We've all heard of the “American Dream.” The United States of America would not have been what it is today without its founding ideals and the American Dream; but whether or not this dream still stands or remains relevant to our modern society is the question. How has the American Dream taken shape in our reality — a world full of diverse people and experiences? This essay intends to explore how the “American Reality” is reflected in our modern America according to Tony Kushner's play, Angels in America. By close-examining the conversation between characters Louis and Belize in Act 4 Scene 3 of Perestroika in the play, we begin to understand how obsessed with its founding ideals the United States has become. How has the obsession with these ideals affect the lives of its people in a negative way? How in chasing these ideals, people are permitted to be selfish, ignorant, and uncaring.

Below is the clip from HBO's adaptation of Angels in America, Act 4 Scene 3 of Perestroika:


The play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, written by playwright Tony Kushner, is an epic drama that consists of two parts, Millennium Approaches and later the addition of Perestroika, covering a huge variety of topics from homosexuality to religion to the migration and progress of the society. Through these various themes, Kushner breaks the perfect image of America — one that promises liberty, happiness, prosperity, and success. By revealing the many prejudices that exist in politics as well as in the society, he encourages his audience to reflect and re-evaluate what America is really like on the inside: “terminal, crazy, and mean”(Kushner 230; Perestroika Act 4 Scene 5). This long six-hour play, which also has a film version adapted by HBO, portrays a different reality for America, where its ideals are praised so high the execution of it becomes misguided. Through the dialogues and actions of the characters as well as the setting and symbols in Angels in America, the performative reveals a selfish America under its gilded ideals.

"You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I'll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean."

Kushner depicts America as a place so overly obsessed with its own ideals that morals become negligible. Through the character Louis, who abandons his boyfriend Prior once he finds out his boyfriend is dying from AIDS, Kushner pokes fun at people’s obsession with the American Dream: a perfect life free of struggles and oppression. As Louis’s friend Belize describes: “Louis and his Big Ideas. Big Ideas are all [he] love[s]. ‘America’ is what Louis loves” (Kushner 230; Perestroika Act 4 Scene 3). Louis’s blind love for America represents the United States as a nation — “the only nation founded on an idea, not an identity,” according to House Speaker Paul Ryan in his speech on the state of American politics in 2016.

The United States of America is deeply rooted in ideals and beliefs since the beginning, even to the founding Fathers. [Photo credit: Declaration of Independence (1817–1819), by John Trumbull. (Library of Congress)]

It is this blind love that guides Louis’s actions, allowing him to rationalize his decision to leave and move forward on his own, and ignoring the selfishness of it all. America’s prized capitalist belief permits and approves of competition, monopolies, and individual successes. It encourages the instant replacement of whoever falls short or appears to be weak. Similarly, this idea of pursuing one’s own success justifies Louis’s decision in his mind, even though from a moral perspective, the action is nothing but cold-blooded. Another aspect of reasoning that resulted in Louis’s decision to leave Prior is his fear of being in a difficult situation, one that may potentially lead to discomfort, pain, and sorrow. As previously mentioned, Louis’s “Big Ideas” makes him desire only the picture-perfect relationship and avoid the foreseeable responsibility and burden that is evident to come with Prior’s sickness. Kushner clearly shows Louis struggling between his love for Prior and his instinct to make life easier for himself, but apparently, no love is greater than the love for oneself, seeing as Louis ultimately leaves Prior to die alone.

Louis's America: you run away to get ahead.

Kushner uses this America-loving character ironically to reflect a self-obsessed nation. When its glorified principles are applied in real life, they create more harm than good. When applied in real life, these “Big Ideas,” such as Manifest Destiny or even simpler, a vision Andrew Jackson had for America, justified the brutality of the Trail of Tears, where 20,000 Cherokees were marched westward at gunpoint. When applied in real life, in maintaining this American Dream a reality in which people can just look the other way in the face of suffering was created.

On the other hand, Kushner utilizes the only non-white character, Belize, to reflect the American Reality. All the characters in the play generally agree that America is a decent place despite its imperfections — except for Belize. After Louis arrogantly accuses Belize of being in love with Prior, Belize counters by saying, “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem… set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me” (Kushner 228; Perestroika Act 4 Scene 3).

