Just a few about what the angels are, what they want, and in what sense the play is about angels and their relationship with America.
Part One: Millennium Approaches
Joe, a Mormon lawyer living in New York, has this take on America of 1985 (as Reagan is president), talking to his wife Harper, p26:
Things are starting to change in the world. For the good. America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations. And people aren’t ashamed of that like they used to be. This is a great thing. The truth restored. Law restored. That’s what President Reagan’s done, Harper. He says, “Truth exists and can be spoken proudly.” And the country responds to him. We become better. More good. I need to be a part of that, I need something to lift me up. …
Later he speaks to (arch-villain) Roy Cohn, p54:
Those who love God with a open heart unclouded by secrets and struggles are cheerful; God’s easy simple love for them shows in how strong and happy they are. … I wanted to be one of the elect, one of the Blessed. You feel you ought to be, that the blemishes are yours by choice, which of course they aren’t.
Because Joe has secrets and struggles: like Roy Cohn, he’s a closet gay.
Prior Walter, a 30ish gay man in New York with AIDS, hears a voice, a premonition of the angel, which says, p62:
Soon I will return, I will reveal myself to you; I am glorious, glorious; my heart, my countenance and my message. You must prepare. A marvelous work and a wonder we undertake, an edifice awry we sink plumb and straighten, a great Lie we abolish, a great error correct, with the rule, sword and broom of Truth!
In the very next scene a lawyer associate of Cohn’s rhapsodizes about the Republican agenda (sounding exactly like Republicans today), p63:
We have a new agenda and finally a real leader. They got back the Senate but we have the courts. By the nineties the Supreme Court will be block-solid Republican appointees, and the Federal bench—Republican judges like land mines, everywhere, everywhere they turn. … It’s really the end of Liberalism. The end of New Deal Socialism. The end of ipso facto secular humanism. The dawning of a genuinely American political personality. Modeled on Ronald Wilson Reagan.
In long monologue Louis, Prior’s Jewish boyfriend (who has left Prior, unable to handle the disease), ponders democracy in America, which he supposes is less about tolerance than power, and how race is really just a political question. P92:
Racists just try to use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It’s not really about race. Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist—only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political…
(This is the only explicit reference in the play to the play’s title.)
At the end of the first play, the angel arrives, dropping through the ceiling of Prior’s room, p119:
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived.
The second play, Perestroika, opens with an ancient Russian Bolshevik, sermonizes about doom and the potential for change. He concludes,
Then we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead!
Later, Joe the Mormon lawyer, defends his worldview to Louis, p34-35:
Since you believe the world is perfectable you find it always unsatisfying. But you must reconcile yourself to its unperfectability by being thoroughly in the world but not of it. It’s the end of a nineteenth-century socialist romanticist conflation of government and society, law and Justice, idea and action, irreconcilables which only meet at some remote horizon, like parallels converging in infinity. The rhythm of history is conservative. Change is geologically slow. You must accept that.
The Angel finally explains to Prior what’s going on, p49ff:
In creating You, Our Father-Lover unleashed
Sleeping Creation’s Potential for Change.
In YOU the Virus of TIME began!
You Think. And You IMAGINE!
Migrate, Explore, and when you do:
As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued. Manifest first as tremors in Heaven.
Heaven is a City Much Like San Francisco…
With earthquakes mirroring heavenquakes. And so,
He began to leave us!
Bored with His Angels, Bewitched by Humanity,
In Mortifying Imitation of You, his least creation,
He would sail off on Voyages, no knowing where.
And on April 18, 1906, the day of the Great San Francisco Earthquake,
And did not return.
We do not know where HE has gone. HE may never…
Prior is relating all this, his visitation or dream of an angel, to his friend Belize: “It’s all gone too far, too much loss is what they think, we should stop somehow, go back.” To which Belize replies, p52:
But that’s not how the world works, Prior. It only spins forward.
The Angel goes on:
Before the boiling of blood and the searing of skin
Comes the Secret Catastrophe:
Before Life on Earth becomes finally merely impossible,
It will for a long time before have become completely unbearable.
YOU HAVE DRIVEN HIM AWAY! YOU MUST STOP MOVING!
The ultimate conservative agenda.
Forsake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow.
If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress:
Seek Not to Fathom the World and its Delicate Particle Logic:
You cannot Understand, You can only Destroy,
You do not Advance, You only Trample.
Poor blind Children, abandoned on the Earth,
Groping terrified, misguided, over
Fields of Slaughter, over bodies of the Slain:
And the Angel gives Prior a book.
Vessel of the BOOK now: Oh Exemplum Paralyticum:
On you in you in your blood we write have written:
Many scenes, trials and tribulations (including the death of Roy Cohn) later, Prior ascends to Heaven and faces a row of Continental Principalities, who “maintain surveillance over Human Mischief,” and gives the book back.
It just… It just… We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is… modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what? God…
He isn’t coming back. And even if he did…
If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again… if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see… how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard. That’s my only contribution to all this Theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.
The terrible things including, of course, AIDS.
I haven’t done anything yet, I…
I want to be healthy again. And this plague, it should stop. In me and everywhere. Make it go away.
I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.
I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but… You see them living anyway.
And so Prior rejects the Angel’s plea for the abandonment of modernity. And lives.
In the final scene, four years later in 1990, Prior addresses the audience.
This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.
End of play.