes. Yes. You have heard of Ethel Rosenberg. Yes. Maybe you even read about her in the history books. If it wasn't for me, Joe, Ethel Rosenberg would be alive today, writing some personal-advice column for Ms. magazine. She isn't. Because during the trial, Joe, I was on the phone every day, talking with the judge— Every day, doing what I do best, talking on the telephone, making sure that timid Yid nebbish on the bench did his duty to America, to history. That sweet unprepossessing woman, two kids, boo-hoo-hoo, reminded us all of our little Jewish mamas—she came this close to getting life; I pleaded till I wept to put her in the chair. Me. I did that. I would have fucking pulled the switch if they'd have let me. Why? Because I fucking hate traitors. Because I fucking hate communists. Was it legal? Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice. They say terrible things about me in the Nation. Fuck the Nation. You want to be Nice, or you want to be Effective? Make the law, or subject to it. Choose.

Related Characters: Roy Cohn (speaker), Joe Pitt , Ethel Rosenberg
Page Number: 113-114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Roy Cohn reveals the truth about his career. As a young man, Cohn was instrumental int he execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg--the two Soviet spies who were executed for supposedly stealing American secrets about nuclear technology. Cohn conspired with the judge to ensure that the Rosenbergs would be sentenced to death for their actions (the only time in American history that spies were executed during peacetime).

Cohn's pronouncement is devastating for Joe, to whom Cohn is speaking. Joe has always thought of Cohn as a hero--the very embodiment of Joe's faith in law, justice, and traditional moral values. Now, Joe sees that Cohn isn't anything of the kind: he's an immoral, bloodthirsty man who's perfectly willing to break the law to ensure the death of a mother of two children (whose guilt was in question in the first place). As a supposed defender of family values and wholesome conservatism, Cohn instead shows himself to be morally bankrupt.

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 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 3 Quotes

He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe... A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn't that what the Kaddish asks for?

Related Characters: Belize / Norman Ariago (speaker), Roy Cohn
Page Number: 265-266
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Belize mourns the death of his patient, Roy Cohn. At the end of his life, Cohn continued to deny his homosexuality and condemn liberals and homosexuals of all kinds--including Belize himself. And yet Belize asks Louis to say a Kaddish for Roy--a Jewish prayer designed to honor his life and his soul.

Previously, Belize has taken care of Cohn out of a sense of obligation (his Hippocratic Oath as a nurse). But now, Belize is going above and beyond, honoring Cohn for the purely moral reason that he wants to wish Cohn well and forgive Cohn for his evildoing. In many ways, Belize is the most loving and compassionate character in the play: he has the strength to show love and respect for people like Cohn, whom he has every reason to despise. Where other characters respond to the AIDs crisis with selfishness and cruelty, Belize responds by showing his courage and capacity to love others--living out his philosophy that life is about people, not principles.

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.