Belize is the only non-white character in the play. [Photo credit: Tumblr]

Just as we have seen from course material in episode three of Race, Japanese man Ozawa was denied citizenship because of his “race” despite having lived his entire life like a good American; as the only African-American character in the play, Belize’s experience is likely similar to Ozawa's. Belize's perspective does not come from a place of privilege like the rest of his white counterparts. In addition to his gay identity, he is also a black man, which subjects him to even more discrimination, making his idea of America all the more significant. Belize represents the real experience of the American people; his point of view only begins to reflect the diverse bodies that is the reality of the United States. The perfect-sounding ideals appear good in theory, but in truth, are vague and unattainable — almost purposely unachievable with the sole intention of cutting people out.

James Baldwin puts it well in his article “On Being White.... And Other Lies” when he wrote, “[i]t is a vision as remarkable for what it pretends to include as for what it remorselessly diminishes, demolishes or leaves totally out of account.” Those that are not privileged to be white are denied by these “Big Ideas.” To them, the American Dream is nothing but a harmful myth — a myth that is so real it becomes a physical barrier keeping the domestic outsiders on the other side in the cruel, racist, and limiting reality. The best thing is, this line separating the American Dream from the American Reality is a one-way mirror. Louis, as a white American, could ignorantly comment on Belize's experience because those already in the loop sees nothing but their own glorious reflections. They remain completely oblivious to the reality on the other side of the glass because “[t]hey do not want to know the meaning, or face the shame, of what they compelled — out of what they took as the necessity of being white — Joe Louis (African-American boxer) or Jackie Robinson (first African American to play in Major League Baseball)... to pay” (Baldwin Course Reader 244). As American comedian and social critic George Carlin puts it, “[t]hat's why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Moreover, the performance of Angels in America in the HBO series uses setting, colors and character contrast to portray the United States of America as being unhappy, confused, and ultimately, self-centered. If Louis is indeed the representation of “America,” its image is a strikingly battered one. The scene in the movie that is equivalent to Act 4 Scene 3 of the play opens with a shot of a stormy sky with strikes of lightning, foreshadowing a gloomy and depressing mood. In a distance behind Louis — the embodiment of “America” — the vague shape of the angel statue stands in the grey, pouring rain.

There are two characters present in the scene, Belize and Louis, and there are great contrasts between the two. Belize walks in confidently wearing a rain jacket, whereas Louis is soaked with rain and sad-looking. Belize is the only pop of color in the scene, while Louis’s grey shirt blends into the somber background. This, perhaps, is a reflection of Kushner’s critique on the American Reality. The glorious angel behind Louis, who is supposed to lead America into its bright “Manifest Destiny” blends uninteresting into the grey background.

Similarly, Louis, a character so driven by the American Dream and ideals, turns out sad, guilty, and confused — contrasted with Belize, the character representing good morale standing — what Kushner is implying is crystal clear. The nation of the United States is so hyper-focused on attaining its ideals and individual success, it became lost in its own desires and hunger for power.

Where Louis is standing compared to where the Bethesda angel stands. What does it say about what his character represents? (Left: Budget Direct; Right: Angels in America HBO series)

As reflected through the character Louis in Angels in America, the American Dream is the kind of wishful idealism that allows people who blindly chase after it to just sit on the sidelines, the kind of hope that ignores all the sufferings happening right in front of their eyes, and the kind of desire that creates self-assurance and ignorance. Put into the context of our world, a world full of diverse people and experiences, these ideals create boundaries rather than stepping stones. Just as Louis leaves behind Prior because he no longer fits the ideal, these ideals allow the United States to shut out and suppressed its domestic outsiders — slaves, immigrants, nonwhites — more brutally than Old World elites ever did to their laborers and peasants. “[T]his cowardice, this necessity… of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen” (Baldwin CR 244). This is now the American Reality: solidarity against those that do not align with the “Big Ideas.” A world that is cold, unforgiving, and selfish.

Work Cited

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Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Part One: Millennium Approaches, Part Two: Perestroika. Theatre Communications Group, 2004.

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