Explore how any playwright of the time has successfully dramatised a social issue. Contemporary theatre has stepped further and further away from the sugar-coated happy society plays and musicals that once dominated Broadway and the West End. Now, harsher more realistic stories with issues facing todays society and politics are shocking that conventional-type of theatre. “Shock is a part of art. Art thats polite is not much fun” (Kushner:Bernstein).
One of these stories that have made this kind of impact on modern drama and theatre is Tony Kushners “Angels in America. Described as “the best American lay in forty years,” this two part play (“Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”) gives to life a variety of different issues facing not just the American society it is set in but the modern world as well (Lucas). With the main story line dealing with gays, politics, and AIDS in the 1980s, with this A Gay Fantasia on National Themes Kushner has successfully explored these issues in further detail ultimately “nudging Broadway into the 21st century” (Winship).
The gay revolution took place in America in the 1980s which, consequently, is the setting for “Angels in America”. The strong economy ave many of “Reagans children” power and courage to be more open with their sexuality (Part One: Act II, scene vii). People were coming out, so to speak, more than in previous decades. With five out of eight of the main characters in the play being gay males, and half of those in high power positions (i. e. law), the setting and political information discussed support the truth that Kushner writes about the gay community.
Good politics will produce good aesthetics, really good politics will produce really good aesthetics, and really good aesthetics, if somebodys really asking the hard uestions and answering them honestly, theyll probably produce truth” (Kushner:Bernstein). There is truth at the most basic of levels when, Joe, chief clerk for a Federal Court of Appeals judge, admits that he is homosexual (Part One: Act II, scene viii).
Also truth to the most extreme, a consequence leading to death for many homosexuals: HIV and the AIDS virus, involving Roy the successful lawyer/power broker (Part Two: Act IV, scene viiii). Angels in America” is not just a gay play, but a play about American politics as well. The appearance of politics, not to mention homosexuality and AIDS, are issues resisted by most ritics and audiences. Despite the odds, the subjects have proved successful to Kushner. The political element in this play is one that is a key in the story line and something not seen in many plays before this time.
“Is it that Americans dont like politics, or is it that so much theatre that is political isnt well done? (Kushner:Bernstein) It is mentioned in detail and is even non-fictional, as mentioned in Kushners disclaimer for “Perestroika”. This type of detail given at an aesthetic approach essentially gives the audience a life-like story and the characters that life to portray. The change he Reagan era caused in politics and the country is expressed by these characters as a part of that society. For example, Joe, representing the optimistic opinion, discusses with Harper the positive change that the Reagan administration has given to the country: “… For the good.
Change for the good. America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations. And people arent ashamed of that like they used to be… The truth restored. Law restored. Thats what President Reagans done…. We become better. More good… ” (Part One: Act One, scene v). As Belize, representing the more essimistic opinion, discusses to Louis of his hate of America under Reagan: “Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. Its just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you… I live in America, Louis, thats hard enough.
I dont have to love it… ” (Part Two: Act IV, scene iii). The varying opinions, openly discussed by these characters, represent the same doubts and hopes of that American society. “I think that a characters politics have to live in the same sort of relationship to the characters psyche that peoples politics live in relationship to their own psyches” (Kushner:Bernstein). Just the detailed political statements that the characters give in relation to society are enough to leave the audience thinking and questioning that power-hungry society of the 1980s.
Yet, Kushner gives this a further twist by making the audience really test their political views. As they may be able to associate with these conservative political views, will they still be able to agree with that same character and their view on alternative sexuality? This is another part of Kushners penetrating conception of “Angels in America”, testing the conventional politics to the new political issues of the 1980s: homosexuals. In a time when the “Dont Ask, Dont Tell, Dont Pursue Policy” was non-existent, gays in the 1980s were being discriminated for their openness.
This coming out evolution was fairly new to society and was not going away. “Angels in America” surveys this evolution though the heterosexual married Joe, who decides despite the element of his wife, to experiment with homosexuality: JOE: ” You will always have to make choices, and finally all life can offer you in the face of these terrible decisions is that you can make the choices freely. I did, I made a choice, I followed you Louis… Because the courage to choose enabled me to find you. (Part Two: Act One, scene vii).
