In 1993, when Tony Kushner’s epic eight-hour, two-part play Angels in America opened on Broadway, the issues it explores—the AIDS epidemic in the United States, conservative political control of Washington, D.C., and society’s acceptance of homosexuality—were hot issues, at the fore of the cultural zeitgeist. In revisiting this play in the new millennium, which Kushner had imagined in part 1 of the play (called “Millennium Approaches”), the first question has to be, does the work hold up or is it somehow a literary piece forever tied to the time in which it debuted?
Angels in America still speaks powerfully into the twenty-first century. Its themes still resonate: Even though AIDS has faded from the center of discussion, especially in the United States, the disease remains epidemic worldwide. The 2008 election of a liberal U.S. president, Barack Obama, had awakened a new kind of attack-dog conservatism, which is embodied in the play’s right-wing character Roy M. Cohn. Furthermore, even though several states had legalized same-gender marriage in the first few years of the new millennium, many Americans still view homosexuals with ambivalence at best, and hostility at worst.
The deeper questions raised by Angels in America are untethered from time and place as well. Does human love last, or are humans naturally selfish, moving on to the next lover when times get hard? Can enemies be forgiven, even the worst ones? Is politics really all just about naked power and greed? What should one make of God, the main “character” of the play, even if his (or her?) performance is unspoken and uncredited? Is God really absent from the heavens, and are the various real and metaphorical plagues visited upon the earth the result of God’s wrath and disappointment or merely the chaotic vagaries of a neutral universe and of scientific law?
Angels in America remains relevant and powerful. The play was adapted for an HBO television miniseries in 2003, directed by Mike Nichols. The script was adapted by Kushner, and the play had a stellar cast that included Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. It received numerous critical awards. In 2004, an opera based upon the play opened in France. The character of the Angel perfectly sums up the challenge of any major literary work standing up to the passage of time. The Angel’s problem with humans is that they are forever moving forward: evolving, destroying, learning, and changing; these actions literally shake up Heaven. Even though the millennium, which Kushner so ominously warns of, is now here, Angels in America remains one of the most ambitious, provocative, political, astonishing, and moving works of drama created in the twentieth century.
The play still matters. It works because it skillfully uses deeply familiar biblical and human motifs that speak to the human condition. Times may change but mere mortals do not, and the questions about life and death and Heaven, Hell, and redemption go on. In one of the play’s most powerful scenes, Joe Pitt—the closeted gay law clerk who also is a Republican and Mormon—tries to explain to his wife, Harper, his struggles to come to terms with his real self, his authentic self, buried deep within, and his fear of what God will do when that core is discovered. Joe remembers from his childhood a picture of Jacob from the Bible, wrestling with the angel. Joe says, The angel is not human and it holds nothing back. So how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It is not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from...
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God’s. But you can’t not lose.
It is these battles with angels that form the heart of the play: Prior Walter, who is dying of AIDS, is literally wrestling the Angel back to Earth because he does not want to be a prophet; Joe wrestles with the angels of his inner “demonic” (in his eyes) desires for men; Cohn wrestles with the angel of death.
Angels take the guise of human characters, too. Prior’s best friend, nurse Belize, is a sharp-tongued former drag queen who comforts his dying friend and even finds the grace to forgive Cohn his national and personal sins. The same female actor who portrays the Angel also plays Prior’s no-nonsense AIDS-clinic nurse, the only one left who will tenderly touch his disease-ravaged body, if only for a physical examination.
Though Joe’s mother, Hannah, can be a steel-spined Mormon zealot, she also rescues and shelters her shell-shocked daughter-in-law, Harper, and sells her house in Utah to move to the Big Apple and find her son Joe. Compassion abounds in these rich characters.
Dreams—real, imagined, surreal—also occupy the play’s landscape, like the biblical dreams that spoke to Joseph and Mary and Jacob and so many other ancient “angel wrestlers.” Harper’s Valium-induced dream takes her to Antarctica to escape her sexless marriage to Joe. Prior dreams throughout the play’s first part, as the Angel slowly but steadily approaches, its flapping wings heard in the distance as he lays half-awake in a fever-drenched sleep. Ghosts abound, too. Prior’s namesake ancestors appear to herald the arrival of the Messenger. Roy meets the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the Communist Jewish subversive he helped convict for treason in the 1950’s—the Joseph McCarthy era in the United States. Rosenberg was put to death, along with her husband, Julius, in part because of Cohn’s unethical prodding of the trial judge; now, she comes back to watch Roy face his death sentence.
It is a telling to note that Angels in America appears in literary critic Harold Bloom’s monumental book The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages, a 1995 compendium of the most significant works of world literature and thought from 2000 b.c.e. to the end of the twentieth century. Kushner is one of only a handful of American playwrights whose work is cited by Bloom—Kushner’s is the final name cited, a coda to the list. The millennium had approached and has arrived, “midwifed” literarily and dramatically in part by Angels in America. As the Angel says at the conclusion of her grand entrance at the end of the play’s first part, “Greetings, Prophet!/ The Great Work begins:/ The Messenger has arrived.”