World AIDS Day – Angels in America and why it mattered

Angels in America is a state-of-the-nation play (remade as a HBO miniseries) that opens with a eulogy (an end) and ends with a blessing (a beginning). With the particularly postmodern plurality and fragmentation of aesthetic that this suggests, Tony Kushner presents us with a plethora of significant aspects of contemporary culture. These are gathered under the veils of styles that encompass a magical, theatrical reality. Metatheatrical interrogation of the limits of mimesis, self-reflexive use of theatrical heritage, ‘and yet [being able to speak] to us powerfully about real political and historical realities’ (Hutcheon 5) are all integral characteristics of Kushner’s Angels.

In a play that employs an otherwise realistic style, with pertinently real struggles, the fantastic collides with the narrative as an hermaphroditic angel breaks through the set and various ghosts haunt its characters. The structures of self-reflexive drama that had perhaps become mere conventions, themselves to be transcended to sell tickets, Kushner is able to recover by surpassing formal boundaries. Kushner works within the internal contradictions of postmodernism by interrogating of the notion of consensus and acknowledging difference. Thus Angels avoids the absolute diffusion of meaning many postmodernists, such as Jameson, feared.

The play is belated, not only because it is written retrospectively, but because in 1989, a year before Millennium Approaches was first performed in workshop form, Alisa Solomon wrote:

Recently, AIDS has fallen off as a central subject for new drama. It’s no wonder. When, for instance, spectacle and public ritual are so movingly combined in the image and action of the Names Project Quilt. Conventional theatre seems redundant – at best a pale imitation of the formal, mass expressions that help give shape to real grief and anger. Time and again the spirited protestors of ACT UP have demonstrated that the theatre of AIDS is in the streets. (43)

It would hardly be possible to describe Kushner’s theatrics as lacking in spectacle, or moving stories. Angels looks at how the stories of AIDS can find not just a place in history but a way to reconfigure it; arguably anything but ‘a pale imitation’ of public protests. Louis tells Joe a story of pioneering gay men, styled as a parody of the first settlers crossing the frontier into the New World:

There used to be guys in the dunes even when it snowed. Nothing deterred us from the task at hand. […] Exploration. Across an unmapped terrain. The body of the homosexual human male. Here, or the Ramble, or the scrub pines on Fire Island, or the St. Mark’s Baths. Like your ancestors. […] And many have perished on the trail. I fucked around a lot more than he did. No justice. (Kushner 202-3)

Through this expression of ‘real grief and anger’ distilled in Louis’ pithy proclamation of ‘No justice,’ the play works within established American history to tell it anew. Louis recalls the archetypal American creation myth of explorational triumph in colonising the paradisal New World, and also queers the wandering of the Mormons to Salt Lake. Thus, he propounds the triumphs and hardships of the male gay community to be on a par with established American history. He gives his story ‘clout’.

Prior’s story in the play similarly reworks a history, that of the visionary tradition of Joseph Smith, visited upon by the Angel Moroni. Unlike Smith, however, Prior will eventually disobey the revelation given to him by his Angel. Angels affirms history as a human construct, finding a way for the marginalised to reconfigure it, just as the Names Project Quilt was painstakingly crafted by human hands restitching ‘history’, and the Mormon Mother did in the diorama scene. These postmodern parodies of history as a human construct works as ‘a form of ironic rupture with the past’ while ‘affirming the connection’ with it (Hutcheon 125).

The play is so concerned with narratives of closure, as its use of belatedness has shown, that even the dead resurface as ghosts. There is no chance of ‘the disappearance of a sense of history’ (Jameson 125) when the historical moment that Kushner presents is haunted, as Prior literally is by his ancestral ghosts. There is an unresolved past waiting for justice. In Prior’s long WASP history, the play notes, it was easy to find a couple of ghosts that died from a plague. Prior later uses his ghostly encounters to draw explicit comparison with AIDS and the absurdity that ‘it’s 1986 and there’s a plague’ (Kushner 181). The ‘trail’ of AIDS Louis alludes to, on which ‘many have perished’, is pointedly without ‘justice’; it is absurd. The play is haunted, literally and figuratively, by this history of injustice. Brought into relief by contrast with the fantastical, in this case the play’s historical ghosts, Angels affirms its realist narratives: historical injustice, the harsh reality of the AIDS crisis and personal trauma.

The affective truths impacted by hardships on the play’s characters ring true throughout both the stylistically real and fantastic scenes. The play’s aesthetic and structure might demonstrate an episodic, postmodern fragmentation, but the emotional arcs of its characters are formally realist. These hardships, Angels presents as transcending ‘reasonable limits’ (Kushner 216), explicitly in relation to the ‘plague’ of AIDS, as Prior aggressively points out in his suffering to Louis. The play also implicitly suggests that what Louis calls the demonisation of people like him, is a fantastical policy of Reagonite America. To counteract these transcendent hardships, Kushner finds transcendent, theatrical representation.

Further than this, Kushner counteracts injustice by transcending the ‘reasonable limits’ of blessing for his characters. In the play’s most realist of present struggles, Prior’s story functions as an AIDS testimony, characteristically ‘fuelled by a tension between two conflicting but viscerally felt drives: toward survival and death’, as Jason Tougaw describes in his study of AIDS memoirs (169). Prior’s reversal from despair to hope is facilitated by encountering the spiritual and the supernatural blessing he receives, through which an affective truth of emotional transformation persists.

Finally, where every other method of metatheatricality has already been exploited, it is Prior who breaks down the fourth-wall to show his ‘constructivist attitude […] boldly’ and address the live audience with his blessing. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of catastrophe, no longer haunted, he grants the audience the ‘divine spark’ of ‘more life’ (a literal translation of Judaic blessing). Angels does not end haunted; it ends blessed.

Works Cited

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge, 1988. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press, 1985. 11-25. Print.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. London: Nick Hern Books, 2007. Print.

Solomon, Alisa. “AIDS Crusaders Act Up a Storm.” American Theatre. Oct. 1989: 39-40. Print.

Tougaw, Jason. ‘Testimony and AIDS Memoirs.’ Extremities: Trauma Testimony and Community.  Ed. Nancy K. Miller and Jason Tougaw. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2002. 166-185. Print.

© Rebekah Ellerby 2014. Part of an essay originally written for my BA at the University of Warwick.