"Angels in America" and its relation to American politics


It's both eerie and reassuring to consider that the election season will be over in a few days. As the campaigns reach fever pitch, full of all the mudslinging and last-minute rallies one can expect from presidential elections, I've often found myself thinking about the state of American politics. My thoughts keep circling back to "Angels in America," perhaps America's most-loved political drama.
"Angels in America", Tony Kushner's 1992 Pulitzer Prize Winning Play, published in two parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), focuses its narrative on two couples: typist Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and Mormon law clerk Joe Pitt and his Valium-addicted, agoraphobic wife, Harper. When Prior is diagnosed with AIDS, Louis leaves him after realizing that he cannot be caretaker and endure the associated pressure. Meanwhile, Joe is offered a job in the Justice Department by his mentor, bigoted McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn, but Harper, who suffers from crippling anxiety and hallucinations, is opposed to moving to Washington.
As the lives of the characters become increasingly intertwined, with Louis and the closeted Joe engaging in a torrid affair, and Prior wandering through Harper's hallucinations, Prior begins to hear the voice of an angel. The angel proclaims him to be a prophet and presents him with a book with a message to deliver to humankind.
The angel implores Prior to halt the migratory inclination of human beings, which she claims tempted God to leave humankind after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Prior, aghast at the idea that humans should stop changing, stop moving forward and stop making what Harper refers to as "painful progress," is permitted entry into heaven to refuse his prophecy.
He says, "I've lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children - they live. ... So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. It's so much not enough. It's so inadequate. But still, bless me anyway. I want more life."
Prior's exquisite monologue is a testament to the fact that, even in a world filled with despair, Americans will always keep going. In the context of this election, America can't keep looking backward, can't keep blocking progress and can't keep trying to turn the clock back to some puritanical past. Progress is in our nature, and it's coming, whether politicians are on board or not.
In the play's epilogue, staged five years in the future, Louis, Prior, Hannah Pitt (Joe's compassionate Mormon mother) and Belize (Prior's ex-drag-queen nurse) congregate at Bethesda Fountain. Prior turns to the audience and claims, "The world only spins forward." He's right. It's in our nature to move forward, and it's just not logical to elect a president who wants to move backward.
Political though it may be, "Angels in America" is more than a treatise on American politics. It's a discussion of American religious life, the social issues that continue to divide our nation to this day and the extraordinary human spirit that makes this country a place worth fighting for. It's eerie and tragic, raw and electric, full of poetry, danger and boundless hope for the future. Even if America chooses the wrong candidate, even though I keep threatening to move to France should it do so, and even if progress is halted because of that choice, America will find a way to keep moving forward. It always has. It always will.

- Westenfeld is a sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind., majoring in English literature and creative writing.