Under the current COVID-19 pandemic, the reading of the AIDS epidemic becomes especially thought provoking and resonating. During special times like this while everything around us is changing, readers cannot help but notice the progress and changes that the play is hinting at. In the 1980s, it was the worst of times, but it was also the best of times. It was a time of chaos and conservatism, but it was also a time of progress and hope. It was a time of fear and hate, but it was also a time for justice and love. Through dramatic theatrical effects, strong character development, humor, irony, and intelligent design of plots, Tony Kushner tells a great story about what it was like to live in the worst age and how to find hope in such an era. Like the last line of the play, “The great work begins.”
From hallucinations, ghosts, specters, to the angel, the book incorporates many fantastical elements that blur the fine line between reality and illusion. These elements, of course, serve their unique functions in the play and have made the reading experience interesting, fun, and even interactive. Ethel Rosenberg (Roy Cohn’s hallucination), for example, sets up the direct conflict between anticommunism and justice, between powerfulness and powerlessness, and between the dead and the alive. The scenes that address Roy’s past and his relationship with Ethel are interesting to read because Kushner truly pushes forward the plot in a humorous and witty way, which seemed to relax the tension between two clashing parties. The angel, on the other hand, provides the audiences with a completely different reading experience. The angel, as appeared in the title and cover of the book, challenge’s people notion of an angel. While angels are usually female, gentle, and hopeful, the angel in America (the one in the play that Prior wrestles with) is a stubborn aggressive Walt Whitman-sounding creature that opposes change. The interaction between Prior and the angel could be hilarious and confusing at times, but the tension between the two characters pose the issue of progress and stasis clashing with each other—the situation of America under the Reagan revolution.
The play reveals a lot about the American ideas, and one of those are the people’s reluctancy of change and progress. The world is changing, and it is hard to stop it. The Mormon mother describes change as: “God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.” The bloody line here again projects the potential conflict between change and progress, and sometimes progress means simply going backwards. After the two waves of feminist movements, women were again found at the cult of domesticity; after the Civil War, African Americans were still disenfranchised and segregated; after centuries of reforms and changes, the Reagan Revolution tried to restore a WASP regime. In the end, though, after Prior grapples with the angel and decides to live despite struggling with AIDS, the book ends with a hopeful tone because changes are coming, and it is impossible to stop them, not even by supernatural forces like the angel.
Another important idea that Kushner deals with is the corruption within the judicial system. Protagonists like Joe, Louis, and Roy are all part of the judicial system, and their conversations, political discourses, and actions show a lot of the dark side of the political agenda and conspiracy. Louis’s monologues and long rants demonstrate his discontent with the government as well as the two-party system. As a gay liberal, his relationship with the gay Mormom Republican lawyer Joe further aggravates the problem that Louis has with the system. Through direct discourses between characters, the clash between progress and change, liberalism and conservatism, and morality and immorality becomes the central ideas. “I hate America,” one character says, “I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying… 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.” In the eyes of the most marginalized people in society (like Belize—African American homosexual), America is nothing the ideals tell but is in fact chaos and “people dying”. From the play, the readers start to understand how the people of power use such privileges to construct “American ideas”. For example, the queerness and marginalization of gay people is a construct of the people of power—Roy calls AIDS liver cancer to avoid negative judgement and restore his reputation. The bias, prejudice, and hate were extremely prevalent in society, and even from a player where most characters are gay, readers can see the bias.
Eventually, though, the book is hopeful. Putting the bleakness aside, there are moments in the book (like the epilogue) that give audiences a positive outlook of the future. Today, I think the attitude is especially important living under a time like this. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore,” Hannah, Joe’s mom, says in the epilogue. “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” The Great Work begins.