The Notion of Progress in Kushner´s "Angels in America"

An indept analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The ambivalence of progress

2. The desire to stop progress
2.1.The Angels reaction on human progress: “You must stop moving!”1
2.2.Moral degeneration: “This is not a good world.”2

3. Progress as something deeply human
3.1.Prior´s reaction on the Angel: “We can´t just stop.”3
3.2.Progress as chance for change: “The Great Work Begins.”4

4. Conclusion: Progress into what?

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction: The ambivalence of progress

“[Y]our ambivalent about everything”5, Belize characterizes Louis suitably in one of their discussions about politics and society. As this quotation is linked to one character of Tony Kushner´s “Angels in America”, which consists of the two books called “Millenium Approaches” and “Perestroika”, one could surely transfer this statement to the whole play. Ambivalence plays a main role within the drama and consequently throws up many significant questions. One of them deals with the no- tion of progress. Kushner takes up the theme of progress and throws light on its am- bivalent character. Progress, especially in today´s postmodern era, can be connected to something positive, considering the amount of knowledge and new technologies, which make life easier. Moreover personal progress implies strive for improvement, which is inherent in every human being. Nevertheless a progressing world is a world in which things are getting faster and often uncontrollable. Traditions and old values die, while individualisation and isolation grow, which leads to the rise of uncertainty. How now are Kushner´s characters in “Angels in America” dealing with these new challenges in the changing postmodern world of the 1980s? Which position does the play take towards the ambivalence of progress? These questions are now to be ana- lysed in the following term paper. Therefore the two positions contra and pro pro- gress are closely examined and carefully weighed up against each other. Not to go beyond the scope of this term paper, only the main points of the notion of progress in “Angels in America” are worked out and exemplary substantiated.

2. The desire to stop progress

2.1. The Angel´s reaction on human progress: “You must stop moving!”(178)

Reading the book for the first time, the position of the Angel is dominant and clearly understandable. “You must stop moving!” (178), is the central and unmistak- able message of the heavenly creature. Prior Walter, a homosexual suffering from AIDS, is chosen as a prophet to help the Angel “a great error correct” (68). For a better understanding of the Angel´s totally anti-progressive position, their situation in paradise is analysed in the following.

Heaven is “supposed to look like San Francisco” (253) as Prior explains to Harper, but it is not like today´s San Francisco on earth, which Prior describes as “unspeakable beautiful” (254). Quite contrary: Heaven´s city stood still in time since “the Great 1906 Quake” (252) which left paradise destroyed, devastated and dreary. It is definitely the opposite of how people imagine paradise. The Great Earthquake in 1906 was also the point of time when “The King of the Universe” (177) decided to leave the world and “did not return” (177). The reason for God´s abandonment is humanity itself. Because of their “Potential for Change” (175) the “Virus of TIME began” (175). God created human beings which are able to change, to move forward and with the realization of this potential, human progress started. At first this got manifest as “tremors in Heaven” (176) but with progress getting faster, migration starting and science getting increasingly important, these tremors intensified and were noticeable as earthquakes or rather as “heavenquakes” (176). “Bewitched by Humanity, [and] in Mortifying imitation” (176/177) God started to “sail off on Voy- ages” (177) himself, while leaving heaven and his Angels to their fate. Only God is the motor of heaven and the Angels are “unable to progress without his guidance”6. To get Him back the Angle´s plan is to stop progress, which gets obvious when She says to Prior: “YOU HAVE DRIVEN HIM AWAY ! YOU MUST STOP MOVING!” (178).

Kushner pictures heaven as product of temporality and got inspired by Walter Benjamin´s “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”. In the centre of Benjamin´s essay is a painting by Paul Klee, where the Angel of History is caught in a storm. His face is turned to the past where catastrophe lies and an enormous storm, blowing from paradise, prevents him from helping and repairing the wounds of history. This storm symbolizes progress and it forces him into an unknown and terrifying future.7 As this figural description of the Angel of History is symbolic for the problems the Angel faces in the play´s heaven, it can as well be transferred to every character in these two books. The enormous and unavoidable power of progress is central in the life of the characters, which are “caught up in historical changes beyond their control and by personal upheavals testing them”8.

Loss plays an important role for the desire to stop progress: “It´s all gone too far, too much loss is what they think, we should stop somehow, go back.” (178) The quotation is part of the message Prior gets from the Angel. The Angel is afraid of heaving lost God forever, while Prior at the same time suffers from being left by his lover Louis. This is definitely one reason for the Angel to choose Prior as Her prophet. Furthermore it is Prior´s connection with history through his old family, the Walters, which “go back to the Mayflower and beyond” (57). This connects Prior with a condition before migration and movement. Also the fact, that “there´s a Prior Walter stitched into the Bayeux tapestry” (57), was surely an argument to choose him as a prophet. The Bayeux tapestry, as the selfish Louis tells Emily before he leaves Prior, is symbolic for Mathilde´s devotion for William the Conqueror and stands so for old values, like trust and responsibility, which Louis is not able to live. So in Prior the Angel found a person who suffers from loss, too and who has also a motive for wanting to move backward.

