“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 to an explication of what’s on the angel’s mind, which among other things allows Kushner to elaborate a complicated cosmology of his own idiosyncratic invention. But far more exciting than the culminating angelic message in the play (basically, that God abandoned His Creation early in the twentieth century and hasn’t been heard from since, something many may have suspected even before entering the theater) was the message of the play.
Although Angels premièred in the early 1990s, Kushner had been working on it since the late 1980s, and, with the exception of a brief epilogue, it’s set during a five-month period between October 1985 and February 1986—which is to say, the early years of the AIDS crisis, a period in which the terrible sense of emergency and paranoia in the gay community, which at that point seemed to be horribly singled out by the virus, stood in agonizing counterpoint to the sluggish and half-hearted response of official America, represented by a deeply conservative Republican administration, from whose “family values” the homosexual victims of the illness were excluded. It was only in 1987 that President Reagan finally addressed the illness in public; it had been six years since the first cases were reported, and three since the virus that causes it had been identified, and by that point, 24,000 people had died of it.
Angels in America came as an enraged, seethingly articulate, intellectually ambitious, high-flown response to that stultifying and smug atmosphere of denial, silence, and willful ignorance. The admiration and, in a way, relief that immediately greeted its première (first on the West Coast, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then in London and finally on Broadway) had to do with the general sense that finally someone was saying something grand, if occasionally grandiose, and important not just about AIDS, but about AIDS as a symptom of a profound rupture in American life. There had, by that point, been other plays inspired by the epidemic: William Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart both premièred, early in 1985, as did the musical Falsettos, in 1990, to considerable acclaim. But what made Angels feel different was its enormous scope. Here was a work about AIDS, and what it was revealing about the American body politic, on a scale sufficiently epic to suit the subject.
Indeed, one of the most moving moments in Mike Nichols’s new made-for-television film of Angels—and one of the few moments that finds a cinematic equivalent for the ambitions of the original—comes during the opening credits, during which the camera floats elegiacally in the air above San Francisco, then zooms through banks of woolly clouds across the continent itself, hovering briefly above Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Chicago, to settle, finally, beside the Bethesda Fountain in New York’s Central Park, a monument that takes the form of an angel.
The shot is moving because it suggests something essential about the mighty scope both of Kushner’s concerns—few contemporary playwrights are as intellectually ambitious as this one, steeped as he is in Marx, Brecht, and Melville—and of the drama he’s written, which ranges from the East Coast to Salt Lake City to Heaven itself (which, we’re told, looks just like San Francisco) and includes not only gays (and not only “good” gays, either) but Jews, Mormons, blacks, and Mayflower WASPS; pill addiction, loneliness, mental illness, homelessness, sexual repression; the westward migration of Eastern European Jews to America and of Mormons to Utah; the Bayeux tapestry, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the McCarthy hearings, and the decisions of Reagan’s judicial appointees; invented characters—there are rabbis, drag queens, housewives, nurses, doctors, and of course angels—as well as historical figures, such as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, whose ghost, in a gesture of imaginative boldness on the playwright’s part that is more or less typical, says Kaddish over the body of one of the men responsible for her execution.
It wanted, in other words, to be a play not about gays, or, for that matter, about AIDS and the rottenness of official America’s handling of the crisis, but about the texture of American experience itself. The message—that what the AIDS crisis was revealing wasn’t a moral flaw on the part of gay men, as the conservatives running the country would have it, but rather a moral failing in America itself—may not have come as a surprise to many in those first audiences, but it came as a profound relief to many that someone, finally, was delivering it with such fervor. “Greetings,” the angel intones as she crashes through the ceiling in the amazing finale of Part 1, “the Messenger has arrived.” Many in the audience that first night felt that the words applied as much to the play as to the character.
