Though gay themes prevail in Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s work critically examines issues crucial to the American identity. Kushner uses social criticism from the viewpoint of his characters, who as members of minority groups, voice, witness or exhibit the moral decay, spiritual depletion and self-destructiveness found at the very core of their society. This constant downward spiral is relieved by Kushners hope in man, who, as a social being, can have an impact on the historical process, mainly through political engagement and activism. ‘Though the threat of catastrophe, annihilation and despair looms large in his work, in man lays the hope and the potential for change, and therefore, salvation’ (Stephanovic, 2000: 151).
Angels in America Part One and Part Two premiered for the first time together at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles the night Bill Clinton was about to be elected the new president of the United States, November 1, 1992. By that time over 171,890 people had officially died of AIDS-related causes in the United States alone (1998: 205). Roman explains how the November 1st performance actually played as a rehearsal; the plays were withheld for review by another week. He argues this postponement was nothing more than Brechtian gestus.
Kushner cites his influences as Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Brecht's theories on political drama and Benjamin's ideas on history. Critic James Fisher states that "Angels is certainly inspired by aspects of Brechtian theatre, but it is primarily fuelled by Walter Benjamin" (1995: 291), the playwright employed the Brechtian epic mode and form and became greatly influenced by the use of multiple points of perspective and a dialectical vision of history. Brecht's insistence on socially-conscious, proletarian drama is also evident in Kushner's depictions of normal people in politically charged crises and particular individuals exposed to deprivation and suffering.
Walter Benjamin’s Understanding Brecht (Versuche uber Brecht, 1966) influenced Kushner's theatre. Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1969) particularly inspired Angels in America. In the core of this essay, Benjamin uses a strange visual allegory for the presentation of his theories on history written within the context of the Nazi advance across Europe. According to Worthen (2004: 1208), by gazing at Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus (1920), Benjamin develops a parable of history in his ninth thesis: A Klee painting named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Munoz (2004) compares the angels, “In Benjamin's metaphor, the angel of history stands for both the absence of the idea of a future and the intolerable situation of a present. Trapped between a past and a horrific future, the angel just passively gazes at the catastrophe of the history of humankind. Thus, the paradise becomes a real tempest that gets caught under his wings and pushes him into an unknown future. This way, Benjamin's angel looks like a bird of bad omens rather than a prophetical messenger. The philosopher's upset and pessimistic view on history and progress is at the basis of Kushner's plays. But the...