‘You’ve got to have a theory’- Epilogue Thoughts

The Epilogue is perhaps the richest of all scenes in the entire two plays.
It divides people with some believing the whole thing would be better left at the point of the final ‘real time’ scenes. (So Prior and Louis’ final exchange and Harper’s monologue).  And while there’s a case for that- nothing is left entirely resolved and open to interpretation- the Epilogue only gives us clues that the respective directors and actors can play with. There’s also an important theatrical point to be made with the style of the Epilogue as well- and all this combines to really change the sense of the ending.
It’s a short (by Kushner standards) scene but also dialogue heavy. It is five years later- January 1990, and Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah visit the Bethesda fountain. In the film version it is Prior’s Birthday (he reminds us Thomas Jefferson died on his Birthday, Belize reminds him he isn’t Thomas Jefferson) In the play version, there’s no scripted reason for them to assemble, other than it’s something they now do. Which is something.
The 2007 version (Headlong, Daniel Kramer) cut most of the Epilogue, having Prior step out of his bed and address the audience. The politics edited out seen as dated and unnecessary perhaps. Here the politics- Louis and Belize bickering over Perestroika and Yugoslavia were deemed ‘dated’ and perhaps distracting, so the Epilogue focused only on Prior’s invocation to the audience. A valid approach but one that loses the wider sense of ‘what happened next’ that feels as valuable as the theatrical trope of fourth wall breaking and shift to the audience. And the way the Epilogue is played can also influence the final reading of the characters, and indeed the feeling you take away from the play. I don’t remember the same feeling of sheer hopefulness in 2007 as I do in 2017.
This version of the Epilogue in Elliott’s 2017 version is an example of how a production, and even a scene can change a whole take on a play. Personally, I’ve always had a rather macabre outlook. Asked about Rent (my other PhD text) and challenged on the ‘fairy-tale’ ending of it, I often reply ‘but Mimi’s a junkie with AIDS how long is she really going to last in the mid-80s.’ Harsh but, fair perhaps. I’ve always had a similarly grim outlook for Prior. Unlike my slightly dismissive attitude of Mimi (she gets on my nerves…oops) I do take a rather Motherly attitude towards Prior (call me Mother Pitt). But I always worried Kushner is giving us the glint of hope before reality snaps in. However, there is something so utterly hopeful in this production that is in a way utterly ineffable.  A great deal of which stems from the Epilogue- from the way the characters look, to their body language and interaction with each other and the staging of it in terms of what the audience is supposed to take away.
Firstly, costumes. I could write a book on these. Hannah and Prior are the only ones with actual descriptions of their appearance. Prior is described as ‘is heavily bundled, and he has thick glasses on and supports himself with a cane’ meanwhile Hannah Is noticeably different- she looks like a New Yorker and is reading The New York Times’ These two, have in the past five years, undergone the most radical changes, and it’s noted in their appearance. Hannah is dressed in a smart trench coat, black dress and smart black heels no longer the dowdier ‘Salt Lake City’ stylings of before, but sharp lines of an 80s New Yorker. Her overall demeanour shifts with the outfit- holding herself taller, asserting herself in the conversation with Belize and Louis.

Using some curtain call pictures as ones of the actual costumes are hard to find…
Belize meanwhile is as fabulous as ever. His signature bright colours remain, though perhaps a little toned down, a littler trendier rather than deliberately outlandish. In a similar checked coat to his earlier one- this one yellow rather than pink- and stonewash, 90s style jeans, along with his signature scarf- a plainer yellow and brown to match the coat. Belize is chic, fashionable and still fabulous. But perhaps a bit more grown up, a little less trying to scream a statement with his clothes, but still marking his personality. It’s a subtle shift in Belize, indicating he hasn’t changed quite as much. An indicator that Belize is our most ‘together’ of characters- he’s probably changed as we all do over 5 years but not substantially as Belize was already secure in himself, mature and sure of himself. His unchanged, only slightly updated, hip 90s wardrobe show Belize continues to simply be fabulous Belize.

