Angels in America: The American Tragedy

abhi nemani
13 min readNov 12, 2015


Photo credit: Milton Glaser

It seemed like a fairy tale ending.

In Tony Kushner’s stirring play, Angels in America, the difficult, yet engrossing narrative seems to close in picturesque fashion. The villain — vile and unlikable — Roy Cohn dies, and the hero — plagued yet optimistic — Prior Walter renews his lease on life. We end high, not low.

In truth, this greeting card assessment is paper thin. Indeed, Kushner’s ending masks the deeper, tragic allegory, one speaking to the true subject of the play: America itself. And that story is no fairy tale; it is a decidedly American tragedy.

If happiness is the most positive human emotion, then schadenfreude must run a close second. Schadenfreude is the psychological phenomenon, emotional response, triggered by witnessing another’s downfall — specifically the plight of an evil, terrible figure. Scholar John Portmann defines the concept as “a rational emotional affirmation of a justly constituted world where certain modes of suffering elicit appropriate responses.” [1] Basically, we enjoy watching bad man pay.

Enter Kushner’s Roy Cohn.

Roy Cohn, no matter his power or clout, cannot escape his fate. His tale has a subtle sense of irony. Roy tries to confound every stereotype associated with his existence. He is a Jew-bashing, homophobic, gay Jew. John Quinn aptly describes the sleazy lawyer, “In short, Cohn is a diseased version of the norm.” Slowly, his life unravels. The Bar Association comes after his license for accepting a loan from a client. His prodigy, Joe Pitt, turns down his D.C. job offer, which would actually save him from the Bar’s wolves. And his secret homosexuality catches up with him, when he diagnosed with AIDS. Kushner candidly expounds every bitter degradation of the character. The disease slowly eats away his body and mind, while the Bar takes away his only real self-identifier, his law license. On the deathbed, he scoffs at the chance of pity. Ethel Rosenberg compassionately responds to his painful plea for a song. After it seems he has redeemed himself slightly in Ethel’s and the audience’s eyes, he snaps back into life with his cynicism: “I fooled you Ethel… I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I win!” It was all a game for Roy. Yet, he lost the larger one, and shortly after, he dies. Just bliss.

With the audience’s need for schadenfreude sufficiently placated, Kushner turns to their hearts. His epic tale of life, death, and homosexuality closes with joy and happiness all around. “The Berlin Wall has fallen. The Ceausescus are out. He’s building democratic socialism. The New Internationalism. Gorbachev is the greatest political thinker since Lenin.” After two books full of anguish, disease, and sadness, Louis begins the epilogue with a proclamation of good will. The international chaos of past has resolved, and the Cold War is over. Moreover, the miracle AZT has pumped life into the disease-riddled Prior. Five years ago, he was in the hospital, near death, and alone. Now, his life is full and full of hope. Louis, Belize, and Hannah stand beside him, visiting the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park: “When the millennium comes… [t]he fountain of Bethesda will flow again. And I told [Prior] I would personally take him there to bathe. We will all bathe ourselves clean,” says Hannah. She promises him purification on the day of redemption, whenever that may be. That sentiment — along with the pleasing scenery — makes Bethesda Prior’s “favorite place in the…whole universe.” He loves the hope.

Scholar Peter Cohen summarizes the emotion, commenting, “a symbol of the healing and reconciliation that becomes central to the play’s final vision.” Kushner himself described Perestroika as a comedy, citing its optimistic sentiment. It ends with the wrecking of the fourth wall and Prior’s stirring call to arms against the AIDS epidemic. The audience, assuredly, leaves the theater feeling positive and — dare I say — hopeful.

Some criticize the playwright for this ending: “Angels in America’s epilogue has come under attack from a number of critics who have viewed the play’s feel-good ending and Prior’s blessing of the audience as a sop intended to placate a mainstream Broadway audience.” Cohen rebuffs this contention, reconciling the clichéd finale with the overall theme of activism: “Having offered audiences both a denunciation of Reaganism and a vision of community and collective action, Kushner instructs them that the process of social change he envisions is not an imaginative process, but rather one that can only “begin” once the play itself has ended.” Both of these stands, however, fail to properly examine the context and reality of the feel-good ending.

