Rereading Angels in America, a scene I had never noticed before really stuck out to me. In Act 1, Scene 7, Prior and Harper meet in one of Prior’s feverish dreams. The experiences they share, namely their lovers’ betrayal and their sicknesses, enable them to recognize each other without having every met. Harper and Prior also find truth in this scene about their main conflicts, Joe’s sexual orientation and Prior’s crippling AIDS infection. Shared experiences that lead to self-revelation are a theme in many of the stories in this class. Museums can use shared experiences as a tool to encourage self-revelation in visitors.
The scene opens with Prior “at a fantastic makeup table, having a dream, applying the face,” and talking about his disease. Harper walks into Prior’s dream in a “pill-induced hallucination.” Harper remarks that the dreams and hallucinations Harper and Prior experience throughout the play are an escape from “the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness” of their lives. She insists that Prior should not appear in her hallucinations because “nothing unknown is knowable.” Of course, Prior and Harper have not met, but their experiences throughout the play are very much intertwined.
When Harper senses that Prior is sick, she explains that their altered state, “is the very threshold of revelation.” Harper asks Prior to tell her something about herself, and Prior replies, “your husband’s a homo.” At that moment, Harper’s menagerie falls apart and she faces her reality. Before she leaves Prior she tells him that though he is sick, the inner most part of him is “free from disease.”
Tony Kushner, the playwright, utilizes scenes like this to emphasize the play’s fantastical themes. These fanciful scenes also show the ways that Prior and Harper, different as can be, share similar experiences. Harper and Prior can see each other in their hallucinations and dreams because of these experiences. Their lovers betray them (for each other no less). They also share the experiences of sickness, a theme throughout the play. Harper’s sickness, her addiction to Valium, allows her to cope with her anxiety over her sham marriage. AIDS is quickly ravishing Prior’s body and mind, but the vivid dreams his sickness brings allows him to escape his sad reality. In their altered state, they recognize the experiences they share and are enlightened to truth.
Since the beginning of the semester, we have discussed the importance of connecting with shared experiences in various struggles for equality. The shared experiences of African American women influenced Bessie Smith and Billy Holiday’s music. Gay men living in New York City before World War II created a unique identity through the shared ways they lived and loved. Kitchen Conversations at the Tenement Museum connect visitor’s shared experiences with contemporary issues over immigration and poverty. Museum objects and images connect people’s shared experiences because everyone uses objects. In my experience, once you recognize yourself in another, your empathy for that person grows. Museums can take that empathy a step further and use shared experiences to advocate for social reform. What ways have you seen museums use shared experiences to inspire action?