In Tony Kushner’s America

Nothing’s Lost Forever

Tony Kushner’s America.

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For the first time since its 1993 premiere, Angels in America has once again touched down on the Broadway stage. The new production from Britain’s National Theatre, directed by Marianne Elliott, reinterprets Tony Kushner’s now-canonical play for an age in which many of its principal concerns remain deeply relevant. Although the script has only been slightly modified, the struggles that it details evoke unexpected resonances, now that Angels, which is about history, has become a part of history. The play’s ever-upward trajectory as a gay cultural touchstone and a mainstream success mirrors the dramatic political and social changes that have unfolded over the past two and a half decades.

Angels is technically two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and its skillfully arranged plotlines intersect and repeatedly double back on themselves over almost eight hours. (“This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother” is how one character gets introduced.) Set in New York City in the late 1980s, Kushner’s story follows the relationship between Prior, a man living with AIDS, and Louis, who abandons his lover in a time of need. Louis, a Jewish intellectual, finds an unlikely paramour in Joe, a closeted Republican Mormon lawyer who has recently arrived from Utah with his depressed wife, Harper. Like both Joe and Louis, Harper is also looking for an escape, swallowing pills “in wee fistfuls” to turn down the volume on her unhappy marriage. This quartet is joined by Prior’s friend Belize, a flamboyant black nurse with a preternatural gift for cutting repartee, and by Roy Cohn, the real-life unscrupulous lawyer and conservative consigliere who (in the play, as in historical fact) dies of AIDS-related complications. And then, of course, there are the angels that give the play its name.

For all of his loathsome qualities, Cohn is Kushner’s most compelling creation. Trailed by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, he is also the play’s principal device for connecting its characters’ often selfish pursuit of freedom to broader political themes. For Belize, who winds up as his hospital nurse, Cohn personifies the national character: “terminal, crazy, and mean.” A self-acknowledged “determined lowlife,” Cohn is not only a vicious bigot and amoral sleaze; he is also a man who wields tremendous power—indeed, he successfully pulls strings to amass a private hoard of AZT pills, which are off-limits to the general public. Cohn’s megalomania extends to nearly all aspects of his life: He is a Jew who hates Jews, a homosexual who despises homosexuals, and a person with AIDS who claims to be dying of “liver cancer.” These disavowals underscore the self-mutilation implicit in his hyper-individualistic ideology, and they suggest an undercurrent of self-loathing in America’s egoistic politics. If freedom amounts to the narrow pursuit of one’s own interest, there is little sense in recognizing commonalities or mutual obligations. Little does this concern Cohn, even as he wastes away on his deathbed, friendless and alone.

Using Cohn to explore the pathologies of the American right was not so difficult in 1993, seven years after his death. Ironically, it is even easier today, with one of Cohn’s main protégés occupying the White House. (As Marianne Elliott has stated, “Everything that Tony captured in Roy Cohn is now in the Oval Office.”) The new production reaps the dividends of Kushner’s accidental prescience, and Nathan Lane performs Cohn as distinctly Trumpian, playing up the overlap with lines like: “You think you know all I know. I don’t even know what all I know. Half the time I just make it up and it still turns out to be true!” Such topical humor wins knowing laughter from the audience, but its deployment also reveals how far Angels has traveled from its point of origin at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Theater director Isaac Butler and Slate culture writer Dan Kois measure this distance in a new oral history of Angels titled The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of “Angels in America.” Butler and Kois have conducted interviews with cast members, directors, producers, critics, scholars, and activists and have arranged their insights like the lines of a script. Their book reminds readers that any play is ultimately a settlement negotiated by the many individuals who bring it to life—including the audience. Because the earliest performances of Angels were staged at a moment when the AIDS death rate was on the rise—and ravaging the theater community in particular—the play offered an opening for actors and spectators to commune in grief. Oskar Eustis, the first director of Angels, tells Butler and Kois about a powerful moment, during the premiere of Perestroika at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, when audience members joined him in reciting the Kaddish to mourn the friends and family they had lost. As Ron Liebman, who played Cohn in the early productions of the play, comments, “We were doing a play, yes, but it became something else.”

