Wrestling with “Angels in America”

The play that was once my entire world turns out to be very small

I have read Angels in America so many times, and was reading it so constantly for such a concentrated period of my life, that I have no memory of reading it for the first time. Or rather, my memory of reading it for the first time spans roughly from the beginning of high school until I moved away to college. My parents saw the play in many of its early incarnations — in San Francisco in the famously baggy, improvised, thrown-together and magical production that at once made famous and tore apart the Eureka Theater, and again, a few years later, in its original Tony-award winning production on Broadway, over the course of two consecutive nights. I didn’t attend any of these productions with them — I was too young to see a play that definitely had dicks in it.

But for some reason, a few years later I bought a copy (at the time, a two-volume laminated edition, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika each their own slim volume, Perestroika significantly heftier, held together in a plastic case), when I was maybe fourteen. I lost those copies of the plays years ago in a move or a breakup, after dragging them around with me through a significant portion of my adult life, the laminated edges curling away from each other, my spindly high-school-student notes littering the margins, my favorite passages stained and crinkled. I lost track of a lot of possessions through an irresponsible and precarious experience of my twenties, and most of them were easy to give up, shrug at, write off the loss, but these I will never quite forgive myself for losing. But anyway, I picked it up this play around age fourteen, and then didn’t really ever stop reading it for the next four years.

My endless rereading of Angels in America while I was growing up may be the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience. I kept my copy next to my bed, could quote any piece of it from memory, and eventually started to use phrases from it in my own speech without even realizing I was doing so. I would open the text at random and read a few scenes as a balm whenever I had had a bad day. I understand this is basically analogous to a how a devout Christian person might form a relationship with their Bible. But even that comparison is something my obsessive reading of Angels taught me to make. Angels is a secular play obsessed with religion, a play looking for the traces of faith in every human act, a play that insists on raising the visible and familiar events of life into the grandeur of the Old Testament. It is a play unsure it believes in angels, ghosts, gods, or prophets in which angels, ghosts, gods, and prophets are all literal characters on the stage. It is a play about how we knowingly or unknowingly grapple with the religions of our country, our family, our ancestors, about the way religion is knit into the bones of how we feel what we feel. My dogged and grandiose insistence on religion-based metaphors, and probably even my tendency to date people with serious and fraught religious upbringings, likely is due to how much I read Angels in America as a teenager.

My endless rereading of Angels in America while I was growing up may be the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience.

I was 32 years old when I experienced Angels for the first time as anything other than text on a page. In the wake of the wonderful Slate piece that became the even more wonderful The World Only Spins Forward, an oral history of the play, I decided that my husband Thomas and I should watch the HBO movie together. Thomas had never read the play, and wasn’t familiar with it at all, and I had never seen the HBO movie because I was too familiar with the play and was afraid to watch it.

Lots of people — I suspect I’m one of them — talk about the tender beauty of sharing the experience of a thing one loves with a person one loves when the person is unfamiliar with that thing. It’s true that it is possible for this to be a beautiful affirmation, an alchemical joining-together, but what’s more true is that this experience can only exist on the extremes of a spectrum: It is either beautiful and transcendent or extremely shitty for everyone involved. And more often, it’s the latter. It’s nearly impossible to go into this situation in a fair and reasonable way. I fundamentally don’t believe that we should decide how we feel about people based on their taste in art, but the simple truth is that Angels in America is so embedded in my understanding of not just myself but of what humans are and what love is that it would have shaken the foundations of my feelings for this person if he hadn’t loved it — which is a horrible thing to think, especially because there are lots of perfectly good reasons not to love this particular text. The stakes were way too high for either of us to enjoy it; I breathlessly watched his reaction more than I watched the movie, which in and of itself guaranteed he couldn’t actually enjoy, or even really pay attention to, the movie. I hadn’t realized — though of course I should have — that the text would be changed somewhat from the old printed version I had once had, and every time a single line was rewritten or left out, I felt like a personal injury had been done to me. If we define ourselves too much by loving a particular work of art, we risk eclipsing the work entirely, shutting ourselves out from it, in the same suffocating way it is possible to love a person and drive them away by doing so. Thomas read the play afterwards, at my urging, but never had the life-altering reaction to it I expected, at least not visibly. The truth was that he couldn’t have; I had stacked all the cards too perfectly against him.

