Angels in America

Angels in America


Tony Kushner

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Angels in America Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner was born to a family of Jewish musicians. He was a good student, and active in policy debate in high school. He attended Columbia University, where he was politically active, and received a B.A. in Medieval Studies in 1978. Afterwards, Kushner attended the Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied theater. For most of the 1980s, Kushner was active in the New York theater world, gaining a reputation for writing provocative, politically-oriented plays that mixed harsh commentary on economic inequality and the AIDS crisis with a fantastic, operatic style. In 1991, Kushner finished by far his most famous play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The first part of the play was first performed in San Francisco, and the second part was first performed in New York City in 1992. Kushner’s work was universally regarded as a masterpiece: it won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for the best play of 1992. Since the 90s, Kushner has continued to write plays prolifically, though none have ever rivaled the cultural impact of Angels in America. In addition to his work in theater, Kushner is a prolific screenwriter noted for his collaborations with Steven Spielberg. Kushner wrote the screenplays for both Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012).
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Historical Context of Angels in America

The most important historical event referenced in Angels in America is the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. In the late 70s and early 80s, doctors discovered a “rare cancer” that destroyed patient’s immune systems. This disease, eventually named AIDS, was (in America) most commonly found in the gay male community. By the mid 1980s, hundreds of thousands of American citizens—the majority of them gay, black, and/or Latino—had become infected with AIDS. During this period, President Ronald Reagan was widely criticized for refusing to mention AIDS in his public speeches or support federal funding for AIDS awareness education or medical research. It was even suggested that Reagan—a conservative icon—was wary of mentioning AIDS because he was afraid of alienating his Republican base, which was largely white and Christian. In essence, it was argued, Reagan was putting politics ahead of human life. Another important historical event in the play is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s. In the 80s, the U.S.S.R., a Communist nation, was in the grips of economic depression. By the end of the decade Vladimir Gorbachev, the president of the country, had instituted a series of political reforms that liberalized the country, opening it up to foreign business and thus, foreign culture. The collective term for these reforms, “Perestroika,” gives Part Two of the play its title. Kushner also alludes to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy of New York rose to political prominence by suggesting that the federal government had been infiltrated by spies from the Soviet Union. With the help of the attorney Roy Cohn—a character in the play—McCarthy organized a series of public hearings designed to investigate the presence of Communists in government organizations, and later other institutions, such as the motion picture industry. To this day, Cohn and McCarthy are vilified for unfairly casting the subjects of their investigations as Communist spies, unjustly destroying many people’s reputations. Finally, Kushner’s play alludes to the history of Mormonism in the United States. In the 19th century, Joseph Smith, a New Yorker, claimed to have a vision of the angel Moroni, and took Moroni’s words as a mandate that he should found a new religion. Smith organized a group of settlers, and together, they founded a new faith, Mormonism, in the American West.

Other Books Related to Angels in America

Kushner alludes to two literary works frequently associated with the gay community: L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900) and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). The flighty, delicate protagonists of both works—Dorothy Gale and Blanche Dubois respectively—have been hailed as gay icons, and at many points in the play the characters imitate the characters’ mannerisms and speech patterns, as well as their most famous quotes. Kushner also riffs on the symbolism of The Book of Mormon, the holy book of the Mormon religion—the iconography of magical spectacles and angelic prophecy, around which The Book of Mormon is organized, has great literary value. Finally, Kushner has acknowledged his debt to the plays of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), the great German poet, playwright, and critic. Brecht is celebrated for using theater as a political weapon. In works like The Threepenny Opera (1928) and Life of Galileo (1945), the characters in his plays will “break the fourth wall” and confront the audience for its political ignorance and lack of civic engagement. There’s a similar breaking of the fourth wall at the end of Angels in America—one that, in Brechtian form, is designed to impel the audience to go out and begin the “great work” of political progressivism.
Key Facts about Angels in America
  • Full Title:Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches. Part Two: Perestroika.
  • Where Written:New York City and San Francisco
  • Literary Period: Contemporary queer theater
  • Genre: Political theater, or self-described “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”
  • Setting:New York City in 1985 and 1990, as well as Heaven
  • Climax:Prior tells the council of angels that he wants to live

Extra Credit for Angels in America

Gay power couple: Tony Kushner is one of the most influential openly gay men in America: a hugely important playwright and screenwriter. His husband, Mark Harris, is an equally influential journalist, who’s written for Entertainment Weekly for many years (he recently published his second book on film history). Harris and Kushner were the first gay couple to have their wedding listed in the “Vows” section of the New York Times.

The perfectionist: In the theater world, Kushner is notorious for his perfectionism: even after his plays are performed, he continues reworking and revising his own material. When the legendary director Mike Nichols adapted Kushner’s play as a miniseries in 2003, Kushner jumped on the chance to revise his own work, slightly altering hundreds of lines of his own dialogue. In all, there are more than half a dozen accepted (and virtually identical) versions of Angels in America, each of which Kushner has reworked ever so slightly.