AIDS and the Theater: “Angels in America”

This is the first part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart,” “Rent” and “Falsettos.”

Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play “Angels in America” is easily one of the best known American plays, largely because it’s in two parts and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Spanning about seven-hours, depending on the production you see, and a time period of less than a year as the characters are in the middle of a turbulent time in America–the ’80s.

There are many themes addressed in the play as it is subtitled “A gay fantasia on national themes,” but for the purposes of this post I will largely focus on the role of AIDS in the play.

Two of the main characters in this play, Roy Cohn and Prior, are infected with HIV and have been diagnosed with AIDS. Prior, in the fourth scene of the play, admits this is a death sentence and accepts that he is going to die. Roy, a few scenes later, listens to his doctor give him the diagnosis of AIDS and tells him he can’t have AIDS because he is not a gay man*. The almighty Roy Cohn has liver cancer, because that looks much better than having AIDS.

What then comes from this how these two characters end up dealing with trying to survive. Prior takes his pills, goes to the doctor and deals with the dreams he has of an angel telling him he’s a prophet. Roy, while in the hospital, gets in on his own private stash of AZT, at that point still in trials. As he admits, he was never good on tests and prefers cheating.

While Roy hides in the shadows with his diagnosis, Prior accepts it and deals with the awfulness, such as his boyfriend, Louis, leaving him, that comes with it. This is a flipside to “Rent” which almost seems to cheerfully deal with the disease. Prior gets mad, bitchy and sardonic about his disease. He’s dying and it’s ravaging his body.

What’s interesting about the play is even though it deals with political issues, largely in the form of monologues from Louis, it never is didactic. The play makes you care about the characters and even feel sympathetic to some of them, including Roy Cohn. Unlike another play I’ll look at later, it isn’t a polemic. It’s a play that explores various themes while also looking at the drama surrounding the characters, which is not an easy task.

Finally, while there is a bit of hope at the end of the play, but it isn’t forced. It comes naturally and leaves the audience feeling good at the end. While two of the other works I’ll look at end on rather dour notes, one does have a cheery ending that feels very forced. “Angels in America” is a perfect play that handled a major point in our country’s history excellently.

(Okay, I’m being concise here because so many people have written about this play I felt like I should kick things off by writing about it here, but I thought, “What could I say that hasn’t been said already?”)

Next: “Falsettos”

*Roy Cohn’s speech about how him having clout means he isn’t homosexual is one of my favorite speeches in theater

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