Angels in America



  • Tony Kushner's epic two-part drama about gay life and the advent of AIDSin Ronald Reagan's America. Subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes",the play blends tragedy with comedy and genres ranging from soap opera toscience fiction and political prophecy. It is now widely regarded as the mostsignificant US drama of the 1990s.

    Angels in America was first conceived in 1987 when Kushner, a relatively inexperienced playwright, was approachedby Oskar Eustis, a director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, to writea drama about the impact of AIDS. Kushner and Eustis worked together for severalyears on the piece, which grew rapidly in size and scope. In May 1991Millennium Approaches, the first part of Angels, was staged bythe Eureka Theatre of Los Angeles in a production by David Esbjornson. A secondpart, Perestroika, followed in November 1992, in a production by theMark Taper Forum directed by Eustis and Tony Taccore. Finally, in November1993, the complete play, which lasts about seven hours in performance, wasstaged in both London and New York to ecstatic reviews. Its numerous awardshave included the Pulitzer Prize for drama (1993) and the Tony Awards forBest Play for both 1993 (Millennium Approaches) and 1994 (Perestroika).

    The complete play consists of 60 short, sometimes overlapping, scenesthat take place in locations ranging from New York offices and hospitals toAntarctica and Heaven; the 30-odd characters are played by eight actors. Themain focus is on four very different gay men, each of whom is affected, directlyor indirectly, by AIDS: these are Louis Ironson, a self-doubting New York Jew;Prior Walter, his long-time lover, who is in the first stages of the illness;Joe Pitt, a married man, conservative lawyer, and devout Mormon; and Joe'sboss Roy Cohn - a historical figure notorious for his role in theMcCarthy hearings, his Mafia links, and his career as a ruthless right-wingfixer. In the course of the play the anguished Louis struggles to reconcilehis love for Prior with his panicky decision to end their relationship, andhis new feelings for Joe with his loathing for Joe's mentor, Cohn - aman he regards as "the polestar of human evil... the worst humanbeing who ever lived". As Prior's illness progresses, a morephantasmagorical element is introduced, most dramatically when the angel ofAmerica crashes through the roof and calls upon him to prophesy to the nationand the world ("Greetings Prophet! The great work begins!"). Bypart two, Roy Cohn has also developed AIDS but remains in complete denial overhis sexuality; in hospital, he is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, thewoman he sent to the electric chair 30 years earlier, but shows no remorse.Other characters include Joe's mother, Hannah; his valium-addicted wife, Harper;and Belize, a Black nurse and former drag queen who gets most of the play'sbest lines.

    In 2003 Angels in America reached a wider audience whenHBO screened an acclaimed six-part version starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep,and Emma Thompson (as the Angel).