One of the key facts about Angels in America is that it was written during, and is largely about, the AIDS crisis in the U.S. During the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them gay men, contracted the HIV/AIDS virus, a deadly disease that destroys the human immune system and typically results in death. (For more information on the AIDS crisis, see Background Info.) It’s impossible to understand Angels in America—not just its plot and context, but also its tone—without understanding a few things about the AIDS crisis in America.
One of the most important points about the AIDS era was that it brought a new urgency to questions of homosexuality and “the closet,” and encouraged members of the homosexual community to be upfront and vocal about their health. In the 1980s (and still today) there were many Americans who were “in the closet”—i.e., people who were gay but hid their true sexuality and led heterosexual lifestyles. AIDS then made it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for homosexuals to remain in the closet. In some tragic cases, AIDS, with its painful lesions and bruises, left a literal mark on the bodies of closeted gays, making it impossible for them to hide their sexuality any longer. This was particularly noteworthy, given that the Reagan administration (see Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change theme) didn’t mention AIDS in public until nearly 6 years into the AIDS crisis—the contrast between the invisibility of AIDS in political rhetoric and the visibility of AIDS itself was chilling. Gay rights activists encouraged AIDS victims to speak out about their disease—speaking out could be painful and humiliating, but it was also the only way to pressure the White House into acknowledging the AIDS crisis and hopefully funding medical research that could end it.
Thus, in a more abstract, political sense, the AIDS crisis forced all homosexual people to “choose sides.” According to Larry Kramer, one of the most important gay rights activists of the era, it was impossible for gay people to be neutral in the 1980s. By remaining in the closet, gay people weren’t just concealing their own sexuality from other people—they were also making it more difficult for the gay community as a whole to get recognition from the general public, and thus get the medical treatment it desperately needed. In short, if you weren’t a part of the solution to AIDS, you were a part of the problem. Kushner reinforces this idea via the character of Joe Pitt, a closeted gay man who is, quite literally, part of the problem. As a law clerk in New York City, mentored by the famous conservative homophobe Roy Cohn, Joe spends a decade writing legal opinions that punish homosexuals, undermine their rights, and generally make their quality of life worse. Not coincidentally, Joe only begins to move away from his legal career after he comes out of the closet. It could even be argued that there are no “neutral” characters in Angels in America—even when characters aren’t sure how they feel about the AIDS crisis, Kushner goes out of his way to show how their indecisiveness actually contributes to this crisis.
It might sound melodramatic (i.e., over-the-top, excessively emotional or sentimental) to argue that closeted homosexuals were contributing to the deaths of their “fellow” homosexuals during the 1980s, but this is precisely Kushner’s point. The cultural conversation over AIDS was incredibly “melodramatic”: the stakes were so high that inaction became a form of action. During the AIDS crisis, formerly abstract debates about gay rights and sexuality became immediately concrete. This partly explains the tone and style of Kushner’s play. The plot of Angels in America is extremely melodramatic: characters fall in and out of love; experience betrayals and rivalries; make grand, show-stopping speeches, etc. Yet the play is also extremely political: the characters debate about the state of race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S. as eagerly as most people argue about sports or their favorite TV shows. In short, the messianic, political, over-the-top tone of Angels in America makes it the perfect play for the AIDS era: a time when the personal was intensely political, and when the stakes of political action (and inaction) could literally be measured in human lives.
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era ThemeTracker
Homosexuality in the AIDS Era Quotes in Angels in America
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.