Angels in America takes place at the height of the “conservative revolution” in American politics and culture. After the liberal era of the 1960s, the United States “swung back” in the direction of conservatism under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan. As Kushner understands it, conservatism is the belief that change should be greeted with skepticism, and that, by default, life is best the way it is: when it’s structured around “traditional” ideas and values. Liberalism or progressivism, on the other hand, argues that change is a quintessential part of the human experience: change should be welcomed, and “traditional” values should be questioned and revised. Because Kushner is an overtly political author, it’s important to unpack the differences between conservatism and progressivism a little more carefully.
The great strength of conservatism, Kushner acknowledges, is that there’s peace, comfort, and stability in keeping things the way they are. Society itself operates on the principle that, all things held equal, life should remain the same—essentially the law of inertia. Partly to prove this point, Angels in America is largely set in the law office where Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn work. The law functions on the assumption of stare decisis, which is the principle that things should stay the way they are until proven otherwise. This is the principle that Joe energetically defends when his homosexual lover, Louis Ironson, confronts him about his politics.
But as Joe’s closeted homosexuality suggests, the big problem with conservatism, at least for Kushner, is that it perpetuates injustice for no good reason. The “traditional moral values” that Reagan, Roy Cohn, and other conservatives touted were partly based on the traditional heterosexual family. Gay people simply weren’t welcome in conservative culture—indeed, their homosexuality was regarded as perverted or evil. Kushner reinforces the groundlessness and hypocrisy of this notion by depicting Roy Cohn, arguably the most conservative, homophobic man in America, as a closeted homosexual and a corrupt lawyer who accepts massive bribes. If a man like Roy Cohn—the very embodiment of conservatism—can be gay and an embezzler, then anyone can. Ironically, the people who most publicly and emphatically celebrate conservative values are often the same people who secretly have no respect for these values in their personal lives.
The reason that conservatism gets bogged down in its own contradictions, Angels in America argues, is that it denies the most basic aspect of the human experience: change. As the Angel of America tells Prior Martin, all human beings feel an inherent desire to move, change, and exercise free will. This desire impels people to embrace change—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Instead of celebrating tradition for its own sake, the progressive ideology encourages people to explore, make mistakes, and embrace uncertainty. This is the crux of the speech that Prior Martin delivers to the angels in the climax of Perestroika. This way of living life, Prior admits, can be scary, but it’s still preferable to the conservative alternative: living every day the same way.
There’s one unshakeable “fact” in Angels in America: to be human is to change. In response to this reality, conservatism tries to “gag” change by celebrating tradition. In this way, Joe Pitt spends most of the first half of the play in the closet, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge his homosexual nature simply because it’s not “traditional.” Progressivism is better and more realistic, but also more challenging: it encourages humans to live their lives however they see fit—gay or straight—but without the empty comfort of tradition. On this uncertain note, Angels in America comes to an end.
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change ThemeTracker
Progressivism, Conservatism, and Change 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.
The truth restored. Law restored. That's what President Reagan's done, Harper. He says: "Truth exists and can be spoken proudly."
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.
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.
Louis: It's not really a family, the Reagans, I read People, there aren't any connections there, no love, they don't ever even speak to each other except through their agents. [...] I think we all know what that's like. Nowadays. No connections. No responsibilities. All of us... falling through the cracks that separate what we owe to ourselves and... and what we owe to love.
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…
I've thought about it for a very long time, and I still don't understand what love is. Justice is simple. Democracy is simple. Those things are unambivalent. But love is very hard. And it goes bad for you if you violate the hard law of love.
Yes. Yes. You have heard of Ethel Rosenberg. Yes. Maybe you even read about her in the history books. If it wasn't for me, Joe, Ethel Rosenberg would be alive today, writing some personal-advice column for Ms. magazine. She isn't. Because during the trial, Joe, I was on the phone every day, talking with the judge— Every day, doing what I do best, talking on the telephone, making sure that timid Yid nebbish on the bench did his duty to America, to history. That sweet unprepossessing woman, two kids, boo-hoo-hoo, reminded us all of our little Jewish mamas—she came this close to getting life; I pleaded till I wept to put her in the chair. Me. I did that. I would have fucking pulled the switch if they'd have let me. Why? Because I fucking hate traitors. Because I fucking hate communists. Was it legal? Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice. They say terrible things about me in the Nation. Fuck the Nation. You want to be Nice, or you want to be Effective? Make the law, or subject to it. Choose.
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived.
The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come.
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.
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.
I want the credit card. That's all. You can keep track of me from where the charges come from. If you want to keep track. I don't care.
Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that's so.
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.