‘Under the Skin of Angels in America’ (Part 1)

In May 2017 the National Theatre invited me to curate an ‘Education Day’ which they run for adult audiences (ie not school or University groups) and are entire days based around a particular play. Titled ‘Under the Skin of Angels in America’ I delieverd a ‘Keynote’ as well as a series of link-sections between sections.

The following are extracts from my talks on that day.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was once referred to as ‘the most talked about, written about and awarded play of the past decade or more. My relationship with the play began in 2004, with the film version. As a group of students, battling a Montreal winter (which is long and cold) the DVD rental store was our friend. And my flatmate sold me 6 hours of Angels in America with the description “It’s about AIDS, it’s supposed to be good”. In the end, I think I was the only one who watched it. From that began a path that led me to first to the first British revival in 2007, to a Masters Dissertation, and finally a PhD. (For those interested in a more in-depth personal reflection on my history with the play, it can be found here)

My PhD the snappily titled Angels at the National and Bohemians in the West End: transposing and reviving American dramatic depictions of AIDS to the British stage in Angels in America and Rent (Which can be found here) This thesis was a look at the original, and first revivals of two key plays that talked about HIV/AIDS.  I spent a lot of time looking back, at the period in history, the theatrical context, archive records and reviews (I can tell you what Michael Billington said about virtually everything that opened in 1993 and 1995 which might be a weird Mastermind subject one day). But I also spent a lot of time thinking about how relevant this play is today.

 ‘The World Only Spins Forward’ Prior Walker declares in his final address to the audience in Angels in America, and it is indeed a play about progress, but it’s also a play about reflection. The play looks back on American history, on human history to ask how we might progress. As the Angels fly once again to London’s South Bank, it’s also a fitting reflection on theatrical history, and this production, on the art of theatrical progress. And also, a play that speaks very much to our current times, and to humanity as a whole. Although subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ and known as an ‘AIDS play’ what we actually get is far more universal. It’s a play that talks about love, about loss, about struggling with who you really are-or want to be. About change in life-making that change or dealing with it. About negotiating your place in the world. And ultimately, it’s about people.

It’s also a fascinating piece of theatrical history and theatrical work. So, these form the basis of this section and indeed the day; Angels and its importance as both a theatrical work, through what we see on stage and the significance of it being staged. And then beyond that, what the plays says to us, what it said in 1994 and what it still says today.  

Production History

Original National Theatre Artwork 

It is a return home for Kushner’s Angels. Despite being the product of ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ of the American variety, it was in the National Theatre that the play officially premiered. Although commissioned by a combination of a National Endowment for the Arts award and the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, The National Theatre played a key role in developing the play. Artistic director Richard Eyre read the play almost by accident, having been snowed in, and on reading the play wrote in his diary I knew halfway down the first page – a virtuoso monologue by Roy Cohn having three phone conversations, one of them trying to book tickets for Cats – that I wanted to put it on.” Immediately he sent it to Declan Donnellan one half of Cheek By Jowl theatre company who would collaborate to bring it to the National’s stage.

Original Broadway Artwork 

The moment of ‘World Premiere’ of both Millennium and Perestroika was in fact gotten on a technicality- the Broadway Production should have opened simultaneously, but they were delayed by technical issues (Angels are stubborn in their flying) and so on November 20th, 1993, Parts 1 and 2 officially opened in London, three days ahead of their Broadway counterparts. British theatre took to it, with reviews that praised the size and scope of the play, while Broadway critics including Frank Rich, made the journey to see the British version of what would quickly become an American classic. The actors themselves were also incredibly excited by the play, including two relative unknowns Daniel Craig (Joe Pitt) and Jason Issacs (Louis Ironson). Issacs said of it; “Salman Rushdie’s bodyguards, even, who could barely bring themselves to look at the stage for horror at the gay sex and love unfolding in front of them were riveted and opened up by the end.” There are stories of celebrities who flocked- New Yorkers who came over, people who queued every night for a year for returns (and one who became an actress as a result) but it also changed the actors. Issacs remembers sitting in the wings and saying to his co-starts “I was just thinking that nothing will ever touch this. Whatever I do, this’ll always be the high watermark.” Despite them being veteran actors in comparison they agreed. It was the kind of experience from which nobody left unchanged.

Since then it has won many accolades and awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has become one of the most talked about, analysed and awarded American dramas of the twentieth century. It has been adapted for television, in 2003’s HBO miniseries, translated into numerous languages, and been made into an opera. A world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through Spielberg-like spectacle. Almost immediately following its opening critics and academics were canonising Kushner’s play as a turning point in American drama, shifting both in challenging content but also its Epic, innovative approach to American drama which had for decades before been mainly rooted in the domestic and naturalistic.

