Angels in a Changed America

From HBO to Off-Broadway: Tony Kushner's Epic Theater of Identity

Who is Walter Benjamin, and why is he haunting HBO?

For those who didn't major in cultural studies, Benjamin was Europe's greatest critic—make that apprehender—of modernity. But he couldn't escape the Nazis, and when he was caught trying to flee them he killed himself. You can regard Benjamin's suicide as proof that politics has the power to crush perception. But the real meaning of his desperate gesture is contained in the figure that was his most audacious creation. Benjamin called it the angel of history, and this is how he described its helpless majesty:

"His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

The Angel has eight vaginas and the means to use them, even on the dying gay man she transforms into a prophet.
photo: Anna Barry-Jester
The Angel has eight vaginas and the means to use them, even on the dying gay man she transforms into a prophet.

Meeting Tony Kushner at Starbucks is a little like running into Walter Benjamin at Disney World. In his black fedora, schlepping a sack of books, Kushner looks like a refugee among the latte lappers. "Let's get out of here," he hisses over strains of a premature Christmas carol. Something about this place cries out for Benjamin's apparition to come crashing through the ceiling, as it does in Kushner's best-known play. Angels in America is the most stunning evocation of Benjamin's concept of change ever to grace the stage, and now it is about to reach the home screen.

On December 7, HBO will begin a two-part, star-studded production of the drama that shattered the rules of Broadway in 1993. The new version, directed by Mike Nichols, is a breakthrough event in television. Even as it shows how much has been lost in the Will & Grace-ing of gay entertainment, it also announces an opening in the mainstream for real queer culture in all its quicksilver complexity.

Tony Kushner is one busy yidl. While jiggering with the screenplay for Angels over 10 months of filming, he co-edited a new anthology of critical writing on Israel (Wrestling With Zion) and finished the book for a new play—a musical, no less. He spends most of these days toiling at the Public Theater, where Caroline, or Change opens on November 30, directed by the man who made Angels come alive on Broadway, George C. Wolfe.

"It was my first Broadway piece," Wolfe says with no nostalgia in his recollection. "The play was living in all our bodies back then. We had all lost friends to AIDS; we all had the energy of struggle and the muscles of defiance. So this wasn't in any way a memory play." The epidemic may not inspire the visceral horror it once did in gay men of Wolfe and Kushner's class and generation, but Angels still grabs you by the gut and bores into your secret yearnings. The screenplay homes in on the characters without losing the metaphysical street-speak that is Kushner's signature. But it's those characters and their conflicts that carry the major wallop now. The play's sexual politics seem more sexy than political, and the spiral of contradiction that surrounds its every theme seems less terrifying than dramatic.

Maybe it's the iconic cast, under Nichols's fluent direction; maybe it's the play's interaction with a cinematic medium. "Film is about stories, theater is about ideas," says Wolfe with a small smirk. Given Kushner's commitment to radical theater, he must have agonized over balancing both. In the end, he insists, "I'm a playwright, not a politician or a theorist. Like Brecht said, the highest function you can expect from art is that it teaches you to move through the world with pleasure." As with the didactic Bertolt Brecht (who wrote a crowd-pleaser called The Threepenny Opera), the pleasure of Kushner's plays depends on your willingness to be entertained by ideas that subvert even themselves.

In Angels, every character you expect to be good is capable of evil, and everyone who ought to be evil can love. Never have there been so many caring, sexy Mormons in a work by a card-carrying lefty. As for the Angel, she has eight vaginas and the means to use them—even on the dying faggot she transforms into a prophet through an orgasmic act. He ascends to heaven on a golden ladder, and just when you think you're in a Christian potboiler about the rapture, it turns out that God has disappeared and the bureaucrats who run paradise want this prophet to end the human quest for change. But he rejects this temptation and demands "life . . . more life" instead: life as rebellion against celestial stasis; change as ecstatic, unmanageable pain. This is what the pioneer woman in Angels says when she pops out of a diorama at the Mormon Visitors Center: People change when God rips out their intestines, stuffs them back in a different way, and "it's up to you to sew yourself up." Benjamin tried to describe that ineffable process, and Kushner admits, "I'm indebted to Benjamin to the point of larceny."

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