During the Car ride to Pittsburgh PA, I read the script for the first part of Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. I finished it in one very difficult sitting, teetering on the very edge of tears the whole time. When I reached the back cover I realized that I had just finished reading some of the most amazing prose I'd ever set eyes on, and then realized that I had to get my hands on Part Two.
Angels in America is a play written about the AIDS crisis. As a play it's really creative, and really takes advantage of the form. All of my recent exposure to drama has been either to Shakespeare, which is of course brilliant, but requires a lot of thought and the themes are simplistic (not that there's a problem with that) but they're also really obvious and I think that Shakespeare is more about the language (thus making it more akin to poetry) than it is about what's going on in the play. Additionally I've been exposed to a very concise survey of the development of Modern drama including Anouilh, Brecht, Ibsen, Strinberg, and (T. S.) Eliot.
Brecht and Ibsen, in particular, especially wrote plays that would be impossible to produce on the scale that the script calls for. There is too much detail and so much symbolism that is easily missed. But all of the mentioned authors were guilty of this to some extent. In many ways, I think that for all their power and skill, the kind of drama that I've been exposed to recently haven't aged particularly, though I think Ibsen and Strinberg are most guilty of this.
Angels in America is a completely different sort of play, and I'm debating weather this difference makes it better or just different, but in any case let me describe it again. It's set during the onset of the AIDS epidemic, around a sizeable handful of semi-interconnected characters. Everyone is affected by AIDS in some how and many of the characters are gay, and while that's easily the defining characteristic of the play, I don't think that it's an artifact of Queer Art because while I think gay audiences will certainly learn and gain a great deal from reading this play, a certain part of me wants to say that the intended audience is a mixed bag I feel.
The play also presents AIDS from a perspective that is different than the usual spin and, and it's a perspective that's I think is often lost. At least in the material I get day in and day out AIDS seems to neglect the wasting nature of the disease, and the fact that it doesn't kill anyone very quick. AIDS is painted as a bad thing, which is appropriate, but it is all to often presented to impersonally for my tastes. The disease isn't given a face to often and I think that's a shame. In our efforts to convince people in the seriousness of the AIDS, we completely neglect the disease itself. People are seen as being HIV- and people are seen in the unaffected early stages of the disease, and people are represented as being dead, but that whole middle section is completely left out. I can see perfectly reasonable explanations for this, but at the same time I think in general we lose something by functioning in this way. In any case…
Angels in America completely deglamorizes (as if there was any glamour in the first place) the entire situation. It shows characters in various stages of the illness (set in a time frame where without recently developed treatments) the progression happened more quickly. Thus there were characters who were only beginning to show signs of the illness, and there were character who were struggling with more advanced stages of the disease. We also got to see the impact of AIDS on family members , and how denial and homophobia was really elemental in promoting the spread of the disease. This kind of approach, and this kind of treatment of this particular social issue is, I think really powerful, and I think this is the kind of light that this epidemic needs to be preserved in.
Beyond the particulars of the social commentary, I liked the fact that rather than a thematic focus on one of life's more puzzling metaphysical quandaries, Angels in America focused on an issue that is not only relevant to our times, but emblematic of the social condition of our times. From this starting point t is then possible to draw conclusions about a couple of metaphysical issues, whereas in all of the "great works" that I'm generalizing against work in reverse order, and require more interpretive work for less insight, in my opinion.
The unavoidable poignancy of the message and the perspective of the presentation gives the play purpose and direction, but it's power is directed from the dramatic technique and storytelling style. More "traditional" and/or "classic" have a hand full of characters that interact with each other and contribute to one developing plot. In this play there are three (or so) situations, each with a couple of characters. The situations are all connected, though not in a traditional sense, and the directions for staging and sets indicate a sparse set, and no blackouts, which makes the production aspect of the play much more transparent. The traditional school of thought is stage things so that it looks "real," but that's ultimately a futile goal, so Kushner (and a lot of other contemporary playwrights) don't even try, and for some reason I think it works really well.
I think the word on the street is that HBO or some such is going to produce Angels in America sometime in the near future, and I really hope that they do a good job of it, and I think they will. I've only read the first one, but the second play promises to be even better.