Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / Angels in America

Go To

"Greetings, Prophet;
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived."
The Angel

Angels in America (subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes) is a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play written by Tony Kushner. It is presented in two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, each of which runs roughly three hours long. The two parts premiered in California in 1991 and 1992, respectively, and were produced on Broadway together in 1993.

The play is set in New York City from the fall of 1985 into spring of 1986, during the rise of AIDS awareness, and focuses on an enormous variety of topics, from politics to religion to dysfunctional families. The main story line follows a young gay man named Prior Walter, who has just discovered he is HIV-positive. After subsequently being abandoned by his lover Louis, he receives a vision from Heaven, in which an Angel visits him. She tells him that Heaven once was a paradise, but that human progress creates "earthquakes" in Heaven and after a particularly severe one, God abandoned them. She compels him to go out into the world and tell his fellow humans to stop moving forward, so that God may return.

Tony Kushner specifically notes in the published versions of the script that any and all fantasy elements of the story should be performed as such, as full theatrical special effects. As such, between this and the play's sheer length and complexity, mounting a production is an incredibly daunting task, and productions are few and far between for a play of its notoriety.

The cast of the original New York City production in 1992 and 1993:

  • Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn et. al.
  • David Marshall Grant as Joe Pitt et. al.
  • Marcia Gay Harden as Harper Pitt et. al.
  • Jeffrey Wright as Belize et. al.
  • Joe Mantello as Louis Ironson et. al.
  • Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter et. al.
  • Kathleen Chalfant as Hannah Pitt et. al.
  • Ellen McLaughlin as The Angel et. al.

A Mini Series based on the play aired on HBO in 2003, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Patrick Wilson, and original cast member Jeffrey Wright. It went on to surpass Roots for most Emmys won by a program in a single year.

In 2017-2018 a revival of the play was staged in London before moving to Broadway, with cast that included Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, and Russell Tovey / Lee Pace as Joe Pitt.

This play also has a character sheet.

Trope examples include:

