Angels in London

I’m not cool. Never have been. I’m at home working on Saturday nights; I write mock Elizabethan plays, in full iambic pentameter, for fun. And yet, in one sense, I am indeed cooler than you. When I was in college, back in another century, I went to London for my semester abroad, and while I was there I saw the original National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America – a year before that production transferred to Broadway. In other words, I saw the defining American play of the end of the twentieth century before most Americans (outside of San Francisco, where it was first staged) knew it even existed. For my non-theatrical readers, this is roughly the equivalent of seeing the Beatles play the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, or being in the bleachers at the minor league baseball game where Derek Jeter first took to the plate. It’s pretty cool.

We’ve gotten so used to thinking of Angels in America as a Capital-M-Masterpiece, so accustomed to its being a part of the theatrical landscape, that it can be hard to understand how genuinely startling it was when it first emerged. Especially if you didn’t have anybody telling you it was a masterpiece beforehand, or even anything about it. Remember, even as late as the early 90s the subject matter of AIDS was still taboo enough that even the plot would seem shocking in some circles. And Angels is so, so much more than its plot. Indeed, one of the things that struck me watching its current Broadway revival, a 25th anniversary production, is how little of the actual plot has even happened by the end of its first part, Millenium Approaches (which, y’know, runs three and a half hours). It’s the language that inspires, startles, mesmerizes – arias encompassing every aspect of modern politics, culture, and society that you care to name, careening from heartbreaking poetry to vaudeville schtick with head-turning speed. And the scenes similarly pinwheel from naturalism to surrealism in the blink of the eye, each one carving out new possibilities for the American theatre. And twenty-five years later, it’s still as mind-expanding a kaleidoscope as that startling explosion of possibilities I witnessed as a student in the Cottesloe.

And twenty five years later, it’s sad to realize how few plays have taken up its challenge, have explored the possibilities that Angels created.

Of course, the reason this particular revival has such prominence at this particular moment is that Roy Cohn, once the lawyer and mentor of our current president, figures as one of the play’s most prominent characters. And when people like me talk about what a gamechanger Angels in America was, when we talk about how thunderstruck we were when we first saw it, what we’re really talking about is that phenomenal speech of Cohn’s that concludes the first act of Millenium Approaches. The “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual” speech, in which the intersection of politics and morality and identity is given perhaps its definitive exploration. Consider lines like this:

“Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot pass a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council.”

It’s so much a part of how we talk about politics and privilege today that you can forget that once, not long ago, that line did not exist. I heard it comparatively early on in the life of this play, but every night this play’s performed, somebody hears it for the first time. In the current revival, Nathan Lane, exploring the human side of Cohn, makes the speech a brilliantly complicated exploration of the man’s scared, wounded pride, his defiance and his self-rationalization. In the original London production, Henry Goodman, performing much closer to Cohn’s own time, didn’t bother to recreate the man’s psyche, but instead let that monologue rip with a pure demonic fury, a sense that here was the fundamental evil of our modern mindset explaining itself at last. Sitting in that audience, a quarter century ago, it was I was hearing a warning from an Old Testament prophet. And all these years later, it’s heartbreaking to think that the warning seems to have gone ignored.

And considering these two things while watching the revival, how both the form and the content of Angels seem to be unanswered challenges, the question occurred to me: why does nobody acknowledge that the two are linked?

Because it’s not as if writers haven’t been chasing Kushner’s accomplishment for the past twenty five years. Apart from those of us who were inspired when we first saw it, there are now whole generations who were taught this play in school, who have had it as a guide post for How To Write An American Play, a beacon shining out just as brightly as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire did for generations past. And the plays these folks are writing are good. I’ve read them, seen them read. But I haven’t seen them performed, because they’re not the plays that producers, by and large, have been mounting. Cowed by production costs, desperate to keep a certain type of subscriber feeling safe and secure in their entitlement, these past twenty five years have been dominated by a particular variety of naturalistic drama. The kind of three character, one set bleakness parades that Neil LaBute has become famous for. Generation after generation of Mamet knock-offs, claiming to find poetry in its very absence. The aesthetic has been as brutal as the times we find ourselves living in.

Is that really a coincidence?

You can’t cover the kind of philosophical, political, and emotional territory that Angels in America covers if you deny yourself the words that expresses it. But the kind of gruntfests that litter the stage today, reducing life to the most banal of hungers, unfolding in broken half sentences and Meisner-ready grunts, don’t afford the room for any of that. And by implying that the human condition can be broken down to that basic, animalistic level, they don’t challenge, condemn, or understand the mindset of the Roy Cohns of this world. They reinforce it.

It didn’t have to be like us. More of us, in a hundred different ways, could have taken up Kushner’s challenge from a quarter century ago. I wish we had. Things were so much cooler then.

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