"Angels in America" by Tony Kushner

Character Analysis of Prior Walter

Angels in America (2003)
Photograph courtesy Home Box Office (HBO)

The Full Title

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Part One - Millennium Approaches

Part Two - Perestroika

The Basics

Angels in America is written by playwright Tony Kushner. The first part, "Millennium Approaches," premiered in Los Angeles in 1990. The second part, "Perestroika," premiered the following year. Each installment of Angels in America won the Tony Award for Best Play (1993 and 1994).

The play's multi-layered plot explores the lives of two very different AIDS patients during the 1980s: the fictional Prior Walter and the non-fictional Roy Cohn. In addition to the themes of homophobia, Jewish heritage, sexual identity, politics, AIDS awareness, and Mormonism, Angels in America also weaves a very mystical component throughout the storyline. Ghosts and angels play a prominent role as the living characters confront their own mortality.

Although there are many significant characters within the play (including the Machiavellian lawyer and world-class hypocrite Roy Cohn), the most sympathetic and transformative protagonist in the play is a young man named Prior Walter.

Prior the Prophet

Prior Walter is an openly gay New Yorker in a relationship with Louis Ironson, a guilt-ridden, Jewish intellectual legal clerk. Shortly after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Prior needs serious medical attention. However, Louis, compelled by fear and denial, abandons his lover, ultimately leaving Prior betrayed, brokenhearted, and increasingly ill.

Yet Prior soon learns that he is not alone. Much like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Prior will meet important companions who will aid his quest for health, emotional well-being, and wisdom. In fact, Prior makes several references to The Wizard of Oz, quoting Dorothy on more than one occasion.

Prior's friend, Belize, perhaps the most compassionate figure in the play, works as a nurse (for none other than the dying, AIDS-ravaged Roy Cohn). He does not waver in the face of death, remaining loyal to Prior. He even swipes experimental medicine from the hospital directly following Cohn's death.

Prior also gains an unlikely friend: the Mormon mother of his ex-boyfriend's lover (yes, it's a complicated). As they learn about the other's values, they learn that they are not as different as they first believed. Hannah Pitt (the Mormon mother) stays by his hospital bedside and listens in earnest to Prior's retelling of his heavenly hallucinations. The fact that a virtual stranger is willing to befriend an AIDS patient and comfort him through the night makes Louis' act of abandonment all the more cowardly.

Forgiving Louis

Fortunately, Prior's ex-boyfriend is not beyond redemption. When Louis finally visits his weakened companion, Prior scorns him, explaining that he cannot return unless he has experienced pain and injury. Weeks later, after a fight with Joe Pitt (Louis' closeted Mormon lover and the right-hand man of the contemptible Roy Cohn -- see, I told you it was complicated), Louis returns to visit Prior the hospital, beaten and bruised. He asks for forgiveness, Prior grants it to him -- but also explains that their romantic relationship will never continue.

Prior and the Angels

The most profound relationship which Prior establishes is a spiritual one. Even though he is not seeking religious enlightenment, Prior is visited by an angel who decrees his role as a prophet.

By the play's end, Prior wrestles with the angel and ascends to heaven, where he finds the rest of the seraphim in disarray. They seem overwhelmed by paperwork and no longer serve as a guiding force for mankind. Instead, heaven offers peace through stillness (death). However, Prior rejects their views and rejects his title of prophet. He chooses to embrace progress, despite all of the pain that it entails. He embraces change, desire, and above all things, life.

Despite the complexity of plot and the political/historical backdrop, the message of Angels in America is ultimately a simple one. During the play's resolution, Prior's final lines are delivered directly to the audience: "You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you. More life. The great work begins."

It seems, in the end, Prior Walter accepts his role as a prophet after all.

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Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. ""Angels in America" by Tony Kushner." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/angels-in-america-by-tony-kushner-2713405. Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 25). "Angels in America" by Tony Kushner. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/angels-in-america-by-tony-kushner-2713405 Bradford, Wade. ""Angels in America" by Tony Kushner." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/angels-in-america-by-tony-kushner-2713405 (accessed June 1, 2023).