So, the announcement that Angels would be returning to the National Theatre in 2017 is more of a ‘homecoming’ than the subtitle ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ might suggest. But added to this Angels has come back bigger than its original National Theatre production, taking instead of the intimate and adaptable space of the Cottesloe, the larger traditional proscenium arch space of the Lyttleton. It’s also brought with it a starry cast including Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey along with Olivier award winner, and all-round star of British theatre, Denise Gough. Combined with direction from Marianne Elliot, who has delivered some of the biggest hits for the National Theatre in recent years, this is not so much a homecoming as a triumphant return that looked to defy the previous production in scope and scale. More than this however, it is a sign of the significance of the play itself, that the NT has returned to the production on such a scale. Including it in the celebration of 50 years was an indication of its importance to theatrical history. But why does a play about 1980s America, specifically the title might suggest Gay America resonate still?

Part 2 of the talks follows this. Following here are a note on staging and on the character of Roy Cohn included as ‘footnotes’ to the main talks. 

Plot Summary

Spider Diagram of Character links. That was a Friday night in April. Also SPIDER diagram. 

The scope and scale of Kushner’s plays is far reaching and theatrically ambitious. Featuring over 30 characters usually played by 8 characters, it stretches from New York, to San Francisco, Salt Lake City and indeed to Heaven itself. A two-part story told through Part One Millennium Approaches, and Part Two Perestroika. At the centre of all of this is Prior Walter, diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, his partner Louis unable to cope with the situation, leaves his lover and eventually takes up with closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt. Joe, being the antithesis of everything Louis stands for, and being the protégé of Roy Cohn, a character based on the real Reaganite closeted Lawyer who denied he had AIDS until the end of his life. Meanwhile Harper, Joe’s wife, slipping off into Valium fuelled dreams, meets Prior who is increasingly troubled by such spectral visions. And while Louis carries on his affair, Joe juggles his sense of self, pressure from Roy and Harper explores who she might be without Joe, Prior finds himself the focus of an Angel’s attention- through appearing in his dreams, passing on of prophecies and an eventual trip to Heaven, Prior becomes a conduit for Angelic philosophising. 

A note on Roy Cohn
Kushner has Roy say in Perestroika ‘It’s history. I didn’t write, it though I flatter myself I am a footnote.’ For his role in both the Rosenburg trial and the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn is a figure of historical significance. Cohn had a highly successful and influential legal career in New York before being disbarred shortly before his death for misconduct.  Cohn is no stranger to fictionalisation, appearing in or referenced across popular culture- from X Files to The Simpsons to other AIDS theatre-including performance artist Ron Vawter’s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith.
Kushner when asked what his play is about or what he set out to talk about says ‘America, Mormons and AIDS’. The first in part comes from his feeling that having been given money from the Government via the National Endowment for the Arts that he should in fact also write about America. Mormons, in part are a mystery best left for Kushner and his own fascination. But a good theory is that Mormons are the only (Native American aside) American grown religion, an implanted variation on Judaic-Christian origins, but altered and born of the ‘new world’ itself very American. And of course, the legend of the Angel, Moroni not Mormon (which has Harper asks, ‘why aren’t we called Morons then?’). Along with the wholesome values associated with the religion, again offers commentary on facets of American society. 

A note on Staging

Kushner describes his play as ‘Brechtian Epic’ it’s in fact been described as ‘American Epic’ indicating an almost ‘category of its own’ play. Kushner does derive from Brechtian theatre, but also American theatre- he is for example also heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams. Both account for the merging of domestic, wordy, often emotional writing with more abstract theatrical approaches.

The actor-driven nature of the play emphasises Kushner’s Brechtian influences. The idea of doubling and the significance of the actors as a company highlighted by Kushner are intrinsic in bringing his work to life. He is specific that the play is written for eight actors and that they double. Kushner has made it clear in interviews discussing his play each doubling of roles has significance for the characters but it also fosters a sense of community.

Doubling is an important Brechtian and Epic convention, contributing to Brecht’s famous alienation technique. This creates a feeling for an audience of always being aware that the actor is playing a part. Brechtian epic staging: ‘benefits from a pared down style, with minimal scenery’, that scene changes are ‘rapid and without blackout’, and that it is an ‘actor driven event.’  And realised as ‘theatrical illusion’ that ‘the wires may show’. By this, he means that the effects he requests in the text should be ‘fully realised’ and ‘thoroughly amazing’ but that the audience should also be aware that they are effects.

In Angels, this approach isn’t as obvious in Millennium which is a more traditional narrative driven story. In this production, Elliot has made the division clearer by clever staging which emphasises the naturalistic in Millennium and slowly but surely pulls the rug (quite literally at one point) from actors and audience in Perestroika. For the theatrical nerd in everyone, a clever use of a rain machine in both parts indicates this technique in action. Epic theatre places actor and audience in a joint project in relation to the play they are performing and watching, removing the theoretical (and often literal) space that had previously existed between them. For the politics and philosophy of Angels this approach is integral, but also coupled with an engaging piece of theatrical storytelling. 

End of Part 1

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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