“Angels In America”
Another Look Almost 25 Years Later
“Angels in America” is almost 25 years old now and I thought it would be interesting to take another look at it to see how it fits into today’s world. It has just been revived al at London’s National Theater, and is due in American movie theaters this July. Undoubtedly, everyone notices the play’s apocalyptic aspects and how it lets us know that , catastrophe is on its way. The title of the first part of the two part “gay fantasia on national themes” is appropriately “Millennium Approaches.” The angel comes forth near the end of part one and tells us that in the 20th century the world has become very old.
Playwright Tony Kushner set his drama in the 1980s and sees the period from a few years later. America is dealing with the AIDS epidemic and the disease had the ability and the power to bring death to young people at the prime of their lives and to destroy what were once stable relationships. While we see the destruction of love, we also see so much more. We face anger as if we had never done so before and for the seven-and-a-half hour duration of the drama, we become very angry ourselves.
AIDS is just the beginning of disasters to come— the environment is being destroyed, the American people are moving to the right, racial politics reemerge, there is a split within the gay community both gender-wise and regarding race and nationality and we see the beginning of a revolution that is moving ahead very quickly. It is as if the sense of freedom that this country was built upon is lost.
Roy Cohen is the true embodiment of all that is evil and he stands at the center of American life as a symbol of the marginalization and demonization of gay men by the right and by himself, a totally conflicted gay male who was ashamed of who he was. He feels that labels have destroyed the individual since they tell us who a person is thought to be and not who he is. The labels determine where a person fits in the larger scheme. One is not identified by ideology or by sexual orientation but by clout, by the power he has to be where he is. Cohn goes on to say that gay men and not men who have sex with other men rather they are men who do not know anyone and whom no one knows. They have no clout and since he himself has clout he cannot fit into such a definition. I have thought about this for hours on end and remember that yet it was that way just twenty-five years ago but it changed when we stood up and were counted. Today, looking at America in the time of Trump, we have lost the ability to be counted and have reverted back to where we were when America was just finding her angels.
In trying to understand the plot of “Angels in America” we become as lost as those angels did in the early 90s. It is impossible to summarize the play because, in effect, there is no real plot. We have a little bit of everything as Christopher Hitchens wrote when the play opened on Broadway in 1993— “Mormon pioneers, Bolsheviks, Reagan-era mendacities and heavenly intercessions” and there are only in the first half of it.
Kushner examines human relationships when we see Louis dying from AIDS and his partner, Prior, walks out on him, we see the tension between Prior and his ex-lover Belize, we watch the marriage of Harper and Joe fall apart, we see Joe’s sexual adventures with Louis and we witness the father-son relationship between Joe, as a legal clerk, and Cohn, his mentor. It is these relationships that are the foundations and life of “Angels in America”. They all come to a climax at the end of Act 2 of “Millennium Approaches,” when Harper leaves Joe, and Louis abandons Prior to die in a hospital bed.
“Millennium Approaches” is about politics, faith and ideas and it is focused and human. In When the angels arrive in the second part, “Perestroika”, the human element becomes temporarily lost as if to abandon reality. As acclaimed as it is, there are problems in the play. In the characters of Harper and Prior we get the feeling that because they are sick, they are more lucid than the characters who are healthy. They seem to be closer to the truth. The ending almost seemed forced to me— the remaining characters address the audience.
.After sitting through two plays, six acts, and seven hours and 40 minutes of theater, which I didon one day when I saw the play on Broadway years ago, we wonder what are we left with? In Perestroika’s opening monologue, we are asked if we are doomed; even as things fall apart, all hope is not lost. “The world only spins forward,” Prior, living with AIDS for five years by the play’s end, tells us this directly, while Harper, on her night flight to San Francisco on a quest for a fresh beginning, tells us that “Nothing’s lost forever. We often longing for what we’ve left behind as we dream ahead.