Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches (National Theatre, directed by Marriane Elliott)
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Shortly into this seven and a half hour play — twenty minutes? half an hour? — I mused on Walter Benjamin, a thinker I do not know as much about as I should and his musings on the Paul Klee picture and history.
(When I was researching a chapter on John Wyndham, “Random Quest” and the film Quest for Love, I needed to know about Goethe and Elective Affinities and Paul de Man had written an essay on Benjamin’s essay on someone else’s reading of the novel, but that was too far down the rabbit hole.)
Might this unpack a way of unthinking about Tony Kushner extraordinary play? Ah, he says, having googled, Kushner already knows about the angel of history.
It is a document of a different time — always already an history play. It is set in the plague years, the early years of the HIV crisis, when AZT trials were making headway and it might just have been possible to think of living with AIDS rather than a death sentence. Reagan had been reelected (so had Thatcher) and it was necessary to overcome deep, visceral prejudice in order to gain funding and to educate.
In another part of the forest there was The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s (autobiographical) account of the gay communities coming together to organise itself and campaign over HIV awareness (and also As Is). Angels in America chooses a more fantastical route, like Unicorn Mountain, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals”, Tim and Pete and ”Was…”, leading up to the climactic (and bordering on ridiculous) arrival of an angel at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. In addition to the fantasy, Kushner is evidently aiming for a state of the nation play, via George Bernard Shaw or Arthur Miller.
I can’t imagine what it was like to see the original production, a year or so before the staging of the second half, “Perestroika”. A two hour wait was tough enough. And I have to say, it has aged better than I would have expected. Perhaps President Trump takes us back to a time of Reagan and the sense of a world on the brink of an abyss. I’m not convinced gay marriage was on the agenda in 1986, but clearly same-sex couples were living together even if they would have had few legal rights. A couple of names passed me by — big at the time but lost to history. And as I will note in the next paragraphs, Trump is a partial consequence of one of the characters of the play.
In a sense, the first play is about two couples and that character. WASPy Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), ex-drag queen, reveals to his Jewish boyfriend Louis Ironson (James McArdle) that he has AIDS; Louis can’t handle this and thinks about leaving Prior. He is discovered crying in a bathroom by Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey), who has been lying to his wife Harper Pitt (Denise Gough) about his true sexuality. Joe, meanwhile, has been offered a promotion by his boss, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane).
Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the McCarthy-Army hearings, he had prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason and had been responsible with McCarthy for getting many gay people fired from government employment. In the 1970s, he was the Trump family lawyer, a formidable and aggressive litigator, who defended by going in the attack (sound familiar?). This character — along with the angel — is what has stayed with me most from the HBO adaptation is Al Pacino chewing the scenery. Lane is dialled back, thankfully, with a bit more of a nuanced performance (but it could hardly be less). He is sweary sweary and the audience find this funny. He is the devil offering Joe a pact, playing semantics, offering to be a father to the Mormon, in an almost invisible seduction. He is Not Gay — gays are losers, gays have no power, he has power, he simply has sex with men. He does not have AIDS — he has liver cancer.
The theme of fathers and sons runs through the first play; perhaps just sons as none of the characters are fathers. And there is also a mother and son, as we meet Joe’s mother towards the end, setting up part two. There is the patriarchy at work, man handing on advice, knowledge, power and wealth to the next generation, except it may all end here, in the coming apocalypse.
We also have the sense of betrayal — lovers of lovers, husbands of wives, Cohn surely of Joe. So many characters want to get out and leave — complaining that they have been out in an impossible situation, not of their making. This sense of inevitability, of predestination, of the elect and the damned connects with an ongoing discussion of guilt. Louis, in particular, has long monologues (even as part of dialogue) about Judaism and guilt, as well as the after life. The scene is set for this by the opening monologue — a funeral oration by a rabbi (played by Susan Brown, who later plays a male doctor and the Mormon mother), which also points to immigration, migration and progress, a theme which develops through the second play.
To take the play at its word as a “Gay fantasia on national themes”, it seems to be a very middle class set of characters — with doctors and lawyers. There is a single African American actor, Nathan Stewart-Jones, who plays an hallucinated travel agent and then Belize, a nurse. In the second play he is given a lot more ideological weight, but not so much here. The female roles are a little thin — with Gough’s Harper playing a hysterical, Valium popping wife who has been driven there by Joe, first leaving her alone as he works and then leaving her alone as he “goes for long walks”. (The gay demi-monde is a little cringe worthy in its representation.) As part of her hallucinations, she sees Prior, and engages in conversations with him, and this seems to be real if impossible. In the third act she appears to go Antarctica, in search of friends, a moment which perhaps plays with Robert Walton in Frankenstein.
Much of the staging involves three revolves (sorry — an awful sentence) that keep shifting locations. The staging is meant to be abstract, not realistic, but sometimes this device gets in the way. And when it all slides back, revealing the whole stage for a snow storm, the release from claustrophobia is striking.
And then, the angel.
The first manifestation, if I recall correctly, is a single feather, and then there is a burst of flames. This risked being comic rather than revelatory. But the apparition is worth waiting for — Amanda Lawrence as a kind of Annie Lennox with half a dozen assistants, actually rather sinister not utopian in tone. It seems a very deus ex machina ending, a brave perhaps fool hardy moment.
And of course, as you recall from his roles other than Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield can act — coy, camp, heart broken, tough, resigned, angry, and scared out of his wits at what May of course be a night hallucination, or may indeed be an angel in New York.
(I rewatched the play as a live relay.)