Angels in America
|Angels in America: Millennium Approaches|
|Written by||Tony Kushner|
|Date premiered||May 1991|
|Place premiered||Eureka Theatre Company|
San Francisco, California
|Setting||New York City, Salt Lake City and elsewhere, 1985–1986|
|Angels in America: Perestroika|
|Written by||Tony Kushner|
|Date premiered||November 8, 1992|
|Place premiered||Mark Taper Forum|
Los Angeles, California
|Setting||New York City and elsewhere, 1986–1990|
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a two-part play by American playwright Tony Kushner. The work won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Part one of the play premiered in 1991 and its Broadway opening was in 1993.
The play is a complex, often metaphorical, and at times symbolic examination of AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s. Certain major and minor characters are supernatural beings (angels) or deceased persons (ghosts). The play contains multiple roles for several of the actors. Initially and primarily focusing on a gay couple in Manhattan, the play also has several other storylines, some of which occasionally intersect.
The two parts of the play are separately presentable and entitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, respectively. The play has been adapted into an HBO 2003 miniseries of the same title. The Seattle Times listed the series as among "Best of the filmed AIDS portrayals" on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of AIDS. The playwright and professor of theater studies John M. Clum called the play "a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture".
In 2017 the show received a much-acclaimed West End revival which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival. The production later transferred to Broadway where it received eleven Tony Award nominations, the most ever for a non-musical play at that time, and won three: for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for Andrew Garfield and Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Play for Nathan Lane.
Part One: Millennium Approaches
Set in New York City, the play takes place between October 1985 and February 1986. The play begins with the funeral of Sarah Ironson, an elderly Jewish woman, whose rabbi eulogizes not only her, but her entire generation of immigrants who risked their lives to build a community for their children in a strange land. After the funeral, Sarah's grandson, Louis Ironson, learns that his lover Prior Walter, the last member of a long-lived WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) family, has AIDS. As Prior's illness progresses, Louis becomes unable to cope and moves out, leaving Prior to deal with his abandonment. He is given emotional support by his friend Belize, an ex-drag queen and a hospital nurse, who also must deal with Louis' self-castigating guilt and myriad excuses for his behavior.
Joe Pitt, a Mormon, Republican clerk in the same judge's office where Louis holds a clerical job, is offered a position in Washington, D.C., by his mentor, the McCarthyist lawyer and power broker Roy Cohn. Joe hesitates to accept out of concern for his agoraphobic, valium-addicted wife Harper, who refuses to move. Harper suspects that Joe does not love her in the same way she loves him, which is confirmed when Joe confesses his homosexuality. Harper retreats into drug-fueled escapist fantasies, including a dream where she crosses paths with Prior even though the two of them have never met in the real world. Torn by pressure from Roy and a burgeoning infatuation with Louis, Joe drunkenly comes out to his conservative mother Hannah, who reacts badly. Concerned for her son, she sells her house in Salt Lake City and travels to New York to help repair his marriage. Meanwhile, a drug-addled Harper has fled their apartment after a confrontation with Joe, wandering the streets of Brooklyn believing she is in Antarctica as Joe and Louis tentatively begin an affair.
Meanwhile, Roy Cohn discovers that he has advanced AIDS and is dying. Defiantly refusing to publicly admit he is gay or has AIDS, Roy instead declares he has liver cancer. Facing disbarment for borrowing money from a client, Roy is determined to beat the case so he can die a lawyer and he attempts to position Joe in the Justice Department with the aim of having a friend in a useful place. When Joe at last refuses his offer, he flies into a rage and collapses in pain. As he awaits transport to the hospital, he is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he prosecuted in her trial for espionage, and who was executed after Roy illegally lobbied the judge for the death penalty.
Prior begins to hear an angelic voice telling him to prepare for her arrival, and receives visits from a pair of ghosts who claim to be his own ancestors, who inform him he is a prophet. Prior does not know if these visitations are caused by an emotional breakdown or if they are real. At the end of Part One, Prior is visited by an angel, who crashes through his bedroom ceiling and proclaims that "the Great Work" has begun.
