66 pages 2 hours read

Tony Kushner

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by the American playwright Tony Kushner is an epic story that spans two plays – Millennium Approaches, first produced in 1991, and Perestroika, which debuted in 1992. The entire two-part work premiered on Broadway in 1993. Angels in America is Kushner’s most well-known work and is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most significant American plays of the 20th century. Angels in America was immediately lauded by critics and won many prominent awards, including the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play (Part 1, 1992), the Tony Award for Best Play (Part 1, 1993 and Part 2, 1994), and the Drama Desk Award for Best Play (Part 1, 1993 and Part 2, 1994). Additionally, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2003, HBO produced a star-studded miniseries of the two plays, featuring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, and Emma Thompson. There are multiple versions of these plays with various revisions that have been released since the first editions were published in 1993, and this study guide refers to the 1995 publication of both plays in the same volume by Theatre Communications Group.

Content Warning: Angels in America features strong language, drug and alcohol use, and sexual scenarios. This guide obscures the use of anti-gay slurs, though Kushner’s use of these terms is deliberate and intended to elicit a strong reaction from the audience

Plot Summary

The two plays take place in New York between 1985 and 1986. Louis and Prior are a gay couple, and Prior has just been diagnosed with AIDS at the start of Millennium Approaches. Harper and Joe are a straight Mormon couple, but Harper experiences mental illness and is addicted to valium, often hallucinating, and Joe is secretly gay. Joe, a young lawyer, has been taken under the wing of Roy Cohn, a powerful right-wing Jewish lawyer with few scruples based on a real historical figure named Roy Cohn. Roy wants to use his connections to place Joe in a high-level position in Washington, later revealing that Roy is about to be disbarred and needs a friend on the inside. Roy is diagnosed with AIDS but denies that he is gay and insists that he has liver cancer. Prior gets sicker, and Louis, unable to handle it, abandons him, leaving Prior’s ex-partner Belize, a nurse and former drag queen, to care for him. Prior hears the voice of an Angel who says she will be there soon, but no one believes him. Joe and Louis strike up a flirtatious friendship at work, and Harper disappears into her hallucinations and goes missing. Joe calls his mother, Hannah, in Salt Lake City and tells her that he is gay, and Hannah immediately sells her house and moves to New York. Roy collapses in pain, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who Roy prosecuted using unethical practices leading to her execution, taunts him and calls an ambulance. Joe leaves Harper to be with Louis. The Angel crashes through Prior’s ceiling.

In the second play, Perestroika, Prior tells the Angel to go away. In response, she tells him that God is missing, and Prior is a prophet who must tell the world to stop moving and progressing so he will come back. Joe and Louis start an affair that falls apart when Louis learns that Joe is a Mormon. Louis leaves him because he misses Prior but is horrified to learn that Joe is friends with Roy Cohn. Roy is in the hospital, still haunted by Ethel, and Belize is his nurse. Roy procures a large private stash of the experimental drug AZT.

Meanwhile, Hannah cares for Harper. Prior, seeking information about angels, goes to the Mormon Visitor’s Center where he meets Harper and Hannah. Prior gets sick, and Hannah goes to the hospital with him. Joe tries to go back to Harper but ultimately leaves her for Louis. Louis confronts Joe with his court case decisions, which use the law to oppress vulnerable people. Joe gets angry and beats Louis up. In the hospital, Ethel tells Roy that he has been disbarred. Roy dies. Belize enlists Louis to sing a Jewish prayer for Roy while he steals the AZT, which Louis does with Ethel’s supernatural help. Prior wrestles the Angel and wins, so he goes to Heaven to return the prophecy. Harper takes Joe’s credit card and finally travels, leaving Joe to get high on her valium. In the epilogue, it is 1990, and Prior is still alive, gathered with Belize, Louis, and Hannah, who have become a family.