Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Why You Should Read Angels in America: Because it was just the Fourth of July, and contemplating the complex nature of being American is your patriotic duty. You don’t hate freedom, do you?

Also, the associated HBO miniseries includes an airborne sex scene between Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, which is pretty sweet.

Book Size: Angels in America is actually a play, and a pretty long one at that. It’s usually performed in two parts, totaling about six hours. There are a lot of references that you only get by reading the script, though, so the dead-tree version is still worth picking up if you like inside jokes.

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The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

It’s the end of the twentieth century, and Heaven and Earth are coming apart.

There’s a Cold War on, the ozone layer is dissolving, the AIDS epidemic is scribbling with blood all over America, and the country seems more full of hate and confusion than it has ever been before. The new millennium is approaching, but the world that will be there to greet it looks to be a terrifying, empty, quite-possibly-radioactive place.

That’s not really news, though. It’s 1985 in America.

Everybody knows that the world is coming to an end… 


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What is new, however, is that Heaven and Earth have begun to come apart in very intimate, very personal ways for three people in particular:

  • A man named Prior Walter, who has just discovered “the wine-dark kiss of the Angel of Death” on his arm: a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion, which means AIDS – which means death. Worse: he’s going to die alone, because he knows immediately that his squeamish, weak-willed lover will not stick around to watch.
  • Harper Pitt, an isolated, mentally ill, drug-addicted dreamer. She has realized three things: that her husband doesn’t love her and never will, that he is about to leave her, and that there is absolutely nothing she can do to stop it.
  • Roy Cohn, a crooked lawyer and power broker at the height of his career. It’s not the kind of life you live without making a lot of enemies, all of whom are slavering for the first sign of weakness so that they can destroy him. Unfortunately for Roy, they’re about to get their chance, because he’s just been diagnosed with AIDS, and his outlook is not good at all.

Heaven is empty and falling apart, the skies are full of baffled angels trying to figure out how to run this world that God has made and abandoned, but the cosmic struggle for reality almost doesn’t matter compared to these real sick and dying people wondering what on Earth they are going to do.

 

The Characters:

Prior and the Angel. A modern and cynical gay man who shares his name with a dozen ancestors going back to the Norman Conquest, Prior is left alone to die when his lover abandons him in a panic after his diagnosis. Between the stress, the primitive anti-AIDS drugs he’s taking, and, just maybe, some actual divine intervention, he gains the ability to see angels and heavenly signs. One angel in particular, who calls herself the Angel of America, names him a Prophet and demands that he carry a message to mankind — a message to freeze, to hold still until the angels can figure out how to fix the broken world.

Harper and Mr. Lies. Where Prior has visions of angels, Harper has imaginary friends who appear during the Valium trips she escapes to when she needs to hide from her miserable marriage. Raised in a Mormon community where addiction, homosexuality, and divorce are all viewed with horror, she is doing her level best not to consciously realize what her subconscious mind figured out a long time ago: that her husband is not only gay, but cheating on her with a man. In the end, though, even her best friend —imaginary intergalactic travel agent Mr. Lies — can’t keep the truth from being spoken.

Roy and Ethel Rosenberg. The character of Roy Cohn is based on a real man who really did die of AIDS in the 1980’s, but who is best known for something much worse; namely, his enormous and illegal role in making sure that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason. In the play, Roy — who has lived his whole life in the closet as a Republican power player — finds that his last weeks are haunted by Ethel’s Rosenberg’s grinning ghost. Like many of the real-world people Roy angered in his long career, she is waiting with great eagerness to watch him die, and all Roy can do about it is try to die quickly before she gets the satisfaction of watching him crumble.

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The Themes and Ideas:

Love, abandonment, and forgiveness. The play purposefully leaves it ambiguous whether the many hauntings, dream sequences, and divine visions we see are real or just the product of our sick, lonely characters’ overactive imaginations. Either way, it quickly becomes clear that all of these visions and visitations are really telling the same story.

It’s a simple story, too: someone loved and trusted someone else, that person abandoned them, and now they need to figure out what to do about it.

In each version of the story, these characters are asked the same question: how much should a person forgive? Should Roy Cohn suffer until his last breath for the terrible things he’s done? Should Prior and Harper forgive the people they love for being scared and confused and gone when they were needed most? Should the angels take God back when He shows His face in Heaven again?

Soulpepper, Angels of America

Prior’s partner, Louis, is obsessed with America, insisting that in a country built by immigrants, people aren’t trapped by their histories and are free to seize whatever destiny they choose. In America, he says, the past can be forgiven and forgotten in a way that it could never be anywhere else.

Of course, that’s easy for Louis to say. The people who he and the others like him have hurt might feel a little differently about that American guarantee of forgiveness he’s counting on.
 
“The world only spins forward.” When the Angel of America appears to Prior, she pleads with him to make humanity stop moving — stop growing, progressing, intermingling, changing, and traveling — because their progress is shaking the foundations of Heaven, and, without God, the angels can’t fix the damage they’re doing.

It’s the same advice that Prior is getting from his nurse, more or less: stay still, lie down, rest, because running around trying to fix the mess the world is currently in will only make you sicker, robbing you of the little life you’ve got.

In both cases, though, Prior can’t follow this advice. He has so much to do before he dies — and, more to the point, he’s a human being, and standing still is a betrayal of everything it means to be a human being.

Human beings don’t stand still. They don’t wait for the right moment or for everything to be safe. They plunge headfirst into the future, and if what they find leaves them broken and alone, then so be it; that’s what human beings do. That’s what they’re for.

Prior isn’t alone in this, either. An enormous number of the characters in the play are Jewish or Mormon, two groups of people with travel and migration built into their bones. Even settled down in New York City, these characters are acutely aware of the ancestors who crossed the Atlantic on leaky ships or traversed the Utah desert in rickety covered wagons, and know that to stop — to give up on the progress that has brought them this far — would mean letting those ancestors down.

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Ultimately, Angels in America is a book about change.

It may be painful and bloody, but it’s what makes the world go round — and as much as we’d all love to be Superman and push the planet backwards, the planet just doesn’t turn that way.

 

TL;DR

Angels in America takes every scenario that might tempt your grandma to say “well, that’s terrible, but it’s not the end of the world,” and imagines what it would be like if your grandma were wrong.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“Night flight to San Francisco; chase the moon across America. God, it’s been years since I was on a plane. When we hit 35,000 feet we’ll have reached the tropopause, the great belt of calm air, as close as I’ll ever get to the ozone. I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening. But I saw something that only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things:
 
Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”

 

Side Effects of Reading Angels in America May Include:

Blood, frogs, cattle disease, wild beasts, and blues for the death of Heaven.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…plays that create lavish fanfic about real historical figures, try Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, in which Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg hang out in the afterlife and try to figure out a real meeting that took place between them in 1941, right when one was on the cusp of delivering the atomic bomb to the Nazi government that was busy oppressing the other. It’s funnier, darker, and scarier than you think, even the parts about subatomic physics.
 
…plays about the destructive power of truth and change, try Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Angels in America, it follows characters who try to escape into beautiful dreams but ultimately can’t fight reality. Plus, Angels in America name-drops it half a dozen times, so you’ll make the playwright happy.
 
…plays that explore the personal nature of the divine and the afterlife, try Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. A landmark work of existentialism, it helped to create the “lock a couple of people in a blank room and watch them create a hell in it out of their own flaws” trope, which by this point is practically its own genre. The only thing that would make this play better is Abed from Community popping up every few minutes to remind us that it’s a bottle episode.


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