When Kushner began work on Angels, late in the Reagan era, an AIDS diagnosis was still regarded as a death sentence. By 1990, the average life span of an AIDS patient had been only slightly extended, even though the medical community had known about the disease for almost a decade. Officials at all levels of government hardly budged to address the growing health crisis. In fact, to the extent that there was any public response, it usually took a punitive form: Between 1987 and 1989, twenty states rushed to criminalize HIV transmission, usually as a felony. Of course, much of the stigma attached to AIDS stemmed from its identification as a “gay disease” at a time when surveys indicated that solid majorities of Americans still viewed homosexuality as immoral. The Supreme Court’s 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick ruling, which upheld state anti-sodomy laws, codified this prejudice and confirmed the strength of a religious right convinced, with televangelist Jerry Falwell, that AIDS was “God’s punishment for homosexuals” and for “the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

Given the hostile climate, it is impressive that Kushner’s script announced its politics without polemicizing. Angels took aim less at plain bigotry than at the callous denial of suffering implied by Reagan’s sunny vision of “morning in America.” Joe gravitates toward this shallow optimism to deny his own vulnerability, but we don’t hate him—we pity him, knowing from the start that his illusions are bound to be shattered. In an echo of Louis’s trajectory, he rejects his marriage, but the thrill of freedom that he experiences once he has divested himself of his responsibility to Harper is tinged with a foreboding sense of “heartless terror.” Unlike Louis, who appeals to “neo-Hegelian” historical teleology for justification, Joe prefers GOP ad speak (“walk away, unencumbered, into the morning”). But neither character is painted in black and white; each is driven by fear to make moral compromises, and then left to suffer the consequences.

The restraint and subtlety of Kushner’s writing in a moment of crisis earned the play its considerable acclaim: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika each received a Tony Award for Best Play, in 1993 and 1994, respectively, and Kushner won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. As Angels became a known quantity, it developed into an accessible representation of gay culture for general audiences—and in so doing, it drew widespread attention to the suffering of people with AIDS and their families. As early as 1992, as director Oskar Eustis tells Butler and Kois, Angels “was having a part in changing what it meant to be gay in America.” A touring production that ran from 1994 to 1995 helped to break the silence surrounding AIDS in many rural areas and small cities. “So many mothers would come to us backstage after the show and say, ‘My son is dying,’ or ‘I just lost my son,’” recalls actress Carolyn Swift. “We were still in the middle of the epidemic, and we were in places where those losses hadn’t been recognized.” At the same time, the visibility that Angels made possible also generated reaction: In 1996, Christian conservatives in Charlotte, North Carolina, mounted a determined (though ultimately unsuccessful) effort to prevent the show from being staged. Protests became a somewhat regular occurrence, but they proved insufficient to slow the play’s ascent. As the millennium approached, Angels in America had become a cause célèbre.

In many ways, the play’s popularity tracked the precipitously rising fortunes of the gay-rights movement in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Even though political victory was far from certain, it was no longer possible to describe gay people, as Cohn does in Angels, as a negligible group with “zero clout,” who “in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council.” By the late Clinton era, gay Americans were established as a key marketing demographic and a political constituency inside the Democratic Party, with seats at the table on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. In 2003, the Supreme Court overturned Bowers, effectively invalidating the anti-sodomy laws that remained on the books in 13 states. Gay Americans were no longer outlaws.

Though Republicans made hay of the resistance to same-sex marriage in the 2004 presidential election, the limits of political homophobia were becoming clear. 2006 was the year Colorado megachurch pastor Ted Haggard, a spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush, was discovered to have been patronizing a male prostitute and using crystal meth. His highly publicized downfall symbolized the cynicism and hypocrisy of a fundamentalist right that has since focused its efforts much more successfully on restricting women’s reproductive freedom.

