Explore how any playwright of the time has successfully dramatised a social issue.
Contemporary theatre has stepped further and further away from the sugar-coated happy society plays and musicals that once dominated Broadway and the West End. Now, harsher more realistic stories with issues facing today’s society and politics are shocking that conventional-type of theatre. ?Shock is a part of art. Art that’s polite is not much fun? (Kushner:Bernstein). One of these stories that have made this kind of impact on modern drama and theatre is Tony Kushner’s ?Angels in America.? Described as ?the best American play in forty years,? this two part play (?Millennium Approaches? and ?Perestroika?) gives to life a variety of different issues facing not just the American society it is set in but the modern world as well (Lucas). With the main story line dealing with gays, politics, and AIDS in the 1980s, with this ?A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ Kushner has successfully explored these issues in further detail ultimately ?nudging Broadway into the 21st century? (Winship).
The gay revolution took place in America in the 1980s which, consequently, is the setting for ?Angels in America?. The strong economy gave many of ?Reagan’s children? power and courage to be more open with their sexuality (Part One: Act II, scene vii). People were ?coming out’, so to speak, more than in previous decades. With five out of eight of the main characters in the play being gay males, and half of those in high power positions (i.e. law), the setting and political information discussed support the truth that Kushner writes about the gay community. ?Good politics will produce good aesthetics, really good politics will produce really good aesthetics, and really good aesthetics, if somebody’s really asking the hard questions and answering them honestly, they’ll probably produce truth? (Kushner:Bernstein). There is truth at the most basic of levels when, Joe, chief clerk for a Federal Court of Appeals judge, admits that he is homosexual (Part One: Act II, scene viii). Also truth to the most extreme, a consequence leading to death for many homosexuals: HIV and the AIDS virus, involving Roy the successful lawyer/power broker (Part Two: Act IV, scene viiii). ?Angels in America? is not just a ?gay play’, but a play about American politics as well. The appearance of politics, not to mention homosexuality and AIDS, are issues resisted by most critics and audiences. Despite the odds, the subjects have proved successful to Kushner.
The political element in this play is one that is a key in the story line and something not seen in many plays before this time. ?Is it that Americans don’t like politics, or is it that so much theatre that is political isn’t well done?? (Kushner:Bernstein) It is mentioned in detail and is even non-fictional, as mentioned in Kushner’s disclaimer for ?Perestroika?. This type of detail given at an aesthetic approach essentially gives the audience a life-like story and the characters that life to portray. The change the Reagan era caused in politics and the country is expressed by these characters as a part of that society. For example, Joe, representing the optimistic opinion, discusses with Harper the positive change that the Reagan administration has given to the country:
?…For the good. Change for the good. America has rediscovered
itself. Its sacred position among nations. And people aren’t ashamed
of that like they used to be…The truth restored. Law restored.
That’s what President Reagan’s done….We become better. More
good…? (Part One: Act One, scene v).
As Belize, representing the more pessimistic opinion, discusses to Louis of his hate of America under Reagan:
?Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas,
and stories, and people dying, and people like you…I live in America,
Louis, that’s hard enough. I don’t have to love it…? (Part Two: Act IV,
The varying opinions, openly discussed by these characters, represent the same doubts and hopes of that American society. ?I think that a character’s politics have to live in the same sort of relationship to the character’s psyche that people’s politics live in relationship to their own psyches? (Kushner:Bernstein). Just the detailed political statements that the characters give in relation to society are enough to leave the audience thinking and questioning that power-hungry society of the 1980s. Yet, Kushner gives this a further twist by making the audience really test their political views. As they may be able to associate with these conservative political views, will they still be able to agree with that same character and their view on alternative sexuality? This is another part of Kushner’s penetrating conception of ?Angels in America?, testing the conventional politics to the new political issues of the 1980s: homosexuals.
In a time when the ?Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue Policy? was non-existent, gays in the 1980s were being discriminated for their openness. This ?coming out’ evolution was fairly new to society and was not going away. ?Angels in America? surveys this evolution though the heterosexual married Joe, who decides despite the element of his wife, to experiment with homosexuality:
JOE: ? You will always have to make choices, and finally all life
can offer you in the face of these terrible decisions is that you
can make the choices freely. I did, I made a choice, I
followed you Louis…Because the courage to choose enabled
me to find you.? (Part Two: Act One, scene vii).
