It is 1990, and Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah sit by the Bethesda Fountain, talking about the recent fall of the Berlin Wall. Louis claims that Mikhail Gorbachev is a genius for bringing democratic socialism to Eastern Europe, but Belize is skeptical of Gorbachev’s political prowess.
Louis’s ideas about Gorbachev prove that he’s still thinking in terms of big ideas, as Belize warned against. The fact that Hannah is still with Louis and the others suggests that she’s come to truly accept homosexuals, if not homosexuality. Interestingly, Joe is nowhere in sight—we have no idea what happens to him. This open-ended fate reminds us that the future of the gay community in the age of AIDS is uncertain and unknowable.
Louis points out that the Cold War is over: Gorbachev has brought in a new era of Perestroika and peace. Hannah is more skeptical, however. She wonders what’s going to replace Communism in Yugoslavia and other European countries.
Hannah is in many ways the wisest of these characters—unlike Louis, she doesn’t think in heavy, abstract terms, but is practical like Belize. Hannah represents the skepticism and uncertainty with which we face the future.
As Belize, Hannah, and Louis bicker, Prior stands up and addresses the audience directly. “This is my favorite place in the whole universe,” he says. He points out the fountain’s beauty, and the warmth of the sun. He notes that the trees in the park are barren and leafless. Prior says that he’s lived with AIDS for the last five years—more time than he lived with Louis.
Here, in the epilogue, Prior “breaks the fourth wall”—i.e., addresses the audience directly. This is an interesting dramatic strategy for Kushner to use (and it may be an illusion to the theater of Bertolt Brecht, whom Kushner admired). In hesitant phrases, Prior sketches out the current state of the gay community in America: living with AIDS in a dangerous, uncertain relationship.
Louis tells Hannah and Belize that “big theories” aren’t big enough to encompass the whole world. Hannah disagrees—you need some theories to understand the world, or you’ll be hopelessly lost.
To everyone’s surprise, Louis finally turns on himself and denounces his big theories. Perhaps the point here is that Louis is still a mess of contradictions—like the U.S. as a whole.
Prior points to the angel statue over the fountain. He notes that he loves angel statues more than he loves angels, because they commemorate death and yet never die. Prior “taps in” Louis to tell the audience about this angel statue. Louis explains that the Angel Bethesda landed in Jerusalem in the time of Ancient Rome, and a beautiful fountain materialized in the place where Bethesda appeared. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem, the fountain turned dry forever. Louis then “taps in” Belize to explain the history of the fountain of Bethesda: before the Romans sacked Jerusalem, suffering people could bathe in the fountain of Bethesda and cure their illnesses.
Together, Prior, Louis, and Belize tell us about the significance of the Bethesda Fountain in Jerusalem. It’s hard not to draw an analogy between the fountain and the various cures for AIDS, such as AZT. Or perhaps the better analogy is between the period before the Romans sacked Jerusalem and the period before the AIDS crisis, when gay relationships didn’t carry such a close threat of death.
Prior asks Hannah to tell the audience about the Millennium. When the “true” Millennium comes—not just the year 2000—the fountain of Bethesda will run again in Jerusalem. When this happens, Hannah will take her friends to bathe there. Louis and Belize bicker about the Israel-Palestine debate.
This section brings the play back to the territory of prophecy: there’s a prophecy that one day, illness will be cured in Jerusalem. This symbolizes the gay community’s optimism that one day there will be an end to the AIDS crisis, and homosexuals won’t have to live in fear of death and discrimination.
For the second time, Prior steps forward from his friends and addresses the audience directly. He says that the Bethesda Fountain in New York is cold and gray now, but he’ll live to see it in summer, when it’s warm and sunny. “We won’t go away or die secret deaths,” Prior says. He reminds the audience, “the Great Work begins.”
In these stirring final words, Prior brings together the play’s key ideas about prophecy, progressivism, and freedom. Prior and his friends look ahead to the future, but they have no idea what the future holds. In other words, they’re rejecting the kind of strict, deterministic prophecy that the angels tried to institute on Earth. In its place, the characters embrace a politically minded worldview, rooted in the idea that man’s most basic quality is the potential to travel, grow, and change. In short, Prior doesn’t know what the future holds but hopes for the best, and is teaching himself to enjoy the feeling of uncertainty.