The World Only Spins Forward- saying goodbye to Angels

It’s taken me two weeks to write this. Two weeks since I personally said goodbye to this production, and to this play for whoever knows how long. Long before I got on a plane and traveled halfway across the world for it, I asked myself how do you say goodbye? To a production that’s spent two, almost three years nestled in my brain. Two years of it in production. Of writing about it again. Of finding a love for it again.

I think the answer is you don’t. I think I never have, much like Prior’s prophecy this play has become part of me. Except I didn’t reject it. Which I think legitimately means I can declare ‘Fuck you I’m a Prophet’ whenever I feel like it.

What I will do instead, is write my own Epilogue. 

But of course, it’s longer than these two, almost three years. I’ve lived with this play for fourteen years. I’ve grown up with this play. I’ve grown into it. When I started I was over a decade younger than Prior and Louis. This time around I was their age. Perhaps that’s why it’s so powerful; we align the art we love to the moments they hit in our own lives. And we grow into them. You can love this play at any age if you’re ready for it.  At 19 I was ready for it. I needed it. It took me through a year of grief, of being ‘lost to myself’, of discovering sexuality. Of discovering a voice in theatre that spoke to me like no other.  
I needed this play when I found it (the film version, then the text) at 19. And despite living with it continuously in between (a sometimes-fraught relationship granted), it came back to me when I needed it again. More powerfully than the first time. At 32 it meant more. Having lived through, if not the same things then similar resonances, I recognise more of myself in these characters (not just Louis’ life as an office temp who breaks things and hits his head….and talks too much…though that rings particularly true). Moreover, I went into this production twice, in London and New York, and came out changed once again. What play, what work changes you not once in a lifetime but twice?
I’ve said goodbye to this play many times, in many ways (sometimes in anger) but this time is the hardest. Because I feel like this production, like Prior’s visit to heaven, brought me back from the dead (metaphorically speaking….and is the whole thing metaphoric, does that make it any less real…questions for another day). And there’s nothing like a protracted goodbye to make it harder. I cheated in London. I already knew it was coming back. I was still sad that chapter was over. I was changed by it in London. I was elated by what being a (tiny) part of it had given me. And then ‘something just fell apart’. Those months since were the darkest I’ve had for many years, for many reasons. And it’s no exaggeration that seeing Angels again in June pulled me through. Just get to June I’d tell myself in particular dark moments. Just get to June.

The day after I saw Angels the first time I sat by the Bethesda Fountain and felt like Harper’s description of the Ozone layer; I had absorbed the play again and was repaired.

I’m smiling but I also cried.

Because seeing it again, seeing it the last time it wasn’t goodbye, it was coming home. From the very first moment it felt like being back where I belonged. Some performances fill you with adrenaline and chasing a high of amazement. For me, Angels fills me with an incredible sense of both peace and fulfillment. I worried, following the play to New York. All that time away. With a new cast, new staging. The weight of expectation, that it wouldn’t, as Roy says, ‘measure up.’ But as soon as it began I was home once more. I worried too that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it- my analytical brain kicking in, the panic of ‘you said you’d write a book about this’ and my emotions at seeing it again/for the last time. None of it mattered. The moment it started I was back in that world, absorbed, feeling everything that pulled me to it to begin with. Yes, my brain still whirred at 1000 MPH. But in a wonderful way, in that sense of ‘I know you, I know who I am with you.’

And the love of it is what overwhelmed me that final time seeing it. Yes, I had moments of sadness. I sobbed through both opening monologues. Because those are the benchmarks of this crazy beautiful wonderful play- a Rabbi and a Bolshevik giving a lecture. And because Susan Brown. Who is not only a revelation on stage, but who is the kindest most generous of humans. My ‘Mother Pitt’ in this production who I am so grateful to for indulging this madness.