Part Two: Perestroika
At the funeral of a friend, a shaken Prior relates his encounter with the Angel to Belize. After revealing the presence of a mystical book underneath the tile in Prior's kitchen, the Angel reveals to him that Heaven is a beautiful city that resembles San Francisco, and God, described as a great flaming Aleph, created the universe through copulation with His angels, who are all-knowing but unable to create or change on their own. God, bored with the angels, made mankind with the power to change and create. The progress of mankind on Earth caused Heaven to suffer earthquake-like tremors and physically deteriorate. Finally, on the day of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, God abandoned Heaven. The Angel brings Prior a message for mankind—"stop moving!"—in the belief that if man ceases to progress, Heaven will be restored. Belize believes that Prior is projecting his own fears of abandonment into an elaborate hallucination, but Prior suspects that his illness is the prophecy taking physical form, and that the only way the Angel can force him to deliver her message is to die.
Roy lands at the hospital in the care of Belize, where his condition rapidly declines. He manages to use his political clout to acquire a private stash of the experimental drug AZT, at the expense of withholding the drug from participants in a drug trial. Alone in a hospital, Cohn finds himself increasingly isolated, with only Belize, who despises him, and the ghost of Ethel for company. Joe visits Roy, who is near death, and receives a final, paternal blessing from his mentor. However, when Joe confesses he has left Harper for a man, Roy rejects him in a violent reaction of fear and rage, ordering him to return to his wife and cover up his indiscretion.
Prior goes to a Mormon visitor's center to research angels, where he meets Hannah, who is volunteering there and taking care of Harper, who has slowly returned to reality but is now deeply depressed. Harper and Prior share a spark of recognition from their shared dream, and witness a vision of Joe and Louis together. Prior, with Belize in tow, attempts to confront Joe about Louis, and Joe recognizes Belize as Roy's nurse. Louis, regretting his actions, begins to withdraw from Joe and begs Prior's forgiveness, which Prior angrily refuses. Belize informs Louis about Joe's connection with Roy, whom Louis despises for his conservative politics and underhanded dealings. Louis, as a result, researches Joe's legal history and confronts him over a series of hypocritical and homophobic decisions Joe himself wrote. The confrontation turns violent, and Joe punches Louis in the face, ending their affair.
Ethel Rosenberg watches Roy suffer and decline before delivering the final blow as he lies dying: He has been disbarred after all. Delirious, Roy seems to mistake Ethel for his mother, begging her to comfort him, and Ethel sings a Yiddish lullaby as Roy appears to pass away. However, with a sudden burst of energy he reveals that he has tricked her, viciously declaring that he has finally beaten her by making her sing. He then collapses and dies. After Roy's death, Belize forces Louis to visit Roy's hospital room, where they steal his stash of AZT for Prior. He asks Louis to recite the Kaddish for Roy. Unseen by the living, Ethel guides Louis through the prayer, symbolically forgiving Roy before she departs for the hereafter.
After his confrontation with Joe, Prior collapses from pneumonia while visiting the Mormon center and Hannah rushes him back to the hospital. Prior tells her about his vision and is surprised when Hannah accepts this, based on her belief in angelic revelations within Latter-day Saint theology. At the hospital, the Angel reappears enraged that Prior rejected her message. Prior, on Hannah's advice, wrestles the Angel, who relents and opens a ladder into Heaven. Prior climbs into Heaven and tells the other angels that he refuses to deliver their message, as without progress, humanity will perish, and begs them for more Life, no matter how horrible the prospect might be. He returns to his hospital bed, where he awakens from his vision with his fever broken and his health beginning to recover. He makes amends with Louis, but refuses to take him back. Meanwhile, Harper leaves Joe and departs New York for San Francisco.
