on August 26, 2001
Tony Kushner's two part epic play "Angels in America" is
truly a landmark of United States literature. The two parts of the
play (subtitled "Millennium Approaches" and
"Perestroika") together represent a passionate and
intelligent exploration of American life during the era of President
Ronald Reagan. Kushner peoples his play with individuals who are for
the most part "marginal" in some way in U.S. culture. His
characters include Mormons, gay men, men with AIDS, Jews, a drug
addict, and an African-American drag queen. These various perspectives
and voices allow Kushner to create some fascinating dialogues about
the "American dream"--and about the nightmares that can go
along with it.
Kushner's cast of characters is excellently drawn, but
perhaps his most astounding creation is influential lawyer Roy Cohn, a
fictionalized version of a real historical figure. A gay Jew who is
himself viciously homophobic, Kushner's Cohn is grotesque, hilarious,
frightening, and seductive all at once. This character allows Kushner
to make fascinating statements about power, politics, and sexual
Also brilliant is Kushner's use of Mormonism and its
theology as an integral component of the play. Kushner is the first
literary artist I know of who has used Mormon themes and motifs in
such a consistently compelling and intelligent way. Kushner is, in my
opinion, neither a proselytizer for nor a basher of Mormonism, but his
presentation of troubled Mormon characters and his apparent satirizing
of some aspects of Mormon theology both strike me as potentially
controversial. Because Mormonism is a religion founded in the U.S.,
this aspect of Kushner's play accentuates the essential
"American-ness" of the piece.
Kushner achieves a stunning
blend of politically charged realism and fantastic, even playful
mysticism in "Angels." His writing is sharp and cutting at
times, and elsewhere tender and haunting. And the play is often quite
funny. Although the action of the play focuses on the Reagan era,
"Angels" often takes in a much larger sweep of U.S., and
even world, history.
"Angels in America" is a fascinating
meditation on power and its abuse, on disease and healing, on honesty
to oneself and to others, and on pluralism and bigotry. A masterpiece
of 20th century literature, this is a play to be seen. But whether or
not you have seen it, it is also a work to be read and pondered.
on January 28, 2004
With ANGELS, Tony Kushner has accomplished what only a rare few Western writers have managed to do. Integrating biblical knowledge, classical history, myth, poetry and a vast understanding of the human heart in all of its best and worst guises, these plays illuminate with the blinding fire of the angel at its core, the great hypocrisies which lay just beneath the surface of our nation. Like Howard Zinn, and to some extent Studs Terkel, Kushner recognizes that we are not one nation under God. Instead, we seem to be a huge, selfish and confused hoarde attepting to move forward in time with primary moral references to the oldest, and in some ways, least applicable documents and sources of wisdom. Whether one believes that God is "dead" or not, I cannot imagine another work of literature which might promote a more useful theological discussion between so-called liberals and conservatives. Add to this the fact that the stories and characterization are gripping, the heroes are truly admirable and the villains reprehensible. Humans change in profound and permanent ways, and amid the pain of our time, there is -- after a reading of these remarkable plays -- still hope. For once in many years, the Pulitzer Prize moved in the right direction. Whether read or viewed on stage or in its most recent iteration as a superb HBO movie, ANGELS is one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime.
on January 15, 2004
I recall the critical reception that Angels in America received at the time of its initial Broadway run. At that time, it was edgy enough to make many audience members uncomfortable --which it would certainly not do today -- yet it also came at just the right moment to be a coming-of-age manifesto for the gay rights movement. Only the boldest of critics would have dared to disparage it during that heydey of political correctness. And it isn't a horrible play; it's only horribly flawed. But it was also perfectly positioned to capture a mass audience. It seemed transgressive enough to lure aging baby boomers into a sense that they were seeing something risque (the same way much simplistic, commercial hip hop does), yet it piled on enough superficial schlock to make them feel good. This is not to say that the plays don't have great moments; they do. These are individuals scenes, individual lines, one or two extended speeches and sequences. These are sufficient to give the plays an illusion of depth, an illusion of grandiosity and significance. But Kushner lacks the vision to make the plays as a whole truly deep, to put his good moments at the service of a great idea (as opposed to a trite, cloying idea). And he lacks the discipline to purge the plays of their truly atrocious moments, which include some incredibly stereotypical characters, redundant monologues that do nothing but bluster and a drawn-out ending so banal and embarrassing that it is shocking to me that someone did not force Kushner to change it. There is also a lot of second-rate let's-laugh-at-the-Republicans-style humor. There are also many religious ideas being thrown around loosely and ultimately put at the service of a formula no more sophisticated than what Harold Bloom identifies in The Anxiety of Influence as Milton's weak Satanic proclamation "[e]vil, be thou my good," which reduces the grandeur of Satan to a mere childish rebellion. If I were to describe the overall feel of the plays, it would be like Dostoevsky's The Possessed (better translated as Demons) being written by Ron Howard.
