How to Grasp the Religious Context of the Opening Scene
Once they identified tangible themes, Angels in America became accessible to students. When, in scene 2, Roy’s and Joe’s religions Jewish and Mormon, respectively come into play, students looked at Morality. Acting out scene 3 in class with Harper and her imaginary friend Mr. Lies, the travel agent, students were forced to use their imaginations to figure out how to make this character magically appear on set; in a discussion afterward, they identified the theme of Fantasy. Even in scene 4, when the play’s gay consciousness is hinted at through Prior’s declaration to his lover Louis, “Lesion number one . . . The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death,” students looked beyond the immediate unknown of medical symptoms; they saw Louis’s lack of Truth in regard to his homosexuality and acting “closety” at his grandmother’s funeral. Students also saw potential conflicts in the relationship when Prior has to ask Louis, “Then you’ll come home ?” resolving the final theme as Abandonment.
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Taking a thematic approach to the study of Angels in America served a dual purpose. First, themes activated student engagement around literary skill rather than personal opinion. While two male students, Miguel and Ernesto, struggled to connect immediately to gayness or gay characters, they found safety in analyzing the themes, completing more homework assignments than they did when the assignments were largely journal-based. Second, the universality of these specific themes acted as a stepping-stone to the gay theme. An analytical study of themes in Angels in America led the class to connections involving human diversity, because the script is inclusive.
Through his consistent use of split scenes, Kushner sets up relationships between diverse characters by having them meet unconventionally on stage. One such split scene occurs in act 2, scene 9: “Harper and Joe at home; Louis and Prior in Prior’s hospital room. Joe and Louis have just entered. This should be fast and obviously furious; overlapping is fine; the proceedings may be a little confusing but not the final results”. The ultimate breakup scene is one that juxtaposes Louis and Prior with Joe and Harper. As Joe declares, “I am the man with the knives,” Prior picks up exactly where Joe leaves off: “If I could get up now I’d kill you”. Although Joe speaks to Harper, the construction of the scene imagines Prior answering him. Acting it out in the classroom, the connections between people occurred naturally and logically. Between Prior and Louis, and Harper and Joe is universalized humanity. Love is love; abandonment is abandonment.
Students who saw these connections on stage also were able to put ideas into writing. In her final paper analyzing the technique and purpose of split scenes, one student, Alicia, suggested that the “problems of each character come into balance.” She continued:
These two couples are having the same problem between them, the same problems even though they are two different couples, a man and a woman and a man with a man. Maybe Kushner did not just do a split scene to show the connection or similarities between the characters, he also did it to give a moral lesson to the reader, which is that although two couples are from different sexual preferences they both pass by the same problems.
Initially, my rationale for building a unit based on character connection came directly from the play itself, and I hoped that students would come to the same conclusion that Alicia did.
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Because I wanted to use Angels in America for its life lessons, inquiry into split scenes served a purpose far beyond literary analysis. In my classroom, I found the relationship between student readers and theatrical characters also to be a split scene, where each came into a unique and compelling community with the other. By nurturing the relationships between students and text, I engaged them with the subject matter in a way that encouraged conversation.
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