Louis. Oh Louis. It’s subtle but he changes as much as Prior and Hannah. He has shoes on for a start. It might seem a minor detail, but five years later Louis is wearing smart dress shoes. Every other scene from work to his Grandmother’s funeral he’s worn the same battered trainers. He’s also wearing a smart coat, what’s more one that fits. As do his trousers and shirt. They’re also subtly colour coordinated- shades of dark blue. The last time we saw Louis he was wearing a grey T-shirt that didn’t quite fit properly and possibly also hadn’t been washed in several days. This is also the Louis who wore trainers to his Grandmother’s funeral. Now Louis I don’t want to sound like your Mother but is this a sign you finally learned to dress yourself or something more? Something more. Louis five years ago is a man very much at sea, even before Prior drops his bombshell Louis (and indeed Prior) isn’t a man with his life together. He’s an office temp, seems directionless, and we see that he’s still emotionally young struggles with life. His clothes reflect that- from the shabby overcoat that is too big, to scruffy trousers, untucked scruffy shirts and yes, those trainers. Now, from the things we have seen him go through, and whatever happens in the intervening five years, he looks like someone who is more together. From his more expensive looking clothes (his earlier outfits give mind to someone who either routinely buys second-hand or at least keeps clothes long after they’re worn out) indicates he probably has a ‘proper’ job now. He also cares about how he looks more perhaps- Louis before too caught up in anger at the world and politics, now thinks of himself more.
And Prior. We never really see Prior in ‘normal’ clothes. We see him in Pyjamas, hospital gowns, heavenly robes and his ‘Prophet’ outfit.  These serve a purpose other than simply clothes- even his funeral outfit at the start we can assume is chosen in part as a sort of armour- like the more extreme Prophet outfit later. Every day Prior is missing in all that. This feels like an evolved version of that. Well-tailored, smart and put together this is probably who Prior wanted to be all along before being derailed. Although Kushner suggests ‘bundled up’ it’s smart to simply put him in an overcoat and scarf- bundled up would make him look frail and this Prior isn’t frail. He’s put back together and fighting. His coat is smart, a timeless chequered herringbone design. He wears a woolly jumper in burgundy carefully coordinated with his winter scarf. Gone are the outlandish prints or over the top outfits, it’s stripped back clean and simple- again perhaps a marker of his wider attitude to life. His hair is tidied and styled for the first time really since the opening scene. His glasses, while an indicator of his still ailing sight, are stylish (of course). Prior feels put back together again in this outfit.
The Epilogue tells us a few vital things no matter how it’s staged- that Hannah stayed in New York, that she stayed friend with Prior and by default Louis and Belize. That Louis and Prior stayed friends, and that Belize is still friends with all of them. They’ve formed a strange urban family of sorts. We find Prior has been living with AIDS for 5 years (6 whole months longer than he lived with Louis) and intends to go on living more. There’s theories to have around what happened before and
The narrative of the Epilogue is useful, but it’s existence in terms of staging is more vital, particularly in this production. Firstly, Elliott directs both plays as one. There’s no real seam between Millennium and Perestroika, yes there is a shift in style, but this stems from the text and is a gradual build rather than an outright distinction. That build, which begins actually begins at the end of Millennium as Harper creates Antarctica in her mind, as the dense set of the first half strips back. Things remain stripped back, the Brechtian notes build until we reach ‘Heaven’. At which point everything is stripped back to the shell of the theatre. The Epilogue is the logical conclusion of this- when the last crack in the fourth wall falls. And it’s vital for the play to work to have Prior give the audience that moment- to turn it on them.