It is for this reason above all that the Angels that members of the 30 million households that subscribe to HBO have been able to see since December 2003 and the Angels that Broadway audiences first saw late in 1993 seem to be two vastly different works. To be sure, there are other reasons that the new Angels looks and feels different: not least, the difference between the stage, with its self-conscious acknowledgment of itself as illusion, and TV and movies, which if anything try to seduce us into forgetting that what we are seeing isn’t, in fact, real. This is a difference that has particular import for a work whose author has elsewhere written with gusto of his “deep distaste” for screenplays and teleplays (“I love movies, but somebody else should write them”),1 and insists that Angels should retain its theatricality. The play, Kushner writes in the published edition,
benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!)…. The moments of magic—the appearance and disappearance of Mr. Lies and the ghosts, the Book hallucination, and the ending—are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion—which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.2
“Opening out” any work of theater for film is a risky business, but it would be hard to think of a riskier enterprise than opening out a play like Angels, with its over-the-top theatricality, its ghosts and angels, its hallucinatory fantasies (some scenes are set in an imaginary “Antarctica” to which the pill-popping Mormon housewife, Harper, flees in her hallucinations), its frequent use of split scenes to emphasize parallels in its various plot lines, and above all its Jonsonian verbal grandiosity. (An early play of Kushner’s, typically overstuffed with action and ideas and much better than its original audiences or critics gave it credit for being, was a farce set in seventeenth-century England entitled Hydriotaphia or the Death of Doctor Browne, first written in 1985 and hugely unpopular when it premièred in 1997, even after Kushner had become famous.) It’s true that Mike Nichols made a name for himself translating works for the theater into films, starting with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, but Nichols’s smoothly naturalistic style of late seems antithetical to the rough, angular, hypertheatrical spirit of Angels. There’s a glossiness to the HBO Angels that saps it of its original, seething vigor.
But the real reason why Nichols’s Angels feels so different from the Broadway version has less to do with the difference between stage and screen than with the difference between 1993 and 2003. The AIDS crisis is certainly far from over, but no one can deny that it’s a much different kind of crisis now from the kind it was ten years ago. (A friend remarked to me recently that if Kushner were writing his play today, he’d have to call it Angels in Africa.) The paranoia and outrage of 1993 have largely evaporated, thanks in no small part to the activism that galvanized the gay community as a result of the crisis. The culture has shifted profoundly, too—again, because of the empowerment and newfound visibility that were byproducts of the original crisis. When, in 1985, a prime-time drama called An Early Frost, about an American family’s reaction to a gay son’s illness, aired on network television, it was a daring entertainment “event”: the first time the subject had been given major treatment on television. Today, gay characters are not only common on numerous television shows, but there are gay-themed prime-time sitcoms, gay reality shows, and hit series like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy whose premise is that most straight men could, in fact, stand to be a bit more gay.
Because of all this, you experience Angels in an entirely different way today than you did ten years ago. Not least of the advantages afforded by this shift is that much of what seemed crucial about the play then seems artificial or even dated now—you realize how much the play depends on a cozy kind of politically correct goodwill and the easy prejudices of its audience, and so you realize, too, how often it makes its points not through dramatic logic or motivational coherence, but by means of emotional gimmicks and dramatic fudging. Some of these wires shouldn’t be showing. But a re-viewing of Angels now also, and somewhat frustratingly, reveals—partly because of a new cultural setting, and partly because of decisions on Nichols’s and Kushner’s part (emphases, cuts, new material)—the bones of a much grander and more important work than the one that the trumpets of the press corps and Sunday cultural supplements have been heralding.
Structurally, the TV Angels is similar enough to its predecessor to obviate the need for lengthy comparisons between the two versions. The first part, “Millennium Approaches,” is almost identical to the stage version; you can follow the dialogue almost verbatim from the printed text of the play, as I did. The second part, “Perestroika,” has, on the other hand, undergone more serious revision: the five acts of this play have become three “chapters” in the TV version, mostly by means of welcome cuts and judicious rearrangement of certain scenes. (Part 2, which includes among other things the play’s vision of Heaven and its explication of an elaborate Kushnerian cosmology, always felt bloated, and it still does.) In very few cases lines have been added.
