Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has received considerable critical acclaim. The two-part play has been hailed as a ‘masterpiece’, ‘the broadest, deepest, most searching American play of our time’. Amongst many prizes and awards, Angels won Kushner the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1993) and two Tony Awards (1993 and 1994). At the same time, the play has also received less than complimentary reviews, with one reviewer claiming that Angels ‘is not for White Bread America. It’s for people who eat bagels and lox, dress in drag, and hate Ronald Reagan’. Perhaps one of the reasons behind such interest is that, with its first breath, Kushner’s Angels delves into the religious. This play is, like Rabbi Chemelwitz’s opening eulogy, about ‘Great Voyages’, individual and collective crossings, choices; in rapport to ourselves, each other, and God. It is about life, living and the will to live, about love and the idea of love, about death and the beyond. It is about pain and ecstasy, about strength and weakness, and the infuriating frustrations that we, humans, experience when we cannot control what happens to us. Tony Kushner’s genius lies primarily in his ability to write about serious, and often painful and moving, issues with a sense of humour. This saves his work from dripping with sentimentalism, which is so often the case with dramas built around a terminally ill character. Kushner’s Angels is about many things, all with echoes in human life, the ultimate great voyage. Inevitably, some, if not all, of these echoes take biblical resonance. The play has apocalyptic tones: from the title of its first part, Millennium Approaches, to encounters with winged angels who speak of The END. We are introduced to a dying, exhausted and reluctant prophet, who is strengthened by an angel’s presence but who refuses his assigned mission, wrestles with the angel, climbs up to heaven on a fiery ladder and gains a blessing. Thus, Angels is saturated with biblical references and religious concepts and practices.
This paper engages with Kushner’s play Angels in America, and particularly Mike Nichols’ television adaptation of it, and focuses primarily on the angelic encounters and their biblical counterparts, specifically Jacob’s and Elijah’s encounters with angels in Gen. 32.22-32 and 1 Kings 19:1-9 respectively. For Kushner, it seems, ‘angels’ signify an absence rather than a presence of the divine, puzzles rather than answers (many of which refer to sex and gender identities), and turn-of-the-millennium angst. This work explores the complex world of signifiers in Angels in America, while paying particular attention to the biblical elements present in the text.
Ela Nutu is the author of Incarnate Word, Inscribed Flesh: John¹s Prologue and the Postmodern (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007) and co-editor of Between the Text and the Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007). She is interested in exploring different means of reading biblical texts, particularly the ways in which cultural trends affect a recycling of the Bible in terms of the creation of gender identity and ideology. Her current research focuses on the journeys of Judith and Salome from text into art and culture and investigates the parameters of the femme forte and the femme fatale in relation to these female characters.