Angels in America

Angels in America


Tony Kushner

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Angels in America can help.

Part One of Angels in America takes place in 1985. Shortly after the death of his grandmother, Sarah Ironson, Louis Ironson learns that his boyfriend, Prior Walter, has AIDS. Louis is devastated by this news. While he loves Prior, and has been living with him for years, he’s afraid to continue doing so now that he knows he could be endangering his own life.

Meanwhile, Joe Pitt, a young, ambitious Mormon law clerk, meets with his mentor, the powerful New York attorney and conservative icon Roy Cohn. Cohn offers Joe a chance to work in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. When Joe proposes this idea to his pill-popping wife, Harper, Harper is reluctant to leave New York. She has long hallucinations about her imaginary friend, Mr. Lies, a travel agent who takes her around the world.

In one of Harper’s hallucinations, she crosses path with Prior, who is dressed as a woman. Prior tells Harper that her husband (Joe Pitt) is gay. Shortly afterwards, Louis tells Prior that he’s moving out of their apartment, despite his love for Prior. At the same time, Harper accuses Joe of being homosexual, and tells him that she’s leaving him—he should go to Washington without her.

Roy Cohn then learns that he has AIDS—his decades of illicit homosexuality have taken their toll. Because Cohn has made his career denouncing liberals and homosexuals, he claims that he has “liver cancer.” His nurse in the hospital—who recognizes that he has AIDS—is Belize, a former lover of Prior. Meanwhile, Prior is admitted to the hospital, where he’s taken care of by Emily, a young nurse. In his dreams, Prior hears a voice telling him that he’s a prophet, and that he will begin a “Great Work” soon.

As Cohn’s condition deteriorates, he faces the prospect of being disbarred for his decades of bribery and professional corruption. He tries to convince Joe to take the job in Washington so that Joe can convince the Justice Department to back off the disbarment process. Joe, now living alone, is shaken by Cohn’s corruption, and refuses to help Cohn. He’s further startled when Cohn reveals that he unethically conspired to ensure the execution of Ethel Rosenberg for treason. In the hospital, Cohn is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who mocks Cohn for his corruption, and tells him that he’ll be disbarred soon.

At work, Joe crosses paths with Louis, who works as a typist at Joe’s firm. Louis recognizes Joe as a “fellow homosexual,” and together they begin an unlikely romance. Late at night, Joe drunkenly calls his mother, Hannah Pitt, telling her that he’s a homosexual. Hannah, who lives in Salt Lake City, decides to sell her property and come to New York to be with her son. Meanwhile, Prior has visions in which his ancient ancestors tell him that he’ll be visited by an angel soon. At the end of Part One, an angel arrives through the ceiling of Prior’s apartment, telling him that, “the Great Work begins.”

In Part Two, we open in the Kremlin in Moscow: as the 80s draw to a close, the Soviet Union is collapsing, and it’s unclear what will replace it. Meanwhile, Joe and Louis continue their relationship. Joe is attracted to Louis, and even says that he loves him. Nevertheless, he realizes that Louis is still devastated at having left his previous lover, Prior. In addition, Louis is confused and even disgusted by Joe’s conservative politics and Mormonism.

Harper, who’s descending further and further into fantasy, joins Hannah, who is now working at the Mormon Visitor’s Center in Manhattan.

Prior has a vision of an angel, who describes herself as the Angel of America. The angel tells Prior that he’ll fulfill the angel’s prophecy, but Prior refuses. The Angel visits Prior again and again, giving him orgasms, and forcing him to carry a heavy book and wear a pair of magical spectacles. The Angel explains that the angels envy humans for their ability to change and be unpredictable. Over time, she complains, God has come to love humans more than he loves angels. As a result, Heaven—which apparently looks a lot like San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906—is in a state of disarray. When Prior tells Belize about his dream, Belize suggests that Prior wants to return to Louis, and the angel is just his mind’s way of reconciling his feelings. Prior acknowledges that Belize might be right, but also suggests that he could be a prophet after all.

Belize treats Cohn’s illness, despite the fact that they despise one another. Belize, who claims that he’s looking out for Cohn as a “fellow fag,” even gives Cohn advice to use his political connections to obtain as much AZT—a drug that can treat AIDS—as possible. Cohn takes Belize’s advice and obtains hundreds of bottles of AZT, more than he could ever take in a lifetime. Despite his taking AZT, Cohn’s condition worsens, and he comes closer and closer to death. He hallucinates Ethel Rosenberg again, and she tells him that he’s been disbarred, just a few days before his death. Cohn says that Ethel doesn’t scare him—he’s in the history books, meaning that he’ll never die. He pretends to think that Ethel is his mother, and convinces her to sing him a song. After Ethel finishes, Cohn bursts out laughing, claiming that he’s “won.” With these words, he dies. Belize uses Louis’s help to steal Cohn’s unused AZT, which he plans to use to help his friends with AIDS.

Louis tells Joe that he needs to sort things out with Prior before he can commit to Joe any further. Louis meets with Prior, whose condition is now so bad that he can barely walk. During their meeting, Louis tells Prior that he’s seeing Joe, and Prior is horrified. Prior and Belize sneak into Joe’s office to catch a glimpse of Joe. There, Joe recognizes Belize from Cohn’s hospital, which leads Prior to assume that Joe has had sex with Roy Cohn. Belize tells Louis about this, and Louis in turn confronts Joe—he’d had no idea that Joe worked for such a famously homophobic man. Louis yells at Joe, and Joe angrily defends his beliefs, becoming so furious that he kicks Louis in the face.

Joe meets his mother at the Mormon Visitor’s Center, where he admits again that he is homosexual—news that devastates Hannah. At the center, Prior confronts Joe. Afterwards, Hannah offers to take Prior to the hospital, much to Prior’s surprise. In the hospital, Prior has another vision of the Angel of America. The Angel—visible to both Hannah and Prior—takes Prior with her to Heaven, while also giving Hannah an intense orgasm.

In Heaven, a panel of angels confronts Prior and asks him to spread their prophecy of sameness across the world. Prior refuses, arguing that the angels’ real problem is with God, not humanity. Prior goes on to ask the angels to bless him with life. The angels have no idea how to cure Prior’s AIDS, but they bless him anyway. Prior reminds the angels of the inherent value of life, even if it is life lived in pain, and leaves Heaven.

Prior awakes to find himself in the hospital. Louis visits him and tells him that he wants to make up. Prior admits that he loves Louis, but tells him that they can’t be together. Prior also gets a visit from Belize, who provides Prior with AZT. Meanwhile, Harper tells Joe that she’s leaving him to go to San Francisco.

The Epilogue takes place five years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hannah, Louis, Belize, and Prior gather at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park—Prior’s favorite place in the world. Prior, speaking directly to the audience, says that he’s lived with AIDS for five years now, and plans on living far longer. He tells the audience about the Mormon prophecy that in the new Millennium, the Bethesda Fountain in Jerusalem will flow again, curing the sick. The play ends, “The Great Work begins.”