Kushner, an unabashedly old-fashioned Upper West Side Socialist Jewish intellectual, has more in common with the politically motivated dramatists of the 1930s (Odets comes to mind) than with any of his contemporaries, and Angels is a work that hangs a great deal of ideological freight from what looks, at first, like a particularly overstuffed domestic drama. The action of the first part, “Millennium Approaches” is organized around a series of abandonments and escapes, which are meant to make us think about the issues of responsibility and love and freedom; the second part, which is organized around a series of unexpected scenes of forgiveness, shows the consequences of those flights, and is meant to make us think about change and redemption.
“Millennium Approaches” is the tighter, more controlled, and more effective work. When it opens, Louis Ironson, a neurotic, thirty-two-year-old, fast-talking New Yorker given to grand theoretical pronouncements about history and culture, discovers that his lover, a wisecracking, unabashedly queeny Mayflower descendant named Prior Walter, has been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, an early sign of AIDS. (“I’m a lesionnaire,” Prior quips. “the Foreign Lesion…. My troubles are lesion.”) Soon afterward Louis, who doesn’t like it when the messiness of human experience interferes with his pristine theoretical and literary models—he loves quoting Tocqueville, among others—will abandon his lover.
This is the first instance of what is intended to be an ongoing critique in the play of the failures of “ideology.” At the beginning of Angels, a phobic character worries about the disintegration, as the new millennium approaches, of the Old World Order: “beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart.” Among these may equally be counted both the American Dream and Soviet communism, both of which, Kushner seems to be arguing, failed because they imposed on human experience monolithic fantasies incompatible with its complexity and variety: Part 1 begins with the funeral of Louis’s grandmother, who came to America like millions of others in search of a dream, and Part 2 begins with a speech by “the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik,” to whom Kushner gives the name Prelapsarianov. (Perhaps because it might now seem stale, the second of these has been cut in the film version, which has the disadvantage—as many of the new cuts do—of destroying certain symmetries meant to limn Kushner’s larger intellectual preoccupations.)
Opposing such “systems,” however attractive they seem (and one of the surprises of the play is that the angels represent such a system), the drama takes the side of churning, complex, ultimately redemptive forces of “life”—suffering, change, emotional evolution, even politics (as distinguished from stultifying ideology).
At the moment that Louis leaves Prior, another couple falls apart. Joe Pitt is a thirtysomething Mormon lawyer and, more significantly for the first part’s themes of falsehood and moral responsibility, a protégé of Roy Cohn, with whom Joe turns out to have more in common than the practice of the law and a penchant for power: like Cohn, Joe is secretly gay, and after being made aware of his true nature (following a flirtatious exchange with the sexually avid Louis in the men’s room of the courthouse building in which they both work), he gets up the courage to leave his wife, Harper. Or perhaps it’s Harper who’s left Joe first: sexually frustrated, agoraphobic, fixated on the disappearance of the ozone layer, she spends much of her time in a Valium-induced hallucination in which a celestial travel agent called Mr. Lies offers her blissful escapes to places like Antarctica, which by the end of Part 1 she happily inhabits in her dreams.
By the end of the first part of Angels, Joe and Louis end up together—they meet one night in the Ramble in Central Park, a famous gay pickup spot—while their abandoned spouses are left to their increasingly elaborate fantasies. For, like his counterpart Harper, Prior begins to hear and see things, too: there are ever more intimations (visions of flaming books, ward nurses suddenly chattering in biblical tongues, ghostly apparitions) that he will be visited by some kind of celestial messenger—the very angel who crashes through his ceiling at the end of this first part. Prior is, indeed, meant to be a latter-day Joseph Smith; ingeniously, Kushner’s play continually overlaps three outcast groups: gays, Mormons, Jews.