What’s Really Good

Let’s begin by reevaluating the setting. Prior’s favorite place is actually a cold, barren park. He describes its beauty in yesteryear, but only in contrast to its current shortcomings. “In autumn, those trees across the lake are yellow, and the sun strikes those most brilliantly. Against the blue of the sky, that sad fall blue, those trees are more light than vegetation. They are Yankee trees, New England transplants. They’re barren now.” Thus, the present pales in consideration to the past. Quite literary, the present is empty, frozen. “The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter, ice in the pipes.” The hope that he searches for, yearns for, is based off the past or the future. Yet, even that is misplaced. Louis cited Gorbachev’s brilliance and the promise of the new Russia, but that idea failed. When Kushner was writing Angels in America, Gorbachev was selling pizzas in Pizza Hut advertisements.

Moreover, Kushner’s stage notes sap from the optimistic sentiment. “It’s a bright day, but cold… Prior is heavily bundled, and he had think glasses on, and he supports himself with a cane.” This calls into question how well Prior has been living with his AIDS. Even with the Angel’s blessing, the miracle ATZ pills, and his friends’ care, his state has degenerated, and he needs the cane to “support himself.” Clearly, things are not as good as they seem, and the critics’ chastisement of the “sop” lacks complete justification.

Cohen’s reconciliation draws on more than pure sentiment for evidence. “Angels in America would have been a tragedy of sorts if it had ended with Prior’s refusal to allow Louis to return, drama’s ability to represent the group allows Kushner to transform his play into a comedy that is grounded in a vision of communal purpose and action.” His analysis points to the neo-family structure in the Epilogue for some optimistic solace. Even though the classical relationships of man-woman or even man-man fail, he argues, societal unity prevails in the ends, reinforcing the belief in the community and collectivism. Yet, one must ask, how real is this family?

A Family is Appearance Only

A WASP, a black man, and a Jew — all gay and single — paired with a single, Mormon mother figure: What kind of family is that? True, these individuals have come together and co-exist, but are these associations forced or welcomed?

Louis arguably commits the worst kind of sin. His friend, roommate, and lover battles AIDS, and instead of providing comfort and solace, he leaves… and sleeps with a Mormon. Yet, he eventually comes back to Prior, and when he does, he is not reaccepted. Prior says, “I love you… But you can’t come back. Not ever. I’m sorry. But you can’t.” That said, the epilogue shows them together. Their demeanor hints at subtle annoyance, with Prior’s quip, “I’ve been living with AIDS for five years now. That’s six whole months longer than I lived with Louis.” Furthermore, Louis’s relationship with Belize maintains the habitual animosity. Kushner tells us in the stage notes, “Louis and Belize are arguing.” Their discussion of the Middle East provides an adequate metaphor for the relationship. Just as Israel and Palestine fruitlessly strive for some kind of coexistence, these brothers bitterly push on, existing simultaneously but not truly together.

The most obvious idiosyncrasy must be Hannah. This Mormon, spouseless woman seemingly leaves her own son to “adopt” three gay kids. Her religion despises and rejects homosexuality, yet she stomachs the ideological issues these orphaned men. Compassionate yes, but was her decision truly deliberate or merely immediate? Her character seems slightly irrational. Upon a quirky phone call from Joe, she sells her house and comes to New York from Salt Lake. When asked, she says, “I don’t know why I came here.” She is uncomfortably decisive, and she falls into unnatural situations. Similarly, after a few moments of conversation with Prior, she helps him to the hospital, cares for him, and eventually becomes a central figure in his life. Catherine Stevenson describes her as a “surrogate mother,” to Prior and Harper. Nonetheless, her transition from Salt Lake Mormon to New York neo-mother seems forced. In the Epilogue stage notes, Hannah is “noticeably different — she looks like a New Yorker, and she is reading the New York Times.” She is playing the character of the New Yorker — much like the New England transplant trees — too well. Stevenson summarizes this staged metamorphosis as “a journey that is the antithesis of the Mormon pilgrimage in a number of ways.” She rejects her earlier lifestyle and accepts this one; her only justification comes when she responds to Prior’s plea for company in the hospital: “I’m not needed elsewhere.”