The play concludes in 1990. Prior and Louis are still separated, but Louis, along with Belize, remain close in order to support and care for Prior, and Hannah has found new perspective on her rigid beliefs, allowing her to accept her son as he is and forge a friendship with Prior. Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah gather before the angel statue in Bethesda Fountain, discussing the fall of the Soviet Union and what the future holds. Prior talks of the legend of the Pool of Bethesda, where the sick were healed. Prior delivers the play's final lines directly to the audience, affirming his intentions to live on and telling them that "the Great Work" shall continue.
The play is written for eight actors, each of whom plays two or more roles. Kushner's doubling, as indicated in the published script, requires several of the actors to play different genders.
- Prior Walter – A gay man with AIDS. Throughout the play, he experiences various heavenly visions. When the play begins, he is dating Louis Ironson. His best friend is Belize.
- Louis Ironson – Prior's boyfriend. Unable to deal with Prior's disease, he ultimately abandons him. He meets Joe Pitt and later begins a relationship with him.
- Harper Pitt – An agoraphobic Mormon housewife with incessant Valium-induced hallucinations. After a revelation from Prior (whom she meets when his heavenly vision and her hallucination cross paths), she discovers that her husband, Joe, is gay and struggles with it, considering it a betrayal of her marriage.
- Joe Pitt – Harper's husband and a deeply closeted gay Mormon, clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, and friend of Roy Cohn. Joe eventually abandons his wife for a relationship with Louis. Throughout the play, he struggles with his sexual identity.
- Roy Cohn – A closeted gay lawyer, based on real life Roy Cohn. Just as in history, it is eventually revealed that he has contracted HIV and the disease has progressed to AIDS, which he insists is liver cancer to preserve his reputation.
- Hannah Pitt – Joe's mother. She moves to New York after her son drunkenly comes out to her on the phone. She arrives to find that Joe has abandoned his wife.
- Belize – A nurse and former drag queen, he is Prior's ex-boyfriend and best friend. He later becomes Roy Cohn's nurse.
- The Angel/Voice – A messenger from Heaven who visits Prior and tells him he is a prophet.
- Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz – An elderly orthodox Rabbi. He performs the funeral service for Louis' grandmother in Act one of Millennium Approaches and gives him advice on his situation with Prior. Played by the actor playing Hannah.
- Mr. Lies – One of Harper's imaginary friends. A smooth talking agent for the International Order of Travel Agents. Played by the actor playing Belize.
- Emily – A smart-mouthed nurse who attends to Prior. Played by the actor playing the Angel.
- Henry – Roy Cohn's doctor, who diagnoses him with AIDS. Played by the actor playing Hannah.
- Martin Heller – A publicity agent to the Reagan Administration's Justice Department and Roy's toady. Played by the actor playing Harper.
- Ethel Rosenberg – The ghost of a woman executed for being a Communist spy, based on the real life Ethel Rosenberg. She visits Roy, whom she blames for her conviction and execution. Played by the actor playing Hannah.
- Prior 1 and Prior 2 – The ghosts of two of Prior Walter's ancestors. Prior 1 was a gloomy Yorkshire farmer from the 13th century while Prior 2 was a 17th-century British aristocrat. They both arrive to herald the Angel's arrival. Played by the actors playing Joe and Roy, respectively.
- The Man in the Park – A gay prostitute Louis has sex with in Central Park. Played by the actor playing Prior.
- Sister Ella Chapter – Hannah's realtor friend who helps her sell her house. Played by the actor playing the Angel.
- A Homeless Woman – A crazed homeless woman Hannah encounters when she arrives in New York. Played by the actor playing the Angel.
- The Eskimo – An imaginary friend in Harper's Antarctic hallucination. Played by the actor playing Joe.
- Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov – "The World's Oldest Living Bolshevik", whose speech in the opening of Perestroika sets up the theme of whether the world should continue to move forward. Played by the actor playing Hannah.
