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Angels in America (Tony Kushner)

April 27, 2010

I read both parts of the play (although I’m not entirely sure why it’s broken into two separate books, since when you finish the first one you really don’t have a choice but to read the second one if you want to find out what happens with all the characters). The first part is called Millennium Approaches, and the second part is called Perestroika.

Wow. I mean, where do I begin? Kushner is addressing so many different HUGE issues. He’s dealing with AIDS in the 1980’s, racism, homosexuality, politics, Zionism, religion (Judaism and Mormonism, with a little bit of Catholocism sprinkled throughout), and more. I feel somewhat overwhelmed as I try to construct some sort of coherent blog post. I’ll start somewhere easy: the characters. Kushner’s merciless. His characters either seem to be saintly (as in the case of Prior Walter and Belize) or sinnerly (as in the case of Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn). I’ll admit that one of my favorite characters was actually Harper Pitt, Joe’s wife, because of her perceived insanity (when she’s actually one of the most sane characters in the play). Despite some pretty severe flaws, most of these characters are surprisingly likable. I think Kushner isn’t interested in villainizing anyone — I think he’s more interested in exposing some of the tangled and complex aspects of human beings, and digging into some of the issues that arise from those complexities.

The central focus of the play really becomes AIDS, not because of the disease itself, but because of the way it plays out in the characters’ lives. The idea that it’s some sort of shameful disease that one should cover up arises in Roy Cohn’s character…but he’s also the most reprehensible character there is in this play, so when we see him trying to pass AIDS off as cancer it comes off as a negative action. And of course, through his interactions with Belize (especially regarding his stash of mega-elite drugs) we get more of an idea about how widely AIDS is really affecting people. Of course, we get this from the several direct comparisons between AIDS and the Black Plague (most blatantly when Prior Walter’s ancestors visit him).

Man, I’m at a total loss as to how to tackle this play. Suffice it to say it’s a really powerful, intelligent, and scathing work that tackles some huge issues and forces the reader to confront issues that are not always openly addressed. Also, Kushner’s use of “split” scenes (in which some characters are in one location interacting with each other while other characters are located elsewhere on the stage, but are also interacting with each other — both groups oblivious to the other) is a really interesting technique that allows him to create interaction between different characters and different situations, but through staging and line alternation a whole new message emerges out of the side-by-side action.

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