Revival, Nostalgia, and Angels in America
“The World Only Spins Forward”
by Deborah Blumenthal
I was seventeen when I first saw Angels in America, and it did, as it does, change how I saw the world. It was the magnificent HBO miniseries; I remember two cold, snowy Sunday evenings, tip-toeing around my house, covertly staying up far past my school-night bedtime to see it, and from my naive perch among the couch pillows, watching an entire unfamiliar history unfold from the glow of my Dad’s big-screen TV.
I don’t know that my parents would have let me watch it if they had known what it was, but it was almost by accident, really. I had tuned in just to see one of my favorite then-obscure stage actors on television, none the wiser to what I was about to see, other than that it had been adapted from a play I had never seen.
My most distinct memory from either of those two evenings is that I couldn’t sleep after watching the ending of Millennium Approaches. Not that I was afraid of an angel crashing through my ceiling (though of course you never know), but because Prior was so sick, and I was so scared. Watching it became, very quickly, about much more than just a beloved actor. Recorded VHS tapes were joined immediately by paperback copies and DVDs, a few years later by working copies for thesis notes and a holiday-gifted first edition. There’s a Tony Kushner section on my bookshelf, and each resident is worn with love.
I was born during the period in which Angels in America takes place. Having grown up in a school system that ignored, or at least sugarcoated, the existence of the AIDS crisis (I did have one teacher—elementary school art—who taught second and third graders about Keith Haring, much to the chagrin of some parents), encountering some of the AIDS plays as a teenager—first Angels, and a few months later, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, with Rent sandwiched in between—was like opening a pop-up book. Even in my high school health classes, AIDS was just a bad thing that happened to you if you didn’t use a condom, in no major way separated from other STDs. The curriculum gave some clinical biology, here’s what happens to your cells, but the politics and the details and the terrifying history were left out, and real understanding was foregone.
It’s not uncommon to hear from people my age, or even younger, that Angels in America changed their lives—which might be strange considering that we weren’t there. But for us it’s like a history lesson, live in living color, opening our eyes to a reality that we can only try to imagine. Progressive sex-ed or sugarcoated evasion, the AIDS epidemic has become incorporated into our cultural consciousness. My generation has no idea what it was like for it to barely even have a name. The immersion of the theater may be the closest we’ll ever get to understanding.
Nearly twenty years have gone by since Part One opened on Broadway—a whole generation. A new, or at least altered, context begs a new way of thinking about how we relate to this play—one that includes having to think about that time gap. Angels in America has been living against a changing backdrop as long as it’s been around, and so this process of contextual evolution has always been in motion, but major revivals are asking us to think about what that looks like, and what it actually means. How do we negotiate the gap, not just for the younger generation, but as a rich and complicated cognitive and emotional space? What lives there for this play is about so much more than chronology. What can we make of a discrepancy small enough that audiences still include people who lived these events, yet large enough to have produced a generation born into their aftermath—and further, one that houses events that aren’t over yet? If the play serves as a history lesson, it’s a history still very much in the making. Revival is about looking back, but the ways in which we look back on and with Angels in America are varied, deeply emotional, and often markedly complex.
I remember taking a seminar on history plays when I was in college, and brainstorming for a topic on which to compose the final paper. I couldn’t dismiss from my mind a quote I once read that had always stuck with me, from one of the actors in the 2004 revival of The Normal Heart I had seen in high school, about the way in which, twenty-odd years later, this family of plays take on an eerie, heartbreaking dramatic irony that they didn’t have when they were written or first performed. The audience knows what’s going to happen. They know more than the characters, and they know what it’s going to look like five, ten, twenty years down the line. They know it isn’t going to go away.
I was trying to find a way to bring my love for and fascination with the AIDS plays into the open-ended assignment of this essay, when I realized that the key to historical drama is in fact a kind of dramatic irony. It’s that space between where the audience sits and where the play lives on the big historical timeline, the space that allows for the very particular kind of art-to-life mirroring that we see in historical plays, where the past is used to speak to or about the present. Contemporarily relevant issues are portrayed in historical contexts, the lessons from history poised for applicability to current circumstances. We have the perspective, from the future, to look back at the events and know their outcomes, which even if they can predict, the characters certainly cannot know.
