In a key scene from Act Two of Perestroika, Prior Walter and Belize attend a funeral for a drag queen they both knew. The funeral is a lavish, gaudy affair—the attendees, many of whom are gay or transvestites themselves, sing and dance joyfully, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. After the funeral, Prior complains that the attendees shouldn’t be so cheerful about dying—they have nothing to look forward to but death, after all. Belize takes a different point of view, arguing that people should celebrate life, even when they’re commemorating death. Prior’s criticism of the drag queen’s funeral could be—and has been—applied to Angels in America itself. In other words, one could argue that there’s something indecent about making such a vibrant, lively “fantasia” about such a serious topic. In general, Kushner is fascinated by the relationship between tragedy, playfulness, and fantasy.
It would take pages and pages to classify all the different kinds of fantasy in Angels in America. But as the funeral scene in Perestroika suggests, many of these fantasies, especially in the play’s beginning, are “defense mechanisms” that the characters fashion for themselves. One of Kushner’s most important ideas is that people rely upon fantasy and imagination to escape from the tragedies of the real world. After her husband Joe Pitt comes out as gay, Harper Pitt hallucinates a vivid “escape” in which her imaginary friend, Mr. Lies, helps her run away from Joe and move to Antarctica (in reality, just Prospect Park in Brooklyn). One of human beings’ greatest strengths is that when the real world becomes too painful to endure, they can create shelters for themselves in their own imaginations.
And yet as the play goes on, it becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to Kushner’s idea of fantasy than mere escapism. More often than not, the characters’ fantasies don’t take the form of escapes per se; rather, they’re designed to reunite them with people they’ve lost touch with, or (more surreally) to introduce them to characters they don’t even know yet. After Louis Ironson leaves Prior, Prior has a long dream in which he imagines dancing with Louis—reuniting with the man who refuses to see him in real life. In an even stranger dream sequence, Harper hallucinates that she’s meeting Prior Walter, who’s also having a dream—in other words, Harper “sneaks into” Prior’s dream, just as Prior finds his way into Harper’s hallucination. There’s no “psychological” explanation for Harper and Prior’s meeting—somehow, almost supernaturally, these two strangers have met each other in the realm of fantasy.
This points us to broader point about fantasy in Angels in America: fantasy doesn’t conceal harsh truth so much as it points us toward a higher truth. In the play’s climax, Prior Walter appears before a panel of angels—a panel that may, in fact, be a product of his feverish imagination. Whether or not Prior’s appearance is, strictly speaking, “real,” he uses it to make an impassioned plea for the value of human life—one of the most compelling and, it must be said, truest speeches in Kushner’s play. In the end, then, Kushner seems to side with Belize’s opinion about the funeral, not Prior’s. There’s nothing indecent about celebration and fantasy in the face of tragedy. By writing a big, over-the-top play about the AIDS crisis, Kushner reveals some profound truths (about not only AIDS, but morality, love, and the Reagan era) that a more modest, “realistic” work wouldn’t have dared to touch.
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy ThemeTracker
Fantasy, Escape, and Tragedy Quotes in Angels in America
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.
Harper Pitt: I don't understand this. If I didn't ever see you before and I don't think I did, then I don't think you should be here, in this hallucination, because in my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn't be able to make up anything that wasn't there to start with, that didn't enter it from experience, from the real world. Imagination can't create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions . . . Am I making sense right now?
Prior Walter: Given the circumstances, yes.
Harper Pitt: So when we think we've escaped the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness of our lives, it's really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth. Nothing unknown is knowable.
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.
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.
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…
Prior: Are you... a ghost, Lou?
Louis: No. Just spectral. Lost to myself. Sitting all day on cold park benches. Wishing I could be with you. Dance with me, babe...
I think, if you touch me, your hand might fall off or something. Worse things have happened to people who have touched me.
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.
Bored with His Angels, Bewitched by Humanity, In Mortifying imitation of You, his least creation, He would sail off on Voyages, no knowing where.
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.
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.
PRIOR: PROPHET PROPHET I PROPHESY I HAVE SIGHT I SEE.
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.
Sorry wrong room.
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.
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.