- Mormon Family – A mannequin family in the Diorama Room of the Mormon Visitors' Center where Hannah and Harper volunteer. The father resembles Joe, and later becomes him in Harper's delusions. He is played by the actor playing Joe. The mother comes to life in Harper's imagination and speaks to her. She is played by the actor playing the Angel. The two sons, Caleb and Orrin, are voiced offstage by the actors playing Belize and the Angel respectively.
- The Continental Principalities – The Angel Council Prior confronts in Heaven. They are in charge of both Heaven and Earth after God's desertion. They are the Angels Europa (played by the actor playing Joe), Africanii (played by the actor playing Harper), Oceania (played by the actor playing Belize), Asiatica (played by the actor playing Hannah), Australia (played by the actor playing Louis), and Antarctica (played by the actor playing Roy).
Angels in America was commissioned by the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, by co-artistic directors Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. It was first performed in Los Angeles as a workshop in May 1990 by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum.
Millennium Approaches premiered in May 1991 in a production performed by the Eureka Theatre Company of San Francisco, directed by David Esbjornson. In London it premiered in a National Theatre production at the Cottesloe Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan. Henry Goodman played Cohn, Nick Reding played Joe, Felicity Montagu played Harper, Marcus D'Amico played Louis, and Sean Chapman played Prior. Opening on January 23, 1992, the London production ran for a year. In November 1992 it visited Düsseldorf as part of the first Union des Théâtres de l'Europe festival.
The play's second part, Perestroika, was still being developed as Millennium Approaches was being performed. It was performed several times as staged readings by both the Eureka Theatre (during the world premiere of part one in 1991), and the Mark Taper Forum (in May 1992). It premiered in November 1992 in a production by the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. In November 1993 it received its London debut in a National Theatre production on the Cottesloe stage, in repertory with a revival of Millennium Approaches, again directed by Declan Donnellan. David Schofield played Cohn, Daniel Craig played Joe, Clare Holman played Harper, Jason Isaacs played Louis, Joseph Mydell played Belize and won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Stephen Dillane played Prior.
The entire two-part play debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, directed by George C. Wolfe, with Millennium Approaches performed on May 4 and Perestroika joining it in repertory on November 23, closing December 4, 1994. The original cast included Ron Leibman, Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Wright, Ellen McLaughlin, David Marshall Grant and Joe Mantello. Among the replacements during the run were F. Murray Abraham (for Ron Leibman), Cherry Jones (for Ellen McLaughlin), Dan Futterman (for Joe Mantello), Cynthia Nixon (for Marcia Gay Harden) and Jay Goede (for David Marshall Grant). Millennium Approaches and Perestroika were awarded, in 1993 and 1994 respectively, both the Tony Awards for Best Play and Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play.
The published script indicates that Kushner made a few revisions to Perestroika in the following year. These changes officially completed the work in 1995. In 1994, the first national tour launched at the Royal George Theater in Chicago, directed by Michael Mayer, with the following cast: Peter Birkenhead as Louis Ironson, Reginald Flowers as Belize, Kate Goehring as Harper Pitt, Jonathan Hadary as Roy Cohn, Philip E. Johnson as Joe Pitt, Barbara E. Robertson as Hannah Pitt, Robert Sella as Prior, and Carolyn Swift as the Angel.
Kushner made relatively minor revisions to Millennium Approaches and additional, more substantial revisions to Perestroika during a run at the Signature Theatre in 2010, which were published in a 2013 complete edition. That production was directed by Michael Greif and featured Christian Borle as Prior, Zachary Quinto as Louis, Billy Porter as Belize, Bill Heck as Joe, Zoe Kazan as Harper, Robin Bartlett as Hannah, Frank Wood as Roy, and Robin Weigert as the angel.