This family, Prior, Belize, Louis, and Hannah, seems collectively bound and oddly natural. Nonetheless, pain, bitterness, and idiosyncrasies riddle that group. They have little in common, constantly bicker, and lack love in any conventional sense. Then what overcomes the obvious tension? Cohen’s answer is that the “characters are shown to have found sustenance not through the isolating institutions of conjugal marriage or the bourgeois family, but through the benefits of group friendship (emphasis added).” This collective bands together for “sustenance” to survive. While Cohen maintains that this phenomenon demonstrates Kushner’s beliefs in collective action, they are not making action — they are surviving. They need each other to cope with the knowledge the past events has burdened them with. Prior stomachs Louis’s treachery, Belize placates Louis, and Hannah finds somewhere that she is “needed.” This story is not one of optimism or progress, but one of tragedy. The sheer depth and horror of that tragedy forces these characters to come together, just to live with it.

The Tragedy

Kushner himself rebuffed the notion of Perestroika’s tragedy, but Aristotle would beg to differ. In his Poetics, Aristotle laid out the classical definition of tragedy, as seen in great works such as Oedipus Rex. The crux of Aristotelian tragedy lies within the main character himself. The basic motion of a tragedy is downhill with one lifeboat at the end of the cliff. To jump on, the character must make the right decision, not right based on morals or ethics, but on intellect. The “victim” has a final chance of salvation, which is quickly taken away. Aristotle puts it as, “misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” From that point onward, his fate is sealed, and his pain and downfall staged. What is worse, these heroes tend to pursue their decision, fervently, to a bitter end. Thus, inherent frailty dictates his demise. That is the tragedy.

The “tragic flaw” in Angels in America is hard to find for two reasons. First, the ending seems happy and positive — much unlike Greek tragedies such as Oedipus. Second and more cumbersome, we do not want to find the tragedy in the play. The work seems to convey a tremendous amount of hope and strength in the human character, and sapping from that is hard. Regrettably, Kushner’s work demonstrates the greatest of tragic flaws, the human flaw.

Prior, the prophet of stasis, rejects his prescribed destiny. From the outset, he rejects the “Great Work.” Yet over time, he deliberates the issue, pontificating and reiterating the story to others. When describing the angel’s visit to Belize, his language and tone almost convey acceptance of the prophesy. “It’s all gone too far, too much loss is what they think, we should stop somehow, go back.” Belize responds, “But that’s not how the world works, Prior. It only spins forward.” Prior’s telling quip is “Yeah, but forward into what?” The inflection on that question reminds the audience that he has seen the end of progress. When he picks up the spectacles, the peep-stones, he sees a terrible image — undoubtedly, the image of chaos destined for humanity. The angel herself expands on the bitter end: “Surely you see towards what we are Progressing, the fabric of the sky unravels… Before the boiling of blood and the searing of the skin comes the Secret catastrophe: Before Life on Earth becomes finally merely impossible, it will for a long time before have become completely unbearable.” Initially overwhelmed, Prior eventually sees the harshness of progress in his own life: “It’s 1986 and there’s a plague, half my friends are dead and I’m only thirty-one.” Then comes the realization. “Maybe I am a prophet. Not just me, all of us who are dying now. Maybe we’ve caught the virus of prophecy. Be still. Toil no more.” AIDS is the disease of progress, and the world is infected.

That tragedy is sad, but too real; Aristotelian tragedy demands a character’s imprudence and downfall. Later, Prior plays this role as well.