Elliott plays it well. The Heaven scene sets up the extended idea of the stage and auditorium as sharing the same space. And subtly she builds on this from the opening of the Epilogue. The house lights begin to get higher, gradually so it’s barely noticeable. But by the time Prior is addressing the audience, they are fully lit. But the realistic sounds of New York echo in the background. The room is at once Central Park and the Lyttleton again. It’s a vital moment of blurring lines and walls. There is also a moment of switch with the lights on the audience- we are vulnerable now. (I actually mentally cursed Elliott for this the first time as well) . After an entire day of seeing Prior at his most vulnerable, it’s us who are exposed- and with it compelled to follow his command.
Garfield shifts his performance too, I’ve written before about a theory of that moment in his performance bleeding both actor and performer- is it a bit of Prior an Garfield addressing us at that moment? Perhaps. And although he starts his monologue earlier in the scene with ‘Let’s turn the volume down on this’ that portion of Prior’s address is delivered as a monologue, within the world of the play. It’s at the final line of the first monologue ‘It’s January 1990’ that something switches in his delivery- he leans in a makes it clear to the audience it’s for them. His tone shift, like a lecturer romanticising on the play. He shares a nod a joke with the audience ‘I like them best when they’re statuary’. And then Prior/Garfield breaks the walls down for everyone else- until now, in the background in character. With his ‘Louis will tell you her story’ he breaks Louis out of that world and into the world he is addressing – our world. McArdle plays is well with a startled ‘Oh. Um’ and a look of realising the audience are suddenly there. With him Belize and Hannah seem to also blur the lines as well. The three of them stand somewhat awkwardly with Prior like children suddenly presented to meet a teacher as he concludes his speech.
There’s a sheer sense of joy to that final speech however, there’s no fear to Garfield’s Prior at this point. It’s celebratory. He’s made it this far, surrounded by friends and he plans to carry on. And his enthusiasm for it is infectious. He in this moment seems to feel invincible and that conveys to the audience. It’s possible for Prior to retain some fear at this point, frailty or wariness. None of that in him. It’s defiant, joyous but it is also very much an invocation to the audience. The Epilogue is the reason that I never leave Angels in tears-not this production anyway. I leave emotional, I leave ripped apart and put back together. I sob my way through Prior in Heaven, and through Harper’s monologue. But while the Epilogue is overwhelmingly emotional it’s also joyous. It’s full of hope and it puts the action of the play in our hands. And it is for me the most perfect ending to the play. ‘More Life’ indeed.
I get that for some people the Epilogue doesn’t work. That it might feel like reaching for things, forced tying up of loose ends. Or an odd theatrical device that isn’t needed. But for me that theatrical punctuation is exactly needed- Elliott shows this perfectly with this production. It’s precisely how the theatrical conclusion should be reached. And while theatrically it’s a perfect ending, in terms of character it doesn’t so much neatly tie up endings, but open many more questions. And that’s also why I love it.
‘You’ve got to have a theory’ Louis tells us.  And oh I have plenty. The second half of this post is about my theories, ideas and alright, outright fan-fiction about what it all means in the Epilogue in terms of character.
First the absent friends- Joe and Harper. Kushner has said that he tried to or attempted to write Joe’s story. But actually, like Joe I prefer it a little lost. Joe is the only one without a resolution, and that works because Joe at this point is without resolution. He probably spends some, if not many years ‘Lost’ as Harper instructs him-unintentionally so. There are probably a few more Louis’ in his future- men equally lost or damaged he falls in with. I feel Joe at this point is set on a self-destructive path of certainly more damaging relationships and sex, probably alcohol and maybe drugs.  He probably ends up infected with HIV despite all his protestations to Louis, more through a subconscious self-damaging streak. Does he speak to his Mother still? Probably not for a while, or at least in a strained manner. I like to think they eventually reconnect, and that in part Hannah’s staying in New York is in the hope of that. Does Joe eventually sort himself out? Yes, but I think he must go a long way down the rabbit hole for that to happen. There’s a lot of damage to undo and make sense of for Joe. 
