Angels in America
“An angel is a belief. With wings and arms that can carry you. If it lets you down, reject it.”
I am a bit ashamed to say that Angels in America is the first play I have read since the days of painful Shakespeare classes in high school. I will also say that reading this play changed the way I think about drama and about literature. Tony Kushner’s plays (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) are critically acclaimed and considered to be absolute masterpieces. They have earned a special place on my bookshelf.
The plays follow the lives of various characters who become increasingly intertwined as the story progresses. There are Louis and Prior, who try to navigate their way through a relationship in the midst of serious illness; there is Belize, an often intentionally “campy” nurse by day and an ex- ex-drag queen by night; there are Joseph and Harper Pitt, two Mormons who struggle through marital strain and psychological anguish when homosexuality comes into play; there is Hannah Pitt (Joe’s mother), a “runaway” Mormon who moves from Salt Lake City to New York; there is Roy Cohn, an immoral lawyer who falls ill and is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; and there is the Angel, who arrives to present Prior with a prophecy. Together, these characters give us an incredibly complicated and intricate depiction of New York City in the mid-1980s through early 1990.
One of the most intriguing aspects of these plays is the way they challenge the notion that we can make major assumptions about people’s identities based on their race, political or religious affiliations, gender or sexual orientation. Throughout these plays, characters repeatedly set up expectations about their identities and then shatter them. These complexities are compounded by the way the actors in this play each play several different roles. For example, the actor who plays Hannah Pitt also plays Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Henry (Roy Cohn’s doctor), Ethel Rosenberg, Aleskii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (the oldest living Bolshevik) and one of the angels. Because of these varied roles, we see the same actor portraying diverse characters who each have different beliefs and responses to the same issues throughout the play.
I also liked the effect of the various shared scenes in these plays. In the shared scenes, two conversations happen simultaneously on separate areas of the stage, without pause when switching back and forth. For example, you might see Louis and Prior speaking in the hospital and Joe and Harper in their apartment. They are having separate conversations, but they meld into one because the subject matter is shared (for example, trying to justify leaving a romantic partner) and the characters experience similar emotions and reactions. When reading these scenes, you can often read through without paying attention to the character names and it seems cohesive; like it could all be one conversation between two characters. I thought this was a very interesting way of showing universal human experiences with several characters from very different backgrounds.
These plays are subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” and they definitely live up to that promise. Addressing issues from 1980s politics and the Reagan administration to communism and the Cold War, to religious beliefs, to homosexuality, to queer activism, to the AIDS crisis, to race, to technological innovation – the list goes on and on. The plays also emphasize varied notions of freedom, justice, responsibility, guilt and truth and the effects disagreements on these concepts have for the characters. I really enjoyed the way Kushner explores these issues critically while still maintaining a fast-moving plot and characters who grow and develop in every single scene. I have had so many thought-provoking conversations with friends who have also read these plays that I think they should be required reading (or better, performing) for every single high school and university student.
Honestly, I cannot recommend these plays highly enough. While plays are obviously meant to be performed – and I would absolutely jump at the chance to see these plays live – this book is beautiful in itself for the attention to detail Kushner exhibits. From the line breaks to the stage directions, to the capitalization and punctuation – every detail is intentional and there are layers and layers of meaning in the words of this story. This is a play that is universal in its appeal. There is something for the literary critic, for the English professor, for the university student, for the plumber, for the doctor, for the lawyer, for the physicist, for the artist, for the theatre enthusiast and for the student like me who has never enjoyed drama but was immediately swept away in the lyricism of the lines and the depth of the characters Kushner gives us in Angels in America.