  • Abusive Parents: Harper had at least one of these, according to Joe, which is perhaps where her problems with addiction began.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Kushner himself, as writer of the Mini Series, cut a good deal of material from the Perestroika segments, most of it unnecessary, and most of it Kushner recommends to be cut on stage as well (if time is an issue) in the published script.
  • An Aesop: The show has the moral that everyone needs to be open-minded and not quick to judge. The show is famous for sympathetically depicting both homosexuals and people infected with AIDS at a time when both were heavily stigmatized. Beyond that, there's one part when Hannah Pitt and Prior Walter meet, and Prior realizes that she's Mormon. He comments "I can just imagine what you think of me" (that he's homosexual), and Hannah indignantly tells him off for being so presumptuous about her opinions. She finishes with "You don't make assumptions about me, and I won't make any about you".`
  • Amicable Exes: Prior and Belize dated for some time before the beginning of the play, but are still very good friends. Also Prior and Louis, by the end of the play.
  • Antagonist in Mourning: Belize naturally despises Roy Cohn, but after seeing the hard death he suffers, says that he can sympathize with a fallen enemy.
  • Asshole Victim: Roy is a loudmouthed, openly racist and bigoted lawyer who has done terrible things, including getting Ethel Rosenberg executed, but his death is still painful and tragic.
  • Audience Monologue: Harper's final speech, and Prior's.
  • Background Halo: Nurse Emily gets one from standing in front of a lamp.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Hannah and The Angel, complete with fireworks.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Joe is a closeted political conservative, sure, but he's also a bit of a woobie. Then he abandons his wife hallucinating around New York only for her to be bailed out and taken in by his timely-arriving mother, and eventually, Louis after some legal library work reveals him not just to be closeted and nominally socially conservative, but to be an evil Rules Lawyer.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Prior survives contracting pneumonia and, five years later, has still not succumbed to his AIDS diagnosis, although how much longer he has left is uncertain; he remains close with Louis and Belize and Hannah has formed a deep friendship with all three men. Harper leaves Joe and sets out for a life on her own, while Joe's fate is ambiguous. And God is presumably still missing.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • In his first scene opposite Belize, Roy tells him to get lost, saying that he wants a white nurse, and later calls him a "dim black motherfucker". After that, Roy tries to claim that he's not a prejudiced man, which is further shown to be bullshit when he starts dropping not only racial, but homophobic slurs against Belize.
    • After telling Joe he has cancer, when Joe brings this up later on, Roy denies this and declares that he's in perfect health. Roy actually manages to combine this trope with the truth, as he's correct in saying that he doesn't have cancer, but is lying in saying that he never told Joe he had it. In fact, no moment in the show better represents Roy's penchant for falsities than the interaction below.
    Joe: You're not well is all.
    Roy: What do you mean, not well? Who's not well?
    Joe: You said...
    Roy: No I didn't. I said what?
  • Boomerang Bigot:
    • Roy Cohn is such a raging homophobe that he refuses to identify as a homosexual even though he's had sex with many men over his life. It's implied that Roy's hatred of his sexuality comes from the perception of gays lacking power and being ostracized by his own peers, thus making him feel the need to justify himself as being a heterosexual through twisted logic.
    • Additionally, while it's nowhere near as explicit, Roy also comes across as anti-Semitic, which is also implied to come from a similar thought process. It's likely that he's downplayed these feelings more so since Jews, while still persecuted, are not as helpless as the gay community.
  • Brick Joke: A Call-Back near the end of Perestroika, after nearly 7 hours (and at least a day in most live productions), we finally find out what happened to Sheba, Prior's cat who ran away shortly before the beginning of Millenium Approaches. She's in Heaven.
  • Butt-Monkey: Louis. Every time Louis starts to get emotional, Belize or Prior will unfailingly tell him that he isn't capable of real feelings.
  • Cast Full of Gay:
    • All five men have/have had sex with men.
    • It's also implied that Joe's mother may be a lesbian.
  • Catchphrase: Prior Walter 1's "He/She's counting the bastards!"
  • Closet Key: The Angel, if you agree with the interpretation that Hannah is gay.
  • Coming Out to Spouse: Joe Pitt confesses to wife Harper long after she's started to suspect that he's "a homo" and has confronted him about it multiple times.
  • Council of Angels: The Principalities.
  • Crosscast Role: Kushner specifies that several minor roles are to be played by actors of the opposite gender:
    • The actress playing Hannah also plays Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Roy's doctor Henry, and Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world's Oldest Bolshevik.
    • The actress playing Harper plays Justice Department flackman Martin Heller.
    • The actor playing Louis also plays his dead grandmother, Sarah Ironson.
    • The actress playing the Angel also provides the voice of Orrin, one of the Mormon boy mannequins in the Diorama Room.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Roy and Ethel Rosenberg.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The first few scenes can give the impression that Louis is the protagonist, and the play is all about him coping with his boyfriend's AIDS diagnosis. Then his boyfriend Prior begins hearing voices...
