Tony Kushner's Angels in America is the most outstanding work of modern American play-writing in the last two or three decades. Though not without evident debts to Brecht, Williams, Albee, and even Woody Allen, it is an epically original work in two parts-Millennium Approaches and Perestroika-and runs about seven hours in production. Tonally rich and varied, Angels intersects gay characters with recent trends in American politics and society, as it relates the story of individuals struggling in comic and dramatic ways with loss, betrayal, forgiveness, and grace.
Though it is rooted in specific topicality (with allusions to McCarthyism, Ronald Reagan, Ed Meese, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, mediaeval history, and the Old Testament), it transcends realism by inspired flights of surrealistic fantasy. There are twenty characters (meant to be played by eight actors). One of the two main ones is Prior Walter, a club designer/caterer and drag queen, infected by AIDS and abandoned by his lover, yet chosen to be a prophet by a visiting Mormon angel. The other main character is a real-life figure, Roy Cohn, a venomous red-baiter responsible for the execution of the Rosenbergs, who though anti-homosexual in public is a closet gay also infected by AIDS and dying slowly and painfully. Walter and Cohn are obvious contrasts to each other, but their lives intertwine through their interrelationships with other characters, such as Louis Ironson, a word processor in circuit court and Prior's former lover, who is drawn to Joe Pitt, a young Reaganite Mormon and clerk for the Federal Court of Appeals in Brooklyn, who is married to a Valium-addicted wife, Harper. Cohn is fighting against disbarment as well as fighting for his life, and he recruits Joe, to whom he is sexually drawn, to scuttle the legal case against him. Prior is also fighting for life, though to this struggle is added his quest for dignity and love.
Kushner's canvas is a wide one that integrates Jews and Mormons, blacks and whites, neo-conservatives and leftists, closeted gays and radical "queers", but the numerous characters usually coalesce in groups of only two or three. However, there is simultaneous action by parallel groups as if in split-scene cinema. Kushner has an ambitious propensity for mixing tones, moods, and modes as he unsettles audience expectations and manipulates his text in and out of hallucinations and fever dreams. The dying Cohn is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. As for the neurotic, drug-addicted Harper, Mr. Lies, a fantasy travel agent, materializes to the accompaniment of a jazz bass to whisk her away to foreign places. And Prior dreams of his ancestors and experiences the climactic hallucination of an angel who crashes through his bedroom ceiling to offer him an apocalyptic revelation. The visions and dreams are so well integrated into the total design that they become more than fantasy elements: they are ambivalent metaphors for various forms of disintegration and grace. They also fuel Kushner's implicit belief in expansions of the imagination. By being playful, even parodic (at one point Prior wrestles with his angel as Jacob did in the Old Testament), they serve as a foil to the mean-spirited imagination of arch-conservatives and the morally self-righteous in America.
One of the marvels of this hugely bold work is the way in which the playwright is able to be generous to someone as malevolent as Cohn to the point of turning the demonic right-winger into a fallen angel who desperately desires love. Despite his vehement denunciation of Reaganism, Kushner is ultimately forgiving, using Prior's final speech in Perestroika as an appeal to the audience to bless those who are different from them. Taking to heart Harold Bloom's translation of the Hebrew word for "blessing"-"more life"-Kushner refracts our crazy world through his sometimes savage satire and wild surrealism in order to find more life for the imagination and soul.
Kushner's play has had numerous productions in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Canada. Its ambition and scope have already provoked many critical essays on a variety of subjects. Per Brask, professor of theatre at the University of Winnipeg and a former dramaturge and artistic director, has collected seven perspectives on Angels by Australian, German, Canadian, and Danish contributors. While his collection is sometimes top-heavy on sociology, it is an engaging and useful one. His foreword succinctly introduces us to Kushner's angelic forces, while simultaneously drawing attention to their dramatic effect on imagination. Brask has wisely allowed the playwright a forum of his own: in Patrick Pacheco's 1993 interview of him for The Body Politic, Kushner transcends his interrogator's clinical obsession with gay sex life and instead throws light on his leading political and artistic concerns. Pacheco's almost pathological interest in his subject's sexual history ("When you started Angels had you taken an HIV test? What were your results? Do you feel any guilt about your HIV+ friends?") threatens to propel us into bath-house bawdiness and follies. But Kushner insistently rejects facile clichés and sentimental propaganda about gay life and his play. He refuses to turn Prior into a Camille-type model with a deathbed coughing fit that prompts a tear-sodden finale. He states explicitly that he does not write "plays with messages". This should chasten those who see Angels as an overhyped propaganda piece about AIDS and its victims, and Kushner does gay theatre a great service in quickly traversing ground about the biology of AIDS in order to reach more intriguing subjects that allow him to discourse on his paradigms and characters.
