Angels in America
“Angel,” a word that today can have connotations at once sublime and a bit saccharine, ultimately derives from a rather mundane classical Greek masculine noun of the second declension, angelos: “messenger.” In Greek, it’s not a very exciting word at all—no more so than, say, “postman” or “radio announcer” is in English. If you happened to be an ancient Greek and had some bit of news or a message you needed to get across, an angelos was the man for the job; or, rather, angelos was the way you referred to anyone who ended up doing the job. In Greek tragedies, for instance, the character who delivers those famous fact-packed “messenger speeches”—the ones in which we learn how Oedipus handles the news that he’s adopted, or just what’s inside those nicely wrapped gift boxes that Medea sends to her ex’s new bride—is referred to as, simply, the angelos. The related verb, angellein, “to announce,” is equally unsensational. When the great lyric poet Simonides of Keos wrote, in his old age, the famous epitaph for the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae—“Go tell the Spartans that here we lie”—the word we translate as “tell” was angellein. However exciting his news might be, the classical Greek angelos was, generally, a featureless vehicle for transmitting crucial knowledge.
It was only much later, after the word was appropriated for biblical purposes, that angeloi, “angels,” started to rival their messages in glamour and importance: sprouting wings, blowing mighty horns, and singing in celestial choirs, and altogether becoming religious and iconographic objects in their own right, the forerunners of the cloying figures that have become ubiquitous, in our post-millennial moment, on greeting cards, dashboards, New Age Web sites, and hit TV series such as Touched by an Angel, in which the eponymous, carefully multicultural leads, an attractive young Irishwoman and a soulful middle-aged African-American, go around teaching mortals Life Lessons.
And so the classical Greek angelos, grimly transmitting his urgent report of the horrors he has seen, horrors that always result when men find themselves trapped in irresolvable dilemmas, may be thought of as the Angel of Tragedy, and hence very different from the adorable, glittering sylphs who have, lately, alighted in stationery stores and aromatherapy counters and on our television screens, bringing the comfy tidings that everything will be OK: the Angels of Sentimentality.
Part of the excitement of being in the audience of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning dramatic epic Angels in America when it first came to Broadway in 1993 was the fact that it seemed eager to give back to its (very real) angels something like their original job description. Kushner’s two-part drama turns, in fact, on the arrival of an urgent message from Heaven. The action of the first part, “Millennium Approaches,” culminates in the magnificent appearance of an angel, crashing through the ceiling of an AIDS-stricken gay man, and much of the second part, “Perestroika,” is devoted …