Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a play in two parts by American playwright Tony Kushner. It has been made into a television miniseries and an opera (by Peter Eötvös). The play is written for eight actors to perform, with all of them playing two or more roles.
The first part, Millennium Approaches, was commissioned and performed at its world premiere in May 1991 by the Eureka Theatre Company of San Francisco, directed by David Esbjornson. It was developed by the playwright with the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, with which he has a long association. It debuted in London in a Royal National Theatre production directed by Declan Donnellan in January 1992, which ran for a year.
The second part, Perestroika, was still being developed as Millennium Approaches was being performed. It was performed several times as stage readings by both the Eureka Theatre (during the world premiere of part one), and the Mark Taper Forum (in May 1992). It received its world premiere in November 1992 in a production by the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. A year later on 20 November 1993, it received its London debut at the National Theatre, again directed by Declan Donnellan, in repertory with a revival of Millennium Approaches.
The play debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, with Millennium Approaches being performed in May and Perestroika joining it in repertory in November. Both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika were awarded the Tony Awards for Best Play back to back in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Both parts also won back to back Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play.
Performed as a whole, the play runs to a length of around seven hours.
Set in New York City in the mid-1980s, Act One of Millennium Approaches introduces us to the central characters. Louis Ironson is a neurotic, homosexual Jew who lives with his lover, Prior Walter. Until, that is, Prior develops AIDS—still a poorly understood disease— Louis, unable to cope with the stress, moves out. Meanwhile, closeted homosexual Mormon and Republican clerk Joe Pitt, is offered a major promotion by his mentor: McCarthyist Roy Cohn. However Joe doesn't immediately take the job because he is worried about his Valium-addicted wife Harper.
As the seven-hour play progresses, Prior finds himself being visited by ghosts and angels who proclaim him as a prophet; Joe finds himself struggling to reconcile his religion with his sexuality; Louis struggles with his ideology and the contradictions within it that threaten to destroy his happiness (his love for Prior and his inability to deal with Prior's sickness, his love for America as an institution versus his disgust for what Louis sees as the country's institutionalized system of homophobia, and his love for Joe Pitt and his disgust and revulsion when he discovers that Joe's political mentor and idol is Roy Cohn); Joe's mother Hannah moves to New York to attempt to look after Harper only to befriend Prior after a failed attempt by Prior to confront Hannah's son; and Roy finds himself in hospital, his only companions being the ghost of Communist Ethel Rosenberg, and two nurses, one of which is a former drag queen and all-around cynic named Belize, who is Prior's best friend that must deal with Louis, who wishes for updates on Prior's health from Belize.
The play is filled with moments of black comedy, tragedy, and spectacular dialogue. The play is deliberately performed so that the moments requiring special effects often show their theatricality. Most of the actors play several characters, for example the actress playing Prior's nurse also plays the Angel of America. There are heavy biblical references and references to American society, as well as some fantastical scenes including voyages to Antarctica and Heaven, as well as key events happening in San Francisco and at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
Promotional shot for Angels in America
, featuring Justin Kirk as Prior Walter and Emma Thompson as the Angel of America.
In 2003, HBO Films created a miniseries version of the play. Tony Kushner adapted his original text for the screen, and Mike Nichols directed. HBO broadcast the film in various formats: three-hour chunks that correspond to "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika," as well as one-hour "chapters" that roughly correspond to an act or two of each of these plays. The first three chapters were initially broadcast on December 7, to international acclaim, with the final three chapters following. "Angels in America" was the most watched made-for-cable movie in 2003 and won both the Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Miniseries.
Kushner made certain edits or changes to his play (especially Part II, "Perestroika") in order for it to work onscreen, but the HBO version is generally a remarkably faithful representation of Kushner's original work. Kushner has been quoted as saying that he knew Mike Nichols was the right person to direct the movie when, at their first meeting, Nichols immediately said that he wanted actors to play multiple roles, as had been done onstage.
The lead cast were:
- Al Pacino as Roy Cohn
- Meryl Streep as Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg, and the Rabbi
- Mary-Louise Parker as Harper Pitt
- Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt
- Jeffrey Wright as Belize and Mr. Lies
- Ben Shenkman as Louis Ironson
- Justin Kirk as Prior Walter and the Man in the Park
- Emma Thompson as Nurse Emily, the Homeless Woman, and the Angel of America
- James Cromwell as Henry
- Michael Gambon as Prior Walter Ancestor #1
- Simon Callow as Prior Walter Ancestor #2
- Robin Weigert as the Mormon Mother
- Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak have brief nonspeaking roles as Rabbis.
