in America, we see Tony Kushner take on and discuss several national issues
that were important in the 1980s, including homosexuality and homophobia during
the AIDs crisis, and the idea of progressivism vs. conservatism and what it
meant to change. This story and its characters gave us the insight as to what
the period was like and allowed us to experience these issues through their dialogue
with one another.
A huge theme of
the story is homosexuality, and what it meant if you were gay. With the
outbreak of AIDS came a variety of questions of what it meant to be homosexual,
and encouraged people to talk about their health. As seen in the story, many
people during this time hid their sexuality by living heterosexual life’s, and
the outbreak of AIDS made this very hard to do. With AIDs being ignored for
years by the political world, it allowed people to hide, even though they were
infected. This forced people to pick sides, choosing whether they wanted to be
open about their sexuality and their health, and deal with the criticism, or
lie, and risk infecting someone else. This is shown in Act 3, Scene 6 when Prior
dreams of Louis, and says,
Prior: Are you… a ghost, Lou?
Louis: No. Just spectral. Lost to myself. Sitting all day on cold park benches.
Wishing I could be with you. Dance with me, babe…
Louis chose to hide his sexuality,
and even though he didn’t have AIDs, he wasn’t willing to be with someone who
did and risk contracting it, even though they loved each other. This dialogue
shows how severely the AIDS outbreak affected the gay community. Louis broke up
with Prior because he was afraid of contracting the disease and exposing
himself. The only way they could be together was in a dream.
We also see this
idea when Belize says, “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 (Act 4, Scene 3).” Belize is saying that
America is an illusion. The illusion that everyone, no matter what your race or
sexual orientation, will be protected under the law. While Louis believes that
this is true, Belize knows it is not, and that the law favors those who are
straight and those who are white. The idea of America that is portrayed to the
masses hides the issues, those of racism and homophobia.
theme in the Angels in America was the difference between progressivism and
conservatism, and how things were changing. After the 1960s, which were
considered a liberal era, and the 1970s which were considered a sexual
revolution, Ronald Reagan wanted to move the United States back towards a more
conservative, traditional way of life; the idea of things staying the way they
are. The issue with this approach, particularly in the 1980s, was that the concept
of the ‘traditional family’ was a man and a woman, and had no room for homosexuality.
Gay people were considered evil in conservative America.
One example where
we see the idea of conservatism vs. progressivism is the conversation between
Louis and Belize. “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…” This is said by Louis Ironson to Belize in Act 3, Scene 2.
He’s talking about liberalism in the United States. When Louis states there are
‘no angels in America,’ he is saying that race is strictly political. Throughout
the story, we see Louis reduce everything into politics, including race and homosexuality.
Unfortunately for Louis during the AIDs crisis, politics and returning to
tradition weren’t the only concern. Instead, the United States saw a change,
where people became more sympathetic, compassionate, and generous towards
Belize talks about
this a few minutes later when saying 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 (Act 3, Scene 2).” While Louis
sees things through a politician’s eyes, thinking that’ll help him survive the
AIDs crisis, Belize is contemplating the moral side of things. He wants to know
how the crisis will affect things like love and friendship, and doesn’t care
about politics and the law, which shows the need to change from a conservative
outlook on the situation to something more progressive.
Another quote that
shows this idea of looking for change comes in Perestroika, Act 5, Scene 9.
While it isn’t between Louis and Joe, Belize, or Prior, I think it embodies this
theme as well as what the play is about. While speaking to Joe Harper says “Nothing’s
lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for
what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.” It’s
after she tells him she is leaving him and is trying to explain why. While
Harper doesn’t know what will become of her without Joe, she believes she has
to move on. Harper describes this need
to move on and keep going as “painful progress.” Everyone experiences
it; grieving for what they are leaving behind but looking forward to what the
future holds. The idea of painful progress is enormous in Kushner’s play and
one we see through all the characters. We see many characters that are looking
too far into the future, like Louis, who is focused on progressive politics. We
also see characters who are caught in the past, like Reagan and Roy, who are
stuck in their conservative ways of the previous decades. Harper’s definition
of painful progress gives us a good alternative. Looking forward to the future
while mourning what we have been through in the past.