Saturday, 17 April 2010

Angels in America

Clare and I have just been watching the DVD of the HBO miniseries of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (trailer above) and we both highly recommend it. Adapated by Kushner from his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, it won multiple Emmy awards and follows the breakdown of two couples' relationships against the backdrop of Reagan-era politics and the AIDS epidemic.

If there is a central character, it's Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS who begins experiencing visions, first of his ancestors and then manifestations of an angel, leading to his belief that he is a unwilling Biblical prophet upon whom America's fate depends. The angst-ridden Louis Ironson, Prior's Jewish partner, has deserted him because he can't cope with Prior's illness, and begins a relationship with a married Republican Mormon Joe Pitt, whose Valium-addicted wife retreats into a private fantasy of Antarctica. The new relationship between Louis and Joe founders on Louis discovering that Joe was employed by the corrupt lawyer Roy Cohn, who is also dying of AIDS, haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

This description doesn't remotely do the story justice; it's a gripping and intelligent masterpiece that tackles, and effortlessly interweaves, themes of gay issues, Jewish and Mormon religions, and US politics, with plenty of witty asides such as Wizard of Oz allusions. Throughout, it leaves open whether the various characters' mystical experiences are magic realism or hallucination (for instance, is the Angel real within the story, or a fabulation based on Prior's angel-tattooed nurse?). All the roles are well-cast and well-acted, though Al Pacino stands out for his portrayal of Cohn as a charismatic monster (as in this scene where he is diagnoed with AIDS), and Meryl Streep (in triple roles as Joe's Mormon mother, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and an elderly rabbi). The latter, which achieved some publicity a while back, isn't merely a gimmick, but inherited from the stage play's intentions in doubling up roles to show the fluidity of gender identity.

Do check it out. There are (though I'm not sure there should be) plenty of clips on YouTube. The playscript itself is highly readable and readily findable: for instance Angels in America: Part One [Millennium Approaches] & Part Two [Perestroika] (Nick Hern Books, 2007, ISBN-10: 1854599828) on Amazon.

A couple of snippets I liked from the playscript. There's Hannah Pitt's one-sided phone conversation with the officer who has found the hallucinating Harper wandering in a park after gnawing off a piece of tree in a botanical garden:

HANNAH: Pitt residence.
No, he's out. No I have no idea where he is. I have no idea. I have no idea. No idea. No. No. This is his mother. OH MY LORD! Is she ... You ... Wait, officer, I don't ... You found her in the ... Prospect Park? I don't ... She what? A pine tree? Why on earth would she chew a ... (very severe) Well, you have no business laughing about it, so you can stop that right now, that's ugly. I don't know where that is. l've only just arrived from Salt Lake and I barely found Brooklyn. I'll take a ... a taxicab. Well yes of course right now! No. No hospital. We don't need any of that. She's not insane, she's just ... peculiar. Tell her to behave. Tell her ... Mother Pitt is coming.

Or the Angel's first conversation with Prior Walter:

ANGEL: Greetings, prophet!
The Great Work begins.
The Messenger has arrived.

PRIOR: Go away.

ANGEL: Attend:

PRIOR: Oh, God! There's a thing in the air, a thing, a thing.

Am the Bird of America, the Bald Eagle,
Continental Principality,
I unfold my leaves, Bright steel,
In salutation open sharp before you:
Long-descended, well-prepared...

PRIOR: No, I'm not prepared, for anything. I have lots to do, I...

ANGEL: (with a gust of music)
American Prophet tonight you become,
American Eye that pierceth Dark,
American Heart all Hot for Truth...
The True Great Vocalist, the Knowing Mind
Tongue-of-the-Land, Seer Head!

PRIOR: Oh, shoo! You're scaring the shit out of me...
- Ray


  1. I completely agree. I have it on DVD and it's definitely worth owning.

  2. Glad you like it too (we just ordered the full playscript). Just rewatched part of it this evening: loved the bit where Prior doesn't remember any dreams or want to dig up his kitchen floor, and the Angel has to zap the floor and revise the prophetic text. After the cosmic copulation scene, the playscript has the lovely stage direction If they had cigarettes, they would smoke them now.