By April Howard
Part one of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, named ‘Millennium Approaches’, was released in 1990 and the second part (‘Perestroika’) was released the following year. It was a play that broke into the world at the most perfect time, striking during the transition between Reagan and Clinton and just as the AIDs epidemic turned a corner.
The play has been called one of the most important plays of the twentieth century by many critics. A play, intended to be a comedy about gays, Jewish people and Mormons, warped into one of the most striking and moving plays ever written.
This Pride month, we take time to look at elements of culture and society shaped or challenged by LGBT+ people, whether that be in terms of science, the arts, music, social justice or politics. In the world of the theatre, Tony Kushner is one such LGBT+ person.
‘Angels in America’ is seven hours long all together. It is filled with hallucination, scripture, hospitals and anxiety: an anxiety about death, about identity but also about the end of the world. When the National Theatre wished to revive the play in 2018, Kushner was doubtful. He didn’t believe the play would resonate anymore. Gay rights have made such impressive leaps forward in the Western world, with marriage and adoption now legal and even normalised, and many people with AIDs can live long, happy lives.
Yet, the looming threat of apocalypse, the figure of Roy Cohn, and the issues of anti-immigration make this play still relevant in a world sinking back, if not already lost, to frighteningly right-wing ideologies. While Kushner’s first audience were emerging from under the shadow of the Reagan-Thatcher era, current audiences are stuck in the midst of a remarkably similar epoch.
While original audiences were concerned that the new millennium would bring the end of the world, now audiences are living in a time of increased climate consciousness, fearing that the world, as we know it, is indeed heading towards an end.
Kushner has written a wealth of other material, but, predictably, none of these works has ever had the same resonance and critical acclaim as ‘Angels in America’. Nonetheless, Kushner has worked with many talented, prominent directors, moving from the stage to the screen. He wrote screenplays for many films, including Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ (2015) and ‘Lincoln’ (2012). His other plays include ‘La Fin de la Baleine: An Opera for the Apocalypse’, ‘Slavs!’, ‘Homebody/ Kabul’ and ‘The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures’.
His drama is socially conscious, political, intense. He is a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, which has made him even more controversial. He once wrote, as one of his six- word memoirs: ‘At least I never voted Republican’. He is opinionated and outspoken. He can also be difficult to work with, obsessive, just as intense as the art he produces.
Kushner’s coming out was difficult. He was 26 and sought the help of a therapist in hope of conversion. After he came out to his mother on the phone, she cried for a week. ‘Angels in America’ is partly such a successful play because of how it encapsulates much of the bubbling, the fear and worry and excitement, that LGBT+ people experience as they come out and come to terms with who they are.
This Pride month, I implore you to read or watch ‘Angels in America’, or any work of Kushner’s, and soak it in. Now, more than ever, one can feel the quivering, the awe, the anxiety that Kushner evokes, and now, more than ever, it is important that we listen to that feeling.
Image: Commonwealth Club via Flickr and Creative Commons