A scene from Angels in America as produced by the University of Arkansas.
Oh my god.
This is a Big Important Gay Play.
It is big: the recent production at the National Theatre in London was almost eight hours long. And it is important: it won the Pulitzer Prize, among a zillion other awards. And it is gay: it’s about, among a zillion other things, the AIDS epidemic among the gay community in New York. And, yes, it’s a play.
What are we going to say about it?
To begin, let’s say it’s a play by Tony Kushner, in two parts, each of which is a (long) full-length play in its own right. The whole thing was first performed in 1992.
And it’s all about being gay? Is there that much to say? I mean, eight hours …
No, it’s about a lot of things. I wouldn’t even say it’s primarily about the gay community, or AIDS, although that’s the storyline. It’s about living at a time when it feels as if everything is falling apart. In a sense, AIDS is like the outward and visible sign of the illness of the times: political corruption, environmental degradation, rampant consumerism, extreme individualism, religious bigotry, racism …
We still have all of those things.
Yeah, funny that, huh? The play is still absolutely relevant. Its message may be even more urgent today.
Did you enjoy reading it? Was it amazing and inspiring?
Not so much. It is undoubtedly a Major Achievement. It’s a huge play, dealing with massive themes. But for me, that’s the problem: it’s a play more about ideas than about people, so it didn’t really involve me even as I engaged with some of the themes. Curiously, what I enjoyed much more than the play itself were the introduction and a closing essay, both by the playwright. In the introduction, he mentions George Bernard Shaw, and his habit of writing long and wonderful intros to his plays. And for me, Kushner is similar to Shaw, in being an obviously immensely learned and thoughtful man whose plays are overly cerebral.
Sounds as though you weren’t entirely convinced, John.
This kind of epic drama isn’t really my thing. I’m impressed but unmoved, let’s say. But I’m going to get the miniseries of the play and watch that, and see if I get more out of it that way.
Aside from the political and social themes, did the play touch you specifically as a gay man?
Not really. I remember reading once, in the introduction to a collection of short stories by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, a discussion of what it means to be “a Canadian writer,” and Gallant said she is obviously a Canadian writer since she grew up in Canada (although she lived most of her adult life in France). Similarly, I’d say that if one is talking about “gay literature” or “queer literature,” you’re dealing with very broad categories. Sometimes an artist will directly take on what it means to be gay or bi or trans, but other times the LGBT “identity” of the piece will be more subtle. In Angels in America, I’d say the play is outwardly very gay, but it’s not really talking about that. Its themes are much larger, and very much American. Just from a rigidly “gay” viewpoint, it didn’t say much to me.
And the million-dollar question: are you going to give this one some stars (using the Michelin-guide 3-star system)?
Given that I’m reviewing the published play, as opposed to the play in performance, I’m not going to give a star. I didn’t find it an outstanding reading experience.
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