It’s the figure of Roy Cohn who ties not only the parallel actions but also the themes of “Millennium Approaches” together. Just as Louis represents the cold inhumanity of rigid ideologies that cannot account for the messy realities of human existence, Cohn represents the opposite: the raw, soulless appetite, process for its own sake. Like Prior Walter, Cohn gets a diagnosis of AIDS at the beginning of the play, but instead of lapsing into otherworldly fantasies, which the affectingly weak and passive Prior and Harper do, he’s unable to leave the crude, fervent world of ambition and power behind. As Cohn physically deteriorates before our eyes, we see him nonetheless furiously advancing his worldly interests—trying to pull the necessary strings to get disbarment proceedings against him dismissed, or using his Washington connections to corner a private stash of AZT.
Cohn wants to coopt the idealistic Joe Pitt into helping with these plans, but Joe, whatever his distraught sense of himself as a sinner (“I’m going to hell for doing this,” he cries after merely touching Louis’s face, the night they first have sex), can’t bring himself to participate in an activity he knows to be illegal. “Millennium Approaches” ends by bringing each of its three stories to a conclusion that has the unsentimental inevitability that you associate with classical tragedy: Joe and Louis go home together to enact a consummation that is anything but ecstatic (“I’m a pretty terrible person, Louis.” “See? We already have a lot in common”); the power-mad Cohn, succumbing to his illness at last, collapses on the floor of his townhouse, where he is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (who calls 911 for him, while admiring the push-buttons on his phone—to her, a newfangled novelty); and a terrified Prior gets that climactic visit from his heavenly messenger.
One reason why “Millennium Approaches” is a much more successful play than “Perestroika” is that all it needs to do to be effective dramatically (while being suggestive intellectually) is convey an unsettling sense of imminence—of a failing world, filled with both individual and ideological deception, weakness, and fatigue, about to crack asunder. (“The twentieth century,” sighs one of Prior’s ghostly ancestors toward the end of the play. “Oh dear, the world has gotten so terribly, terribly old.”) “Perestroika” has the much trickier job of putting something in the place of what “Millennium Approaches” has swept away, and much of the material that Kushner cooks up—from the nature of the angels’ “great work” to the dénouements of the crises he provokes in the first part—feels synthetic, and tends to be sentimental, whereas the first part feels more genuinely like a critique—more brilliantly destructive, more tragic.
Another way of saying this is that Part 2 belongs more to the world of dashboard angels, with their fuzzy feel-good slogans, than to the world of the stark and urgent messenger of Part 1, with her tidings of destruction and collapse. At one point late in this second part, Hannah Pitt, the mother of the gay Mormon, who has sold her house in Utah and come to New York in order to straighten out her son’s life, tells Prior—she’s explaining to him why, as a Mormon, she’s particularly inclined not to disbelieve his tales of angelic visions—that “angels are beliefs with wings.” This seems to be not only false to the spirit of the play but false to what Hannah ought to believe. What the young Joseph Smith saw, all those years ago in upstate New York, was not a glib metaphor. We are told that Kushner takes his Judaism very seriously,3 but stuff like this suggests that he’s not as serious about other people’s religions.
