One of the reasons that the AIDS crisis was so historically significant was that it put longstanding debates about politics, religion, and morality into a terrifyingly real-world context. Proponents of liberal and conservative values, religion and secularism, faced a challenge: how to treat the victims of AIDS, most of whom (at least at first) were homosexuals. It’s one thing for a Christian pastor to condemn homosexuality as an abomination, but it’s quite another for the same person to look a gay person dying of AIDS in the face and tell him that he deserves his death. On the other hand, it’s one thing for a progressive politician to say that he loves homosexuality and respects homosexuals, ands it’s another for him to shake hands with a gay person dying of AIDS. These are tough questions, and Kushner tries to answer some of them in Angels in America. In particular, Kushner poses a clash between principles and people; in other words, between morality, religion, and philosophy on one side, and living, breathing human beings on the other.
In general, Kushner is skeptical of principles and “big ideas,” because they’re too removed from real life. One of his play’s most important arguments is that people are always more impactful than principles; i.e., people decide what they believe based on the people they’ve interacted with, not the other way around. Joe Pitt spends his entire life a closeted homosexual, denying that he’s attracted to the same sex. And yet when he meets Louis Ironson, he sacrifices his religious and political beliefs and begins an affair with another man almost overnight. An especially important illustration of the relationship between people and principles comes when Belize, a gay nurse, tends to Roy Cohn, a notoriously homophobic man who’s secretly gay. Although Belize despises Cohn in almost every way, he gives Cohn some crucial advice about how to proceed with treating his AIDS. When Cohn asks Belize why he’s helping his sworn enemy, Belize explains that he’s doing it because Cohn is a fellow homosexual—he’s just “looking out for his team.” In short, Belize is more concerned with what Cohn is—i.e., his identity as a human being—than what Cohn believes—i.e., his principles.
For characters like Belize, principles always come second to people. An interesting variation on this idea comes in the character of Hannah Pitt, a devoutly Mormon woman with a gay son (Joe). When Hannah learns that her son is gay, she’s devastated, and weeps. And yet when Hannah meets Prior Martin, a gay man dying of AIDS, she volunteers to take him to the hospital and spend the night with him, in spite of her lifelong aversion to the homosexual lifestyle. Five years later, Hannah is still living in New York and spending time with Prior and Louis. It’s not that she’s abandoned her Mormonism entirely—Kushner suggests that she still believes that homosexuality is a sin—and yet Hannah doesn’t let her principles interfere with the way she interacts with other people. Even if she hates Prior’s lifestyle, she still treats him with respect and even love.
As Kushner’s play suggests, there will always be a conflict between what people believe and what they experience interacting with other people. The world is simply too complicated to be summed up with any belief system. The question then becomes, “What do we do when there is, inevitably, a clash between our principles and our life experiences?” The AIDS crisis is so serious, and its stakes are so high, that most of the characters in the play have no choice but to sacrifice some of their political and religious beliefs in favor of their natural sympathy and compassion for other human beings—or vice versa.
The Clash between People and Principles ThemeTracker
The Clash between People and Principles Quotes in Angels in America
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe... A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn't that what the Kaddish asks for?
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.