From that first step in homosexuality, the honesty of coming out from Joe, Kushner further introduces other gay characters representing the differences within the gay community. Prior, a former drag queen turned designer, who has been diagnosed with the AIDS virus. Belize, a also a former drag queen but now a nurse, who is friends with Prior and Roys nurse. Roy (described previously) who is in the final stages of AIDS. Louis, a non-committal character, who leaves Prior when the virus takes hold and moves onto a new and healthy lover, Joe, who he too leaves in the end to return to the njured Prior.
This variety of characters, like the realistic society they represent, were subject to a type of generic labelling as in the 1980s. Roy has a discussion with his doctor about these labels when it is diagnosed that he has AIDS: “Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean. AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they dont tell you that… Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who censoreds around with guys” (Part One: Act I, scene ix).
The homosexual aspect of Kushner writings were apart of the changing history. There were some many questions asked and unasked that Kushner honestly answered to stay away from the categories this new and unknown subject was being placed in. This gay un-awareness found homosexuals being categorised as all being drag queens and very effeminate, as well as being connected to a new category and subject not present before the Reagan era: AIDS. The AIDS writing is the most brilliant and intelligent part of the “Angels in America” story line.
Through the dawn of AIDS in the 1980s, the following passages will parallel that imeline along with the genius of Kushners writings on the subject. In the beginning of the “AIDS Epidemic,” as it was referred to early on, the unknown of HIV and AIDS began making headlines and making these viruses a household name. People were confused in how this could happen to themselves, their friends or their family members: PRIOR: “… Its 1986 and theres a plague, half my friends are dead and Im only thirty-one… that this is real, it isnt just an impossible, terrible dream… (Part Two: Act II, scene ii) Newspapers, magazines, and television everywhere talked of the AIDS scare and uestions kept on being asked of how far this disease could be tolerated and if it could be cured: LOUIS: “… what I think is that what AIDS shows is us the limits of tolerance, that its not enough to be tolerated, because when the censored hits the fan and you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred. ” (Part One: Act III, scene iii).
People with this disease were unsure of their future and how unsure of how long their bodies would hold out: PRIOR: “… I dont think theres any uninfected part of me. My heart is pumping polluted blood. I feel irty. ” (Part One: Act I, scene vii). The graphic details Kushner describes about living and dying with the disease give both the audience a view of a horrifying disease and a hope for the future. His writing in this element is not pessimistic, as it could easy be, but instead very hopeful through the death scenes to the end of the play: PRIOR: ” Im almost done. The fountains not flowing now… but in the summer its a sight to see. I want to be around to see it.
I plan to be. I hope to be… This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on ith the living, and we are not going away. We wont die secret deaths anymore… We will be citizens. The time has come… ” (Part Two: Epilogue). The most potent command on how to look on the AIDS Epidemic is written metaphorically in Kushners character Aleksii, the worlds oldest living Bolshevik: “If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos.
Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you, my little serpents, a new skin? ” (Part Two: Act I, scene i). Kushners research shows and gives such a clear iew of this disease and its effect on society. Though he is hopeful throughout some of the play about AIDS, he does not make any scene dealing with the virus pleasant to imagine but real and horrible as it is. The world of today is not of free and easy going lifestyles as in previous generations, and the theatre of the period reflects that.
This “epic for our epoch” brought to the stage the realism of the political world, the gay community, and the AIDS virus (Kelly). These social elements were successfully faced head-on by Kushner and transferred just as successfully to the stage. “Angels in America” is a lay that searches into that new and frightening aspect of modern life and has the “transforming power of imagination to turn devastation into beauty” (Lahr).
Audiences and readers of the future may see these plays as dated, but they were monumental at the time and still are even today some 13 years past the setting. The subject and the courage to bring these issues to the stage were one of sheer amazement. The imagination used has no parallel that television or movies can or could ever present. The poetic vision along with the concrete images and controversial issues make “Angels in America” a masterpiece and Kushner an artist.