  • Determinator: Prior becomes this, both in his fight with AIDS and with the Angel of America, who gives up more out of annoyance than defeat.
  • Due to the Dead: Belize insists that Louis say the Kaddish for Roy. Louis agrees, but follows it up with "You son of a bitch."
  • Ensemble Cast: It's clear by the end of the show that Prior is the main character, but the show still gives all eight main characters plenty of stage time and their own respective arcs both with and without Prior. The fact that everyone doubles as at least one other character emphasizes this.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Joe pulls this card when Roy Cohn casually confesses to him about how he broke every single rule that a lawyer is supposed to abide by in ensuring that Ethel Rosenberg was executed.
    • Roy tries to claim he's not racist and looks down on such people as simpletons, and while he may actually believe that, he's still quite clearly a bigot.
  • Faking the Dead: Roy pulls this trick on the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who pushes the nurse's call button and starts rejoicing—only to have Roy spring back to life and gloat at it having worked. Subverted when the monitors he's hooked up to then flatline, and he dies for real, in a very violent fashion.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Roy Cohn can turn on the charm when he wants to, and talks about loyalty and family often. But isn't beyond being an aggressive, manipulative political fixer who flouts both ethics and legality, he's also a racist, anti-Semitic homophobe despite being a gay Jewish man himself. He's wildly petty and vindictive, somewhat paranoid, and very willing to use intimidation, threats, bribery and any leverage other leverage he has to get what he wants from people.
  • Gay Conservative: Roy and Joe. Both are shown as having deep amounts of Gayngst, but Joe at least lets himself fall in love.
  • Generation Xerox: Like his two ghostly ancestors of the same name, Prior suffers from a terrible disease, and he's afraid he might die from it, alone, like them. Justified by statistic probability; he's the 34th Prior Walter!
    Prior Walter 2: In a family as long-descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by the plague.
  • Good Wings, Evil Wings: The Angel's pure white wings turn black when she wrestles Prior.
  • Gratuitous French: Both Prior and Belize frequently lapse into this, particularly when together.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: This conversation between Prior and his 13th-century namesake ancestor:
    Prior 1: You have no wife, no children.
    Prior: I'm gay.
    Prior 1: So? Be gay, dance in your altogether for all I care, what's that to do with not having children?
    Prior: Gay homosexual, not bonny, blithe and... Nevermind.
  • Have You Seen My God?: After he is chosen as a prophet by the Angel of America, Prior learns that God abandoned Heaven on the day of the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake. The Angels, who believe it was because humanity was more interesting, want Prior to tell humanity to stop moving, in the hopes that God will then become bored and return home.
  • Hearing Voices: Before the Angel finally makes her appearance, she speaks to Prior in the hospital as a ghostly disembodied voice.
  • Historical Domain Character: Roy. Except for the ghostly visions, the portrayal of the last year of Roy Cohn's life is pretty accurate. Tony Kushner puts in a note at the beginning of both parts, saying that Cohn "was all too real".
  • The Immodest Orgasm: In the miniseries, the angel's hair catches on fire during "plasma orgasmada".
  • Jerkass: Not only is Roy Cohn a highly corrupt official who abuses his power like it's nothing, but he's also, quite frankly, a dick. Roy's got his sympathetic moments and he's not just some one note brute, but he's undeniably an abusive bully, bigot, and criminal.
  • Large Ham:
    • Roy Cohn, especially Al Pacino's portrayal in the HBO version. The stage script explicitly describes Cohn thusly: "Roy conducts business with great energy, impatience and sensual abandon: gesticulating, shouting, cajoling, crooning, playing the phone, receiver and hold button with virtuosity and love."
    • Prior also applies. While he doesn't have the same screaming, larger than life persona of Cohn, the role is written to be highly theatrical, and must be played that way. Justin Kirk's portrayal in the HBO version is more down to earth though, thanks to the close camera making it so that grand gestures won't translate as well.
    • The Angel, as well, is extremely over the top and prone to shouting and making weird barking noises.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Subverted. When Joe walks in on Louis crying in the courthouse bathroom, Louis, after some dialogue between the two, comes to the conclusion that Joe is gay. Subverted in that he's right, but Joe is a member of the LDS Church, and is thus deeply closeted.
  • Mood Whiplash: Scenes go from comedic to dramatic and vice versa at the drop of a hat. This in turn makes the darker moments quite starling, while the laughs then hit even harder.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The Sky Atlantic trailer does this, but only a little bit, by suggesting that the Angel is coming for everyone rather than just Prior.
  • Karmic Death: Roy. Despite spending his life trying to deny his sexuality, he died of a disease widely linked to it, with Cohn effectively being outed, and despite his declaration that he'll remain a lawyer till he dies, his license is taken away shortly before his demise.
  • Nice Guy: Belize's devotion to Prior, even though they're no longer together, and willingness to help Roy, despite loathing him, makes him this trope.
  • No True Scotsman: Roy's rationalization for why he's not gay: Homosexuals have no clout, and he does.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Belize's pre-drag name was Norman Arriaga; Kushner notes it in the character list, but it is only said onstage once.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Slightly subverted in that the Angel of America is pure stereotypical angel (flowing white gown, white wings, radiantly beautiful) but once you get past that...
