Tony Kushner's "Angel in America" - A Jewish American Epic

Seminar Paper 2004 13 Pages

American Studies - Literature



I. Introduction

II. Tony Kushner’s diverse Jewish Characters
i. The Old Meets the New World: The Rabbi, Sarah and Louis Ironson
ii. The Real Meets the Fictitious World: Roy M. Cohn (1927-1986) and Ethel
Greenglass Rosenberg (1915-1953)

III. Tony Kushner’s Angels

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Much has been written about the homosexual and political playwright Tony Kushner. Interestingly, not so much has been said about his Jewish background and its impact on his dramatic work. Especially, his most acknowledged play ‘Angels in America – A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,’ which is mainly set in New York City “this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted”[1] as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz observes in the first scene of ‘Millennium Approaches,’ is highly concerned with Judaism in general and American Jewry in particular. Naturally, different readings of Tony Kushner’s two-part play are possible. Nevertheless, it is crucial to reveal and analyze the importance of the Jewish tone and setting in ‘Angels in America’ to fully understand Kushner’s complex work.

The play is set in the mid-nineteen-eighties with an epilogue located in 1990. Even though the play takes on epic dimensions with its different settings, a time frame of at least five months, and its various characters, the story nevertheless concentrates mainly on seven protagonists throughout both parts of the play. These characters are Prior Walter, a gay man suffering from AIDS, Joe Pitt, a Mormon discovering that he is gay, Harper Pitt, Joe’s wife suffering from depression, Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother from Salt Lake City, who does not act according to cliché, Belize, an African American former drag queen and former lover of Prior, Roy Cohn, based on the real Jewish lawyer, who denies being gay and having AIDS, and Louis Ironson, Prior’s boyfriend and grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Kushner’s round characters bring about several main topics to this rich play addressing issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and politics in America during the conservative Reagan Era. James Fisher wrote that “Kushner presents this America as a place where present, past, and future intersect in a blur of reality, fantasy, and guardedly hopeful imagination. […] [Thus] ‘Angels’ presents the mid-1980s as a critical transitional period in the history of the nation in which complicated questions about the future of American society are raised.”[2] One major topic of the play is the AIDS pandemic, which hit the liberated gay movement in the 1980s and changed their attitudes and lifestyles tremendously. Above all, Kushner picks out the topic of religion and traditional heritage in our secular, modern world as one of his central themes. As Hilary de Vries wrote in her Chicago Tribune critique, “Kushner credits much of his interest in religion to his family background as part of the little known but thriving Jewish community in [Lake Charles] Louisiana.”[3]

When Kushner moved to New York City in 1974, the Jewish population of the city was over one million making it the largest Jewish community in the world. Even though “Kushner struggles with an ambivalence toward Judaism due to homophobic traditions within his faith,”[4] as James Fisher stated, he nevertheless strongly connects to his own Eastern European roots. Kushner’s ambivalence is that of American Jewry in general, being torn between the modern, secular society and historical ties to ethnic and religious identity.[5] This dilemma is put forward through the play’s fine-nuanced Jewish characters. Furthermore, the play circles around general religious allegories, which origins can be traced back to writings of Judaism, such as the Old Testament and the Kabbalah, as well as to Christian traditions.

II. Tony Kushner’s diverse Jewish Characters

Five Jewish characters play a significant role in Kushner’s play giving it its Jewish tone: Louis Ironson, an intellectual, secular, third-generation New York immigrant, Sarah Ironson, Louis grandmother from Eastern Europe speaking mostly Yiddish, the orthodox Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz with a heavy Eastern European accent, Roy M. Cohn, an anti-Semitic, self-loathing Jew, and Ethel Rosenberg, the historical figure associated with Communism and espionage. Even though, these figures seem rather stereotypical at first sight, Kushner manages to display them as round, diverse characters in the course of the play. As Alisa Solomon has observed in her essay ‘Wrestling with Angels,’ “Kushner calls forth self-conscious Jewish types precisely to undo them.”[6] He “undoes” these familiar types by challenging stereotypical behavior and displaying contradictions within his characters, thus creating “real” individuals.

II.i. The Old Meets the New World: The Rabbi, Sarah and Louis Ironson

The play’s first scene is a monologue of Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz who recites his funeral eulogy for Sarah Ironson, Louis grandmother. Next to him is a small wooden coffin, over which a prayer shawl, embroidered with a Star of David, is draped. Close by, a yahrtzeit candle is burning. Usually these ‘year’s time’ candles acknowledge annual commemoration of a loved one’s death.[7] In Kushner’s case the candle symbolizes general Jewish mourning traditions and further creates the setting of a typical Jewish funeral home. Already in Chemelwitz’ monologue, Kushner establishes a strong contrast between the traditional life of former Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the world of their secular children and grandchildren born and raised in America. The second Jewish immigration wave, mostly from Eastern European countries and Russia, lasted from 1881 to the mid-nineteen-twenties. Almost two million Jews came to America during these decades,[8] most of which landed at Ellis Island and settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Sarah Ironson, Kushner’s representative of this generation, is one of those “last Mohicans”[9] as the Rabbi puts it. By the mid-nineteen-eighties not many of these former immigrants were still alive to tell about their life in Eastern European shtetls.


[1] Tony Kushner, Angels in America – A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Theatre Communications Group, Inc., New York, 1995, p. 16.

[2] James Fisher, The Theater of Tony Kushner – Living Past Hope, Routledge, New York, 2002, p. 2.

[3] Hilary de Vries, “A Gay Epic,” in: Chicago Tribune – The Arts, April 25, 1993, pp. 6-7. Taken from: James P. Draper (ed.), Contemporary Literary Criticism – Yearbook 1993, Vol. 81, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1994, p. 208.

[4] James Fisher, The Theater of Tony Kushner, 2002, pp. 10-11.

[5] For a closer reading on American Jewry see: Catherine L. Albanese, America – Religions and Religion, 2nd edition, Wadsworth, Inc., Belmont, California, 1992, p. 55.

[6] Alisa Solomon, Wrestling with Angels: A Jewish Fantasia, in: Deborah R. Geis and Steven Kruger (eds.), Approaching the Millennium – Essays on Angels in America, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1997, p. 126

[7] Rabbi Amy B. Bigman, Death and Mourning: Jewish Rituals, 4 March 2004 <http://www.j-cinstitute. org/Articles/Bigman_Back_Jewish_Rituals.htm>.

[8] George C. Bedell et al (eds.), Religion in America, 2nd edition, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1982, p. 277.

[9] Tony Kushner, Angels in America, 1995, p. 17.


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Free University of Berlin – John-F.-Kennedy Institut
Tony Kushner Angel America Jewish American Epic



Title: Tony Kushner's "Angel in America" - A Jewish American Epic