The Tragic Flaw

Prior bounces back and forth between rationalizations: He is insane, and the angel was just a hallucination; or, he is sane, and all he can do is run away from the prophesy. Neither is sufficient, yet he continually characterizes the angel’s visit as insane. Understandable, this makes its rejection rational. If he accepts the “Great Work” as real, then he must — rationally — pursue it. In his debate with Belize, he comes to that conclusion. “Maybe the world has driven God from heaven, incurred the angels’ wrath. I believe I’ve seen the end of things.” Thus, he tries to run, obfuscating and circumventing the inevitable, hoping to bypass his destiny. Finally, however, destiny catches up: “She’s coming…”

With his condition worsening, Prior loses control: “I’m scared. I can’t do it again… Oh God, I want to be done.” And then she comes, the great angel — she listens to his call. He is ready to accept fate, and she comes to facilitate it. Human emotion, however, gets in the way. Hannah preaches solidarity, saying, “An angel is just a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you. It’s naught to be afraid of. If it lets you down, reject it. Seek for something new.” This platitude resonates with the ailing prophet. Whereas he was content with death, he now — immediately and suddenly — insists on life, no thought, no deliberation. Hannah’s optimism overwhelms him, and faced with the angel’s presence, he plays out his tragic flaw — he wrestles the angel. Much like the tragic heroes of yore, he pursues his decision with great vigor. His compels his immune-suppressed body into action against a supernatural force. Highlighting the irrationality, he somehow wins. His unbelievable fervor and energy overwhelm the angel, and she grants his passage to heaven to return the text of the prophesy.

In heaven, Prior only compounds his error. Given a tour of heaven, a free pass into paradise, he still decides to go back. He witnesses heaven’s peaceful serenity, the quiet stagnancy, but he stays committed to life on earth. The council of angels tries to reason with him. Europa says, “This is the Tomb of Immobility… drink it and never thirst again.” Prior responds, “I can’t… Even sick. I want to be alive.” Finally, the Angel pleads with him, “You only think you do. Life is a habit with you….” Reluctant and obstinate, Prior rebuffs, “Bless me anyway… I can’t help myself. I do… I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive…. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but… Bless me anyway. I want more life.” In that, he admits his own irrationality. He equates living to addiction, a mindless repetition or habit. Even that is not enough, but somehow he still desires earth with AIDS, alone, and hopeless. He asks for a blessing, but he leaves not knowing if he received it. He returns to earth to play out his tragic existence, damned to the pains and anguish of disease and mortality

The Big Picture

Our emotional core levels with Prior. He made the conscious decision to persevere. It is the human choice. The choice Hamlet makes, the choice the depressed but lucky teenage girls makes, the choice we all make to live. Prior character only exemplifies it since he saw heaven, experienced it, but still said no. Hamlet chose “to be” out of indecision and ignorance, but Prior actively and knowingly pursued a life of terrors. In that sense, he became the America tragic hero. The ills of progress are as obvious as they are terrible, as pervasive as poisonous. America’s core is built on its progress. Manifest Destiny, the New Frontier, science, industry, commerce… American identity is built off restlessness and desire. Authors since Alexis de Tocqueville have known this, and Kushner tactfully chose to place the angels in America.

Regrettably, the tragedy is inevitable. We rationalize everyday travesties with seemingly happy endings: the pleasant paycheck, the filled dinner table, and the promise of another day. These emotions only help us stomach the human tragedy, of a life destined for — to quote Harper — ”a kind of painful progress.”

The Catharsis

Yet no tragedy ends without a final catharsis. Catharsis has two conflicting definitions in the literary sense. Some argue the catharsis is the final emotional purging and purification, when the play “through pity and fear effect[s] the proper purgation of these emotions.” Leon Golden, an Aristotelian scholar, makes way for another interpretation. “The Greek word katharsis can mean ‘clarification,” I argue that the internal argument of Poetics demands that we interpret catharsis as an ‘intellectual clarification.’” Thus, tragedy — or any art — should strive for the clarification or exposition of the emotional tensions in the work, and in tragedy that should be pity or fear.

The final scene of Angels in America does not purge pity, fear, or even indignation — the comedic sentiment — it sends a mixed signal of frozen progress and forced relations, of hope and despair, of a people and a nation knowingly and pleasantly killing themselves. It does, however, teach us something about the human condition; that — if nothing else — when we know our failings and our inevitable destinies, we find a way to survive. We may not make the best of it, but we make something.



abhi nemani

tech optimist and political phil nerd. hacker, writer & maker: fmr CDO, @lamayorsoffice; @google; @codeforamerica.