I am aware that I am bucking the critical tide on this, but I would be surprised if fifty years down the road Angels in America has anything near the status that it does today. We are still too close in time to Angels in America to be able to judge it at the kind of critical distance necessary to separate ourselves from the political and emotional tenor of the moment, on which the plays so strongly depend for their sustenance. Suffice it to say that I have never seen or read another major play nor read a major novel that is so cheap, so full of cliches, so not in control of its own vision. It has, in many ways, all the big flaws of a Hollywood end-of-year blockbuster, which takes whatever good ideas it might have had and ruins them. While the Nichols movie version unquestionably plays up some of the bad stuff, its bigger problem is what it cannot possibly play down, what is, in other words, there in the text.
As a recent reviewer wrote, speaking of the movie version:
"After five and a half hours of taking up your time, what does Angels reward you with? A version of heaven that seems cribbed from those old 'Calvin Klein Obsession' ads, the inane conclusion that God deserves to be 'sued', and the oldest screenwriting cop-out in the book: hinting that it all may have just been a dream. This is followed by a lame Wizard of Oz reference that essentially mocks everything it just attempted to say, and more false endings than Sugar Ray Leonard's boxing career. My grandmother, a wise old schoolteacher-type, used to be fond of reminding people that 'an emptiest barrel makes the most noise.' While Angels in America does have some redeeming qualities and a handful of good performances, what has it really said after taking up six hours of the audience's time? That AIDS is a terrible disease? That there just might not be a God up there watching over us? That, as Woody Allen once said, life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering - and it's all over much too soon? Or perhaps, as Jerry Springer said, that we should take care of ourselves and each other? With all the noise this empty barrel makes, it's amazing that it still manages to be so full of itself."
on January 11, 2004
I went out and bought this almost immediately after I watched the HBO miniseries. I must say, Tony Kushner's masterpiece looks very good on screen, and it stays pretty faithful to this book (script) with only a few minor changes, most noticeably in Part Two, Perestroika.
I normally don't like reading plays, finding the stage directions and minimal characterizations ungainly and somehow disappointing. After reading this, though, I have to admit, Angels in America looks fabulous anywhere: stage, screen, or in this case, even on paper.
In the beginning, Kushner gives some "performance notes" about staging. There should be minimal scenery and props, scene changes should be fluid and easy, without the use of blackouts, perhaps suggesting a "single stream of conscious thought onstage." The special effects (flying, magical appearances) need not be perfect; wires may show, and perhaps it is best if they do; as if the magic of the theater is able to express the *magic* on stage.
Reading this script opens a whole new door for people who have only seen the HBO mini-series. And while, I'm sure, seeing it onstage is best, reading the script is still an amazing experience.
What Tony Kushner has accomplished in Angels in America is by and far one of the most extraordinary experiences that one is likely to have the pleasure of benefitting from. I know of no other play, or other dramatic enterprise, that engages the mind so thoroughly, in discussion of some of the most complex and controversial issues of our time, or any time.
When reading this, you may feel overwhelmed. There appears to be so much happening, and the events may seem a complicated and tangled web. However, once you reach the end, to Prior's haunting yet uplifing closing monologue, there is a part of you that will understand it,no matter how small it may be. It sinks in, the message, the beauty, the pure humannes of the story, and you are changed.
The Great Work begins...
on October 23, 2000
I first read Millenium and Perestroika when I was in high school and Kushner won the Pulitzer. I reread the same plays when my college decided to put on both productions. On the whole I believe these plays were so acclaimed because of the times they were written in, and not much more.
In Millenium Kushner does make some of his characters stereotypical homosexuals and some of his characters, like Harper, often speak English as if it were a second language. I don't know anyone who speaks like this woman does! Several moments in the play become preachy and you often walk away feeling battered and bruised into seeing Kushner's point. But the characters Joe Harper and Roy Cohn make this play a must-read. These two characters are so wonderfully depicted in scenes together and with other characters that you know them by the time you close the book.
When you finish Perestroika, you are likely to feel that Kushner sold out, even though the writing is much more audience friendly and less preachy. It is an easier read than Millenium but many of the conflicts end far too conveniently while others will put a smirk on your face.
My advice--read these plays twice. Once for enjoyment, and again to try to understand what specifically Kushner is trying to say.
on May 14, 2000
"Angels in America" is truly one of those rare, astronomical events that defies simple description. I certainly couldn't put under 1000 words what I think about this play. This semester for Dramaturgy Class, I wrote a Research report on "Angels in America" discussing everything from Roy Cohn (both a villian and a piteous figure)to It was 75 pages long, double-spaced. I'm not kidding. You could, and can, spend years trying to understand all the layers of this play, discovering something new every time you open the pages. "Angels in America" is something can cannot be prepared for. You can't say to yourself "I'm going to be reading about gay people" or "I'm going to be reading a comedy about A.I.D.S", or anything else, because "Angels in America" simply is too complex, steeped in metaphor and language to really prepare yourself for. I had tried to, and I was shocked at was I was reading, and it's most likely that at least one aspect of this play will make you cringe in some way or another, no matter who you are, but that's part of the plays power.