Kushner's comments could be used to challenge Graham Dixon, who provocatively poses an "obscene paradox" with the aid of Jean Baudrillard's somewhat hazy postmodernist phenomenology. Following Baudrillard's diction and conceptual strategy, Dixon claims that "AIDS is a brutal reality in a world otherwise made up of hyper-reality, it provides a third dimension, a height above the surface from which we may identify previously hidden features." He seeks to consider whether "the artistic and commercial success of Angels may be traced to its being held captive on the Baudrillardian surface or whether it originates in a successful rise above it." Once he pushes past this fairly problematic grammar and language to an actual consideration of the play, he becomes more interesting, especially as he explores the dominance of chaos and uncertainty in the characters' lives. "Angels does not mirror the world as much as it produces a fragmented impression of it. On the smooth surface of communication no idea, statement, or action stays still long enough to become a rational whole. All is, as Roy suggests, chaos." Dixon points to Roy's desk, "with its constantly noisy and elaborate phone system" as "the perfect image of this `chaos'", as well as to Roy's tendency to use "words as merely improvisational tools in a bricoleur design." Harper is found to be "in direct juxtaposition to Roy", as she sees the fragility of the world in the destruction of the ozone layer. Dixon is at his best in his examination of some of Kushner's dramatic techniques, such as the split-scene device which "encapsulates the fragmentation", embodying the Baudrillardian "immanent surface". "One half of a scene immediately comments upon and reflects the other half," but the fragmentation develops "until it merges in a kind of choric lament to the betrayals and inconsistencies of postmodern life. Each character hauntingly echoes the other, each encapsulates and defines the other's loneliness." This is possibly what Dixon means by his oxymoron, "a confused lucidity", which he finds to be a result of the split-scene fragmentation.
Dixon's exploration is interesting up to this point, as is his claim that the "reality of Prior's suffering is submerged by the pervasive immanence of a Spielbergian/Baudrillardian hyper-reality," which is a reference to the Angel's breathtaking rupture of one illusion by its entrance through Prior's ceiling. History cracks open as this Angel of History arrives to announce with stereophonic ambiguity the beginning of "the Great Work". Pulling together this climax, as well as the other magical special effects of ghosts and dreams appearing, merging, then disappearing, Dixon claims that the play's first part would be complete on its own: "hyper-reality is left to flow uninhibited and all humanity is left to do is to swim or drown in its stream... With Angels in America, Part Two (hereafter AA2) Kushner examines the plight of characters attempting to survive in hyper-reality. He considers whether we can draw back from the brink, stem the flow of deconstructive hyper-reality and thus restore the boundaries of the individual in his/her search for self-fulfilment." Dixon flattens Kushner's ambivalences and jouissance into a wrong-headed reading of AA2. Having been led by the nose of Baudrillard, Dixon sniffs out all the elements in AA2 that would confirm, he believes, his diagnosis of humanity as suffering from despair and anomie.
He huffs and puffs in trying to explain how Millennium Approaches and Perestroika are very different plays despite their using the same characters, themes, and dramaturgical devices. Perhaps if he had concerned himself more with textures and tones than with systems of belief and themes, he might have saved himself the anxiety of forcing Kushner's ambivalences into his pedantic mould. In this play it is indisputable that humanity itself is a sickness and that the irony of AIDS is the effect it has of stripping away "the pretensions, conceits, and fears inherent to Prior and Roy" thereby "enabling, or forcing them to face the reality of their selves." Also indisputably evident in the play is the notion that sex is "the dominant creative force in the universe" as well as "the force over which humanity has the least control." But Dixon stubbornly clings to his belief that Angels is pessimistic. He turns Kushner's allegory into a variation of the Frankenstein myth: "Human AIDS may be the last-ditch effort of God. If it fails, Man will either become God.or at least supplant him. If God is Frankenstein and Man is the Creature, then the Creature not only kills his Creator, he also becomes the Creator and learns in turn how to produce something out of nothing. More importantly, Man's viral nature will lead to the opposite tendency-the constant movement and growth will lead us to destroy everything; to create nothing from something." This type of critical writing dazzles as it misleads. Here is Dixon's theology: "God can see into the future-he is omniscient, but, like his Angels, is far from omnipotent. Utter clarity of vision and total inability to act create an unacceptable agony.and so he absconds." But where is the textual evidence for this theology? Where does God abscond in Angels? If that Angel in the play is His, then God is present in the manifestation, whether Spielbergian or not.
