Theatre Bites: Angels in America

The following things have been said about the theatre:

“The pit of a theatre is the one place where the tears of virtuous and wicked men alike are mingled.” – Denis Diderot

“The theatre is supremely fitted to say: ‘Behold! These things are.’ Yet most dramatists employ it to say: ‘This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action.'” – Thornton Wilder

“The good die young—but not always. The wicked prevail—but not consistently. I am confused by life, and I feel safe within the confines of the theatre.” – Helen Hayes

I think we can all agree that it has been a confusing time in life recently. In this moment, I have begun to seek more comfort than I used to in the TV shows and movies I watch. The one place I refuse to be comforted in, however, is the theatre, be it when reading a stage play or watching it being performed life. If only because a theatre is not meant to be an intellectually safe space, despite the feelings of the current President of the United States.

In this new section of The Nerd League, I will be looking at plays that connect to life today.

Plays that have values and lessons that we are in dire need of. Some will be contemporary, some will be classics of the theatrical canon. Some will be plays that I love, some will be ones I loathe (but that have value nonetheless).

I’ll  try my best to find works that have been adapted in film or TV, but it won’t always be possible. For the format, you can except a brief synopsis, talk about why I think it’s important for our day and age, and leave a lot of things open for discussion and debate.

Theatre is a place for the mixing of ideas, of ephemeral moments, and of seconds of emotional transcendence, and is something I believe very strongly in. In today’s world, the very existence of public funding of the arts in the United States is being threatened. And because of this possible destruction of the National Endowment of the Arts, I’m starting this series with a play, or more accurately a play in two parts, that wouldn’t exist without the support of the NEA: Angels in America by Tony Kushner.

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

© Playbill

It can, and has, been argued, that Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is one of the greatest plays created in the second half of the twentieth century. Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika, first produced in 1991, exploded onto the scene and have been consistently produced ever since, including a production from National Theatre in London starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane that is opening this month.

At once a meditation on the AIDS crisis and a critical look at power and sexuality, Kushner’s work received both praise and controversy due to its subject matter, earning Kushner both a Pulitzer and Tony Awards as well as more scrutiny to government funding of the arts as a result of protests from conservative groups. Needless to say, Angels in America touched a cultural nerve in a way that happens about once a generation, and continues to be a piece of discussion for artists today.

The Premise

Angels in America concerns itself with the story of Prior Walter, a gay man diagnosed with AIDS who begins having visions of an angel who declares him to be a prophet. Prior’s story is interwoven with that of his best friend, his former lover, a Mormon lawyer, a depressed housewife, and the historical figure of Roy Cohn to illustrate an epic examination of America in crisis in the 1980s.

The plays travel all over space and time, actors play multiple roles, and Part I ends in the spectacular visual of an angel crashing through Prior’s ceiling. The 2003 HBO adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep stands out as one of the greatest stage to screen adaptations of a theatrical work, keeping most of Kushner’s theatrical elements, making them accessible to a larger audience.

Closing Thoughts

It might seem odd to begin this series with one of the most controversial plays of the twentieth century, but the importance of Angels in America is too great to not begin a discussion of important plays with it. After all, the play ends with Prior ruminating on the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, saying directly to the audience:

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

Featured image credit.

Theatre Bites is a Thursday column of The Nerd League featuring theatrical pieces that affect our current lives. These are hand-picked by our in-house theatre nerd, currently a doctoral candidate in theatre studies.

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