Angels in America

Tony Kushner, Angels in America
(London: Nick Hern, 2017)
First performed: 1990

Ethel Rosenberg: Hmmm. He doesn’t hear you, I guess. We should call the ambulance.
(She goes to the phone)
Hah! Buttons! Such things they got now.
What do I dial, Roy?
(Pause. Roy looks at her, then:)
Roy: 911.
Ethel Rosenberg (Dials the phone): It sings!
(Imitating dial tones) La la la…


Roy: Any more of your lip, boy, and you’ll be flipping Big Macs in East Hell before tomorrow night!
(He picks up his bedside phone)
And get me a real phone, with a hold button, I mean look at this, it’s just one little line, now how am I supposed to perform basic bodily functions on this?


Roy: […] (In a very faint voice) Next time around: I don’t want to be a man. I wanna be an octopus. Remember that, OK? A fucking… (Punching an imaginary button with his finger) Hold.
(He dies.)

Roy Cohn, the infamous real-life lawyer, is introduced in Angels in America navigating an elaborate phone system in his office, jumping from line to line and shouting at all his callers to hold. ‘I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers,’ he tells Joe. He is at home in chaos, even after he is diagnosed with AIDS; he manages to transfer his whole phone set-up to his hospital bed, where he keeps up the same pace through agonising abdominal spasms. In his final living moments (having just triumphantly fooled the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose death penalty he fought for) he punches an imaginary button and demands, ‘Hold,’ one final time.

Telephones recur throughout the two plays that make up Angels in America, a sweeping magic-realist epic set during the AIDS epidemic. Joe Pitt, a closeted Mormon, drunkenly comes out to his mother over a payphone. Those in hospital—not just Cohn but Walter Prior and nurse/former drag queen Belize—all rely on bedside and workstation telephones to communicate. Most important, however, is the image of the tangled lines, the octopus; it is the emblem of interconnectedness and motion (‘[t]he world is faster than the mind’) which structures the whole work.

by Oscar Nearly