Harper, finally free. Does she ever come back? Probably not. Does she stay in touch? In one way or another. Perhaps her ‘tantalising postcards’ come to Prior, much to the confusion of Belize and Louis, but to a knowing glance from Hannah. I think whatever cosmic link she has with Prior stays forever. The occasional vivid dream, drunken moment or simply daydream of vulnerability sees them connecting. If she does return to New York, it’s only Prior she sees- in the real world once again finally. But she’s happy wherever she is- like Hannah she starts again, and builds a life. It doesn’t matter we don’t know what she does because we know she’s going to be ok now.
And what of those we do see? Well Hannah has become a New Yorker. At some point realising Joe was probably lost to her for now (Unlike the film version where they have a momentary resolution, I see these two as torn apart for much of the foreseeable future). But having sold her house and had epiphany of a different kind at the hands of the Angel Hannah decides to stay. In my head, she does of course come back to visit Prior that same day, and the next, and the next. She possibly takes over from Belize taking care of him when he comes home, and probably never really stops- we see her in the Epilogue walking on arm in arm with him. Prior is easily affectionate with her and she accepts his kisses to her hands- she’s more at ease with physical contact than she ever was earlier in the play. What does Hannah do? I’d imagine she finds a quiet job somewhere- perhaps some kind of caring profession like a teaching assistant or something in a hospital. Or perhaps a little shop job. Either way she enjoys the independence. She’s still a Mormon-or at least still religious in some way, but not in a way that it dominates her life anymore. She’d volunteer-helping people. But more importantly she has her own life now- away from husband, the suffocating nature of Salt Lake and perhaps more regrettably from her son.
Belize? Well Belize is just doing what Belize does. He’s continuing to be fabulous in every way. Still fighting the good fight, and getting on with life. I kind of hope he gets a promotion at work (despite his slightly illegal activities with the drugs) and that he perhaps makes it more official with his ‘Man uptown’ in short I just hope he’s happy. And he’s Belize, he probably makes it happen.  And he’s still there at Prior’s side- their friendship has exceeded 10 years by this point (assuming they knew each other a year or two before Louis and Prior meet) and is the most enduring in Prior’s life (who doesn’t seem to have many friends). Oh and I think Belize goes back to Drag. Only in part to annoy Louis.
Louis, ah Louis. It’s tempting to think that everything that happened in the play is a kick up the arse and he changes overnight. But people don’t change like that, Louis certainly doesn’t. But everything that happens in the play I think puts him on the right path. He finally gets a job for a start- a proper one, not just a temp ‘word processor’. Louis is smart, we know that but he’s not found a use for the smarts he has. Politics is an obvious answer for Louis- a use for all the knowledge and ranting, but perhaps not. Perhaps an environment to encourage that side of him isn’t for the best. There’s a part of me that can see Louis as a teacher. The slightly off the wall history teacher who does a good side-line in politics. It also feels like a stable, calming influence for him. Whatever he discovers in those 5 years it stabilises him. He’s still Louis, but the venom is mostly gone from him. He’s not so much grown up as grown into himself.  
Prior, well firstly he gets well.  As well as he’s going to. The line ‘this is my life now’ in the scene before is so important- the element both of accepting his fate but also accepting his illness as part of him. Health wise it was no doubt a hard road from where Prior was at the end of the play to five years later, there would have been set backs and health scares and possibly another few close calls. But he’s lucky to have been the right side of drugs being developed and healthy enough for them to be of use. And five years later there he is. Health wise I always feared the worst for Prior- that his ‘I plan to be’ was too optimistic and in 1995 when Kushner was writing it may well have felt too optimistic for some. But that’s the beauty of revival- we can now see it wasn’t. There are plenty of Priors out there now- diagnosed in the late 80s and living their lives fully and healthily today.  And so I choose to say Prior was right- he sees that next Spring in the park, and the next and the next. More importantly it means Prior gets to live the life he hadn’t. His ‘I haven’t done anything yet’ is accurate- he’s living off a trust fund, being a club promoter in short indeed not doing a great deal. I think once he’s well again he changes that. Perhaps a bit of self-projection but I think he does something vaguely academic. I certainly think he goes back to school of some kind- uses his Trust Fund to support something different. I could see him doing something in religious studies and philosophy to finally unlock some of those Angel theories he has. Prior is intelligent, and I think whatever he does post-Angels is something that actually puts that intelligence to use. And he has a network now. He has Hannah, and Belize and I also think Nurse Emily stays in touch (and Harper somewhere out there). And perhaps Prior, who I see as a bit lonely before, makes friends through his AIDS diagnosis with others like him- in a strange way it is the making of him, and he endures.