She looks stern but she’s really most lovely

Final performances are always odd ones. You can’t help but be pulled out now and again, realising it’s the last time you’ll see something. ‘Moon River’ always gets me, as well it should, but I remember thinking ‘I’m going to miss them’. Because as much as there is sadness in the abstract ‘this play will be gone again’ there’s an incredibly personal pull to this production, this team of actors (past and present). I will miss them. I think with plays we love we all have ‘our’ production, the one that attaches itself to your heart and mind and won’t let go.

‘Shut up and let them dance’ 
It took me 14 years of loving this play to find my version. It took 14 years for it to all fall into place and say ‘Yes this is what I knew but hadn’t seen’ and this company brought it into my heart in a way that even for me it hadn’t been before. Much like falling in love you ‘just know’. When I sat in a tech rehearsal seeing the not-quite finished version of some random moments: I knew. And when I heard Andrew Garfield declare ‘More Life!’ one last time, I knew nothing would ever touch this again. For me this is it.

It isn’t about perfection. I can (and no doubt will) professionally deconstruct this production. I can (and no doubt will) see equally good Prior Walters and Louis Ironsons in my life (I contest we will ever see a Hannah Pitt of such calibre, empirically that’s got to be true right?). I don’t dispute that this Prior, this Louis, this Angel weren’t for everyone. This isn’t everyone’s special production. But for some of us it was. It was that moment of perfect alchemy; the right production, the right actor, one line that gets you, one moment of visual perfection. But most importantly, it was all those at the right time. And most importantly the moment you’re ready for it to attach itself to you and never let go.
Because it’s the external stuff that matters too. When I sat down in the theatre for the final Perestroika I turned to my Mum and said, ‘It’s the last one and I’m sad’ and burst into tears. I said, ‘It’s been two years of my life.’ Two years and so much more. And Mum started to cry and said, ‘I know I’ve been there with you.’ It has been so much beyond what is on stage, and it is so much not enough to try and consolidate it into words. Words are indeed the worst things.

‘Nothing’s lost forever’ after all, and this play will come again. The joy and sadness of theatre is that it’s ephemeral. I can never recapture any of those performances, and all of them were different, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s what makes it special.  But as theatre fans we still mourn the loss of a production- the play we love only lives as long as it’s performed, and while it is then it’s a living breathing thing out in the world, and then it is, as we say in theatre ‘dark’ once more. The Neil Simon will go dark tonight and with it this version of this thing so many of us love. And I am sad because people who need and love this play won’t go back to rediscover it. And sadder still that, for now at least, people won’t have a place to discover it anew.  It’s a play that will be back. In some form or another. And so ‘I’ll miss them’ I don’t just mean this group of actors performing it, I mean I’ll miss these characters being real, out there in the world again night after night. And I will miss it. I will miss that it is alive again, that somewhere it is existing as a living breathing thing as it was written to be. I will miss that it is there for people to discover. Every night it is performed is a chance for someone else to find it, to love it, to be changed by it.

Because that has been my true joy these past couple of years. That’s why writing the programme essay for the National was so important to me; to share this and to help other people understand and find a love of it. And despite the opportunities that have come my way because of this, the greatest by far has been to share that with people. I don’t know how to explain the frustration, the isolation of writing about this play and feeling like nobody cared about it or what I had to say was. And how great a revelation (threshold of…) it has been to finally share that with others. And to see others discover it for the first time. Again, when you truly love a piece of work, you want others to share it, to love it as you do.

 I am aware of how utterly ridiculous I am. It’s just a play. And I confess I’ve felt frustrated, judged even at times over the last couple of years. For my love of it. But for every disparaging comment, every eye roll, there’s been someone who gets it. From the people who came up to me at the theatre or arranged to meet because we were there at the same time. For the friends who hugged me hard and shared the day in London with me last summer. To the friends on Twitter who ceaselessly have cheered me on. To everyone who gets it. To everyone who reads these epic monologues of blog posts.  You are fabulous creatures each and every one, and you made this. 
These blogs are my Louis moments. 

