Yesterday I did what I have wanted to do for some time now: I reread Angels in America, both plays.
I brought them to work to set up a book display in the library for Pride month, and I opened Millennium Approaches. I wrote this Facebook post:
If you haven't already thought of it, now is a good time to reread "Angels in America," which just won a Tony award for best revival. I suspect it will have much to say to our current time. I shall let you know. I pulled it off the shelf, and opened to this epigraph from "The Testing-Tree" by Stanley Kunitz:
"In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking."
I thought of the first time I read the book, on a different rainy afternoon, back in 1993 or 1994. Back then, I had colleagues with whom I had discussions about literature, both classic and current, and one of them told me that I had to read this play. And so I got it and read it in one great gulp.
When the plays came to the Kennedy Center in 1995, we went with my parents, and it was perhaps the most amazing theatre I've ever seen or will ever seen. And then, for the last 23 years, I haven't revisited the plays, even as I've thought it would be interesting. When the revival won a Tony award on Sunday night, I wasn't surprised. But I did want to know if it held up well.
So, I read both plays, straight through--and they do hold up, on many levels. It is strange to read them now, when AIDS is a more manageable disease and not an instant death sentence. It is very strange to read the anti-Ronald Reagan sentiment, much of which I still agree with, but I would be happy to have that president back again. So much has changed since the dark days of the setting of these plays--and so much darkness remains.
The plays are about so much--the ways we can and can't be our best selves, the work we're called to do and the work we cannot do, the ways we connect with each other and the ways we fail so miserably. These aspects of the plays seem timeless. I can't imagine humans will ever master those issues so completely that the plays won't speak to future generations.
When I read the plays back in the 90's, the sexuality issue seemed intense and new to me--but we've seen the plot trajectories of closeted gay men struggling with their identity in so many works of art that this narrative arc isn't as interesting as it once would have been. I do think we live in a culture where we don't discuss the ways our bodies fail us, particularly as we grow older. I see Prior, the AIDS patient, as a metaphor for that aging process, even though I don't think Kushner meant him to be. I'm much more interested in the caretaking issue, especially in the not-much-discussed Mormon mother of the closeted gay man who arrives to take care of the unraveling young wife.
I am struck by the abandonment in the plays--why is it so hard to stay together? But I'm also struck by the youth of the main characters--they aren't much older than 30, so they don't have much experience. But there's also the larger issue of God's abandonment of creation--the angels in the play implore the characters to stop the world's progress in the hopes that God will return. Prior knows this approach won't work, and so, he gives the sacred text back. It's a theology that isn't mine, but I understand how it might seem to explain so much about our current world.
I'm also struck by the idea that we hold the sacred text in our bodies--we are the text. That idea seems both ancient and post-modern to me.
I have never done much thinking about angels, outside of the types of angels we find in literature, like Milton. I'm not one of those people who wears an angel pin or counts on a guardian angel. I imagine that those people would be baffled by the angels in this play, these abandoned creatures who are trying to continue in their calling, even though God seems to be gone.
Would the plays work without the supernatural elements? Yes, but it wouldn't be as rich.
It's interesting to think about these plays as part of the literature of apocalypse. I'll need to think more about that. I tend to be drawn to apocalyptic literature of a different type, although I do love a good disease narrative arc. Why haven't I made the apocalypse connection before? When I first read the plays, I was thinking of nuclear winter, not AIDS. By the early 90's, I assumed humanity would survive that disease--it's fairly preventable, after all.
It must be hard to be Tony Kushner, having written this momentous work, returning to the page. Or maybe it's a relief, knowing that important work has been done.
And now, it's off to work of my own.