When living a predetermined existence

In the play Angels in America by Tony Kushner, it is difficult to identify any main characters who can truly be described as happy. Instead, we find characters who are struggling, in one way or another, with legacy. By intertwining his characters with prominent political, religious, historical, and even familial power structures, Kushner questions whether one can truly make their own way, or if destiny is predetermined.

Prior Walter is an openly gay man who suffers from AIDS. Because he is living at a time when political powers refuse to acknowledge the pandemic, he, like the wide population were unable to access experimental drugs that could improve his condition. In act 3 scene 1 of Millennium Approaches Prior Walter (a family name) is visited by prior Walters. The ghosts which have come to visit him have died of the plague in Europe hundreds of years ago, saying “They chose us, I suspect, because of the mortal affinities. In a family as long descended as the Walters there are bound to be a few carried off by plague” (Kushner 91). The implication here is that in a line of people, in history, there are at least a few who are bound to fall victim to their time. It is poignant that the current Prior Walter is visited by plague victims because of the prominence of his own sickness (even despite the furtive nature of political officials). One wonders whether present Prior had any chance at all or if his circumstances have cemented him to his fate.

In contrast, Roy Cohn is a deeply closeted gay man who works as powerful attorney in the same city as Prior Walter. Despite having AIDS, he is, in fact, one of the people denying its existence by keeping silent. We see Cohn do everything in his power, politically and financially to alter his prognosis. In Perestroika Act 2 Scene 6, Cohn calls a political ally from his hospital bed and demands a personal stock of the trial drug AZT “That I control, here in the room with me” (Kushner 156). He threatens to expose and slander the person if he doesn’t agree. Yet, despite his perceived power, perhaps even by himself, Roy Cohn still doesn’t have the ability to dictate his own future. He is, literally, haunted by Ethel Rosenberg a woman he sent to the electric chair for Communist malfeasance. In act 3 scene 5 of Millennium Approaches Cohn insists to Ethel’s ghost that he has forced his way into history, and in that way he will never die. To this Ethel responds “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches” (118).  It is understood by this that Roy Cohn will not have defined himself in the history books, but history will have defined him, revealing his sexuality and his disease, more than he ever wanted to be known for.

The comparison of Prior Walter’s fate to Roy Cohn’s reveals Kushner’s belief that power isn’t able to define destiny. This is perhaps his ultimate proof of the idea “time will tell” because it is existing at a time within which a historic disease is present that will cause the end of these two people, powerful or not.

2 thoughts on “When living a predetermined existence”

  1. I love this reading of the text. I have never thought about destiny or fate as being one of the major themes throughout the play but through your interpretation, it very clearly seems to be. Understanding how this plays into Kushner’s writing, it then gives light to the play’s themes surrounding religion and divine intervention—the way that the play has rejected the idea that gay men at this time were largely impacted by this epidemic as a punishment from God for moral wrongdoings. Through both Roy and Prior’s hauntings, it’s evident that Kushner is attempting to show how plague and death are fated to happen throughout history regardless of one’s power, identity, or morals.

  2. I find this analysis of the text quite insightful. it never struck me while reading that while Roy and Prior are two opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of privilege, they moth have very similar fates, and that no matter how powerful someone is, they are intimately not in control of their own fate. I also find it interesting that Prior and Roy are also the two characters that get to directly interact with the past through the prior Priors and Ethel Rosenberg, also hinting at how fate is out of their hands.

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