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The Gay Men of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches”

Updated on April 24, 2011

“Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist.” – Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz


Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is an intense, politically and socially driven play that follows relationships, homosexuality, and AIDS in the 1980’s. There are multiple storylines and characters that interweave throughout the play as their paths cross due to their own individual circumstances. All of the male characters in the play are homosexuals, though they all deal with and respond to this in vastly different ways. There is Roy M. Cohn, who is a very powerful lawyer, is in total denial of his homosexuality. During the play, Roy is diagnosed with AIDS. Then there is Joseph Porter Pitt who is a Mormon and is married to a woman (Harper Pitt). He slowly fights with and comes to terms with his homosexuality throughout the play with some help from the other characters. Louis Ironson is accepting of his homosexuality; though he is not completely open everyone about it. He even disguises the way he normally acts when he’s around his family to hide his homosexuality. Prior Walter is the most open and out gay male in the play. He is Louis’ boyfriend and is slowly dying of AIDS. We also see entirely differing responses in Roy and Prior when find out they have AIDS. Although sometimes surrounded by surrealism, the characters in this play all come off as extremely real, three dimensional people.

Roy M. Cohn, the powerful, successful lawyer in New York, comes off as a very brash, offensive person. At the start of the play, we see him wheeling and dealing across multiple phone lines, talking to numerous (we assume) important connections at once and handling them with all of the grace of a telephone operator trained in ballet. We get the hint right away that Roy is a very no-nonsense, down-to-business type of guy who seems to have little regard for the encounters he shares with others. We also get the impression that he is very well connected with the government, claiming he can get his assistant, Joe Pitt, a job working for the Justice Department in Washington DC with a single phone call. All of these outside impressions we get when we are introduced to Roy are a cover up for a secret life he leads outside of the flashy contacts, politics, and business interactions. In Act Two, Scene Nine, we are introduced to the secret life of Roy Cohn through an examination from his doctor that finds that Roy has been diagnosed with AIDS. The doctor also reveals to the audience that Roy has a history of sexual relations with men. Throughout this conversation, Roy is outraged at the allegations that he is a homosexual. He declares that because of his position in life as a powerful attorney and because of his great influence and connections in Washington, he is above homosexuals. He creates this social strata where labels define humans and their place in society and since his place in society doesn’t fit the bill of his opinion of what a gay man is, then he is not a gay man; he is simply a man who has sex with other men. He also believes that if even the idea that he is a homosexual got out that he would be ruined, so he notifies his doctor that his diagnosis is not AIDS, but it is in fact liver cancer (because only homosexuals get AIDS). There is a video of this scene at the bottom of the article, where Roy Cohn is brilliantly portrayed by Al Pacino. Roy is a very conflicted, angry, and confused man. He is against that which he is and even though he is alone, he seems willing enough to fight that fight until his death.

Roy’s struggles against himself are not the only battles he is up against. Because of his unethical practices in his career as a lawyer, he is on the verge of being disbarred. The only reason he offers the promotion to Joe to work in the Justice Department in Washington DC is so he can have someone on the inside to clear him from disbarment. He is also haunted by the ghosts of two people of whom he personally assured the death penalty. During one of his bouts with the intense pain brought on him from his AIDS infection, he is visited and mocked by one of these ghosts. His only relation in the first part of the play is with Joe Pitt.