As its title suggests, “Perestroika” is about revisions and changes, and its aim, indeed, is to work out solutions to the blockages and failures so strongly conveyed in “Millennium Approaches.” As flight and abandonment are the motifs of Part 1, so forgiveness is the motif of Part 2. In his introduction to the printed version of the second part, Kushner describes how he wants the audience to react:
Perestroika is essentially a comedy, in that issues are resolved, mostly peaceably, growth takes place and loss is, to a certain degree, countenanced. But it’s not a farce; all this happens only through a terrific amount of struggle, and the stakes are high…. There is also a danger in easy sentiment. Eschew sentiment! Particularly in the final act—metaphorical though it may at times be (or maybe not), the problems the characters face are finally among the hardest problems—how to let go of the past, how to change and lose with grace, how to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering. It shouldn’t be easy.4
To my mind, there isn’t enough struggle, and sentiment runs rather high. Many of these forgivenesses are artificial: it’s as if, like Louis, Kushner were forcing the actions of his characters to fit a prefabricated template, in order to demonstrate the “theme” of his play. (That humanity, with all its messiness, always trumps the systems we try to impose on it. “Justice is simple,” a wise, gay, black AIDS-ward nurse, Belize, who’s a former lover of Prior, lectures Louis at one point. “Democracy is simple. Those things are unambiguous. But love is hard.”) And so we see characters go through some rather forced changes: the brittle Hannah Pitt, who in the first part of the work hangs up on her son Joe when, during an anguished phone call, he tells her he’s gay, ends up befriending the now desperately ill Prior, and stays by his side in the hospital; Belize, despite his loathing for Roy Cohn, gives the shrieking, abusive patient some important tips about which treatments to follow; and—even more striking, a famous moment in the play—the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg appears after Cohn finally dies to say Kaddish for him. Louis, too, is forgiven at the end of the play, once he comes back to Prior after abandoning Joe Pitt. (After a month together in bed with his new lover, Louis discovers that Joe is not only Cohn’s protégé, but the author of anti-gay legal opinions that he, Louis, finds loathsome—“an important bit of legal fag-bashing,” Louis shrieks at a dumbfounded Joe, whom he goes on to call “fascist hypocrite lying filthy….” You can only assume that the two didn’t talk much during their four weeks together.)
The ability of human beings to evolve and change in time stands in stark contrast to the world of Prior’s angels, whom he (and we) at last get to see in this second part. Why has the angel come to Prior, and what is the “great work” announced at the end of Part 1? It’s here that Kushner’s need to tie up all the big themes of his work starts to feel forced; the cosmology that he invents to account for the situations and characters he’s created feels at once imaginatively overblown and intellectually undernourished. It would seem that the angels are in turmoil because God, bored by the sempiternal stasis that was life in Heaven, and “bewitched” by man’s ever-evolving ingenuity, curiosity, and forward-moving aspirations, abandoned Heaven early in the twentieth century, and hasn’t come back. (He left, in fact, on the day of the San Francisco earthquake: perhaps only a gay man of a certain age could equate the demise of the Divine Order itself with the razing of San Francisco.) The angels want to turn back the clock, to reverse the “virus of TIME.”
So what the heavenly apparition whom Belize rightly dubs a “cosmic reactionary” wants is—as the Angel cries in a climactic utterance—“STASIS!” Kushner, in other words, has created a cosmic model for the conflict between beautiful abstract systems and the unruly, illogical energies of lived life, and there’s no doubt about which side we must be on. “This is the Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation,” the Angel intones, pointing to the otherworldly text that has been given to Prior; to which Prior feistily replies, “I still want…my blessing. Even sick. I want to be alive.” This is a perfectly understandable and human sentiment, but as a payoff for the lofty and grandiose machinations that have set up this climactic utterance, it comes off as tinny. You wanted, not unreasonably, something more…Miltonian, perhaps; but all Kushner can fall back on here is high sentiment—and some Borscht Belt wisecracking. As Prior turns his back on Heaven, he rouses himself for his, and the play’s, culminating cry against Heaven:
If He ever did come back, if he ever dared to show His face…if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see…how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard…Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare he.
Much of the second part feels this way: an attitude posing as an answer.
Television is, for better or worse, an intimate medium, and on it much of the more grandiose and fantastical elements of Angels seems pretty silly—not least, the scenes that take place in Prior’s “Heaven,” in which the orders of angels hang around in heavy overcoats and mufflers, intoning about God’s Abandonment of Creation.
