Angels at 20
Tony Kushner reflects on the legacy of Angels in America, AIDS, politics, and where we are now
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Francis Hills
Enduring art—whether plays, visual art, film, or music—relies a bit on alchemy, the coming together of the right pieces at the right time, distilled by the right artist. For Tony Kushner, who wrote not only one of the most famous “AIDS plays,” but one of the seminal plays of the late twentieth century, Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes was born through a series of fortunate and tragic circumstances: disease, a climbing death count, political inaction, a longing for understanding, and two hot missionaries at a subway stop.
In the late 1980s, after being commissioned by the Eureka Theatre of San Francisco, to write about anything he wanted, Kushner began keeping journals in which he discussed the beauty and strangeness of Mormonism, the terror of AIDS, and the “criminality” of Reagan, and his own consciousness, among other things. The journals evolved into a seven-hour saga in two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches received its world premiere in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. From there it went to London, then to Broadway. Part Two: Perestroika followed in 1992. The work received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, and a Tony and a Drama Desk award, among other honors. Both parts were adapted in 2003 by HBO for the mini-series Angels in America, which won five Golden Globes and set a record for the number of Emmy awards. A reworked version of the play opened as an opera in Paris in 2004. Kushner has also written the plays A Bright Room Called Day, Slavs!, Homeboy/Kabul, and the book for the musical, Caroline, or Change. He also co-authored the screenplay for the 2005 film, Munich.
In 2010 the Signature Theatre Company in New York revived both parts of Angels, to ebullient reviews.
Kushner spoke with me from Richmond, Virginia, where he was writing and rewriting a script about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War for director Steven Spielberg.
Larry Buhl: Without going into the whole creative process, which I know can be messy, can you tell me when you decided to make Angels epic in length and breadth? And did anyone have reservations that something so big would be a commercial issue?
Tony Kushner: The Eureka Theatre, which commissioned it, was nonprofit and so was Mark Taper Forum, so there was no issue of being commercial or not. That’s the blessing of the nonprofit regional theater model. It frees playwrights and theaters from having to produce work that has to be commercial. In the history of theater very little of consequence has been very profitable. It has all relied on patronage of some sort.
The original contract for Angels called for it to be two and a half hours long. I finished the first act, which was a tiny part of the outline I had sketched out, and it was about sixty pages long, which is a minute a page. I got nervous and I showed that to the [Eureka] artistic director, Oskar Eustis, and to my agent. They told me to keep going and find a way to cut it later.
Then I wrote the second act and became really excited about it. And in the third act, when I wrote the “democracy in America” monologue that Belize gives, I realized that the play had not obeyed any rules up to that point. And when we read it at Eureka, people were really thrilled by it and thought the monologue was funny as well. It became clear that a play that contained a scene like that is probably not going to be an ordinary length. By the time we had the first part done, nobody was complaining about length.
You have said Angels was a “pretty good play.” Obviously it’s more than that, and there’s a legacy as well. Did you have any idea it would be so enduring when you wrote it?
When I started writing Angels it was 1988, so the Reagan era was almost over. It was the end of that terrifying moment when nothing was available and then AZT seemed to slow the process of opportunistic infections in people with AIDS. It was written before the arrival of the first cocktail. But the play was set in the early-to-mid 1980s, in a crazy and horrifying time and I wanted to make it specific to its time.
I think one of the innovations [in Angels] is the specificity of political talk. People said “this play will be outdated when Reagan is gone.” Part of me felt that was wrong, that Reagan’s administration, which was monstrous and criminal, was also historical. It was a turning point in American political history and global history and that it would not be forgotten and I was right about that. People who were paying attention knew that. I was born in the mid-fifties and grew up in the Deep South during the great apotheosis of the civil rights movement and got to see the great revolution of civil rights take place and the antiwar movement and then the advent of the Southern strategy. [The birth of] Reaganism felt like a hinge moment. I have always hoped the play would stay relevant and I think it has.
How has it stayed current, in terms of AIDS and the other issues expressed?
The play was never intended to be about what was going on at the moment you are watching it. It was always meant to be about gay men in New York City dealing with AIDS at that moment in time. I hope whatever truths I managed to explore in that circumstance were true and if I did my work well they will have an enduring meaning. The play is also about a lot of different things. For instance, ecocide and when I started the play we were starting to hear about holes in the ozone and the sense that pollution had more than a deleterious effect on the health of urban populations but also on the earth’s immune system.
Obviously the demographics of AIDS have changed. It’s a global pandemic now. Back then the statistics seemed so overwhelming and terrifying and unbelievable. It seems almost quaint now that when Larry Kramer wrote that essay, “1,112 and counting,” that was a number that freaked people out. Now the death toll is in the tens of millions but back then that number made my blood turn to ice.
