Obtuse Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part Two: Perestroika
(National Theatre, live and live relay, directed by Marriane Elliott)

Inevitably this will include spoilers for Part One: Millennium Approaches — which I was lucky enough to see live and then as a live relay. Equally, it is impossible to talk about this play without discussing the end. I will single out that part of my discussion as I reach it.

Part One sets the play up and is hardly satisfying on its own: there is an opening monologue about migration (and thus progression), especially that of Eastern European Jews, delivered by a rabbi performed by a woman. It is 1986, the early years of the AIDS epidemic and (real world) lawyer Roy Cohn and (fictional) occasional drag queen Prior Walter have discovered they have HIV. Cohn has a disbarment hearing, and attempts to persuade a clerk, Joe Pitt, to take a job in Washington to give him fresh influence. Joe is reluctant: his wife, Harper Pitt, is having a nervous break down and he is gay but in the closet. Meanwhile, Prior’s partner, Louis Ironson, can not deal with the diagnosis and leaves him, meeting Joe in the process. Joe comes out to his Mormon mother, Hannah Pitt, who decides to sell her house in Salt Lake City and visit her son and daughter in law. In hospital, Prior starts having visions, including two of his ancestors, and of an angel.

There is a lot of death in gay-themed narratives. The happily ever after is pretty rare — one of the gay characters is killed or commits suicide, and there is a nobility in surviving. In the era of HIV this became if anything more prevalent — unless “comfortably” set in the past, AIDS had to be represented and death was a spectre in the drama. Even now, when people have been living with HIV for thirty years, there is a strain of gay gothic (compare Buffy or the tenth season of Doctor Who. You have to be prepared for the heart break.

The opening of Part Two — Perestroika echoes the first part, with a monologue by the same actor (Susan Brown) as the oldest living Bolshevik, facing the potential break up of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, demanding a new theory, a new book. It was sobering that neither I, nor the woman who sat next to me (who was one of those who had taught Russell Tovey acting) could remember that “perestroika” means “thaw” — and somewhere along the line therefore links to the Antarctic fantasy scenes. Cohn is in hospital and is advised by nurse Belize (a friend of Prior’s) to get hold of AZT. Joe and Louis are starting a relationship, while Prior is trying to deal with his angelic vision and meets Hannah (in real life, having seen her in visions) and her mother in law, and has to confront the angels in heaven as Chernobyl goes into meltdown.

It is odd that a twenty-five year old play, so of its time, still feels so relevant in the era of Trump and, if anything, felt more relevant on second viewing. In the meantime, we’ve had Trump tweeting that he wants trans* people excluded from the military and the Cohn-style sweary Antiny Scaramucci (remember him?) was briefly in the White House. Louis investigates Joe’s judgements when working under Cohn’s influence and realises a lot of them undermine Fourteenth Amendment rights, narrowing the definition of who is considered a full citizen. This suddenly feels very relevant. Cohn, of course, was the Trump family lawyer, so the bluster of denying the truth and insisting on the lie is horribly familiar. We are told by one character that lawyers made America and that the country is no place for the infirm.

Meanwhile we get to see Kushner’s cosmology: God created the Angels and humanity is the result of angel sex, angel jooz, but humanity has started to distract God, who has gone missing. The problem is progress: humanity’s development and movement and intermingling is distracting from the uncreative angels. We have the immigration of various peoples from Europe (and indeed from Africa) and we have the pioneer spirit, encapsulated in the pilgrimage of Mormon Joseph Smith and his family across the nineteenth century US to Utah. It is an image of progress which is at the heart of the image of the Angel of History in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on History”. The Angels want humanity to stop. Enough progress already. And then God might come home and face the music. God, we are told, doesn’t live his people.

I almost wonder if Kushner had read VALIS, since that seems to have a equal sense of the theological disaster, the transforming madness of revelation, the need for the saviour to be saved, and conversations that go on forever. Dick was to name a character Angel, of course, but that is pushing things.

Of course, the apocalypse, the millennium, the end of the world isn’t the end of the world. Or, rather, it is the end of one world and the start of another. There are a variety of discussions about the afterlife and heaven, notably between Belize and Cohn (who rather steals his scenes again), and the consensus is that heaven is like San Francisco, surely the gayest of American cities. There is a need for redemption and change, for Louis with Prior, for Joe with Harper, even for Roy with alleged traitor Ethel Rosenberg, who he sees at his bedside. America, in particular, needs salvation.

There is even redemption available for Hannah, who begins as apparently heartless and has lost a purpose, and who is fearful of all sex, let alone gay sex. But she has her own awakening — and she becomes a close friend and confidant to Prior. She is not the monster you could so easily take her for. People can change. Whilst a lot of the Mormon material feels a little surplus (and I will come back to this sense in the paragraph after next), she becomes integral to the play. Cohn stays the villain, the devil with the best lines.

The staging is distinct from the first half; that had a series of flats at right angles, and we only see these in the first act, illuminated by neon tubes along their edges. These give way to a series of cages and scaffolds, often consisting of light bulbs. When Prior ascends to heaven, it is up a ladder of light. At times the stage appears to empty — we see right to the back of the stage, in the live version even including the exit sign, but that wasn’t the case in the relay. The wings and lighting banks become visible — in a Brechtian moment the artifice is unveiled. The angel is perhaps less convincing on screen — the uncanny dance of stage craft and fantasy is clearer in the flesh. Barely visible in the first play, a metal structure to the rear appears to be a bridge but is too bent and twisted. I began to wonder whether it was a vision of Chernobyl or even a map of San Francisco. In the filmed version, it looked more like the roof of heaven, but I also wonder if it gives us a glimpse of heaven. The paradise that might be achievable — although heaven in this play hardly seems desirable.

The play is full of ideas and concepts and theories and endlessly allusive. I’ve mentioned Benjamin, wrestling between Jacob and an angel might nod towards Roland Barthes, the heaven sequence has A Matter of Life and Death in the mix, Towards the end, we get an echo of Dorothy waking in The Wizard of Oz, whose doubling of farmhands and neighbours with travelling companions and a wicked witch anticipates the doubling of actors here (with the notable exception of Andrew Garfield as Prior). This is followed almost immediately by Prior channeling Blanche Dubois, with a scene-stealing comeback by Hannah. At times, however, the talk is too much and Kushner loves his monologues over his dialogue. Louis is particularly verbose — countered only by Belize. At well over four hours fifteen, it does really need trimming — but I can’t see what can be cut. It has almost as many endings as Return of the King.

And thus to the end. An epilogue with Hannah, Belize, Louis and Prior in Central Park, a few years later (we’ve already seen Harper and her epiphany of ecology and the ozone layer). The Bethesda Fountain, designed by lesbian sculptor Emma Stebbins, is a representation of an angel touching Earth in Jerusalem and is associated with healing. Indeed, Prior is healed or at least living with AIDS — although whether this is due to the actions of Roy and Belize or is an angelic intervention is neatly ambiguous. It is tempting to see Prior’s survival as wish fulfilment — it is a gay fantasia, after all. But the play folds back to the opening of Part Two and the need for theory and the idea of utopia being necessary for utopia to happen. Or not.

The fourth wall is broken and we as audience are blessed, before we joined in the communion of applause and a standing ovation, an experience we are denied in a cinema because of awkward self awareness.

”The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter. Ice in the pipes. But in the summer…it’s a sight to see, and I want to be around to see it. I plan to be, I hope to be. This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and will struggle on with the living and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward, we will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now, you are fabulous each and every one and I bless you. More life, the great work begins.”


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