As Angels in America focuses on complications in the lives of homosexual characters, Kushner brings a large amount of politics in to the mix. Similarly, Shakespeare also included a tone of politics in The Tempest. Indicative of falsehoods, both Kushner and Shakespeare weave levels of illusions into the lives of their characters. Kushner’s characters a living their lives under the guise of various faces (e.g. Joe is married to a women, yet is a homosexual), whereas Shakespeare’s characters have a “tunnel” vision, seeing things as they prefer not as they are in reality (e.
g. The Tempest turns mistaken beliefs about what is real).
Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s first major work, enjoyed such success that Kushner is now respected as a cultural icon of the late twentieth century. Kushner wrote Angels in America as a work for hire project, but the work quickly evolved to exhibit a deeper message concerning homosexuality, AIDS, and those suffering from the disease. The film was a creation from Kushner’s own life, a silent autobiography of sorts, where his life is mirrored through it relation of the protagonist, Joe Pitt.
Originally entitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Kushner depicts his view of America’s social dynamics, political identity, and uncertain future. To best assert truth and reality in his story, Kushner sets the story in the 1980s, a decade of greed and conservatism. Just as the 1980s brought, Kushner also brings relativism of the impact Republicans had on the country during that period to Angels in America.
In comparison, Shakespeare brings personalities similar to that of Roy Cohn to life in The Tempest. For example, the gruff and dodgy character of Roy Cohn represents political control, economic disproportion, prejudice, and censorship, whereas Shakespeare’s Prospero begins to digress into a negative personality paralleling that of Caliban: daring and somewhat obnoxious. As Prospero’s character transforms to mirror what we see in Kushner’s character of Roy, he vows:
I will plague them all
Even to roaring (4:1:192-193)
The characters in Angels in America are politically aligned (from one view or the other) with a primary focus on America’s future. Martin, a secondary character, is preoccupied with politics, even to the degree that he says to Joe: “It’s a revolution in Washington, Joe. We have a new agenda and finally a real leader.” (spoken by character of Martin concerning the Republican Party, Angels in America) Unlike Joe, Louis believes that nothing matters except politics and power, the possessions Roy and his acquaintances desire. In fact, Louis goes on to say: “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.”
“…complemented by fine ensemble acting…there’s Jeffrey King’s beautifully revealing portrait of the tortured self-hatred behind Joe Pitt’s square-jawed strength; Kathleen Chalfant’ s dry-as-dust rendering of Joe’s constantly surprising Mormon mom; Ron Leibman’s ferocious Cohn, a dog who’s sunk his teeth into life and won’t let go; and, hovering over it all, Stephen Spinella’ s Prior Walter, an enormously compelling mixture of feistiness and fragility, bitchiness and childlike wonder.” (Gelb, review of Angels in America)
As Angels in America ends, it is actually only the beginning for many of these characters -seen primarily in the character of Prior, who dies from AIDS. As Prior’s death represents the beginning for homosexuals with AIDS in America. The remaining characters gather around Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, representing both the champions and victims of the American Dream.
At the time of Shakespeare’s writing of The Tempest, Europeans were colonizing the the New World. Critics have pointed out that colonial attitudes toward the original inhabitants of the New World were extreme and contradictory. Some viewed natives as pure and noble dwellers in paradise, whereas others called them vicious savages who needed to be civilized for their own good as well as for the safety of the colonists. The character of Caliban reveals these distorted views.
His presence also demonstrates the Renaissance fascination with the New World inhabitants as novelties or sideshows rather than as people. Angels in America can be extensively compared to the theme of differing attitudes in The Tempest through Kushner’s inclusion of prejudice and political influence over the lives of the characters. Also similar is Gonzalo’s depiction of a community without commerce, laws, money, work, or literacy sounds extreme to his fellow castaways as well as to modern audiences (The Tempest). Both titles give their respective characters an illusion of justice with obvious undertones of deceit, lack of self-confidence, etc.
Like the supernatural elements of The Tempest, Angels in America has a supernatural element in the course of the play as Kushner creates ghosts, angels, and talking mannequins that enable the characters to be conjured “spectrally” by one another, and permits travel between earth and other planes of existence, like Heaven. Kushner’s use of fantastical elements places Angels in opposition to the longstanding pragmatist premise of American drama. Kushner’s primary focus of the supernatural is seen in the character of the Angel of America.
This Angel is an “imposing, terrifying, divine presence who descends from Heaven to bestow prophecy on Prior.” (Frantzen) The Angel seeks a clairvoyant to overturn the wandering impulse of human beings, believing that their constant motion and change have driven God to abandon creation. Her cosmology is disturbingly diehard, even lethal, and Prior successfully resists it in a visit to Heaven. The presence of this Angel transforms the atmosphere into one filled with a feeling of power (to those like Roy) and weakness to others.
Brown, Paul. “This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine” (in) Political Shakespeare, (eds) J.
Dollimore & A. Sinfield, Manchester University Press, Manchester, (1996), pp. 48-71.
Frantzen, Allen J. Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Gelb, Hal. Review of Angels in America in the Nation, Vol. 256, no. 7, February 22, 1993, pp. 2
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. 2003.