When it was revived at the Signature in 2010, I was proud of the play again, because a new generation could see that a great crime had been committed. And a great horror that people had endured and succumbed to and triumphed over, and in a way it felt timely because at the point in history Angels is describing, AIDS was a disease that an American president could get through nearly seven years of his term and never mention it, and it was shrouded in a lot of silence and the silence was killing people. And in a way we are back there again where nobody wants to hear about it and talk about it anymore. It is hard for the human race to countenance what this virus has done to our world. So it’s become invisible again in a frightening way.
The ecological stuff [in Angels] is so much grimmer now. When I wrote the Angel saying to Prior, “don’t go back, there’s nothing to go back to,” I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. But you read about evidence of the acceleration of global warming, and you hear those speeches in a different way and it becomes scary in a new way. And also the play is very much about two couples, a gay and ostensibly straight couple struggling with issues of mortality, and it works on that level too.
Tell me about what you were going through at the time as a young gay man, vis-à-vis AIDS.
I belonged to a group called the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the mission and an enormous task was every year we would raise money and put a bill in front of City Hall in New York and try to get an LGBT civil rights bill passed. It was an old fashioned political club. One day a young guy showed up in a “Silence = Death” T-shirt. We were all sitting in a big circle and he asked to speak to the group. He said, “I want to talk about what’s going on. Without exaggeration, in this group of largely gay men, sixty percent of us are going to be dead within a year.” And it seemed like an insane thing to say. And some said, “you’re out of your mind.” But he was telling the truth.
One of the great political miracles is the LBGT community fought its way through this nightmare period without giving an inch of political ground, and in fact we began to raise global consciousness of the high cost of homophobia. As Larry [Kramer] kept saying, it kills people.
There are very few new works about the AIDS crisis now. Is it possible for this disease to be made relevant through new art?
It’s a good question. That crisis atmosphere engendered a response from artists. Some don’t see that as their mission, but certain kinds of artists see their art as coming out of a sense of public emergency. And I think [AIDS-related art] came to the theater faster than in film because it’s cheaper and the financial rewards are less than film. Out of that sense of terrible crisis, one of the many tragedies in the early years, we lost some artists of real, if not genius, then, immense talent, irreplaceable people like Charles Ludlum. So the community of artists was directly affected and outside of theater there were people who were making astonishing works of art and found their subject. Paul Monette was a writer who came into his own rather astonishing voice when he was diagnosed positive and his lover died, and he found this harrowing voice and wrote a book of poetry and his memoirs. Now we are in a period that we have survived great stress and terror, and it’s hard to write about the epidemic without feeling like you’re doing something corny or old or clichéd.
Why is that?
Right now is the issue of the centrality of healthcare. There is a whole chapter in the struggle for healthcare, of LGBT people who are part of ACT UP can take credit for having authored. That movement transformed the notion of agency among medically and bodily besieged communities. It was a whole new paradigm for what a patient’s relationship should be to the whole apparatus of healthcare if you became sick. But it’s very hard to write about that, and it’s hard to make art about it because it’s such a dense thicket of policy complications. I think the bigger the crisis gets it’s hard to wrap your mind around it in a way that’s meaningful. So it is with HIV now when you talk about the numbers. The number of people living with AIDS in Africa, the number of parents who have lost children, and children born with HIV, it simply stops you dead and freezes your brain. I think it’s possible to make great art about it, but it’s difficult.
How do you define great art?
I think it’s the mining of human experience and consciousness for the purpose of exploring meaning and truth in human lives. We look for ideology. We look for meaning and understanding and comprehension. We look for an aspect of human experience that was concealed or unreachable or concealed.
Calling something “great art” is tricky. Is Uncle Tom’s Cabin a greater novel than Middlemarch? Certainly not, but which one changed the world more? It was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There are only a few things in all history, like The Normal Heart, that were both beautifully done and moving and came along at exactly the right moment and had a measurable impact on the world at that moment. Most don’t have that. When I say Angels is a pretty good play, I’m not being modest. I really don’t know. It’s only twenty years-old. That’s a long time, but it’s not like 400 years.
For me, great art has inexhaustibility where you can never feel that you’ve gotten to the bottom, it has this mysterious thing. When you go to see Chekhov’s plays, they’re not that different on the surface, yet they’re all immensely different and every time you see Uncle Vanya you swear you’re hearing lines you’ve never heard before. There’s no possibility of exhausting it, or of Hamlet, or poems of Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.
And the work of art may change your life now, or it may never change it or may change it twenty years later. That power is operative whether the play or film is a love story or about a political candidate.
One last question. Why Mormons?
[Laughs.] A few things were happening around the same time. I was teaching and one of my students gave me the Book of Mormon to read. I became fascinated with the theology. And at the same time there were these missionaries at my subway stop trying to get early morning Brooklynites on their way to work to talk about Joseph Smith, and I stopped to talk with them because, frankly, the guys were hot.
For more information about Francis Hills, log on to www.francishills.com.
Larry Buhl wrote about MCA Chicago’s “This Will Have Been,” an art exhibit that revisited the political urgency of the 1980s, in the March issue.