The Concept of Progress in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"

Term Paper, 2012

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Approaches to Progress in Angels in America

3. Halted Progress and Fear of Change

4. More Life: Favoring Progress

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

7. List of Selected Scenes

1. Introduction

In 2003, playwright Tony Kushner adopted his two-part play premiered in 1991 and 1992, Angels in America, to the screen. The HBO miniseries was directed by Mike Nichols and studded with celebrated actors such as Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. Set in New York City in the mid 1980s, a time of Reagan’s politics and the silencing of AIDS, the series revolves around a set of characters differing greatly in ethnicity, religion, worldview and sexual orientation. They include Louis and Prior, a homosexual couple having to cope with Prior’s AIDS diagnosis, and Harper and Joe, Mormons, who are faced with Joe’s oppressed homosexuality destroying their marriage. Other characters are Hannah, Joe’s mother from Salt Lake City, Roy Cohn, a lawyer also diagnosed with AIDS, and Belize, Prior’s black homosexual friend who is also Roy’s nurse. Throughout the film, these characters come together in unexpected ways in an attempt to move out of their crises and transform themselves.

While this extensive film encompasses a variety of themes and topics, the focus of this paper will be its proposition of progress. It will be argued that Angels in America confirms progress to be inevitable and essential by drawing on, and redefining, American concepts and myths of westward movement and migration, equality and pluralism. Thus, traditional elements of the construct “American Dream” will be analyzed.

The first part will consist of a short overview of different approaches to progress employed in the film: historical, religious and political. Subsequently, the second and third part will focus on a set of selected scenes and investigate how progress, and the lack thereof, is communicated in the depiction of different characters as they are caught in a constant struggle between motion and staying put, between moving on and giving up, between living and death. From this, the redefinition of aforementioned American concepts will be derived.

2. Approaches to Progress in Angels in America

Angels in America is a film, which skillfully transcribes national themes onto the personal level of characters portrayed, or, turned around, it “opens up the microstructures of the characters’ interactions in order to comment on the macrostructures of social institutions, political philosophies, and competing historiographies” (Román qtd. in Muños 5). Thus, the analysis of the characters’ struggle with change can be traced to historical, religious, and political notions of progress. Some of those references introduced here will then be debated in the following discussion of the characters.

A recurring topic in Angels in America is progress in terms of migration as remarks about different groups of people moving from East to West are frequently made. Instantly, the hopeful search for freedom and happiness in a “city upon a hill” comes to mind. Likewise, it stands to reason that “the myth of the frontier and the pioneers” (Muños 7) which can be found for instance in Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” has to be considered. Here, Turner claims the travelers along the frontier to inhabit “certain common traits.” The pioneer was idealized in that he was self-sufficient, brave and progressive, and favored a democratic equality. Although Turner declares the frontier to be closed and the disclosing of America to be finished, he claims that “the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its existence” (1152). Accordingly, progress is depicted as never-ending and not to be constrained by geographical limits. Reaching the much longed for West can then be seen as a new beginning. Within the discussion of migration, the notion of the “melting pot” and the question of whether or not this assimilation of different ethnical groups is realized, is also of importance.

As David Savran explains, the choice of Mormonism for three of the characters in Angels in America is no coincidence with regard to the notion of progress in religious terms. It is a kind of religion with a distinct “American nature.” Moreover, it encompasses not only the notions of prophetic angels and millennialism but also the understanding of time as “evolution and progress” as well as the “possibility of unlimited human growth” (24).

A further vantage point on progress is constituted by political statements. While the conservative as well as the progressive side is represented by various characters, the latter is privileged as “Reagan’s rise was, in itself, a demonstration of American society’s loss of faith in community and compassion” (Fisher 43). The conservative politics of Reagan is here also heavily attacked for ignoring the AIDS crisis (Klüßendorf 195). An “intolerance towards differently thinking people” and the accusations of white heterosexual males as “true heirs to whatever power was to be had” are also claimed to be included in the film (Brask 9).

3. Halted Progress and Fear of Change

The first part of Angels in America, “Millenium Approaches,” focuses on the collapse of the world on a political and historical level as “reactionary politics, and invocations of environmental and nuclear catastrophes compose a desolate atmosphere of loss and pain” (Klüßendorf 61). This situation is mirrored in the characters for they are thrown into deep crisis; things come to an end. Louis and Prior’s relationship falls apart since Louis cannot deal with Prior’s illness and abandons him. Harper and Joe’s marriage finally collapses under the weight of Joe’s heavily denied homosexuality and Harper’s severe valium addiction. All characters are isolated and passive. Their lives are being halted as they make no progress. Harper remarks: “I’m stuck. My heart’s an anchor.” As Prior and Roy are being diagnosed with AIDS, they are facing a terminal illness without cure. The characters belong to minority groups- homosexuals, blacks, Mormons, having AIDS, being addicted to drugs- and America is certainly not illustrated as the land of hope. A rather cynical picture is presented as Belize describes:

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 to room 1013 over at the hospital, I'll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, that’s hard enough.