As the AIDS plays grow older and affirm their places in the canon, the distance between our “now” and their “then” grows wider—the process has already begun in which they become pieces of the past, and we see them from a time-educated future. There’s a peculiar thing happening where they are starting to look like the history plays they were not written to be—never becoming irrelevant, but rather gaining new meaning to go with the new perspective. Young people might not see their own stories played out on stage in these plays, but we can see our own stories and our own world mirrored in them. There is a kinship and a connection forged in the bond of historical progress—the results of the events of the 80s and early 90s are threaded into the world as we’ve inherited it. As much as Angels in America can serve as a history lesson, it also speaks to our politics, our continued struggle against the AIDS crisis, and our fight for LBGT equality. We look back for guidance and connections. It’s why history moves us.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first reported cases among young gay men in New York and California, and of the first article in The New York Times about the “rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer.” Anniversaries seem to beg a sense of nostalgia, or at the very least, ask for a consideration of everything that’s happened since. It’s the impulse for retrospectives, or anniversary markers, commemoration and reflection. It’s all about, like a revival, looking back, and there is something about revivals, too, that seem to hinge on feelings of nostalgia. Nostalgia is wrapped up in memory and longing, an emotional condition that bridges the past and the present, not unlike the theater can do.
The nostalgia inherent in revival is two-fold; it can be for the play itself, a great work collectively missed, rekindling of a golden era, or it can be linked to the events captured in the play. But Angels in America seems to rattle that premise. It’s fair to say that theater aficionados probably feel nostalgic about the play—one of the greatest works of the 20th century is surely something people long to see again. But looking back on the events portrayed in the play is hardly a glance toward the good old days, where nostalgia evokes a soft-focus glow of warmth around the memories.
But there is a way in which nostalgia helps to mediate the time gap, and doesn’t have to be about the discomforting and possibly disturbing idea of longing for Reagan’s presidency or pre-AZT death rates.
At the end of the play, Prior addresses the audience in an Epilogue monologue filled with hope:
The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn if off in the winter, ice in the pipes. But in the summer, it’s a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be.
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 goingaway. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
It’s the moment in the play that most easily makes me cry, probably for that reason—the beauty of the absolute strength with which Prior faces a lifetime of disease, and the strength behind his ability to still be so hopeful. But in one a recent viewing on stage in New York, I started to look at it in another way, considering it from that perspective of the twenty-year time gap. Prior is no longer speaking to an audience contemporary to 1990, when the Epilogue is set. We’re seated two decades in the future. His hope is still inspiring, but when I thought about it this way, I was struck by an engulfing twinge of sadness: would he still be alive now? He might well have made it to 1992 or 1993, and maybe he could have lived another twenty years after that—but I wondered about the likelihood, something that, accepting the written vantage point, I had never considered before. That’s harder to wrestle with, not just looking at a character you’ve spent eight hours falling in love with, but also looking at a representation of the millions like him, who have struggled and lost, or survived. Watching the play now, we look back on the Epilogue as a more distant past than it was originally—we know better than to think that by the time twenty years had gone by, there might be a cure or equal rights, or at least more progress than we’ve made. There’s a solemnity in that disappointment. We long not only, like the Angel, for a past free of disease, but perhaps also for some of the optimism that time has now taken away. It is terribly painful to be aware that you know too much.
Does that pain, though, somehow offer us perspective? I’ve been watching a lot of Mad Men recently (perhaps an exercise in nostalgia itself), and in a pitch for the Kodak slideshow Carousel, Don Draper says that nostalgia, which comes from the Greek for “pain from an old wound,” creates a “deeper bond” with a product than does the allure of something new. In this Greek translation then, the pain is central to the feeling of longing. That “deeper bond” part is what made me rewind and listen again, though—it’s the idea that we are bound to our past by emotional wounds. The question then is, what makes us want to go back there?
If Prior’s hope, and the hope that he instills in Angels in America’s audiences, is the unfulfilled longing, the emotional space between the play’s present and ours, time seems only to exacerbate it. The longer that hope remains unfulfilled, the heavier will become an audience’s burdened nostalgia. However, the flip side of that pain looks toward progress. We look back on this past knowing the devastating reality of what AIDS would become, and as much as we see the shortcomings, we also look back and see, even if it’s not enough, how far we’ve come. “We live past hope,” as Prior says. It is the best we can do.
Deborah Blumenthal is a 2011 graduate of the MA Humanities program at the University of Chicago, where she wrote her thesis on historicizing Angels in America and the rhetoric of revival. She also holds a BA in American Studies from Columbia University. Deborah recently re-located to Chicago from New York, where she worked with Second Stage Theatre, The Public, Ars Nova, and Clubbed Thumb.