Right away, it’s clear that Angels in America is a play about prophecies and the people who make them (or refuse to make them). The play’s protagonist, Prior Walter, is a reluctant prophet being forced to spread a “great work” around the world. Another main character, Joe Pitt, is a Mormon: Mormonism is a religion based on the Angel Moroni’s speech to Joseph Smith, a prophecy that impelled Smith to lead a group of settlers across the country. Then there are more subtle allusions to prophecy; for instance, Communism (frequently discussed in Perestroika) is based on Karl Marx’s “prophecy” of a worldwide proletarian revolution. Even the Reagan presidency was celebrated with the slogan, “It’s morning in America,” suggesting that an old prophecy had been fulfilled and a new age had dawned. How should we understand these different kinds of prophecies?
One of the ironies of prophecies—and the cultures that arise around them—is that although they’re visions for the future, they also encourage people to look back to the past. More often than not, a prophet’s vision for the future is designed to restore an old status quo—a “second” coming. As Kushner demonstrates, one of the best examples of this paradox is the Reagan presidency itself. Reagan presented himself as an energetic, forward-thinking leader, committed to realizing his “vision” for America. And yet Reagan himself (more than 70 years old for most of his time in the White House), was the very embodiment of old-fashioned, “traditional moral values.”
This tension in the nature of prophecy—the tension between looking ahead and turning back the clock—can be dangerous. Prophets don’t just ask their followers to wait passively for the future; they urge their followers to make big changes in their lives and work to achieve this future (or avoid a prophesized apocalypse!). In other words, prophecy always comes with strings attached: the price for a happy future is often limiting human happiness, here and now. As Louis Ironson insightfully points out, most prophets and their followers function like cults: a heap of arbitrary laws and rules that supposedly lead to a big reward in the future. As Kushner sees it, Christianity—Mormonism in particular—is a perfect example of this problem. Christianity teaches people to fight their sexual feelings (in particular, their homosexual feelings), so that God will reward them in Heaven. Such a big restriction on human freedom can only lead to suffering, and during the play, we see Joe Pitt, a closeted homosexual man, go through this suffering. The most extreme example of prophecy gone wrong is the restriction on all human freedom that the Angel of America wants Prior Martin to pass on to humanity: “Stop moving” (in other words, die).
Although it’s important to look ahead to the future with optimism and excitement, humans can’t limit their lives in the ways that prophets often demand. Kushner’s play suggests that prophets should question and challenge their supposed prophecies, just as Prior Martin does in the play’s climax. Prior challenges the angels’ mandate that mankind should stop moving, ultimately convincing them to change their minds about their own prophecy. In the play’s epilogue, we see an example of how humans can look to the future without actually obeying prophecy at all. Prior, addressing the crowd directly, explains that while he looks forward to a great, wonderful future, he has absolutely no idea what this future holds for him. It can be comforting to subscribe to a prophecy, because prophecy gives life a sense of order and structure. And yet by questioning (or outright rejecting) prophecy, humans earn themselves a new sense of freedom, which is arguably far more valuable.
Prophets and Prophecies ThemeTracker
Prophets and Prophecies 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'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.
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 think, if you touch me, your hand might fall off or something. Worse things have happened to people who have touched me.
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.
It wasn't a dream. [...] I think it really happened. I'm a prophet.
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.
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.