This broken-down-looking, earthquake-addled Heaven of Kushner’s grand imagining, the South Pole, some razzmatazz special effects for the magical Book and the Angel’s apparition:—all this comes off on TV as a trifle embarrassing, or perhaps embarrassed, as highly artificial or formalized elements can feel when represented in a naturalistic medium. The unfortunate result is that a large part of Kushner’s project—the intellectually ambitious, theatrically daring gestures meant to make us think abstractly about the workings of the cosmos and of large movements in history and the great forces that animate human affairs—now feel strained and inconsequential, while simultaneously showing up certain of its excesses. To imply that the AIDS crisis was more likely to make the heavens break apart than any number of other disasters of the twentieth century suggests, now, a myopia that was the result of the crisis footing that many of us were on ten years ago.
On the other hand, television, precisely because it is so intimate, can focus your attention on, and make you feel, an actor’s performance more minutely than can be the case in the theater, and the mostly excellent performances that Nichols has drawn from his cast—some are superb—help to illuminate, and even transform, aspects of Kushner’s text. The stars are Al Pacino as Cohn, who here is a deeper, more complex, and surprisingly more sympathetic character than he was in the stage production (there’s a remarkable scene, which hovers somewhere between the heartbreaking and the grotesque, in which Cohn manipulates Rosenberg’s ghost into singing a Yiddish lullaby to him, and you don’t know whether to loathe or thank the character for making it happen); and Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg—and, even better, as a properly flinty Hannah Pitt. (As she leaves Prior’s hospital room the morning after the Angel’s final apparition, he thanks her by campily quoting Blanche DuBois’s “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” to which Hannah tersely replies, “Well that’s a stupid thing to do.”) In what is surely a tongue-in-cheek nod to her famous versatility, Streep also plays the rabbi whose eulogy opens the work.
Of particular note are the two young actors who play Louis and Joe: respectively Ben Shenkman, who suggests the nervousness and guilt behind the know-it-all intellectual posing of this seriously selfish character, and, even more, the remarkable Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt, a character who, thanks to Wilson’s subtle and anguished performance, comes across in the television film as far more tragic than had been the case on Broadway—and, I’m now convinced, than even Kushner knew, or perhaps wanted. Less appealing, and more damaging to your sense of the balance of the text, are the cliché madwoman-in-the-attic, off-rhythm mumblings of Mary-Louise Parker as Harper and the misfired performance by Emma Thompson as the Angel. (She also plays a homeless woman and, disastrously, the brisk Italian-American nurse who watches over Prior in the hospital.) The whiny-sounding Parker makes you realize, now, how necessary it is for the play to work that we feel sorry for Harper, that she be a victim. And Thompson’s Angel, writhing in her harness and seeming always to be on the verge of giggling, has none of the angular authority that Ellen McLaughlin brought to the role on stage, and as a result you cringe through the Angel’s scenes.
One result of these performances, good and bad, was that you were likely to shift your focus in different directions—to notice different elements of the play, to reevaluate characters. To my mind, the most significant result of this refocusing—away from the supernatural material, away from those characters you felt compelled to feel sorry for or admire (the fact that the black drag queen is the fount of all wisdom and realism in the play strikes you now, if anything, as patronizing)—was to be made aware of a fundamental dishonesty, something not fully worked out or even avoided, at the heart of Angels. The terrible anguish evident in every facet of Patrick Wilson’s fierce performance as Joe Pitt—his telephonic coming-out conversation was, for those of us who have had conversations like that, almost impossible to watch—made me realize, as I had not done before, that Joe is, in fact, the only truly tragic—Greek-tragic, that is—character in the play. And yet the play itself seems neither to know nor acknowledge this; if anything, Kushner goes to no little lengths to make us think of Joe as morally deficient, when in fact he isn’t. Why?