When Marianne Eliot’s anniversary revival of Angels in America, first at the National Theatre in London and then on Broadway, was announced, I felt mostly offended and inconvenienced by it. This is how I usually feel when something I really love and have loved for a long time is made slightly more public and available in the world. It was the sinking feeling of waking up to find out that for some reason everyone on Twitter is talking about some work of art I have kneaded into the recipe for what I understand as a self, and it turns out that all these other people care about it too. It feels like coming home to discover that a crowd of other people want to sleep in my bed because they, for some deluded reason, think that this is actually their bed. Sometimes in museums, near to pieces of art that have meant a great deal to me, I want to cover the canvas with my body, block it off from anyone else seeing it, a private room between the work and myself. Seeing that many other people have had the exact same personality-forming experiences that I have had makes me want to stand on something tall and shout like a child trying to be noticed at an adults’ party. I spent way too much money buying tickets to see the revival of Angels; it was the thing there was to do about it.

I was miserable and jumpy when I sat down to see Part One, so hell-bent on the experience being perfect that I nearly ruined it. But then the lights went down and the play itself overwhelmed all the ways I had made it about myself, which is among the best things we can hope for art to do. I got swept up in the lives of these people, these characters I have known for so long that I just think of them as people, in the way my family are people, the genderqueer, oversexed, weird-poetry-speaking Angel like an aunt you look forward to seeing at Thanksgiving. Even though the production was uneven, I had forgotten how much fun this play is, how aside from everything weighty and important and heartbreaking about it, it also works as a roller coaster ride. Part of the joy was being able to reconnect with my thirteen-year-old self through it; Angels was so much a part of my adolescence that actually seeing it onstage functioned as time travel. But at the same time, it was a meaningful record of difference, of how both my relationship to the world, and the world itself, had changed. (My tendency to over-rely on big and nebulously meaningless words like “the world” in my writing is also, by the way, the fault of Angels in America).

When I first read Angels in America, it seemed to contain the entire universe. I was at the time, at hinge of adolescence, more than anything else looking for examples of bigness, in art but in everything else as well, anywhere in the world that might offer them, in personality, identity, celebrity, love, books, cars, music, whatever. I knew I was larger — literally and figuratively — than I was supposed to be, especially as a teenage girl, and I wanted some kind of affirmation that this was a way I could live successfully, and that my relation to largeness, to my in-every-sense tendency to hyperbole did not have to be one of unending, grinding shame. I fell so hard for Angels because it was the largest thing I had yet found. Not one thing about about Angels is economical. Reading The World Only Spins Forward, I learned that most people think Millennium Approaches, the first of the two parts, is the better play, mainly because it’s more tightly written and constructed, better polished and edited. This is probably the same reason I’ve always liked Part Two, Perestroika — too long, baggy, weird, saying everything it has to say three times in three different ways to make sure it got said fully — best of the two. It is just so unreasonably large, so unnecessary, so swaggeringly magnanimous in its ridiculous size.

When I first read Angels in America, it seemed to contain the entire universe.

But seeing it on stage, what surprised me most was that Angels felt small — my experiences had gotten larger and I could see the play had edges and limits. There is plenty of life that this work does not even touch, and those omissions seem far more glaring from a greater perspective, as a person who has lived beyond her teen years. There were many scenes or statements that I found thin or with which I disagreed. I had sometimes wondered, since first reading it, why it was that as a relatively privileged teenager living in a homogenous upper-middle-class Northern California suburb, I had connected so deeply with this play about the mid-1980s AIDS crisis in New York City, but rewatching it, it was easy to say why the play’s surprisingly limited perspective would appeal to exactly that kind of person. Like many works of art I grew up thinking contained the whole world, it in fact only contained the very specific world of a very specific sort of people. At BuzzFeed, Steven Thrasher writes eloquently about Angels’ “terrible racial politics,” which “[give] the impression that black American queerness exists only in relation to white, gay men.” Thrasher points out correctly that “it’s important to ask who gets to tell mainstream AIDS stories in America, and to consider why this one — about white, gay men who don’t really engage in any political resistance — keeps getting retold.” Angels is an extraordinarily limited story, but it was easy to see why, as a sheltered white teenager, to me it felt like the whole world.

