It is 1985. There is an atmosphere pregnant with hope for the coming millennium, a hope that each year this country is getting closer and closer to truly being a land of the free and a home of the brave, but there is an underlying disillusionment politically fed by the rhetoric of the conservative right. It is the year Reagan doesn't expressly forbid children with AIDS from going to school, but he expresses concern about the possibility of contagion, adding panic to what was already an atmosphere of fear. Reagan is slow to acknowledge there is an epidemic of HIV. There is a hostile attitude towards the socially deviant, this is the curse given to pay for their sins. Meanwhile, the disease is proliferating with great speed across a country that feels less and less like home for so many.
Despite the hope that a new millennium may bring, the play is saturated in hopelessness. The complexities of the shape shifting lines of oppression are at the heart of the political culture and trickle into every aspect of even the most banal daily life. At one point a bleak worldview is offered:
Prior:."I think about that story a lot now. People in a boat, waiting, terrified, while implacable men, irresistibly strong, seize...maybe the person next to you, maybe you, and with no warning at all, with time only for a quick intake of air you are pitched into freezing, turbulent water and salt and darkness to drown."
As the play opens, we are privy to a funeral for an old Jewish woman. Her grandchildren had assumed she died years ago and are shocked to realize she had been alive all this time. She is a symbol of the last clearly definable diaspora. She belonged to a people and a place and is now being buried here, a stranger in a strange land, like the last of the Mohicans - the forefathers of the "American" oppressed. The next scene is a juxtaposition between the old fragmented and forgotten diaspora with the new foreign: Mormons and homosexuals.
Roy, a successful New York lawyer and unofficial power broker, who is secretly gay and soon to be diagnosed with AIDS, is screaming into multiple phones, while Joe, a young lawyer who is chief justice for the Federal court of appeals, waits patiently for him to finish. As Roy screams and curses, Joe quietly requests: "Could you please not take the Lord's name in vain?" The request is so shockingly out of place it could be in a different language.
At first Joe seems like a model citizen, no substance abuse of any kind and a respect for order and decency. But beneath the surface Joe wrestles with his own Angel, or rather wishes he was. Despite the fact that homosexuality is a short one way trip to excommunication, he cannot exorcise his demon. He is married and is the proprietor of a sexless marriage. His wife, Harper, was always the wrong kind of Mormon, in a culture where coffee is frowned on for it's addictive properties, Harper has been nursing a rigorous valium addiction. And two of our protagonists are a closeted Mormon and his 'mentally deranged sex-starved pill-popping housewife.'
In Harper's defense, her husband has never loved her and the only person that truly listens to her is her imaginary friend/angel/demon, Mr. Lies of the International Order of Travel Agents (their motto is: "We mobilize the globe, we set people adrift, we stir the populace and send nomads eddying across the planet. We are adepts of motion, acolytes of the flux.") Our introduction to her character is through a rambling soliloquy:
Harper: "People who are lonely, people left alone, sit talking nonsense to the air, imagined...beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart...everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, system of defense giving way...This is why, Joe, this is why I shouldn't be left alone."
While Joe and Harper have a marriage on the rocks, their gay counterparts fair even worse.
We meet Louis and Prior on a bench in front of the funeral home. It was Louis's grandmother who has just passed away, and as they sit there contemplating mortality and familial guilt, Prior decides since they're on the topic of death, now would be a good a time to bring up his own recent medical discovery...("Bad timing, funeral and all, but I figured as long as we're on the subject of death...") He has discovered large purple spots on the underside of his arm, something that can only bode poorly. He has consulted with the best physicians and his prognosis is grim.
Proir: "K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death."
Louis: "(Very softly, holding Prior's arm): Oh please..."
Prior: "I'm a lesionnaire. The Foreign Lesion. The American Lesion. Lesionnaire's disease."
Louis: "Stop. "
Prior: "My troubles are lesion."
Louis: "Will you stop."
Prior: "Don't you think I'm handling this well? I'm going to die."
Louis does not take being blindsided well. He gets up and wanders off to bury his grandmother and contemplate his options. What kind of person abandons someone in their time of need? As much as he loves Prior, playing nurse to his slow atrophy wasn't exactly what he had in mind. Sickness, sores, disease, these things don't fit into his "neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress..." He knows he's a coward, and whatever other epithet fits...but in all honesty the need to have deviant sex in the park, trumps his need for the stability and commitment of a loving relationship. He decides he'll try to stay committed as long as possible...but he doesn't anticipate that being very long.
Meanwhile, Joe has been offered a position in Washington DC and as he gets back from one of his long walks around Central Park, where he watches things he wishes he could do, but always from a distance, he feels like a move would not only be an incredible job opportunity but would pull him away from this growing desire that he's feeling less and less capable of combatting. Reagan's Washington DC is a place of hope and promise.
Joe: " America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations. And people aren't ashamed of that like they used to be. This is a great thing. The truth restored. Law restored. That's what President Reagan has done, Harper. He says 'Truth exists and can be spoken proudly.' And the country responds to him. We become better. More good. I need to be a part of that, I need something to lift me up...."
