In the late 1980s, the young writer Tony Kushner began work on his second play: a theatrical epic about AIDS and homophobia, race and morality, religion and spirituality, Reaganism, love and abandonment, and much, much more.
Kushner’s two -part marathon “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” eventually reached Broadway in 1993. Both full-length parts (“Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”) won glowing reviews.
Much has changed in 20 years. The Tony, Emmy and Pulitzer-honored, politically outspoken Kushner has moved on. He’s penned the Steven Spielberg films “Lincoln” and “Munich,” the HBO TV-movie “Angels in America,” the powerful Broadway musical “Caroline, or Change.” A new play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” was aired recently in Berkeley, Calif.
But “Angels” remains a signal, singular and international phenomenon. It entwines the engrossing struggles of two couples (a conservative gay lawyer and his delusional wife, and a gay man dying of AIDS and his faithless male lover), with the fates of a power-drunk Republican wheeler-dealer, and a Mormon mother forced to change with the times. It also has some spectacular fantasy sequences, and much mordant humor.
In a recent Seattle Times interview, Kushner shared his thoughts about “Angels,” then and now. Here are some excerpts:
Q: Why did you set out to write a play with an AIDS theme?
A: I didn’t. I set out to write about what it was like to be me, a gay man in New York, in the mid-1980s, and it was not possible to do that without placing it in the middle of the epidemic. It also seemed like there was a huge shift in the political climate with President Reagan. The world I was born into was receding and something new and rather terrifying was taking its place.
Q: Did you intend the play to run seven hours?
A: I was contracted by the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco to write a two-hour play ... I had an outline with the entire plot in two acts and one intermission. But the characters kept doing things they weren’t supposed to. The problem with outlining is that you don’t actually know yet who these people are. You learn who they are by writing about them.
Q: The image most associated with “Millennium Approaches” is of an airborne angel. Where did that come from?
A: There was a dancer I had a crush on in college, who got AIDS and died early in the epidemic. The night I found out he died, I dreamt he was in bed in pajamas and this angel crashed through the ceiling, and he was terrified. I decided to write a poem, which I almost never do, and titled it “Angels in America.”
Q: “Angels” depicted a homophobic America, before gay marriage was legalized in many states, before anyone could be openly gay in the military. Are you surprised at how far the gay rights movement has come since then?
A: The amount of progress in the last decade is absolutely breathtaking. I thought gay marriage would someday be legal, but didn’t realize once there was a big Supreme Court decision in its favor (U.S. v. Windsor) that barriers would topple so fast. But behind that breathtaking speed was decades of incredibly dedicated work by many, many people who helped prepare the way.
Q: How do young people, gay and straight, respond to the play now? Is it ancient history for them?
A: When we did it in New York in 2010, with actors who weren’t even born when the epidemic appeared, it was very moving to see them discover how terrible that time was. I think plays can preserve a memory, or prevent amnesia over things worth remembering. “Angels” certainly serves to demarcate the progress there’s been for the LGBT community since then. But other problems of Reaganism, they’re still very much with us.
Q: In “Angels” and elsewhere, you’ve decried the Republican Party’s move to the right.
A: Since Reagan we’ve been busy telling ourselves government is bad — Democrats are no better than Republicans, there’s nothing good to be expected from voting. It’s a rejection of government as a positive force, and of the realities of thoughtful politicians making compromises to build a base of power so that real change and transformation in our society can happen.
Q: Do you think of “Angels” as a topical drama about a certain American era? Or one with long-term relevance?
A: It feels like it’s a play about a specific historical moment, and what it was like to be alive then, and in other ways it describes things that are still very much with us. It went to Broadway when Clinton became president. And we weren’t sure then how much the Reagan era of conservatism had passed. It turned out it really hadn’t passed. Like the play includes news I was reading at the time about the depletion of the ozone layer. I wasn’t sure if I should leave that in. What if all that ozone stuff turned out to be nonsense? Well, of course it wasn’t, and we’re now in the middle of a global warming.
Q: You’ve often expressed your progressive liberal political views publicly and taken heat for it—from the right for criticizing Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, from the left for your continuing support of President Obama. In such polarized times, why speak out and take the heat?
A: I have opinions and I don’t expect people to necessarily listen to them, but I try to be a thoughtful person, and it’s my obligation as a citizen in a still-functioning democracy to speak out. If I’m invited to be part of the public discourse, I think that’s a privilege and a gift.
The criticism over (my support of Obama) has been weird, and much more uncomfortable for me. I find myself on panels with people I love, writers I admire and really respect politically, and they’ve missed the boat on Obama completely. Here we’ve survived this economic catastrophe in better shape than most Western democracies, ... we have the Affordable Care Act. I think he’s been one of our great presidents, and he gets no credit for it.
Q: You received a National Medal of the Arts from Obama at the White House. Did you have a chance to talk with him?
A: Not during the ceremony, but when we screened “Lincoln” there, I talked to him for quite a while. I told him, “I think the way you handled the same-sex marriage issue can only be called Lincoln-tonian.” He impressed me by saying that although he’s been impatient with people who doubted his stance on that, he understands where they’re coming from. I was blown away by him, as a person and a president.
Q: You use a lot Mormon and Jewish theology and imagery in “Angels.” The character of the Angel is associated with the Angel Moroni who appeared to Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, and she’s no warm and fuzzy apparition.
A: There were a lot of angels around in TV and movies then, and they were very sentimental. I was a medieval studies major, and I’ve always been fascinated by the angels’ intercessional role between the human and the divine. Most orthodoxies—Catholic, Muslim, Jewish—have a problematic relationship with angels, as well as saints, because if they receive too much veneration they threaten the absolute supremacy of God. That really interested me.
A: With all its spiritual, emotional and other textures, “Angels in America” also prominently deploys political themes and arguments. Do you think American playwrights are more emboldened now to write works of a polemical political nature, as so many British writers do?
Q: Actually I believe that probably the three greatest plays ever written by Americans are “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Streetcar Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman.” All of these are political plays. “Journey” is very much about the immigrant experience. “Streetcar,” among other things, is a play about race and gender and the postwar. And “Salesman” doesn’t need any explanation, it’s the most explicitly political in its treatment of American success and failure. August Wilson’s plays are now part of the American canon, and those texts are political. Why do we think the Brits were always political and we weren’t? I think it’s just not true.
Q: “Angels in America” has been such a theatrical watershed. What do you hope will be its lasting impact?
A: My hope is that if it’s a really good play, and has complexity, if it’s about a lot of things and doesn’t give easy answers, and if it doesn’t try to get people to subscribe to orthodoxies but ask questions and deal with the paradoxical nature of existence, it will always have something meaningful to say.