The success of Angels gave Kushner a high platform from which to weigh in on these changes in American culture and politics. In 1995, Bill Clinton solicited the playwright’s thoughts for his annual State of the Union address. As Kushner’s profile rose, the play inevitably shed its insurgent posture. Prior’s response to the light show that announces the arrival of the angel in Millennium Approaches—“Very Steven Spielberg”—has different undertones now that Kushner has written the screenplays of several high-grossing Spielberg films. In 2003, HBO produced a $60 million, six-part adaptation of Angels starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. The film further boosted the play’s fame and reputation, but just as the LGBTQ establishment had its detractors on the left (Kushner among them), there were those who tabulated the film version’s hidden costs. Critics grumbled that HBO had dropped the play’s subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Moreover, as playwright Trip Cullman points out to Butler and Kois, very few queer people were involved in making the film. To many, Angels seemed to have bargained away its soul to advance from the stage to the screen. Had tolerance taken its toll? Was Angels still a “gay play,” if indeed it ever was?

Nothing’s lost forever,” Prior says in the final scene of Perestroika. But progress has meant assimilation, and the passage of time has brought with it a comfortable amnesia regarding the AIDS epidemic. As critic Dale Peck tells Butler and Kois: “Gay people became more American but America didn’t become more gay.” The current Broadway revival aspires to recover some of what has been lost, in part by stirring in a hefty dose of camp. Vulnerable minorities, especially Jews and homosexuals, at one time relied on camp as a mode of communication and survival strategy, a way of identifying one another while keeping their identities undetectable to those on the outside; writing more than 50 years ago, Susan Sontag famously described it as a “private code” belonging to “small urban cliques.” Andrew Garfield, playing a very campy Prior in this production, reportedly prepared for the role by visiting London drag revues, with the only discernible payoff being that he delivers all of his lines in the same high vocal register. Garfield isn’t a weak actor by any means, but his performance comes off as a museum piece on display from a time when “gay” referred to something shameful and subversive. That this camp-in-amber can be such lighthearted fun for all viewers points up just how far removed we now are from a world in which its possessors shared a secret knowledge and a muted solidarity born of hidden anguish. That world seems to have passed for good, though Prior’s concluding prophecy—“We will be citizens”—remains only partly fulfilled.

Not that this diminishes Angels, which has always managed to be both “a gay fantasia” about AIDS (no longer viewed as a “gay disease”) and an ambitious meditation on universal themes that collide in what Kushner once described as a “catastrophic synthesis.” One of the central concerns that emerges as the play cruises from faith to love to the color of a winter sky (is it purple or mauve?) is the antinomy of stasis and motion. In a reversal of her ancestors’ migration over the Great Plains, Joe’s mother, Hannah, leaves Utah for New York and by the final scene has undergone a profound transformation, finding a new life for herself in the heart of Sodom. But movement isn’t necessarily equated with liberation: The meltdown of the Soviet Union coincides with the melting of the polar ice caps and threatens to obliterate bedrock certainties in its train.

In the first scene of Perestroika, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, “the world’s oldest living Bolshevik,” bemoans the passing of the old order. “We must change,” he concedes as he squints into the audience, “but only show me the Theory… or else keep silent.” Theory, he insists, is necessary to organize experience, to contain it like an integument: It is the “new skin,” as Prelapsarianov puts it, necessary for life to proceed. Angels seeks to refute this logic. Theory is no protection at all against a changing world, especially one that spins as much backward as forward. Reality inevitably outruns our plans and preconceptions, forcing us to blunder forth into the stream of experience with neither a compass nor a map. What is perhaps most American about Angels is its affirmative embrace of this uncertainty—its attitude of receptiveness to what will come—and of fidelity to the desires that open us up to the new.

Kushner, who identifies himself as a “patriot” and admits to being “romantic about this country,” also doesn’t shrink from acknowledging that the burden of history weighs upon the present: We are all sinners, and there are no angels in America. And yet the possibility of redemption is there (even Belize, nobody’s fool, has a vision of utopia)—not a clean break with the past, but an honest reckoning with it. A quarter-century has passed since Angels premiered, and in that time we have seen progress, despite many defeats and far too many deaths. We may be able to come to terms with where we have been, but we cannot know where we are bound. In the storm that is blowing in from paradise, even the Angel of History faces in the wrong direction.

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