Fantasy vs. Tragedy, The Symbol of the Angel

Although Angels in America by Tony Kushner hones in on the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, the play’s absurdism makes the text more accessible while simultaneously creating a binary between fantasy and tragedy.  

One of the reoccurring symbols in the play, the angel, invites camp discussions into the text. For example, when the angel first visits Prior as The Voice, it says, “Soon I will return, I will reveal myself to you; I am glorious, glorious; my heart, my countenance and my message. You must prepare” (Kushner 65). At first, the angel’s voice seems like it will present an outstanding spiritual message that will act as a guiding light for Prior. However, the Angel presents itself in a camp way, speaking elaborately in metaphors, and in Part II addressing Prior as a Prophet, saying wild phrases like, “Am the Bird of America, the Bald Eagle” that don’t make much sense to the reader (Kushner 160). With pieces like this, the angel is reduced to its camp form, as a being inside Prior’s mind that makes the play more accessible and pulls away from the tragedy of AIDS. 

The angel’s camp and sometimes outlandish actions bring balance to the play. Without humor from the angel, Prior’s narrative could be reduced to “another story about the tragedy of AIDS”, however the play refuses to simplify its characters, and the angel aids in that process. 

Even just the word “angel” brings a duality to the play. For example, when Prior tells Louis he has AIDS, he says “K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine dark kiss of the angel of death” (Kushner 21). Prior’s description of this angel contradicts itself in its beautiful “kiss”, but ultimate death sentence.  

Additionally, although an angel is a holy, godly figure, it visits Prior, a gay man with AIDS. This detail demonstrates that the lines of good and evil aren’t clean cut, which is vital to the story of the AIDS crisis. For years, society viewed people with AIDS as subhuman, as lesser-than, even seeming dangerous to touch, in addition to the homophobia of the time. 

Overall, the angel is necessary in order for the play to interest watchers/readers as well as speak truthfully on the impact of the AIDS crisis. 

3 thoughts on “Fantasy vs. Tragedy, The Symbol of the Angel”

  1. I love that you brought up how the Angel coming to Prior blurred the lines of good and bad and how society would label groups and people as solely one or the other. Having a gay person, one who is seen to not have any morality or holiness in them, come into contact with an angel, challenges the ideas of homophobia rooted in religion. We saw this contradiction again during the scene where Louis is praying over Roy’s dead body.

  2. I like the way that you highlight the absurdism of the play, but I don’t know that it necessarily creates a binary between fantasy and tragedy. As you describe, even in tragic moments where the audience should feel horrible for a character like Prior, the angels offer an almost comic relief from what would otherwise be a totally tragic play. It seems as though these elements often serve to form a mixture or mesh of fantasy and tragedy together rather than a binary between them.

  3. The author of this post gives a very insightful ook into the symbolism and camp aspect of the angel in the play. The angel is very much a subversion of the typical “angel messenger” trope in the same way Prior is very much a subversion of the “prophet” trope. It turns the story of “Angels in America” into a camp story of different people’s experiences during the AIDS crisis rather than just another tragedy of the epidemic.

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