From the beginning of “Millennium Approaches,” we are asked to see Joe as an exact counterpart to that other lover who abandons his spouse, Louis. Many elements in the play invite us to draw parallels between the two men—not merely the fact that they end up in each others’ arms, but, even more to the point, the number of split scenes that the two unhappy couples (Louis/ Prior and Joe/Harper) share. (In the film version, the splitting is elegantly conveyed by some very adroit cross-cutting between the two pairs at crucial moments.) And yet this surely is both unfair and unbalanced. Louis, after all, abandons Prior out of weakness and fear of AIDS, whereas Joe abandons Harper because in order to be who he really is, he can’t remain in a marriage that has become a lie. Both Louis and Joe cause their loved ones to suffer horribly, but this ostensible similarity is undercut by a moral difference: the freedom and happiness Louis seeks—freedom from messy diseases, freedom from responsibility to someone else—isn’t, in fact, a bona fide good (it’s just selfishness), whereas most of us, today, would agree that for Joe to come out of the closet, to realize and emancipate his true self, is both a psychological good and, in the end, a moral necessity, whatever the temporary pain it causes.
And yet the moral difference—the difference that ought to redeem Joe—is overlooked in Angels; indeed, in the television version, it’s papered over quite purposefully. There’s a scene in “Perestroika” in which Hannah confronts her son after he’s gone to live with Louis; she hasn’t heard from him in weeks, and they have a spat in the Mormon Visitors Center, where she’s got herself a job. Exasperated, Joe cries out that he’s fled the breadth of a continent to get away from her. “And what are you running away from now?” she snaps. “You and me,” he replies. In the film version, some lines have been added between Hannah’s impatient question and her son’s weary answer, and the addition is a telling one, because it reveals a failure of sympathy on the author’s part which in turn illuminates a great problem of the play:
Hannah: And what are you running away from now? You have a responsibility to your wife, and you cannot wish it away.
Joe: I want to—I don’t know any more what I want.
Hannah: What you want, what you want. Well, that shifts with the breeze. How can you steer your life by what you want? Hold to what you believe.
The added exchange is significant because it’s so clearly an attempt to saddle Joe with a moral failure (he’s failed in responsibility to his wife, a responsibility that cannot be wished away) and, further and much more doubtful, to make it seem as if the reason for his abandonment is a kind of selfish, self-indulgent whim, like the reason for Louis’s abandonment of Prior: “what you want, what you want,” his mother dismissively snipes, as if the desire to be a fully fledged human being unashamed of his most profound self is nothing more than a between-meal snack.
And yet of course the truth of his inner nature is a great deal more than a whim, and it’s for this reason that the spectacle of Joe’s suffering is a true tragic spectacle: a man torn between two competing goods (his happiness, his wife’s sanity), neither of which can be attained without the destruction of the other. In the classical sense, Joe is the only character deserving of those tragic emotions, pity and fear; he’s the only character who has a kind of Sopho- clean grandeur. Or, that is, should have, but doesn’t—because instead of working through the meaning of Joe’s conundrum, Kushner sweeps it under the dramatic rug, trying to persuade us that, like Louis, he’s just a selfish monster. (The other evil that Joe does—the legal opinions that he composes—are a function, if anything, of his closetedness; like many closeted gay men, he is attracted to repressive ideologies that seem to promise “order.”)
Indeed, of all the desertions that Angels depicts, none is as striking as the desertion of Joe by his creator. Angels presents many images of suffering: Prior’s abandonment and illness; Harper’s loneliness and madness; Cohn’s pain; Rosenberg’s death; the angels’ confusion; the discrimination and racism to which Belize alludes; Hannah’s nervous failure as a mother, for which her compensatory crispness can barely cover; even selfish Louis’s spasms of guilt and self-torment. Each of these characters is, by the end of the play, healed, comforted, or forgiven: Prior’s fever breaks, and we are meant to understand that he’ll grow better (in the epilogue, we learn that he’s doing fine on AZT); Harper asserts herself, grabs Joe’s credit card, and takes a night flight to San Francisco to start a new, emancipated life; Hannah is seen at the end of the play, relaxed, attractively dressed in New Yorker chic, amiably chatting with her new gay pals; Louis has been forgiven, if not taken back, by Prior; and, as we know, even Roy Cohn is absolved by his most famous victim, Ethel Rosenberg. Of all the sufferers in Angels, only Joe is left alone at the end, the only character who is neither forgiven nor redeemed in a way that conforms to Kushner’s sense of “Perestroika” as a “comedy.”