Just sit back in a comfortable chair, get relaxed, and open your mind. You won't regret it, and the power that Kushner evokes will both enable and enlighten you.
on March 16, 1999
Angels In America, Tony Kushner's two part play was an intriguing play to read. I could not put this book down. The graphic detail kept me turning page after page. This is one of the only authors who kept me intrested throughout the whole play. Tony's attention to detail gave incite to someone like me, who has no real idea of the trials that homosexuals, may incur, in dealing with day to day life. The characters, wether homosexual or hetrosexual, all struggled with the American way of life. Each and every character seems to be content in their own way of life, their dream if you will; however, once they come to terms with their sexuality, religion, or mental state, they realize that their perfect dream world has become a nightmare. Kushner does an amazing job keeping the reader enthralled with the lives of these characters. However, the choppy scenes and constant referal to the beginnning of the book began to confuse me. Overall, I believe that this book should be read by all because it is very informative about current issues in today's world such as AIDS, death, religion, and sexuality. Kushner's main issue that he is trying to portray to the reader is that everyone, at some point in time has a rise and a fall. The life lesson is learning how to pull yourself up again.
on February 26, 1999
If I wasn't required to read "Angels in America" I probably would have never had the chance to experience one of the most heart felt books ever read. I'm not one to read and this book from the first page grabbed me and practically sucked me in. I found myself unable to put it down. I wanted to read more and more just to find out what was going to happen next. I admire how Kurshner gets the reader so in tuned to the book. He has a way of grasping the readers attention and keeping the readers attention til the very end. Although some parts of the book through me off a bit, overall I could really relate to what was being explained. I liked especially how Kurshner talks about real issues that many people in society today turn their heads on and even sometimes discriminate against. I have extremem respect for people who are not afraid to be themselves and don't care what others may think of them. Kurshner presents three different prespectives on homosexuality. One of a couple very open about their sexuality, anotherof a man who isn't really sure of it and last a man who is living in denial. All are very real situations that society is faced with today. Also, there is a large number of people living with AIDS and are trying to cope with it as best they can. I experienced loosing a close friend of the family who was homosexual with AIDS and I know how hard it is to watch someone you love so much just wither away slowly and to see such fear in that persons eyes. It really makes an impact on ones life. I can't explain in words how I felt when I finished this book. All I can say is that it made me realize that life is short and we shouldn't take it for granted. Society spends to much time critizing people instead of making friends and enjoying having the opportunity to experience and know so may unique individuals. Again I say this book was fabulous.
on February 25, 1999
The play written by Tony Kushner carries a vital message to today's society. The characters in the play are well thought out and developed for the duration of the play. Through the development of the characters, the reader becomes heavily involved and entangled in the struggles faced by the characters. Kushner is able to carefully weave characters together effectively including a Valium addicted housewife and a homosexual drag queen. The play is brillantly put together, causing the characters to be in direct conflict with one another and, at times, themselves. Roy Cohn, for example, is a homosexual bigot whose very existence contradicts itself. The play ultimately has little resolution. Roy dies still denying what he is, Joe is with Harper, and most of the other characters find themselves at the end of the play in a similar predicament they were in at the beginning. The one thing that does change is the characters no longer have a feeling of loneliness. Loneliness seems to be the central issue of the play. It has an effect on all human beings, no matter what their differences. Through Kushner's play, a very strong and effective message is sent out that homosexuals are human too and their suffering is just as great as the heterosexual society. In essence, Angels in America should be considered a milestone. It captures some of the injustices and struggles faced by a large group of the American population in today's world. The play demonstrates that while the group being discriminated against may have changed, the feelings of those in the minority have not changed. This shows how all groups, including the majority, are equally human because of their fear of loneliness.
on February 25, 1999
I began reading Tony Kushner's play, "Angels In America" a few days ago and I haven't been able to stop talking about it. At first, it seemed to be a typical emotionally draining type of play where I would become depressed just thinking that I needed to finish reading it. I have never been so wrong in my short lived life. This play kept me awake to all hours of the night because it captured my attention like no other piece of literature. It discusses almost every contraversial topic associated with the 1980's. Covering such "taboos" as homosexuality, AIDS, politics, racism, and religion. Not only did it cover all these topics in sufficient and extremely intellectual context it had other qualities that aided to its jaw-dropping dialogues. Almost every scene seemed to relate to the theme of the play in an abstract or symbolic way. Personally, I intend on seeing the play live and I recommend that everyone read both "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika". They each opened my eyes to the reality and pain behind the medical information that is always given about the disease. By reading and thinking about the play anyone can find a scene, character, or topic that relates to his or her life. This play is absolutely the best contemporary piece of literature that I ever had the pleasure to read.