In 2013, a production of the two-part play was produced by Sydney-based theatre company, Belvoir. The cast featured Luke Mullins as Prior Walter, Marcus Graham as Roy Cohn, Ashley Zukerman as Joe Pitt, Amber McMahon as Harper Pitt, Robyn Nevin as Hannah Pitt, DeObia Oparei as Belize, and Paula Arundell as The Angel. The show ran from June 1 to July 14 at the Belvoir St Theatre, before transferring to the Theatre Royal for the remainder of its run. The production finished its season on July 27.
A Canadian production by Soulpepper Theatre Company in 2013 and 2014 starred Damien Atkins as Prior Walter, Gregory Prest as Louis, Mike Ross as Joe, Diego Matamoros as Roy and Nancy Palk as Hannah, Ethel Rosenberg and the rabbi.
Millennium Approaches made its Edinburgh Fringe Festival debut, in a production by St Andrews-based Mermaids Theatre, in August 2013 to critical acclaim.
Asia premiered the play in its entirety in 1995 by the New Voice Company in the Philippines.
This was followed by another production in November 2014 at the Singapore Airlines Theatre.
An Italian adaptation of the play premiered in Modena in 2007, in a production directed by Ferdinando Bruni and Elio De Capitani which was awarded several national awards. The same production ran for three days in Madrid, in 2012.
In April 2017, a new production began previews at the National Theatre, London in the Lyttleton Theatre. Directed by Marianne Elliott, the cast included Andrew Garfield as Prior with Russell Tovey as Joe, Denise Gough as Harper, James McArdle as Louis Ironson, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. In April 2018, the production was nominated for six Olivier Awards, including the Award for Best Revival. Gough won Best Actress in a Supporting Role and the production Best Revival. The production was filmed and broadcast to cinemas around the world as part of the National Theatre Live initiative, and later released in 2021 on the company's NT at Home streaming service.
In August 2017, a new production of Millenium Approaches was brought to San Juan, Puerto Rico, by Teatro Público Inc. Directed by Benjamín Cardona, the cast featured Carlos Miranda as Roy Cohn, Jacqueline Duprey as Hannah, Gabriela Saker as Harper, and Liván Albelo as Prior, among others. The production received critical praise and launched the new theater company.
In September 2017, a revival of the two plays were staged in Melbourne at fortyfivedownstairs for nearly a four-week run. The cast included veteran actor Helen Morse as Hannah Pitt, and Margaret Mills (who had appeared in the original Australian premiere of the play in 1994) as The Angel.
In February 2018, the 2017 Royal National Theatre production transferred to Broadway for an 18-week engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre. The majority of the London cast returned, with Lee Pace replacing Tovey as Joe, and Beth Malone playing the Angel at certain performances. Previews began on February 23, 2018 with opening night on March 25. The production won for Best Revival of a Play at that year's Tony Awards, with Garfield and Lane winning for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play respectively for their reprisal of their National Theatre performances, while Gough and Brown were nominated for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play. The production was recorded as an audiobook by Random House Audio, with Malone as the Angel and Bobby Canavale and Edie Falco narrating.
A critically acclaimed production opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in April 2018, directed by original commissioner Tony Taccone and featuring Randy Harrison as Prior, Stephen Spinella (who originated Prior Walter on Broadway) as Roy Cohn, Carmen Roman as Hannah, Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis, Danny Binstock as Joe, Bethany Jillard as Harper, Francisca Faridany and Lisa Ramirez alternating as the Angel, and Caldwell Tidicue, better known as Bob the Drag Queen, making his stage debut as Belize.
Kushner prefers that the theatricality be transparent. In his notes about staging, he writes: "The plays benefit from a pared-down style of presentation, with scenery kept to an evocative and informative minimum. [...] I recommend rapid scene shifts (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands in shifting the scene. This must be an actor-driven event. [...] The moments of magic [...] are to be fully imagined and realized, as wonderful theatrical illusions—which means it's OK if the wires show, and maybe it's good that they do..." Kushner is an admirer of Brecht, who practiced a style of theatrical production whereby audiences were often reminded that they were in a theatre. The choice to have "no blackouts" allows audiences to participate in the construction of a malleable theatrical world.
