Saturday, May 19, 2007

Angels in America

I just finished reading Tony Kushner's two part play Angels in America and also saw the six hour TV film directed by Mike Nichols and adapted by Kushner himself. I had only heard its praises, the play won the pulitzer and the Tony award and the HBO miniseries won a host of emmy and golden globes, including almost all of the acting prizes. In this case at least all the attention and all the prizes are completely deserved, it is a brilliant work of art. Actually, more than that, it is also an important work of art, something more people should see and think about.

The subtitle of the play, "A gay fantasia on national themes," summaries it better than anything else. It is set in mid eighties, the early years of the AIDS crisis, when homosexuals felt that they had been singled out by the disease as if as an act of damnation. This is the central theme of play which he explores in many different ways, the so called eclipse of God, God's abandonment of his creation? Kushner's gay-centric eschatology gives a new twist and new perspective on the religious ideas about apocalypse and millennialism. Everything in the play is filled with apocalyptic gloom and premillennial despair, but everything is also so over the top that it is again not your regular hand wringing of the end of the world and stuff. It is original.

It is also a "fantasia" -- there are characters with names like "Aleskii Antediluvianovich Prelapsarianov." The elderly Jewish male rabbi is played by a female actor - in this case by Meryl Streep. One character goes to Antartica for a vacation because she is obsessed with the depleting Ozone layer. Same actors play multiple different roles. The dialogues are highly non-naturalistic too. One of the main characters justifies abandoning his lover who is dying of AIDS by saying that he can't but follow the "neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness or perfection or something" and that he can't "incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go." There are also scenes in which Angels break through the ceiling to inform the man dying from AIDS that he is a prophet! In another scene, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the communist spy who was unfairly executed in the McCarthyite witch-hunt, returns from the dead to pray Kaddish to the lawyer who was responsible for the unjust judgment. The lawyer character Roy Cohn, played with a demonic panache by Al Pacino, is actually based on a real-life character. I didn't know that. Difficult to believe that there really was someone like him, power-hungry, racist, bigot, hypocrite, Reaganite, self-hating homosexual and self-hating Jew. It is completely to Pacino's credit that he makes this character enormously interesting, even sympathetic and funny at times.

I wasn't too impressed with parts of the story where Kushner deals with homosexual life-experiences in particular terms. All those coming out of the closet, walking out on a lover, walking out of marriage may have felt revolutionary when the play was written but now it is more or less commonplace. It is also a failure of the TV film that Nichols turns all this almost into a regular soap-opera. But still whenever you hear the long monologues you realize it is not the regular stuff. What impressed me most of Kushner's grasp of American history and politics. There is Tocqueville and there is Hegel and there are so many other people. At the end it is a powerful and stinging critique of deep-rooted conservatism in American politics and a rousing, inspiring call for progress, in all areas of human affairs. A more humane and inclusive progress. In fact the play ends with a character saying that Gorbachev is the greatest political thinker since Lenin and that perestroika is exactly what he means by progress, the Hegelian dialectical progress of history. I wonder what Kushner thinks of it now.

The play is too huge and it has so many things to talk about that I can't really do it on a blog. Even whatever I wrote above, I now realize, doesn't make a lot of sense. I will just end by giving it a very enthusiastic recommendation. I wonder why films like Brokeback Mountain got such praise when there was a recent precedent like Angels in America. Read the play, get the DVD. Few better ways to spend six hours of your day. Two reviews here and here. There is even a reading guide.

And the wonderful title sequence...


Vidya said...

I have only seen Part I after hearing Tony Kushner's interview on NPR. The film offers quite a brilliant insight into a rather ugly face of American Politics in the 1980s.That was when identity politics was at its peak.I thought it would be quite depressing but it was quite addictive. There is this anachronistic aspect of timeframes between the play and the miniseries, what was a burning issue in the 70s and 80s seem less urgent today. Analogically speaking, if Ghatak had made Meghe dhaka tara today I doubt if it would have made an impact.

Alok said...

Yes in particular terms it does seem a little anachronistic. Gay-rights activism has indeed come a long way since the 80s but it makes a lot of some general points about historical progress, exclusionary politics etc too. The second part is also very good. I still find it difficult to believe that it came on a mainstream TV channel!