“The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America” by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois

 

Butler, Isaac and Dan Kois. “The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America”, Bloomsbury, 2018.

An Oral History of a Great Play

Amos Lassen

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is a moving account of the AIDS era, essential queer history, and an exuberant backstage tale. Those who have either seen it or been part of it, or both have been changed by the experience as we see here in the oral history of great American drama.

“Angels in America” opened on Broadway in 1993 and won the Pulitzer Prize, swept the Tonys, launched a score of major careers, and changed the way gay lives were represented in popular culture. Mike Nichols’s 2003 HBO adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Mary-Louise Parker was itself a tour de force, winning Golden Globes and eleven Emmys, and introducing the play to an even wider public. Now some 25 years later, this generation-defining classic continues to shock, move, and inspire viewers worldwide.

Isaac Butler and Dan Kois give us the definitive account of the play through oral history. We are taken into the conversations and debate of actors (including Streep, Parker, Nathan Lane, and Jeffrey Wright), directors, producers, crew, and Kushner himself. They share the on- and offstage excitement of the play’s birth. We now learn that it was beset by artistic roadblocks, technical disasters, and disputes both legal and creative. We hear from historians and critics who help to situate the play in the arc of American culture, from the activism of the AIDS crisis through civil rights triumphs to today and the dark echo of the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. If you love theater, you will love this book as it tells about

one of the great works of American art of the past century that began with a gritty San Francisco premiere and is now a highly anticipated Broadway revival in 2018.

Like a dramatic script, the book is divided into acts with chapters more like titled scenes and a cast of characters listed at the end. The interviews are presented so that they become an ongoing chat about the history, the themes and the continuous dialogue about the drama. The cast is made up of Kushner, the actors, directors, producers, and production teams, as well as the scholars, historians, critics, and fellow playwrights that did not just help to shape the work but who also provide context for its influence. We see all the twists and turns of fate that went into the drama’s creation and we get a sense of suspense and drama. Like the play, Butler and Kois let the complexity of the story come to us via conversations, discussions, and critiques from those involved. We become immediately aware of the sweeping scope of the production and the amount of deliberation and interpretation that went into it.

The entire creative process is here beginning with Kushner finding a title for his masterwork to the dedicated early directors and actors that supplied his inspiration and helped realize his vision.

The brilliant 2017 London production of the show is soon to open in New York and on Broadway this spring. Now, twenty-five years later, it’s Kushner’s vision of the Right that looks so true. We see that the America of Donald Trump is the same America of Roy Cohn. This America is deeply divided between “winners and losers, hatred of the powerless used as a cynical tool to enrich the privileged…” The real emphasis of “The World Only Spins Forward” is the emphasis on the drama as a “work of queer cultural history–both milestone and touchstone–where it ultimately succeeds.” The play grew out of the calamity and death with the AIDS crisis, an indifferent president Ronald Reagan, and a religious fanaticism that pretended not to see the horrors of AIDS while preaching intolerance and hatred.

We go back to the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco in 1991 and to the Royal National Theatre, London in 1992, to the Mark Taper Forum in LA the same year, to Broadway from 1993–1994. We see the Culture Wars of the nineties. We learn that an early overture to Robert Altman to direct a film version of the play. We also get a behind-the-scenes look at the events which led to the 2003 HBO film and we read about the 2004 Peter Eötvös opera based on the play. We are reminded of the need to follow one’s truth in the face of oppression and intolerance

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