One of the many theatrical devices in Angels is that each of the eight main actors has one or several other minor roles in the play. For example, the actor playing the nurse, Emily, also plays the Angel, Sister Ella Chapter (a real estate agent), and a homeless woman. This doubling and tripling of roles encourages the audience to consider the elasticity of, for example, gender and sexual identities.
In 2003, HBO Films created a miniseries version of the play. Kushner adapted his original text for the screen, and Mike Nichols directed. HBO broadcast the film in various formats: three-hour segments that correspond to Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, as well as one-hour "chapters" that roughly correspond to an act or two of each of these plays. The first three chapters were initially broadcast on December 7, to international acclaim, with the final three chapters following. Angels in America was the most watched made-for-cable movie in 2003 and won both the Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Miniseries.
Kushner made certain changes to his play (especially Part Two, Perestroika) for it to work on screen, but the HBO version is generally a faithful representation of Kushner's original work. Kushner has been quoted as saying that he knew Nichols was the right person to direct the movie when, at their first meeting, Nichols immediately said that he wanted actors to play multiple roles, as had been done in onstage productions.
Angels in America – The Opera made its world premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France, on November 23, 2004. The opera was based on both parts of the Angels in America fantasia, however the script was re-worked and condensed to fit both parts into a two and half hour show. Composer Peter Eötvös explains: "In the opera version, I put less emphasis on the political line than Kushner...I rather focus on the passionate relationships, on the highly dramatic suspense of the wonderful text, on the permanently uncertain state of the visions." A German version of the opera followed suit in mid-2005. The opera made its US debut in June 2006 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.
The text of Prior Walter's soliloquy from Scene 5 of Perestroika was set to music by Michael Shaieb for a 2009 festival celebrating Kushner's work at the Guthrie Theater. The work was commissioned by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, which had commissioned Shaieb's Through A Glass, Darkly in 2008. The work premiered at the Guthrie in April 2009.
Angels in America received numerous awards, including the 1993 and 1994 Tony Awards for Best Play. The play's first part, Millennium Approaches, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
By contrast, in an essay titled "Angles in America", the cultural critic Lee Siegel wrote in The New Republic, "Angels in America is a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play about being gay, and about AIDS, no one—and I mean no one—is going to call Angels in America the overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess that it is."
In response to the frank treatment of homosexuality and AIDS, and brief male nudity, the play quickly became subject to controversial reaction from conservative and religious groups, sometimes labelled as being part of the "culture war". In Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1996, there were protests held outside a production of the play by the Charlotte Repertory Theatre at the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. This led to funding cuts for the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte, the city's arts funding agency, in the following year. A 1999 production at Kilgore College, a community college in Kilgore, Texas, sparked protests from area and national homophobic groups and led to the town's mayor and commissioners pulling funds for the Texas Shakespeare Festival, which the production's director also ran. Kushner wrote a letter of support to the cast and crew, and the production did go forward.
Awards and nominations
|1992||Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award||Best New Play||Won|
|1994||Tony Award||Best Play||Won|
|Best Actor in a Play||Stephen Spinella||Won|
|Best Featured Actor in a Play||Jeffrey Wright||Won|
|David Marshall Grant||Nominated|
|Best Direction of a Play||George C. Wolfe||Nominated|
|Best Lighting Design||Jules Fisher||Nominated|
|Laurence Olivier Award||Play of the Year||Nominated|
|Best Actor in a Supporting Role||Joseph Mydell||Won|
|Drama Desk Award||Best Play||Won|
|Outstanding Actor in a Play||Stephen Spinella||Won|
|Outstanding Actress in a Play||Kathleen Chalfant||Nominated|
|Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play||Jeffrey Wright||Won|
|Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play||Marcia Gay Harden||Nominated|
|New York Drama Critics' Circle Award||Best Play||Won|
Angels in America
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