Because as much as my sadness is the abstract- this play will be gone again. It’s also an incredibly personal, I will miss the joy of it being in my life. And without it always being there-even just out of reach- there is of course a sense of ‘what next?’ My honest, and terrible fear is that this is it. That this is all I get. That was my moment and that’s it. My Mum kept saying to me in New York ‘this is just the beginning’. This play brought me this far. So I hope she’s right.

Short Story-time on that. When we went to New York, Susan Brown invited me and Mum to have a drink in her dressing room with her. My Mum has tirelessly supported my work- not least in seeing an 8 hour play twice in one holiday- to using the money she made dog sitting to pay for it, when I couldn’t. To let me see this thing I loved, that I had poured myself into, one last time. And that’s just this year. Never mind the PhD support- she’s also gone on multiple ‘theatre holidays’ and when I was a kid stood at Broadway and London Stage doors with me so I could be the nerd I am. Taking my Mum, backstage on Broadway, introducing her to my most favourite actor in the play (and person). That’s places I never thought I’d go. Those moments make everything worth it- the chance to say thank you as well. (the story of how James McArdle thought he’d nearly knocked her over with a chair is slightly less magical but a memory nonetheless) 

Which brings me to, line that made me cry the hardest the final three times (London and New York) that I saw it. And it’s not one I ever expected. Not one I ever noticed before if I’m honest.
“You’ll find, my friend, what you love will take you places you never dreamed you’d go”
It’s Roy Cohn for God’s sake. You’re not supposed to align yourself with Roy Cohn in this play-or frankly anywhere in life. And as much as this blog isn’t to rehash these stories, I have to say without this play, without this production I don’t know where I’d be. This play really did take me places I never dreamed I’d go. I hope it will continue to do that. And I will forever be grateful to the doors it opened (or at least loosened enough for me to kick down). And even if it was the end, it really did take me some places.

And despite my anxious mind (have I ever mentioned just how ‘Louis’ I am in life?) what I take from this production, from my final goodbye, is hope. This production, I can’t quite articulate for those who have never seen others, is so filled with hope. Lascivious- awful at times, granted but it swells at the end to this great chorus of theatrical and philosophical hopefulness. And I still don’t quite know how. It’s in there, it’s all in the text, but there’s some strange Angels-Magic in this version that makes that feeling of hope impossible to ignore. And that’s what I chose to focus on in that last performance.

That’s what Kushner wants of us in that final Epilogue. To take those seven-odd-hours (c’mon Tony we know you wrote 9 hours worth) of theatre. Of that experience we have shared, and take it back out into the world. That’s why Prior addresses the audience in the end. That’s why Marianne Elliott raises the house lights (I still curse your name aloud for that). It’s to tell us, take this, all of it into you and out into the world. And that’s what I plan to do with this production, with this two years.  To bottle that energy- that hope- that forward motion. The world only spins forward after all….and take it with me.

“I’m almost done”

It’s ‘so much not enough, it’s so inadequate’ but I of course want to end on a thank you. To those who made it happen. Maybe you know what you did, what you were a part of (I like to think every person who works on this play does to a degree) maybe you don’t. But know you changed one person. Thank you to the actors; Amanda Lawrence, Denise Gough, Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey, Lee Pace, James McArdle, Beth Malone, Susan Brown and Andrew Garfield. Thank you to every Angel ‘Shadow’ and understudy in London and New York (especially the magical Mateo Oxley), to everyone work worked on the production, the technical crews and stage management.

To Tony Kushner for giving it back (and the re-writes).

And of course, to Marianne Elliott for giving it ‘More Life’ in a lifetime I could never express my love and awe at what you created. And my gratitude for how you have treated me as a person.

This play lives on, because of you all. And I plan to play my part, by documenting just how special it was…and finishing the damn book. 

“Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you. More Life!” 

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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