I know I'm supposed to like this play a lot more than I do. It has been dubbed The AIDS Play and A Great American Play and there is a lot in it I really like.
It's a play of ideas and it's huge—it deals with Mormons and Reagan and homophobes (internalized and not), what happens when you tell the truth and how many people don't, what happens when people sort of get away with that, what it is to be a self-absorbed, self-loathing, and closeted self, the need for fantasy and what to do with whatever we think or do not think about the afterlife.
Its narratively daring, lightning-fast scene shifts (New York, Washington, Utah, and Antarctica; a hospital room where no one seems to be wearing hospital gloves; a smoky back room in a lawyer's office; a makeup room imagined simultaneously by a guy in drag with AIDS and a wife with a Valium habit; a sleazy/comic pickup corner; a panel or two from the Bayeux Tapestry) are dramatically complex and often beautifully written.
It is theatrically daring, with sudden jumps between reality and fantasy and four-person cross conversations as crisp as a quartet in an opera by Mozart. And sometimes it's really funny—like in the riffs between Louis (Quinn Franzen), the Jewish gay guy, and Joe (Ty Boice), the not-quite-gay-yet Republican who's nervously attracted to him; and between Louis and Belize (the terrific Timothy McCuen Piggee) as the wise black queen listens to Louis go on and on with his clueless, heady notions about race problems in America not really being about race as much as about power before Belize puts Louis firmly in his place; and between the mealy, pathetic Joe and the easy-to-loathe, anti-Semitic, antigay villainy of the gay Jewish power-mad politico Roy Cohn (Charles Leggett). There is complex and nuanced writing about love and responsibility, integrity and convenience, and fantasy and desire.
Despite all this complexity and daring, there is a narrow-sightedness that seems to foster a kind of self-congratulatory response in too many happy, politics-lite viewers.
Millennium Approaches, the first play of Kushner's two-part, seven-hour Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, is set in 1985 and '86. It was originally workshopped in 1990. The second play, Perestroika (which opens at Intiman on September 5), is set in 1986 and '90 and premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in LA. Then the complete work was presented at London's National Theatre, had a run on Broadway, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. The dates here are important.
AIDS was first identified in the US in 1981, when doctors and gay men began noticing a strange new set of symptoms including pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) and Kaposi's sarcoma. By 1982, people were calling this thing "gay cancer" or GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), and gay men and the people who didn't hate them were terrified. In 1982, most non-gay people did, if not exactly hate, at least not know or care much about gay people. Gay people, sick and well, had to take care of ourselves. In January of 1982, the Gay Men's Health Crisis was founded in New York in playwright and activist Larry Kramer's apartment by gay men who wanted to care for each other and stop whatever was killing them. In Seattle, in 1983, Josh Joshua and other gays who came together to help their fellow gay men who had AIDS began the Chicken Soup Brigade. All across the country, gay people helped people with AIDS and marched and protested. In other words, the story of AIDS in the 1980s is not the story of gay men leaving their lovers who had AIDS, the way Louis leaves his lover, Prior, in Angels, but of gay men and lesbians caring for other gay people who were dying. It also is not the story that three out of four gay men back then were closeted and self-loathing. The story of AIDS activism was known in the mid '80s, especially in New York. In 1985, Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart, which tells the story of AIDS in New York, had a successful Broadway run. That same year, President Reagan referred to AIDS in public for the first time and Rock Hudson's death from AIDS was announced on national TV.
So what if Angels in America, as fiction or drama often does, examines characters who are self-absorbed and feel alone and do not really care for others? My trouble with Angels is not with that (it is a play about ideas more than characters). My trouble with Angels is how relatively uncritically it's been received and embraced as the story of AIDS, a story in which three out of four gay men are self-loathing (Louis) or self-unaware (Joe) or just plain mean and selfish (Cohn); the fourth gay man, Prior (Adam Standley), is a victim and is dying. It's easy to feel sorry for victims, but only as long as you are confident that they have not been victimized by you—like the pathetic, sexually frustrated, untouched-by-feminism Mormon wife or the beautiful dying young Prior. Feeling sorry for victims can make you feel like you're politically and emotionally aware, but it is not so easy to feel sorry for a victim who is angry at not only his or her own "fate," but also at something in the world you might have helped create or perpetuate or just ignored. Angels in America is a complex play that looks at the lives of wounded individuals disconnected from the world and lets viewers off easily, as if AIDS is a condition we have always been compassionate about. The Normal Heart, which I am very glad will be included in Intiman's festival of AIDS plays this summer, portrays the anger gay people felt about the years-long complacency of most Americans; no wonder it did not become beloved.
Before Stonewall, when gay characters appeared in literature or the public imagination, they were usually seen as creepy, predatory, and decadent (in Huysmans's À rebours), then tragically misguided (Oscar Wilde), then tragically misguided but self-sacrificing and sort of suicidal (Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice) or just plain suicidal (Tchaikovsky) or condemned to loneliness (Stephen in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness). Though this movement of sentiment reads as maudlin, it also reflects a progress from hatred and fear to sympathy, however cloying or patronizing that is.
By the middle 1980s in America, though, these narratives no longer reflected (if they ever did) the reality of most gay people's lives. By then, gay life was more about gay people coming out and relying on one another and working to change our lives in public. That the particular story of AIDS that Angels tells is the story the mainstream has embraced is unfortunate both because it's not correct and because it allows, however insidiously, the narrative that gay men are disloyal, disaffected, and incapable of self-knowledge or compassion. The narrative of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is the narrative of gay men and women taking care of themselves and each other and working together in anger and hope to make the world a place that will not merely tolerate or pity us but regard us as fully human, fully worthy, fully deserving of human rights.