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A review of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”

Updated on December 31, 2012

One evening, a friend and I decided to take in some theater. We wanted to enrich our minds and do something a little bit out of the ordinary. Eventually, we ended up attending a performance of Tony Kushner’s play “Angels In America”.

I had read the play prior to the performance and found it to be a very good story. It touched on many subjects that were prevalent in the 1980’s and even today including identity searching, sexuality, love, AIDS, and religion. These problems were elaborated very well in the reading and it was there that my analysis of the story came to close. Its sole use, at the time of my reading of it, seemed simply to be a venting mechanism, one in which these issues are touched upon in an effort to communicate how lives are affected by them, in case we needed any further reminders, and what, actually, did these issues mean to people back in the 1980’s. AIDS, for example, was a newly emerging disease, with only a small group of select individuals in the know as to its exact nature.

What struck me during the performance, however, was that there was another intention behind this story. At the end of it all, each character has found themselves in a different situation than the one that they had been in the beginning. There was no conclusive ending in which any of them played their parts and then sat back, completely unaffected by what transpired. Then I began to understand. It was what Kushner seemed to have planned all along. This is the inevitability of change in our lives.

It seems such a trivial concept but it is one of the great underlying themes of life. The only constant is change. No matter who we are talking about, in whatever walk of life they be, their situation will change. But the rub of it lies in how people deal with this. They can resist it. They can embrace it.

As I watched the performance and tied it together with the scenes from the reading, I realized that every character in the play grappled with these two themes. The circumstances were different for each character, of course, but there is an inevitability that change will come. The question remains how the characters will adapt, how they can, essentially, make themselves change to fit the changing times.

“HARPER:…I think you should go to Washington. Alone. Change, like you said. JOE: I’m not going to leave you, Harper. HARPER: Well maybe not. But I’m going to leave you.”

This dialogue, Act 2, scene 2, between Joe and Harper, is a perfect example of people who have come to a turning point in their lives. Furthermore, it is an example of people both embracing and resisting change. Joe, on the one hand, grapples with both loving his wife while at the same time withholding the secret of his homosexuality throughout their marriage because of his love for her. How is he to tell Harper and what will be the consequences of his telling the truth? Can Harper maintain a, lets call it, stable existence without his constant surveillance, without his attempts to keep her drug use and delusions in check? Wouldn’t it be a strike on Harper’s already diminishing sanity knowing theirs was, ultimately, a loveless marriage? The problem remains, however, that Joe cannot continue to live a lie. He cannot continue to resist a feeling that has come to be his nature. Homosexuals are born that way. For them, there is no choice in the matter so there is no question that the outcome of his debacle will be one in which he must favor his nature over his beliefs.

We see Joe in a state of tension for the majority of the play, in essence, a continuous deliberation, consequence of his efforts to resist a change which is inescapable but is requiring the utmost of mental strain to resist. If change for him is to come, he will have to force it.

Harper‘s turmoil is representative of someone that yearns for change. She is growing suspicious concerning her husband's actions. Additionally, she is harboring a desire to change her own life. Living in a house in a house where she has conjured delusions of twisted individuals in the bedroom and ones that have transported her to the blissful existence she might live if she only she make a change in her life have had a profound effect on her. Her wish for change becomes amplified as every day passes. She feels that the change, though difficult, is essential to get out of the rut that she feels herself in. Ultimately, she must force herself to change.

A new life is right around the corner for both of these individuals. Each one’s decisions will determine the very make up of an uncertain new existence. But each of these changes will only come through a conscious effort, one that will require sacrifice. Is Kushner’s goal in this story to convince us that, really, there is no use in trying to resist change? Seemingly, change happens whether we want it to or not. According to Kushner, the only thing, it seems, that comes from defying it is pain and personal anguish. Each character, Harper and Joe, as well as the rest of them, come to be, eventually, in a more pleasing situation by the end. Even the character of Prior, who has been resisting death, is blessed with the presence of the angel whom he has been hearing in his dreams, and has been yearning to meet for the majority of the second half of the production. It could be a valuable lesson to learn but is one of the most difficult. Kushner teaches it well.


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