Pacino, Parker, Wright and Streep were all honored with awards at the Golden Globes while Wilson and Shenkman also picked up nominations. The miniseries received numerous other awards and nominations, including 21 Emmy nominations which included wins for writing, directing, and for stars Wright, Parker, Pacino and Streep. Shenkman, Kirk, Thompson and Wilson were among the nominated.
Thomas Newman wrote the music on the soundtrack.
Awards and critical reception
- 1990 Fund for New American Plays/Kennedy Centre Award
- 1991 Bay Area Drama Critics Award for Best Play
- 1991 National Arts Club's Joseph Kesselring Award
- 1992 London Evening Standard Award for Best New Play
- 1992 London Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play
- 1993 Drama Desk award for Best Play
- 1993 New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play
- 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
- 1993 Tony award for Best Play
- 1992 Fund for New American Plays/Kennedy Centre Award
- 1992 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play
- 1994 Tony Award for Best Play
- 1994 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play
The play merited inclusion as the very last item in Harold Bloom's controversial list of what he considered to be the most important works of literature, The Western Canon (1994).
- Harper: I'm a Mormon.
- Prior: I'm a homosexual.
- Harper: Oh. In my church we don't believe in homosexuals.
- Prior: In my church we don't believe in Mormons.
- Roy Cohn: You know what my greatest accomplishment was, Joe, in my life? What I'm able to look back on and be most proud of? And I have helped make presidents, and unmake them, and mayors, and more goddamn judges than anyone in New York City ever, and several million dollars tax free. And you know what means the most to me? You ever hear of Ethel Rosenberg? Huh Joe, huh?
- Joe Pitt: Yea, I guess, yes.
- Roy Cohn: Yea, you heard of Ethel Rosenberg. Maybe even read about her in the history books. Well, if it wasn't for me, Joe, Ethel Rosenberg would be alive today, writing some personal-advice column for Ms. magazine. She isn't. Because, during the trial, Joe, I was on the phone everyday talking with the judge. Every day, doing what I do best—talking on the telephone. Making sure that that timid yid nebbish on the bench did his duty to America, to history. That sweet, unprepossesing woman, two kids, boo-hoo-hoo, reminded us all of our little Jewish mamas. She came this close to getting life. I pleaded till I wept to put her in the chair. Me, I did that. I'd have fucking pulled the switch if they let me. Why? Because I fucking hate traitors. Because I fucking hate communists. Was it legal? Fuck legal! Am I a nice man? Fuck nice! They say terrible things about me in The Nation? Fuck The Nation! You want to be nice or you want to be effective?! You want to make the law, or subject to it? Choose!
- Roy Cohn: Yea, AZT. I want my own private stash, Martin. Of serious, honest-Abe medicine that I control here in the room with me. No placebos. No, I'm no good at tests, Martin. I'd rather cheat. So, send me my pills with a get-well bouquet, pronto, or I'm gonna ring up CBS and sing Mike Wallace a song. You know the ballad of adorable Ollie North and his secret Contra slush fund. You only think you know all I know. I don't even know what all I know. Half the time I just make it up and it still turns out to be true! We learned that trick in the fifties.
- Louis: I don't believe you! Not Roy Cohn! He's like... the polestar of human evil. He's the worst human being who ever lived. He's not human, even.
- Belize: You know what your problem is, Louis? Your problem is that you are so full of piping hot crap that the mention of your name draws flies. Just to set the record straight: I love Prior but was never in love with him. I have a man, uptown, and have since long before I first laid my eyes on the sorry-ass sight of you. But you didn’t know cause you never bothered to ask. Up in the air, just like that angel, too far off the earth to pick out the details. Louis and his big ideas. Big ideas are all you love. America is what Louis loves. Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come to room 1013 over at the hospital, I'll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s got to love something.
- Louis: I'm not saying Kaddish for him. The drugs, okay, fine, sure. But no fucking way am I praying for him. My New Deal pinko parents in Schenectady would never forgive me. They're already so disappointed. He's a fag, he's an office temp. Now look, he's praying for Roy Cohn.
- Angel: Greetings Prophet! The great work begins! The Messenger has arrived!
- Prior: This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.