Grief in America An analysis of the relationships in angels in america

How does class material such as "I am Joaquin" and "White" illustrate the process of grief and injustice experienced by the couples in Angels in America by Tony Kushner?

While taking a close look into the lives of the two couples Joe and Harper Pitt and Louis and Prior, the object of study is looking at the performance in the HBO mini series of grieving throughout the show, the evolution of relationships because of it and the overall truth that expands on the way America handles grief the experience among artists and authors we studied in class.

Photo Credit: HBO.com

To analyze the performance of grief, I intend to study the relationships between the characters as couples, Louis Ironson and his boyfriend Prior Walter as well as Joe Pitt and his wife Harper Pitt. Both couples have to endure a great loss as Louis watches his boyfriend undergo the process of dying from AIDS and when Harper Pitt must grieve the husband that she thought she had married. Both stories and their journey through their relationships reflect a performance of grief in America by upholding certain values that cause people to hide their true selves through religion and success as in the Pitts' story which ultimately causes a death of sanity and faith and then again with Louis and Joe as their story of suffering and abandonment reflects the image of America in its genocidal and unjust history.

Photo Credit - Top left: Hbo.com, Top middle: IMDB.com, Top Right: Pinterest.com, Middle left: HBO.com, Middle Right: Reddit.com, Bottom left: Tumblr.com, Bottom right: Cambridge University Press

In this scene, Harper seeks guidance in her relationship and shares a hallucination with Prior Walter who gives her insight on her confusing relationship with her husband. Both Prior and Harper are at pivotal moments in their discovery about the tragedies in their lives.


For my topic of discussion I wanted to look specifically at the relationships in Angels in America by Tony Kushner and their main conflicts. The two relationships that stood out to me the most was the marriage between Joe and Harper Pitt and the partnership between Louis Ironson and Prior Walter and using elements of their relationship and their behaviors toward death to draw parallels to how America reacts to death/tragedy. With Joe and Harper, Joe is battling with his sexuality and his religion while Harper is left struggling on her own to grapple with her mental stability. Then with Louis and Prior, Louis has to watch his partner die from AIDS and decide what he will do to handle the grief while Prior obviously faces a horrible fate and suffers greatly in the process. In my essay, I will analyze both of these relationships, the sequence of events that leads to the actions of Louis and Harper ultimately running away from their devastating circumstances and attempt to make a statement on how that reflects the way that America faces great tragedy in our current world through some of the creative works we viewed in class.

I took a closer look at Joe Pitt and his world first because I felt his story was the most clear. I also wanted to look at Richard Dyer's essay "White" to better explain Joe's experience. Dyer states "white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular" which could be why Joe is so plain and a rule follower even in spite of his truth. He needs to fit into the "emptiness, absence, denial or even a kind of death" (Dyer) to embody his whiteness. We can see his wife existing with a sort of ghost and explains her grieving attitude. Joe obviously comes from a strict mormon family which we can tell by looking at the relationship he has with his mother and the lack of relationship with his father. While on a phone call with his mother he asks her if his father loved him and on this same phone call he tries to confide in his mother about his sexuality and his true self, to which she responds with hanging up on him. Joe not only has his sexuality to face but his marriage with a mentally unstable person whom he ignores and puts through unbearable stress. Because his lack of his lack of a real life this leaves his wife in a confusing place and since he does not know how to handle it he abandons her. This stood out to me as a reflection of the type of behavior that America embodies when an undesirable truth presents itself and of course the privilege of the white man to be able to just up and leave and do something else, choose something else. Joe seems to represent the repressed and unjust republican party in this situation as he turns a blind eye tho the truth and attempts to hide away from his reality, similar to the way that some Americans have such a willful ignorance in our current and past political climate regarding homophobia and racism.

Harper struggles due to her husbands dishonesty but also from her own mental illness. She is seen popping pills in her first scene and meandering about her apartment. She wanders aimlessly probably because she has nothing to do. Her entire life and relationship is based on a false hood therefor her mental state relies on her own reality that she makes up. To exist in her world, she has to ignore reality and live in her hallucinations. I wondered if this was a representation of what it means to be a woman in American society, to have to exist in a world of your own because reality is too unbearable. Harper's experience in a white man's marriage reminded me of the piece "I Am Joaquin" by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales because she struggles to exist in this patriarchal prison with her husband who makes all the decisions for her like where they should live etc. Harper is "lost in a world of confusion" (Gonzales) as she pops pills to find some normalcy. Within her husbands authority she is "confused by the rules, scorned by attitudes, suppressed by manipulation, and destroyed by modern society" (Gonzales). A significant moment in her hallucination is when she meets Prior, there he reveals the truth to her about her husband and that inciting incident begins her liberation. Harper has to endure heartbreak and for someone like her it is unbearable. She says at one point that “I don’t understand why I’m not dead. When your heart breaks you should die.” (Kushner) This line reveals the pain that she is enduring that her heartbreak is too great to live through, much like the countless events that seem to be happening in the US and that have happened in the past.

In the beginning of the show, Louis Ironson learns that his partner has contracted the AIDS virus and his journey begins just after that. He cannot understand what is happening to his partner and he even states when he finds out that he cannot be around the sickness. Admitting this to Prior is foreshadowing because he eventually abandons Prior in his hospital bed, he does so when Prior is unconscious which can be considered cowardly. This spineless action is paralleled to the way that people run away from the harsh realities of the world, such as the presidency, refusing to acknowledge our corrupt past and eagerness to sweep everything under the rug. It is no surprise that Louis and Joe end up finding comfort in one another because they have both run away from something that has scared them, something that they cannot face and something that they actually can run from since they are less effected physically where as Prior is clearly dying and Harper lives with an avoidable mental illness.

That brings us to the last character of my analysis, Prior Walter. Prior is deemed a prophet in the show and this comes as a surprise as he is unwilling to accept the message from the angel. Prior is of course the closest to death of the four character I am analyzing and therefore probably the most susceptible to divine intervention. He was abandoned by his partner basically left to die and his only friend was Belize, who is also a nurse. While looking at the relationship between him and Louis, it is obvious that Prior is the more fun-loving, care free partner and it makes it seem that much more unfair that this would happen to him and odd that his partner would be the one leaving him. This is one of those odd, inexplainable things that grief can make a person do. Nobody is thinking straight when looking into the gaze of death.

Photo Credit: HBO.com

As I compared and contrasted these two relationships, I wondered what it said about the process of dying, of grief and how that relates to the way that America grieves. The entire nation has been built of genocide, when manifest destiny ran its bloody course- how did native cultures grieve? And then of course fast forward to now, how do we as a nation grieve for the monstrous acts led by a government that has abandoned us? How do we grieve for what seems like endless mass shootings to which our legislation does nothing about? I feel like Louis, and I feel like Harper. I want to run away from the ugly death raging onto a lovers body in the uncomfortably bleak hospital room, I want to escape through a freezer in aa dingy Brooklyn apartment into “Antartica” with the help of a hallucinated travel agent. The reality is theres no angel, no one is listening and all we can do is record our stories and experience the hell on earth while hoping there might be something more. There are no answers but shared experiences that parallel one another's tragic experience endlessly.

Works Cited

Dyer, Richard. “White.” Essays on Race & Culture, 1997.

Gonzales, Rodolfo “Corky”. “I Am Joaquin”, 2009.

Kushner, Tony. Angels In America : a Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York :Theatre Communications Group, 1995.

Created By
Megan Humphrey


Created with images by 小胖 车 - "Angel Costume" • Thomas Kelley - "American Flag On A Pole" • Hal Gatewood - "Line of drugs" • Jen Theodore - "untitled image"