Angels in America is the first major work of playwright Tony Kushner, and its astounding success has turned the man and his writing into cultural icons of the late-twentieth century. Referred to by scholar John M. Clum in Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama as ''a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture,’’ Angels has received numerous awards and critical accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play. It has been produced in dozens of countries around the world and translated into several languages, including Chinese.
Interestingly, Angels in America began as a work made for hire. After writing only a handful of plays, and experiencing only one major production, Kushner was approached by Oskar Eustis, a resident director at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, who had been impressed by the playwright' s first drama, A Bright Room Called Day. In 1987, Eustis asked Kushner to write a play about the impact of AIDS on the gay community in San Francisco for the Eureka Theater. The two applied for grants, conducted workshops, and developed the work, which became Angels in America, at the Mark Taper Forum. The play then went on to the Eureka and later to the National Theatre of Great Britain, where it began to attract its global following.
Angels in America is an "epic" drama, which means its plot unfolds over great distances of time and place, involves many characters, and more than one story line. Two complete plays form the entire plot: the first part, Millennium Approaches and its second installment, Perestroika. Together, they present more than thirty characters in eight acts, fifty-nine scenes, and an epilogue.
Kushner subtitled his play ''A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.’’ Like a "fantasia," which is a medley of familiar tunes with variations and interludes, the play's scenes often seem musical, like operatic arias, playful duets, or powerful trios. Characters move in and out of conversations with each other, sometimes even overlapping other vignettes, which occur onstage at the same time, and the settings change rapidly from offices to bedrooms, from hospital wards to the imaginary South Pole.
For all its intricacies, however, the plot of the play is quite simple. It is the story of two couples whose relationships are disintegrating, set in America in the 1980s against a backdrop of greed, conservatism, sexual politics, and the discovery of an awful new disease: AIDS. It is this backdrop that provides Angels in America its magnitude and sets it apart from other love stories. In this play, the plot is largely driven by its themes, which are viewed from different characters' perspectives, as through a kaleidoscope, as the story unfolds.