And what of him and Louis? I’ve always loved that they stay friends, that to live through all that does bring you closer despite all of it. And that’s where I’ve always accepted it. But here’s the thing, when Prior in this production says ‘You can’t ever come back.’….I don’t believe him.
There’s still clearly something there between them- there’s some interesting body language in the Epilogue, particularly if you watch McArdle whenever Belize is near Prior. (one performance also saw an adorable, but also telling ‘play slapping’ between him and Belize). But there’s also simply the way his Louis looks at Prior still.  Louis’ feelings seem not to have changed- there’s a lovely line in puppy-dog glances and possessive body language McArdle gives us in the Epilogue. But there’s something there from Garfield as well, an easy charm with ‘his’ Louis that may just be a Prior now happy in his skin, his ‘family’ and one of his now oldest friends (going on 10 years at the time of the Epilogue).  There’s a 100 way to interpret their relationship and where it may have gone. But if I were writing the ‘fan fiction’ of this (which let’s face it that’s what I’m doing here) this is what I’d say…
Louis and Prior do stay friends. Louis is initially devastated by the fact that Prior says he can’t come back and that’s when the break up really hits him. But he’s determined to show Prior he has changed, so he puts on a front, and is there for Prior while he’s recovering. He doesn’t run away even though he’s now hurting at being rejected-he understands now that he deserves it and why. But when he says he still loves Prior it’s true, both in terms of romantic and platonic love. So he’s there for him this time.  At that point Prior really couldn’t take Louis back- he’s focused on recovering, on dealing with his diagnosis now. But they do slowly go back to being friends and in fact are closer than before (probably initially much to Belize’s disgust). And Louis is good and loyal because underneath- he is. And as time passes they end up in this comfortable, incredibly close friendship that sometimes exes do indeed manage.
Prior doesn’t date anyone else. And this is what would set suspicions alight. He is adamant it’s to focus on his health, and later putting his life back together. And there’s probably some element of not being able to move forward into a relationship, yes, some damage that Louis did but also that he and Louis seem to have this inextricable connection. Louis does date, but not seriously. Prior berates his choices with an withering amusement that none of them will be serious and none of them will last- and he’s right. And it is of course Prior he comes running to every time it goes wrong. Meanwhile Belize, all seeing all knowing suspects Prior still holds feelings for Louis and knows full well Louis always will for Prior. And he’s protective as ever, but he (perhaps with a word from Hannah) knows that Louis has grown up, and indeed that Prior knows his own mind (or will eventually when they figure it out and admit it all).
So where are they five years later? It feels like they’re drawing closer again. Perhaps there’s been a few slips into something more than friends when they’re alone. Perhaps not yet, perhaps each is trying to work up the nerve to admit things to themselves or each other. But there’s still something there, and the timing is starting to feel right. My instinct is that they haven’t actually got back together at this point, but they’re very much on the verge of it. Five years also feels like a suitable watershed and a suitable moment of ‘If it hasn’t’ gone away now it never will. And if you’re still here you still will be’ Prior and Louis have known each other nearing 10 years now, and Prior ‘not ever’ is a really long time…and I still don’t believe you.  

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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