Under the Skin of Angels in America (Part 2)

The previous post contains the introductory material from the day. During that portion of the day we had talks from Matthew Hodson (Executive Director of NAM ) and Activist Jonathan Blake who talks about HIV ‘Then and Now’ and their personal experiences. Following this the National Theatre Archivist brought in the records from the original production of Angels and explained how and why the National Theatre archives material. More information on the archive (Which is open to the public to access records by appointment) can be found here.

For the afternoon session we were joined by Professor Jonathan Bell of UCL who delivered a talk on the history of healthcare in the USA, with particular reference to the AIDS epidemic. And members of the NT acting company delivered extracts from the play and answered questions on working on the text from an actor’s point of view. 
My own talks centred on Philosophy in Kushner’s work, History, Gay Life and the representation of the AIDS epidemic in the play. I concluded with a reflection on the play ‘then and now’ before a Q&A session. 


Angels in America took on AIDS within the context of American political and spiritual history and set it within the broader question of American history, political, spiritual and social. A world where illness and sexuality are unapologetically shared and political diatribes sit alongside Angelic visitations manifested through Spielberg-like spectacle. These theatrical techniques allow Kushner to pose challenges to the audience through political debate, emotional resonance and through Angels of the title tie these questions across broader notions of spirituality and identity.

Kushner’s use of the Angel draws on philosopher Walter Benjamin’s work, in Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History(1940) uses the metaphor of the ‘angel of history’. Benjamin’s Angels also reference the Paul Klee painting ‘Angelus Novus’ (1920). The ideas Kushner draws on are philosophy on how we understand and respond to history, of which his Angels become agents in the play. Visiting Prior in the play, the Angel seems to initially be a messenger related to Prior’s illness. However, the Angels are symbolic of the empty and useless words of government. Abandoned by God they are doomed to inaction and useless bureaucracy, for which their only solution is a doctrine of inaction. The parallels between the political philosophy of non-intervention in Conservative politics, the wider American philosophy of individualism and the literal inaction of Reagan’s Government. In rejecting the Angels’ philosophy through Prior Kushner draws on the philosophy of Raymond Williams, and ideas of ‘walking backwards into the future’- the idea of history as an imperative for change.
Angelus Novus 

Walter Benjamin 

When Louis invokes the play’s title- in a near 10-minute-long monologue which wouldn’t be out of place on a poorly constructed political blog today- says;
[T]here are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to manoeuvre around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people.’
For Louis, then, politics is the central facet of American life. As they do across Kushner’s writing. 


Philosophy and Politics loom equally large in the plays. When the plays begin President, Reagan had begun his second term in office in January and his Right-Wing, Conservative Politics had a stronghold on America. The Cold War though showing signs of a thaw, continued and the fear of Nuclear War was still present. Meanwhile, fifteen years from the year 2000 and an undercurrent of Apocalyptic fears looms large. The subtitles of each part giving hints of this influence. Millennium Approaches indicating the combination of Doomsday and Conspiracy theories that were building pace, as the new Millennium approaches. And the Angels of the text give voice to this broader religion fuelled, philosophical questions of the era. The subtitle for part two, Perestroika, the name given to the policy reform of the Communist Party in Russia under Gorbachev, a marker for how intrinsically politics and history are woven into the play. These elements are all at work in the play where politics are debated alongside religion and questions of morality, while mysterious Angelic figures seem to tie across the personal, political and spiritual.

Reagan looming large

President Ronald Reagan of course looms large in Kushner’s writing, his inaction on the AIDS crisis being what much of the gay community would remember him for, but Kushner’s writing, seeks to bring Reagan to account for other areas of his policy as well.  Although then Reagan is sometimes remembered as one who created economic growth, and helped end the Cold War, his social policies and the longer term negative impact on society. Known for his populist conservatism as well as his role in the end of the Cold War. Reagan became known for his economic policy of ‘Reganomics’ which lowered taxes considerably but forced cuts to social benefits, his idea of ‘rugged individualism’ suited the Right-Wing notions of his supporters but left many Americans vulnerable.

Politics in Angels are embodied on one side by Louis and his leftist, often idealist politic and Belize, who adds an element of reality to his idealism. On the other side, Louis faces off against Joe, staunch Republican but a man determined to do good in life. References such as Louis’ teasing, flirtatious first meeting with Joe illustrate this:

Louis: Ha. Reaganite heartless macho asshole lawyers.
Joe: Oh that’s unfair.
Louis: What is? Heartless? Macho? Reaganite? Lawyer?
Joe: I voted for Reagan.
Louis: You did?
Joe: Twice.                       
Louis: Twice? Well, oh boy. A gay Republican!

Later, in Perestroika, Louis becomes uncomfortable with Joe’s politics, and his closeness to Roy Cohn, and challenges Joe over several court decisions which reflect this Reaganite outlook citing the Government’s avoiding any responsibility for its citizens wherever possible. He uses the famous question from Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings- at which Roy Cohn was a lawyer- “Have you no decency” to make his feelings about his lover’s political leanings known.

LOUIS: “Have you no decency, at long last, sir, have you no decency at all?”
JOE: I DON’T KNOW WHO SAID IT! Why are you doing this to me?! I… I love you! Please believe me, please, I love you. Stop hurting me like –
LOUIS: Joseph Welch! The Army/McCarthy hearings! Ask Roy. He’ll tell you. He knows. He was there.

And in the other corner, Roy Cohn, the embodiment of politics for personal gain. The real Roy Cohn, was a prominent Republican and lawyer to the both Army-McCarthy hearings or ‘Witch Trials’ and later Donald Trump. This famous client of Roy’s serving now to show that the politics Kushner is writing about-and against- may no longer feel so far removed for contemporary audiences. Although a fictionalised version of the real Cohn, the reality of Cohn’s political and legal actions are woven into the play as he becomes a symbol of Reagan’s America. His status-led outlook and emphasis on ‘where an individual sit in the food chain’ is reflective of the Reagan era-attitude towards social policy.

Kushner’s politics are a departure from previous AIDS plays, such as Hoffan’s As Is which is largely a-political or at the other extreme Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which puts its politics before it’s theatrics. Kushner hopes for some middle ground and the politics are also wider, beyond AIDS, beyond even the anti-Republican anti-Reagan stance of his work, Kushner is concerned with politics in the broader, more philosophical sense.

An interesting note in the staging history of the play however, is that the American workshop production of both parts of the play together at took place on the eve of Bill Clinton’s election- November 2nd 1992. David Roman- academic, writer, performer and gay man- wrote in his 1995 book ‘Acts of Intervention’ about the significance he felt seeing that performance with fellow performers, AIDS activist and HIV positive companions. “We are five gay men who have lived to be thirty-years old and beyond an accomplishment we never lose sight of these days’. When writing about his experience of the plays David Roman talked about the idea of Kushner’s plays representing a kind of watershed moment- both in terms of politics outside of the plays, and the personal community politics. Which is in face the line that Kushner treads so well- big politics of America, philosophy of politics tied up in the Angels and the personal politics of community.

Of course, ultimately, the power of Kushner’s politics is that-accidentally, and unfortunately it does feel incredibly current. As James McArdle comments “It captures an epoch in a way that is rare. It’s almost like a prophecy as to where we are now. When Trump got in I started to think about all the parallels but it’s actually worse than parallels now. Reagan looks benign compared to The Donald.”

End of Part 2 

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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