Tony Kushner intricately weaves together lives, emotional struggles, and politics in his play, Angels in America. The two parts making up the play were written separately and are often performed as separate entities because of their combined length. As Kushner states, “It should also be said that Millennium Approaches and Perestroika are very different plays”. For those reasons, I feel it best to also review them separately.
“It’s 1985. Fifteen years till the third millennium. Maybe Christ will come again. Maybe seeds will be planted, maybe there’ll be harvests then, maybe companionship and love and protection, safety from what’s outside, maybe the door will hold, or maybe… maybe the troubles will come, and the end will come, and the sky will collapse and there will be terrible rains and showers of poison light, or maybe my life is really fine, maybe Joe loves me and I’m only crazy thinking otherwise, or maybe not, maybe it’s even worse than I know, maybe… I want to know, maybe I don’t” (24).
Harper’s monologue reflects the turmoil, fear, and questions in Angels in America and the States during the Reagan years. In the provocative Millennium Approaches, Louis is a neurotic, gay Jew who has difficulties coping with Prior having AIDS so moves out of their apartment. After being offered a promotion by the McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn, Republican law clerk Joe talks to his agoraphobic, Valium-addicted wife, Harper, who refuses to move from New York City to Washington D.C. Joe, who is also closeted and a Mormon, befriends Louis. Roy, who denies being a homosexual, discovers he has AIDS. Meanwhile, Prior thinks he’s going crazy because of his visions of Harper, spirits, and an angel who refers to him as a prophet.
Its themes are many: coping with disease and dying, AIDS when it was new and only associated with gay men, relationships, love and responsibilities to loved ones, change, saving others (or trying to), being true to oneself, homophobia, racism, religion, politics, and hope. Millennium Approaches is a dramatic piece interspersed with comic relief through the characters and situations. For example, when Prior and Harper meet in a mutual vision on “the threshold of revelation” part of their exchange is:
Harper: Mormons are not supposed to be addicted to anything. I’m a Mormon.
Prior: I’m a homosexual.
Harper: Oh! In my church we don’t believe in homosexuals.
Prior: In my church we don’t believe in Mormons.
Harper: What church do…oh! I get it. (38)
The characters’ depth of feelings and motivations make them three-dimensionally realistic. They might not be liked or agreeable, but they’re there. Prior and his friend and confidant, Belize, are the two most grounded and adjusted of the group. They’re not “typical” homosexuals, but “stereotypical” down to the drag. Prior copes with his declining health and abandonment by Louis as best he can. Louis feels guilty and portrays that through his actions and lines, such as:
“People who…in betraying what they love betray what’s truest in themselves” (105).
“Nowadays. No connections. No responsibilities. All of us…falling through the cracks that separate what we owe to our selves and… and what we owe to love” (77).
Joe believes he’s done the right thing by marrying Harper and trying to save her and himself. Their pet-name for each other is the very platonic “buddy”. Sexually ignored by Joe, Harper has turned to Valium and dreams. “Mother” Hannah is opinionated, homophobic, and determined to help Harper and her son’s marriage. The swearing, racist lawyer Roy Cohn is based on the real Cohn and the trial of Communist Ethel Rosenberg, who also makes appearances. He’s far from nice, but he’s “effective”. The Angel represents the Divine and the light in darkness. Other characters such as the Rabbi, Mr. Lies, a nurse, and the ghostly Priors assist in rounding out the story-line and moving it along. When Harper tells Mr. Lies her dreams are talking to her, he says:
“It’s the price of rootlessness. Motion sickness. The only cure- to keep moving” (24).
Kushner had his reasons for writing it so that 8 actors play two or more roles. Aside from the difficulty of casting 21 roles, he wanted there to be a resemblance and connection between the assisting and main characters. The man in the park that Louis meets is played by “Prior”. “Joe” is the Eskimo that loves Harper. “The Angel” plays a crazy, but insightful homeless woman and is also Prior’s nurse, who begins talking in Hebrew during one of his episodes. Although it may be a bit confusing, it’s kind of important to keep that in mind. The play is also set so that scenes quickly shift from one to another and, oftentimes, overlap. It works and adds to the Brechtian style of showing cross-overs and wires.
Because of my familiarity with Angels in America, it’s difficult to say how it reads for the first time. Personally, I think it’s a fantastic play that deserves recognition. A few of the awards its received are the Tony, Pulitzer Prize, and London Drama Critics Circle. I find this blurb from Newsday rather suiting:
“Fiercely humane, gloriously informed, bitchy, compassionate, uncompromised…also falling-down funny”.
I love this play and it’s one of my favorites. Several years ago, a theatre company I was working with did a production of Millennium Approaches. I saw it about thirty times from the tech booth, but it never got old. Shortly after it ended I read the script, a few years ago I suggested and read it with a book club, and recently decided to re-read it for a GLBT reading challenge simply because it’s been awhile. There are very few pages that don’t have pen-marks on them. In a couple years, I’ll probably read it again, add new notes, and still chuckle from the jokes and memories. Do I recommend Angels in America: Milliennium Approaches? Definitely.
Has anyone read or seen the play? Following Monday’s movie musing, I have yet to see the made-for-HBO film and am hesitant to do so. Has anyone seen it? If so, thoughts?
A couple ramblings by Louis, who talks a lot:
“(We’re) too much immersed in this history, hope is dissolved in the sheer age of this place, where race is what counts and there’s no real hope of change- it’s the racial destiny of the Brits that matters to them, not their political destiny, whereas in America…(blah blah blah) …ultimately race here is a political question” (97).
“There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, only the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people” (98).