Dixon acknowledges Prior as the chosen but unwilling Prophet, but he insists on seeing Cohn as "God's lawyer" or "King of the Universe's counsel". Finally unable to argue against Kushner's ending ("an uneasy mixture of pep-talk, political diatribe, and ironic contemplation"), he settles for Declan Donellan's interpretation in the 1992 British National Theatre production, which staged the ending as "a tentative improvisation of vitality in a both literally and metaphorically gathering darkness." As Dixon would have it: "The Angel fails, Prior fails (he is still inexorably dying by degrees) and God fails. Only Roy Cohn is triumphant.. The final message is one of despair, the Great Work is merely a repetitive cycle of anomie."
Contrast this reading with Patrick Friesen's in "How Like an Angel Came I Down!", an interesting case of writing by terse field-probes in the eccentric manner of Marshall McLuhan. Friesen takes the Angel to be simultaneously Prior's guardian, an angel of doom, as well as the angel of redemption, and the Great Work to mean one of liberation and transcendence, but not without fears. The sense of a great wheel somewhere in the cosmological background (which Dixon sees as an emblem of repetitive anomie) is viewed by Friesen as an apocalyptic turning, a wheel for the Great Work of "transformation of men and women from the rigid tyranny of culture, what Traherne called custom, into the angels they all are."
Contrast Dixon, finally, with David Savran, whose interview with Kushner is the final piece in Brask's collection. Acknowledging that the play's "reality and fantasy are far more difficult to distinguish than one might think," Savran sees Angels as a work that "attests to the possibility not only of progress but also of radical-almost unimaginable-transfiguration." Using as his seminal reference Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish Marxist philosopher, Savran notes that Benjamin's attempt to sketch a theory of history the year he was fleeing the Nazis led to an allegory based on Paul Klee's painting, Angelus Novus, depicting an angel of history poised between past and future. "For Kushner, the angel of history serves as a constant reminder both of catastrophe (AIDS, racism, misogyny, and homophobia, to name only the most obvious) and of the perpetual possibility of change, the expectation that, as Benjamin puts it, the tragic continuum of history will be blasted open." Savran recognizes what Dixon misses: the spiritual world that presents problems to many of Kushner's characters. Dixon's perverse reading marks no significance in the Mormon angel, and Savran draws from Kushner an enlightening perspective on the conjunction of politics (Marxist or liberal) and religion (especially Mormonism, a prototypical American orthodoxy). Kushner speaks of Mormonism as a diasporic religion (like Judaism) whose hallmark is action or ethics. Mormon cosmology was invented out of Joseph Smith's personal vision, and the sect's industriousness, diligence, and faith find emblematic expression for Kushner in the image of a beehive, which in a way is a socialist or communist image.
This sort of conjunction, along with the allusions to Reagan, the McCarthy era, and other American events, makes Angels a history play in the sense that the text historicizes particular moments of American history. The intriguing question is whether this historicity will ultimately render the work a quaint period piece.
When we read the three other pieces in Brask's collection, Bent Holm's detailed study of two Danish versions of the play, Franz Wille's perspective on three German productions, and Ian Olorenshaw's fairly banal essay on Angels in Australia, we find how sociological and political history ultimately yield to Kushner's wrenching realism and comic fantasy. What are special problems for American audiences are not so for non-American ones. In Denmark, homosexuality is "an issue of little or no controversy", asserts Holm. Accordingly, the realistic or documentary aspects of the play become "less central because they are less controversial. The `Gay Fantasia' angle supplies the conflicts, dilemmas, and perplexities with an extra dimension of, perhaps, allegorical nature." In Germany, however, Kushner's play "touches several nerves", for, as Wille puts it, "With its blending of political consciousness and social criticism it touches the engaged conscience." The problem in Germany is often with the depiction of homoeroticism, not with the subject itself but with the actors' abilities to suggest gayness. Finally, in Australia, according to Olorenshaw, the prevailing attitude to the play is dualistic. While the critics admire the production, Angels does not draw large audiences. Australians feel that "the thing that is the substance and subject of its greatness, its Americanness, is also its undoing." Olorenshaw contends that Angels is "a confrontational production because of its gay `gaze'" and homosexual themes, and this allows it to maintain "an unavoidable exclusivity, despite its fantastic scope, because it is intellectual, queer and gay." In distinguishing between "gay" and "queer", Olorenshaw ultimately deflects attention from the artistic measure of Kushner's work.
Fortunately, it is not the last word in the collection. That pride of place goes to Kushner himself, who reveals that there may well be a trilogy or more by the time he is finished with his subjects and characters. Angels, then, unlike Brecht's lehrstuck plays (a fascination for Kushner), is not delimited by either message or the past. It is a bright, new, bold, and accomplished triumph of gay theatre.
Keith Garebian has written ten books, seven of them on theatre. He is working on a memoir.