Why is this? When you look over the cast of characters in Angels and think about whom we’re supposed to sympathize with, and who gets forgiven, you can’t help noticing that the most sympathetic, the “best” characters are either ill, or women, or black, or Jewish. Looking over this rather PC list, it occurs to you to wonder whether, in the worldview of this play’s creator, the reason why Joe Pitt, who alone of the characters is the most genuinely and interestingly torn, who in fact seeks love the hardest and suffers the most for self-knowledge, can’t be forgiven by his creator, and is the only character who goes unredeemed in some way at the end of the play, is that he’s a healthy, uninfected, white, Anglo-Saxon, male Christian. This in turn makes you realize how much of the second part of this play depends, from the in-joke of San Francisco as Heaven to the closing scene in which Prior addresses the audience and in a valedictory blessing vapidly declares us all to be “fabulous creatures, each and every one,” on a certain set of glib, feel-good, politically correct gay assumptions about the world, assumptions that in the end undercut the ambitions and, occasionally, the pretensions of what has come before. I, for one, would have respected much more a play that invited its presumably liberal, often largely gay or gay-friendly audiences to see as its central and truly tragic figure a white, healthy, Protestant male on the verge of something truly transformative and redeeming: not illness and suffering, but self-knowledge. When all is said and done, Angels itself is guilty of its own kind of reprehensible abandonment: abandonment of the tragic for the merely sentimental, of real intellectual challenges for feel-good nostrums, of hard questions about guilt and responsibility for easy finger-pointing at all the usual suspects.
For this reason, it’s hard to know just how the television Angels is going to play during its inevitable reruns and airings during the next few months. The excitement and acclaim that greeted the six-hour, $60 million production has had, perhaps appropriately, something of the messianic about it—something redolent more of those latter-day, heralding, biblical angels than of their drab classical forbears. The New York Times devoted not one but two front-page Arts & Leisure articles (on the same day) to Kushner and the Angels film; The New Yorker deemed the TV version “cause for celebration.” More ecstatic than either by far was The Washington Post, which declared the TV film “awesome,”5 “spectacular,” and “one of the most dazzling movies ever made for television or any other means of projecting a film.” I say “messianic” because, behind all this enthusiasm, it was hard not to detect a sense of deep satisfaction that Kushner’s American epic was finally going to be seen in—well, in America. “The number of people who see it the very first night should easily outnumber those who have seen the play in the several hundred North American stage productions since it opened on Broadway 10 years ago,” the Times exulted in one of its two articles, entitled “Hurricane Kushner Hits the Heartland.”6
Within Angels lurks that great work about America itself, one that could well speak to the heartland, a work about migrations and revelations and about the essential tragedy of American and possibly even human experience, in which one person’s liberation—now more than before—often means another’s suffering. But the play as we have it is a more limited affair, one meant to reassure not the heartland but the marginal groups whom the play cozily addresses. What, in the end, can the “heartland” be expected to make of the play’s real message: that those who come from it are unforgiven, and unforgivable by those of us who reside on the coasts? Still, the fanfares are loud. Not for the first time, in the case of angels, will the messenger have outdazzled the message.
February 12, 2004
See Death and Taxes: Hydriotaphia & Other Plays (Theatre Communications Group, 2000), p. xviii. ↩
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches (Theatre Communications Group, 1993), p. 5. ↩
Alex Abramovich, “Hurricane Kushner Hits the Heartland,” The New York Times, November 30, 2003, p. 1. ↩
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (Theatre Communications Group, 1994), p. 8. ↩
“HBO’s ‘Angels’: Glory Be!,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2003, pp. N1–2. ↩
See above, note 3. ↩