Joe Pitt is a married man who battles with his homosexuality every day. The main reason for his fight against it stems from his Mormon religion and the idea that he should be with a woman and that homosexuality is wrong in the eyes of God. He battles with these feelings constantly throughout the play and in the interactions with his wife, who finds out he is gay through a hallucination or a dream. Joe meets one of the other characters in the play, Louis Ironson, in the bathroom of the Brooklyn Federal Court of Appeals. Louis is crying at the moment because he just recently found out his boyfriend is infected with AIDS. Joe consoles and speaks to Louis, where others would just walk away. During their interaction, Louis brings out the insinuation that he believes Joe is gay, which leads to an awkward, but playful conversation dancing around the subject. As Joe’s marriage continues to get rockier, he ventures out in Central Park late at night more often, just watching the other gay men hook-up in the park. One night, he even calls his mother from the park to come out to her. She writes it off, becomes agitated, and eventually hangs up on him. Joe continually tries to come to terms with his feelings, wanting so badly for someone to show him that what he’s feeling is actually okay. Finally, he meets up with Louis again, but this time it’s in the park. The two have brief cryptic conversation until the real emotions creep out, and eventually they kiss and leave the park to spend the night together. Joe is like Roy in that he is in the closet for most of the play, but he differs greatly in that he wants to embrace his homosexuality, but he just doesn’t have an outlet that would allow him to comfortably do so; until he meets Louis Ironson.

Tony Kushner

Louis Ironson is a semi-open gay male, in that he is open with his close friends, but when he’s around his family, he pretends like he is a straight male. At the beginning of the play, he is dating Prior Walter and is faced with the reality that prior was recently diagnosed with AIDS. Louis takes this knowledge and begins to fall apart throughout the play. He has no idea of how to manage the idea that his boyfriend of four years is infected with AIDS, and his relationship with Prior and his views on the world slowly crumble as the play goes on. Louis is continually seeking someone with whom he can confide in or share a moment with away from the terrifying nature of Prior’s condition. He also fights with himself because he knows that he should stay with Prior, but he can’t face the reality of the disease. As Prior’s sickness worsens, Louis distances himself from the relationship. In Louis’ most self-destructive act, he has unprotected sex with a stranger in the park, actually asking the stranger to make him bleed, and pleading for him to contract AIDS as well. His boyfriend’s disease has consumed him and it slowly changes him through the play. Through a couple of chance meetings with Joe Pitt, he finds someone who is just as confused and in need of rescue as himself. He also finds someone who needs him as well, and he ends up leaving Prior in the time when Prior needs him the most to be with healthy, confused Joe.

Prior Walter, Louis’ boyfriend through most of the play, is stricken in a horrible way with AIDS. Prior is clearly the strongest, most centered, and most to terms gay man in the play, but his disease weakens him to a state that leaves him with nothing. His personal strength and his relationship with one of his nurses (who also happens to be his ex-boyfriend) are the only things that keep him going. He is also in a continuous struggle to try to keep his relationship with Louis together. He acts strong, tries not to divulge too much information about his condition, and tries his hardest to make like everything is going to be alright, while still being realistic. As the play goes on, his health degrades drastically, weakening his physical presence, but only strengthening his need for Louis to stay with him. Because of his medication and his health condition, Prior suffers numerous dream states and hallucinations. He is the one who tells Joe’s wife that Joe is a homosexual. He also interacts with some of his ancestors, who seem to be preparing him for the angel that will visit him. Once Louis officially decides to leave Prior for Joe, Prior is finally completely alone and able to be visited by the Angel who tells him he is a Prophet. Prior is the most unfortunate character of the lot, because even though he is mentally the strongest, most self-assured and at terms character in the play, his disease reduces him into the weakest character, and is left to die alone from his disease.

The characters in Tim Kushner’s “Angels in America” are all slowly evolving through the first part of the play towards a severely intense climax at the end, where each character is faced straight on with their struggles. Roy Cohn with his past and the denial of his disease, Joe Pitt with his sexuality, Louis Ironson with his relationship with his dying boyfriend and impending loneliness, and Prior Walter who is left to die from AIDS all alone in his hospital bed. In the beginning of the play, a Rabbi says that Great Journeys for people do not exist anymore. The characters in “Angels in America” disprove this theory through the journeys and struggles each of them encounter. “Angels in America” is beautifully crafted and brilliantly written play that is a jaw-dropping insight into the struggles of homosexual males in the 1980’s, with characters who invoke a wide spectrum of emotions on the reader.

Al Pacino as Roy Cohn in "Angels In America"

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