To sum up, the Angel takes a position radically against progress, because they connect loss and helplessness with it and are not able to deal with this situation. As a consequence the Angel tries to shift back in time and rebuild old values.

2.2. Moral degeneration: “This is not a good world.” (62)

After the analysis of the situation in heaven and the point of view of the An- gel, in the following, the situation on earth is examined.

The drama is “set in a time of turbulent transition”9 which reflects “on a changing socio-political environment within which their characters are caught be- tween two worlds: one that is dying and one that is being born.”10 The world is in upheaval and the characters try to find their moral footing in the diverse American society, while it seems as if old values break away.11 For the characters this is a time of enormous insecurity and they are followed by a strong feeling of helplessness, in which loss, as refered to in 2.1., plays a main role. For Kushner loss is central in to- day´s postmodern are. This gets obvious in an interview when he claims: “[L]ife is about losing, Things are taken from you. People are taken from you.”12 His attitude is obviously visible through the whole drama. People suffer from illnesses, like AIDS, from losing a partner, from losing values or even from losing life.

The loss of values is a main point problematized in “Angels in America”. It is a consequence of change, which leads to a rising uncertainty, because you don´t know who you can trust and who acts morally. The moral degeneration Kushner criticizes through his drama, is now substantiated with a short characterization of Roy and Joe.

The extremely conservative Roy, “a successful New York lawyer” (9) is di- agnosed with AIDS. When his doctor, Henry, confronts him with the diagnosis he denies his homosexuality and explains aggressively that such labels tell you only how much clout one has and this is in his eyes the only thing that counts (comp. 50ff). He sees himself as very effective and influential, while homosexuals in con- trast “have zero clout” (51). Consequently he can´t have AIDS and insists on heaving live cancer. He is not able to face reality and to accept his homosexuality and his loss of health, that´s what makes his death and fall in the end very tragic. “Roy represents a kind of trickle down morality in Angels13. Although he has some sympathetic moments, Kushner pictures him as the evil of society, “the worst human being who ever lived” (227). It is completely beyond his comprehension, why Belize who has “little reason to want to help [him]” (160) warns him to “[w]atch out for the double bind” (160). Helping someone without having an own advantage is simply incon-ceivable for him. Belize represents morality and selflessness, which is unfamiliar and a stupid, naive thing for Roy. He doesn´t want to be nice or legal, just effective, which is underlined by his illegal and cruel behaviour in the Rosenberg case (comp. 114). As Roy is positioned “at the top of the American power structure”14 Kushnersuggests with this conception, that Roy´s corruption and immorality infected the whole American society and especially the leadership. So the moral degeneration “presents a chronic societal disease” which is kind of an analogy to Roy being in-fected with AIDS, which is destroying him.15


1 Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. (New York: Thea- tre Communication Group, 2010) 178.

2 Kushner 62.

3 Kushner 263.

4 Kushner 280.

5 Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. (New York: Theatre Communication Group, 2010) 101. All parenthetical references follow this edition.

6 Fisher, James. “Angels in America.” Understanding Tony Kushner. Ed. Tony Kushner. (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2008) 50.

7 Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Bloom´s Modern Critical Views. Tony Kushner. Ed. Harald Bloom. (USA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005) 18 f.

8 Fisher (2008) 50.

9 Fisher (2008) 38.

10 Fisher, James. “The Angels of Fructification.” New Essays on the Art and Politics of the Plays. Ed. James Fisher. (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006) 22.

11 comp. Fisher, James. „Troubling the Waters: Angels in America. A Gay Fantasia in Natio- nal Themes“The Theater of Tony Kushner: living past hope. Ed. James Fisher. (New York: Routledge. 2002) 59.

12 Pacheco, Patrick R. “AIDS, Angels, Activism, and Sex in the Nineties.“Tony Kushner in C on versation. Ed. Robert Vorlicky. (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. 1998) 61.

13 Fisher (2006) 22.

14 Fisher (2008) 47.

15 comp. Fisher (2008) 47.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Notion of Progress in Kushner´s "Angels in America"
An indept analysis
University of Würzburg  (Philosophische Fakultät I)
Race, Gender and Identity in Postmodern American Theater
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
American, Literature, Theater, postmodern, Identity, Gender, Race, Kushner, Angels in America, Progress, Gay, Tony, play, pulitzer, price
Quote paper
Sarah Wenzel (Author), 2011, The Notion of Progress in Kushner´s "Angels in America", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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