Friday, 11 February 2011

Revisiting Books AND TV: Angels in America

It's really really difficult for me to talk about Angels in America without either a) rambling, b) gushing, or c) being filled with an incredible rage for the characters I don't like (namely, Roy and Louis). So, with this in mind, I'll try and keep this review/revisit as succinct as possible. But it's not going to be easy!

Being, as it is, written by a gay man, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Angels in America rather predictably deals with the issue of AIDS, and it's effect on two men in particular, Prior Walter (played so fabulously by Justin Kirk in the HBO version) and the real life villain of the piece, Roy Cohn (the always amazing Al Pacino). To say that this is just a play about AIDS, however, would be such a gross understatement that anyone who said such a thing to me would instantly find themselves on the receiving end of a cold shoulder. In fact, AIDS is about the last thing mentioned in the play (I think the term AIDS is only used about once or twice, and then it is by a doctor), and there is a far greater focus on politics, religion, human progress, self-discovery, self-hatred, and love than there is on sickness.

Beginning with politics. Louis, Prior's boyfriend, is extremely focused on politics and especially political labels, often to the detriment to his character, in that he exists within ideas rather than the real world, which is perhaps one reason that he finds himself unable to deal with Prior's illness.
"Maybe... this person's sense of the world, that it will change for the better with struggle... maybe that person can't, um, incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go"
It seems a poor excuse for not being there for someone that you love, but it is enough in the end for Louis to leave Prior all alone, for which he continually beats himself up, but still lacks the strength to go back to him. Prior recognises this weakness in Louis as being related to his inability to see the world as it really is, rather than an idealised version of how he wants it to be, and this means that nothing Louis does ever seems to be sincere;
"You cry, but you endanger nothing in yourself. It's like the idea of crying when you do it. Or the idea of love."
Whether or not Louis is capable of love is up for debate, but it certainly doesn't seem like yours or my idea of love- he claims to love Prior and then leaves him when he needs him the very most. This is about the most self-loving thing you can do, and certainly explains Belize's attitude towards Louis throughout the play, in his lack of sympathy at Louis's self-torture;
Louis: I'm dying
Belize: He's dying. You just wish you were.
Louis meets Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) mostly by chance, since they work in the same place, but is drawn to him because of his equal levels of self-hatred and inability to act as he wants to. Joe is a repressed homosexual, married to Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), an agoraphobic valium addict who is the voice of both doom and hope at various points in the play, and whose problems are in no small part related to Joe's own. He is married to her because it is the right thing to do, but he wants something so different, and doesn't know how to get it without breaking himself apart. His anguish over having to be something he isn't is so clear;
"Does it make any difference? That I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it. What do you want from me? What do you want from me, Harper? More than that? For God's sake, there's nothing left, I'm a shell. There's nothing else to kill."
It seems so tragic that Joe can't even accept who he is, especially in a play where so many of the men are so open and honest about their feelings and about who they love (in fact, apart from the doctor, all the men in the play are gay). Tony Kushner said that in Joe he was trying to create a Republican character that he actually liked, but he didn't quite succeed. I like Joe an insane amount, and far more than I like Louis,  because he just seems so broken and sad, until he learns who he is when he meets Louis. His ending, I feel, doesn't necessarily reflect what he has learnt about himself, and I think it was kind of unfair of Kushner to make Joe act like this (if you want to know what I'm talking about, you're going to have to read this play. Seriously, I don't know why you aren't already!)

And then there's Roy Cohn. Accurately described as being "like the polestar of human evil" he acts as both a surrogate father for Joe and a tormentor of Belize, as well as having basically no redeeming features as a human being at all. It is, I suppose, Joe's association with Roy that is his least attractive attribute (and Louis certainly sees it this way), but while it allows Kushner to get all the hate he feels for him out of his system, the parts with Roy and his pain are, I find, the least interesting in the play because I can't get up any sympathy or really any feeling for the man at all. Other than wanting him, rather badly to leave Joe alone.

It occurs to me that I haven't even mentioned the angel yet, and this is what I mean by getting carried away by Angels in America. There are so many major characters, and so much context and symbolism and so many issues that it is almost impossible to get through them all. The angel is pretty important though, so I'll tell you about her now, or rather, I'll tell you some more about Prior. If you question whether or not the whole angel element of Angels in America is all in Prior's brain, then you kind of miss the point of the angel all together. I don't think it matters whether the angel is real or not, because it is what she represents, and what she makes Prior realise, that is important. Belize is of the opinion that she is a manifestation of Prior's loneliness and sadness;
Belize: Abandoned.
Prior: Yes.
Belize: I smell a motif. The man that got away. 
Prior: Well, it occurred to me. Louis.
But then again, we have to consider that Hannah (Meryl Streep), Joe's mother and Prior's random friend has also seen and remembered the angel;
"I have to go home now. I had the most peculiar dream"
In the HBO version, this dream takes the form of Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep kissing, and Meryl Streep having an orgasm. It is amazing. But anyway. What the angel really does is set up the need that Prior feels to continue living, even though he is in pain, and even though he is unhappy, he still wants to continue onwards, and just keep on living. This is the ultimate thing I always take away from the play, the feeling that, although life can get truly awful and unbearable, we still desire and need and take more and more of it,
"Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can't help myself, I do. I've lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much much worse, but... You see them living anyway. When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don't know if that's just the animal. I don't know if it's not braver to die. But I recognise the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. It's so much not enough, so inadequate but... Bless me anyway. I want more life."
And, as a viewer or reader, we want Prior to have more life too, because of the incredible strength of spirit he shows throughout, and because we love him correspondingly to how much we dislike Louis. Which, in my case, is clearly a lot.

I'm nearly done with boring you to death now, but just remember, "I want more life" and you'll be fine. Anyway, the HBO version of Angels in America is absolutely stunning in my opinion, and I encourage and implore you to watch it if you really can't deal with reading plays (like some people I know). Pretty much my only complaint about it is that it leaves out not just one but two scenes between Harper and Prior, a pairing so excellent that Showtime gave them their own TV show. There is, I suppose, no really vital information passed between them in these two meetings like there is in their first (that Joe is gay), but there is a beautiful piece of narrative symmetry in their final meeting that I think could really have just stayed in there. But far be it for me to question Mike Nichols (on a similar note, I would in no way consider Al Pacino, fabulous as he always is, to have been the lead actor in Angels in America- I would have had to give the Golden Globe Emmy to Justin Kirk!)

But these are just tiny, minuscule complaints, that in no way affect how much I love Angels in America. Even the characters I don't like, I like them because they are part of this absolute masterpiece of writing, and it is about the only play that I have enjoyed reading just as much as seeing it in a physical form. If all this hasn't convinced you to read or watch it, then I don't know if there's much more I can say about it to you- but it is absolutely one of my favourite things in the world. So go! Explore the wonderful, weird, heartbreaking, uplifting, evil and then good world of Angels in America. You won't ever regret it (and if you do, you can blame me.)


  1. awesome blog. Never heard of this :( but newest follower :)

  2. Aw, thank you! I definitely really really recommend Angels in America, just in case I didn't make that clear in my post! Hehe!

  3. I'd heard of Angels in America, but I never really knew much about it. Thanks for the review, I'll definitely check it out.

  4. Ooh, please do, it's so amazing that this review definitely doesn't cover it!

  5. I do want to read this. I love reading plays and was able to read a lot last year for a class I was in, solidifying my love for them. I think viewing it would be wonderful as well, but I hope to at least read Angels in America first.

    -Let's Get Beyond Tolerance

  6. It is just completely spectacular, in all its forms! Hope you get round to it soon :)