Chronologically, I don't think the audience would know Joe is gay until he bumps into Louis in the bathroom and Louis outs him to the audience. Up until this point, Joe has been an almost boringly upright citizen, with the excitement of new job prospects, a strange infatuation with Reagan and a crazy wife.
When he sees Louis, crying in the bathroom, he's the first one to go further into the room and ask if anything is wrong, if he needs help. Louis tells him he's the first to come in and offer sympathy, usually the door creaks open, and when the intruder notices a crying man they flee post haste, these "Reaganite heartless macho asshole lawyers." Joe defends Reagan, and Louis, somewhat jokingly says "Oh boy, A Gay Republican." Joe is caught off guard. What did he say? Is it that obvious? He protests slightly, and Louis quickly apologizes:
Louis: "Sorry...sometimes you can tell from the way a person sounds that...I mean you sound like a..."
Joe: "No I don't. Like what?"
Louis: "Like a Republican."
A little later in a confusing dream sequence, Harper and Prior meet up and chat about the ludicrous situation they have found themselves in. Harper is a Mormon, she's not supposed to be addicted to anything and yet she's downing valium in 'wee fistfuls'...there's an exchange where she tells Prior that in church they don't believe in homosexuals and he counters that in his church they don't believe in Mormons. It seems as if these little hiccups of unbelief are irrelevant in a mixed dream sequence and they have a familiarity and friendship solidified by the 'threshold of revelation' that is shared by the two dream friends. Harper intuits that Prior is very sick and then asks if there is anything he can intuit about her- "Your husband's a homo."
Harper: "Well I don't like your revelations. I don't think you intuit well at all. Joe's a very normal man, he...Oh God. Oh God. He....Do homos take, like, lots of long walks?"
Both couples must try to hold together their worlds as they are spiraling out of control, the bottom falling out beneath them. For Harper, being married to a homosexual at first is not as bad as the fear that he will leave her. Prior, on the other hand is left by the one person he hoped he could rely on almost immediately, while he lies sick on the floor, covered in his own shit and vomit.
Joe has been wrestling for what seems an eternity. He's fought with everything inside him to kill his desire for so long that nothing is left; he's just a shell. An upright, rule following shell, his behavior is decent and correct in the eyes of the church...but he can't do it any longer. He has to go to Washington, now for a different reason, to escape.
Joe: "I had a book of Bible stories when I was a kid. There was a picture I'd look at twenty times every day: Jacob wrestles with the angel. I don't really remember the story, or why the wrestling- just the picture. Jacob is a young and very strong. The angel is...a beautiful man, with golden hair and wings, of course...It's me in that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It's not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God's. But you can't not lose."
While Joe wrestles his angels, it seems as if Prior has been chosen by his angel to be the foil for cryptic messages:
Voice:"...You must prepare."
Prior: "For what? I don't want to..."
Voice: "No death, no: A marvelous work and wonder we undertake, an edifice awry we sink plumb and straighten, a great Lie we abolish, a great error correct, with the rule, sword and broom of Truth!"
Act 3: Scene 2 we get to what could be the crux of the matter. While Reagan has ushered in an era of hope, the end of liberalism, the end of New Deal Socialism, the end of 'ipso facto secular humanism and the dawning of a genuinely American political personality..." Beneath all this rhetoric of democracy and freedom is a deep seated sense of hate. This is the land of the free and the brave, but only in an ontological sense, and only if your ontology matches party lines. In fact, this is a country that while holding the torch of liberty, simultaneously oppresses one preferred demographic at a time, standing on their backs to raise the torch a little higher. Peter Minuit purchases Manhattan, for some beads and then ten seconds later Andrew Jackson is marching the Native Americans down the trail of tears. The Chinese almost single handedly build the continental railroad, but when gold is found at Sutter's Mill, the Chinese (and Native Americans) are almost completely systematically removed. Of course then there's our history with slaves and the deep seated racial bigotry. But Louis argues (to his friend Belize, a black cross dresser) that our intolerance is less of a race issue and more of a political one.
What AIDS has done for this country, during the prosperity of Reaganomics, is to reveal the limits of tolerance and the fundamental buttressing doctrines of deep seated, intense passionate hate.
While Louis tries to make his argument concise, without offending Belize by negating the enormity of race, his summation is that we lack a cohesive monolith that truly unifies us. We, as a country are fragmented and susceptible to being infinitely tossed on the tidal waves of political uncertainty. Power is the definitive force behind ontology. We have no sense of spirit or spiritualism, we killed off all the indigenous spirits in America along with the Native Americans.
Louis: "...There are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people."
Going from Federico Garcia Lorca plays to Tony Kushner is kind of like going from tango to rave. While there is the underlying rhythm of a surrealist beat in the tango, and there are motifs and themes that seem complex and unfamiliar...with Tony Kushner you're in a mosh pit with bodies throwing themselves at you and opioid addicted protagonists wandering off into the frozen tundra. There is so much going on. On the one hand it is a narrative of the complexities of oppression and the shifting mercurial demographics of the oppressed, and on the other hand it is a narrative of the disillusionment and hypocrisy of love.