The idea of America is shown to be only a construct whose values drive people into despair as they are not reachable. A mutual feeling of dread for what lies ahead is shared by the characters. Harper states: “I feel that something's going to give. It's 1985... fifteen years to the third millennium. Maybe Christ will come again or maybe the troubles will and the end will come.”

Fittingly, the first part of Angels in America begins with a funeral. The life which has ended was that of Louis’ grandmother. She died alone in a retirement home, apparently abandoned and forgotten by her relatives. This, Klüßendorf explains, “serves as prelude to the human isolation portrayed in `Millennium Approaches´” (74). The Jewish ceremony is held by Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz and he speaks:

This good and righteous woman... she was not a person, but a whole kind of a person - the ones that crossed the ocean that brought with us to America, the villages of Russia and Lithuania. And how we struggled! And how we fought! For the family... for the Jewish home! (Scene 1)

He recounts the Jewish migration to America as a great struggle while scenes of immigrants arriving in masses at Ellis Island are blended into the funeral scene. This woman was in search of hope and progress and moved west. Thereby, a direct historical reference is made as she becomes “an example of the migration that America is founded upon” (Nielsen 18). The rabbi does not stress her individuality but rather the ethnic identity she shared with her fellow Jewish immigrants. He does so by calling her “a whole kind of a person.” This intrinsic cultural heritage is portrayed as enduring as he proceeds:

Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America - you and your children, and their children with their goyische names. You do not live in America - no such a place exists. Your clay is the clay of some litvak shtetl, and your air is the air of the steppes, because she carried that Old World on her back, across the ocean, in a boat! And she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue... on Flatbush. You can never make that crossing that she made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives, the miles - that voyage from that place to this one - you cross. Every day! You understand me? In you, that journey... is.

The death of Louis’ grandmother marks the end of a generation, the end of the move west, of progress, of hope. This, the “disillusioned” Rabbi presents, is no longer existing (Nielsen 19). The journey of struggle has ended; there is no longer a frontier to cross. As he reads the names of her relatives, they descend from “Morris, Abraham and Samuel “to “Louis and Angela,” referring to a supposed “gradual Americanization” (Minwalla 106) which is rejected by the rabbi. He obviously defends the upholding of a distinguished culture. It is the Jewish heritage which shapes their lives and not America, the “fictional construction” in which a common identity is attempted to be created (Nielsen 18). According to the rabbi, then, progress has ended with the journey to America. Now, traditional principles should be upheld and assimilation is refused: he presents America “as a melting pot where nothing melted” (18). This first scene already introduces the viewer to the question of how “migration and roots, fixed and fluid identities, stasis and change” are related (19). The fact that those words are spoken at a funeral is telling in that this point of view may be obsolete and is argued against later in the film.

Meanwhile, Harper sinks deeper into her valium addiction as a means to take her mind off her dreadful marriage to Joe. In one of her “visions” she meets Prior and, startled about encountering someone unknown, wonders: “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them…the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged.” Put differently, her concept of the world is that of a completely predictable and predetermined one. She sees no way out of her depressing situation and cannot imagine the possibility to change or progress.

In their despair, the characters in “Millennium Approaches” may be hoping for divine help. Yet the angel spectacularly breaking through Prior’s bedroom ceiling at the end of the first part of the film is the embodiment of stillness and immobility. The detailed account of Prior’s encounter with the angel is given in the second part of Angels in America, “Perestroika” (Scene 2). In a triumphant way, the golden dressed angel with wings, serving the stereotypical image, descends with the words “Greetings, Prophet. The great work begins. The messenger has arrived … I I I I am the bird of America, the bald eagle.” The angel claims to be the national bird of the United States, thereby embodying the founding principles of the Constitution. However, as she is shown as confused at Prior’s perplexity and lack of understanding and cannot continue her scripted announcement, this ideal is then again criticized. Claiming that God has left heaven after having created man, the angels (the “Continental Principalities”) send the Principality of America to propose “stasis.” Human beings on earth began “to progress, travel, intermingle” so that God, “bored with His angels, bewitched by humanity, in mortifying imitation of you, his least creation, would sail off on voyages, no knowing where.” The angels, now abandoned, call the creation of man “the virus of time” and demand for them to “STOP MOVING ... turn back, undo” before life on earth becomes “completely unbearable.”


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Concept of Progress in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"
University of Göttingen  (Philosophische Fakultät)
The American Rhetorical Tradition
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Progress, Film Studies
Quote paper
Amelie Meyer (Author), 2012, The Concept of Progress in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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