Angels is a narrow story primarily focused on the concerns of a very specific type of white man. The women, as Thrasher also points out, “are caricatures,” or at least far thinner and less sympathetic, less capacious, than their more numerous male counterparts. I can see from a distance that my obsession with this play in some ways opened my mind, but in some ways reinforced my interest in a small subset of stories, and my conviction that men’s narratives would always be more interesting than my own. Echo chambers by nature feel much larger than they actually are; that’s how they’re built to work. More than anything, I realized after seeing it on stage this year, Angels reminded me of my experience of Twitter, both how I once thought it was some strange and messy utopia, and how, in the years since then, it became clear that Twitter is not a universe but an echo chamber. The play and the website share a lot in common: Everyone is very angry and sick and everyone is horny on main. Everyone has big things to say about God and America. There are a lot of breathtaking two-sentence sentiments that sound perfect but maybe don’t hold together when examined. They both think New York City is the entire world, and talk about middle America while actually having little to no experience or understanding of middle America. There are a lot of white men yelling, and a lot of relatively questionable statements about mental health. But when each one works, it glitters and seems to offer every available answer, packed to the gills with love around every corner. It makes a very small part of human experience feel like the size of the cosmos. It creates a space in which every hyperbole is honored. Twitter once seemed to me to contain the whole world; part of the process of maturation has been realizing that it is a very small collection of voices whose smallness both represents and is a product of the limited nature of my own experience.

The work that was formative for any of us is always going to be more about ourselves than about the work. But one of the responsibilities, and the joys, of aging alongside art we love is being able to consciously step back from it, to try to disentangle it from our own personal narratives. This is a difficult process, and carries the risk of being disappointed by the thing one loves. But in return, it offers perhaps the closest thing to the experience of getting to read or watch something again as though for the first time. In 2018, Angels in America is a cultural artifact, a relic of a bygone piece of history. To ask whether it is a period piece in the same breath as asking whether it’s still relevant misses the point: It is relevant because it is a period piece. Angels is a history lesson, but it was maybe always written to be one. It can no longer even be read as a comprehensive history of the era it portrays, but it no longer seems like one. Its limited viewpoint makes it a very well-written play, rather than a bible. It is as useful for showing how and why certain people’s stories achieved an unwarranted centrality as anything else, but that in itself is a history lesson.

One of the responsibilities, and the joys, of aging alongside art we love is being able to consciously step back from it.

As a preteen reading the play for the first time, the exhortation “the great work begins” felt personal, something to pick up and run with. I was very young and naive and willing to join myself to most any grandiose statement. Watching it today, I felt almost the reverse. The most relevant and useful aspect of the play is the way in which it is about failure, both in content and form. Most of the characters in it fail, but so does the play, the “great work” itself. It’s worth noting that a great many of the productions whose history Kois and Butler’s book details were also failures, often resulting in crisis, bankruptcy, or obliteration for the theaters that staged the play. Most grandiose things fail; most stories that attempt to be comprehensive betray their own limits and smallness instead, coming to rest on the ambivalences and inabilities that characterize the play’s central characters. It is hard to believe that, as Prior tells us in the play’s last moments, “the world only spins forward,” looking from where we were in the 1980s to where we are today. But that benediction as the lights come up still feels hopeful, that in the midst of failure, we could still attempt to find a sort of magical ongoing in our small and limited lives, to see our narrow stories as vaster than they really deserve to be.

Perhaps part of the great work the play asks us to begin is the work of dismantling our near-religious attachments to art or ideas that formed our identities when we were younger, and to move outward into engagement with stories that do not so easily reflect that familiar back to ourselves. I was relieved, walking out into Times Square at the end of Part Two, to find that Angels still felt insistently magical, overwhelmingly human. Admitting the way in which the play has not entirely aged well, the way in which its limits and flaws have grown clearer, allowed me to feel able to access it again, as one work of art rather than as the whole world.

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