From that first step in homosexuality, the honesty of ?coming out’ from Joe, Kushner further introduces other gay characters representing the differences within the gay community. Prior, a former drag queen turned designer, who has been diagnosed with the AIDS virus. Belize, a also a former drag queen but now a nurse, who is friends with Prior and Roy’s nurse. Roy (described previously) who is in the final stages of AIDS. Louis, a non-committal character, who leaves Prior when the virus takes hold and moves onto a new and healthy lover, Joe, who he too leaves in the end to return to the injured Prior. This variety of characters, like the realistic society they represent, were subject to a type of generic labelling as in the 1980s. Roy has a discussion with his doctor about these labels when it is diagnosed that he has AIDS:
?Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on
labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean.
AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names
that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you
that…Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual
man, Henry, who *censored*s around with guys? (Part One: Act I, scene ix).
The homosexual aspect of Kushner writings were apart of the changing history. There were some many questions asked and unasked that Kushner honestly answered to stay away from the categories this new and unknown subject was being placed in. This gay un-awareness found homosexuals being categorised as all being drag queens and very effeminate, as well as being connected to a new category and subject not present before the Reagan era: AIDS.
The AIDS writing is the most brilliant and intelligent part of the ?Angels in America? story line. Through the dawn of AIDS in the 1980s, the following passages will parallel that timeline along with the genius of Kushner’s writings on the subject. In the beginning of the ?AIDS Epidemic,? as it was referred to early on, the unknown of HIV and AIDS began making headlines and making these viruses a household name. People were confused in how this could happen to themselves, their friends or their family members:
PRIOR: ?…It’s 1986 and there’s a plague, half my friends are
dead and I’m only thirty-one…that this is real, it isn’t just
an impossible, terrible dream…? (Part Two: Act II, scene ii)
Newspapers, magazines, and television everywhere talked of the AIDS scare and questions kept on being asked of how far this disease could be tolerated and if it could be cured:
LOUIS: ?…what I think is that what AIDS shows is us the limits
of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when
the *censored* hits the fan and you find out how much tolerance is worth.
Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate
hatred.? (Part One: Act III, scene iii).
People with this disease were unsure of their future and how unsure of how long their bodies would hold out:
PRIOR: ?…I don’t think there’s any uninfected part of me. My
heart is pumping polluted blood. I feel dirty.? (Part One: Act I,
The graphic details Kushner describes about living and dying with the disease give both the audience a view of a horrifying disease and a hope for the future. His writing in this element is not pessimistic, as it could easy be, but instead very hopeful through the death scenes to the end of the play:
PRIOR: ? I’m almost done. The fountain’s not flowing now…
but in the summer it’s a sight to see. I want to be around to see
it. I plan to be. I hope to be…This disease will be the end of
many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be
commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we
are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore…We
will be citizens. The time has come…? (Part Two: Epilogue).
The most potent command on how to look on the AIDS Epidemic is written metaphorically in Kushner’s character Aleksii, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik:
?If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he
will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his
skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you,
my little serpents, a new skin?? (Part Two: Act I, scene i).
Kushner’s research shows and gives such a clear view of this disease and it’s effect on society. Though he is hopeful throughout some of the play about AIDS, he does not make any scene dealing with the virus pleasant to imagine but real and horrible as it is.
The world of today is not of free and easy going lifestyles as in previous generations, and the theatre of the period reflects that. This ?epic for our epoch? brought to the stage the realism of the political world, the gay community, and the AIDS virus (Kelly). These social elements were successfully faced head-on by Kushner and transferred just as successfully to the stage. ?Angels in America? is a play that searches into that new and frightening aspect of modern life and has the ?transforming power of imagination to turn devastation into beauty? (Lahr). Audiences and readers of the future may see these plays as dated, but they were monumental at the time and still are even today some 13 years past the setting. The subject and the courage to bring these issues to the stage were one of sheer amazement. The imagination used has no parallel that television or movies can or could ever present. The poetic vision along with the concrete images and controversial issues make ?Angels in America? a masterpiece and Kushner an artist.
Angels In America Part One: Millennium Approaches. Tony Kushner. Royal
National Theatre and Nick Hern Books, London. 1992.
Angels In America Part Two: Perestroika. Tony Kushner. Royal
National Theatre and Nick Hern Books, London. 1992.
?Tony Kushner: The award-winning author of ?Angels in America’ advises
you to trust neither art nor artists.? Tony Kushner:Andrea Bernstein. Mother Jones,
?Reviews of ?Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika?
Kelly, Kevin. The Boston Globe
Lahr, John. The New Yorker
Winship, Fredrick M. United Press International.
Tony Kushner Offical Web Site, www.irsociety.com/kushner.html