  • Parental Neglect:
    • Hannah describes herself as lacking pity, and Joe clearly has some issues with her emotional harshness, which he likens to the desert.
    • While both Prior and Louis are adults, they both have something between this and Parental Abandonment.
      Prior (in "Millenium Approaches"): And my mother ... well let's leave my mother out of it. Which is where my mother usually is, out of it.
      Louis (in "Perestroika"): My New Deal pinko parents in Schenectady would never forgive me, they're already so disappointed. "He's a fag, he's an office temp, and now look, he's saying the Kaddish for Roy Cohn."
  • Parental Substitute: Roy for Joe. At first Roy really pushes it on Joe, but Joe comes to think of Roy as a true substitute father.
  • Polar Bears and Penguins: Harper visits Antarctica in one of her hallucinations and sees an Eskimo.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: He tries to deny it, but Roy Cohn is this in spades. Not only is he racist and misogynistic, but he's also homophobic and anti-Semetic. The visibility of these prejudices vary, but they're all present in his dialogue.
  • Preserve Your Gays: Though funerals are shown (or alluded to) for Prior, Louis, and Belize's friends who've died of AIDS, the only one of the main gay cast to die is the morally reprehensible (and deeply closeted) Roy Cohn.
  • Raging Stiffie: The Angel's approach makes men turgid.
  • Refusal of the Call: Prior Walter's immediate reaction to a visitation from an angel and being summoned to be "the Prophet"? "I. WANT. You to go away! I'm tired to death of being done to, walked out on, infected, fucked over and now tortured by some mixed-up reactionary angel—"
  • Rules Lawyer: Joe is the evil sort. "It's law not justice, it's power not the merits of its exercise..."
  • Shout-Out: The play makes several references to The Wizard of Oz. In addition to "And You Were There" (see above), Prior and the Angel say "If you cannot find your desire in your own backyard, you never lost it to begin with" in Act 2 of Perestroika. Belize and Prior also both quote A Streetcar Named Desire: in Millennium Approaches, Belize says "Stella for star," while in Perestroika, Prior quotes Blanche DuBois' famous line "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." In his dream in Act One, after Harper vanishes, Prior says, "People come and go so strangely here," a reference to Alice in Wonderland.
    • The Mini Series has a huge shout out to Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946) in the beginning of Prior's dream scene with Hannah. The arms holding candelabras and the the silent moving statue of Prior by the fireplace is copied almost shot-for-shot from Belle's first entry to the Beast's castle.
  • Spirit Advisor: A few. Prior has his ancestors (two of the previous Prior Walters) as the Heralds of the Angel of America; Ethel Rosenberg subverts this somewhat with Roy Cohn, then plays it straight with Louis. Really, she seems to just possess Louis for a few seconds to say a prayer for the dead. Louis is afterwards surprised.
  • Strawman Political: Conservatives do not come off well. They are almost universally shown to be selfish, cruel, hypocritical, power-hungry bastards. Roy Cohn, the Gay Conservative stands out. However, it is also worth noting that while Louis is, in the end, a sympathetic character, one of his most annoying qualities is his self-righteous liberal philosophizing.
  • Stairway to Heaven: Prior ascends a burning ladder into heaven in the last act of Perestroika.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Upon learning he has AIDS, Roy Cohn uses his connections to be forced into the experimental trials of AZT. When he finds out that it's a double blind study (and that he might be getting placebos), he uses his connections to secure himself a massive private stash of the drug.
  • Title Drop:
    • In one of Louis' ramblings, he says "There are no angels in America", in reference to the fact that the US does not have a single spiritual tradition due to its nature as a "melting pot".
    • "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" also get their own title drops in their respective plays. The first is said by Ethel Rosenberg while taunting Roy, and the second by Louis when discussing the fall of the Berlin Wall in the last scene.
    • Taken even further by the names of the acts: "Bad News" (Henry) from "Millennium Approaches," "Spooj" (Prior), "The Anti-Migratory Epistle" (The Angel), "John Brown's Body" (sung by Roy) and "Bethesda" (the angel/statue by several characters, Louis being the first) in "Perestroika".
  • Transparent Closet: Roy gives a rather twistedly brilliant speech to the doctor who diagnoses him with AIDS, redefining "homosexuality" as a class defined by its lack of political power, which no one would accuse Roy of not having.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Premiered on stage in 1991, takes place (mostly) between 1985 and 1986, with an epilogue set shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.
  • Unfazed Everyman: Prior Walter: just your average (albeit dying) young gay man in America, who just happens to be chosen to be The Prophet by the Council of Angels.
  • Waif Prophet: Prior is a Rare Male Example, being afflicted with AIDS and notably underweight, though the precise level of waify-ness depends on the actor portraying him.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Joe is the only main character left out of the epilogue (except Roy since he was dead). However, this probably has to due with the fact that he wasn't meant to be as sympathetic as he was portrayed in the miniseries, although since Kushner wrote both of them, he may have tried to fix that a little with Joe's extra scene near the end in the miniseries.