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Contemporary Drama  
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Tony Kushner

However, no drama in recent years, gay or straight, has received the attention and acclaim of Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America (1992). Commissioned by the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, Kushner's two-part, seven-hour "Gay Fantasia on American Themes" is the most comprehensive dramatic commentary on the moral, sexual, and spiritual state of America during and since the Reagan revolution.

Angels in America is structured like a Shakespearean romance. A seemingly stable world atomizes to be reconstructed and redeemed. Relationships are quickly brought to a crisis point. Destiny or coincidence causes unlikely collisions. Characters thought dead miraculously reappear. The real and the dream merge. Seemingly disparate actions are analogous. Comedy and tragedy alternate and, at times, coalesce.

Kushner takes the multiple plot lines of Shakespeare a step further by using a "split screen" method and playing analogous scenes simultaneously.

Angels in America focuses on four homosexual men who represent, in various ways, not only positive and negative possibilities for homosexuals, particularly the perils of the closet, but the moral and spiritual plight of America.

The symbolic center is Roy Cohn, the powerful, ruthless, closeted, conservative who died of AIDS in 1986. For Cohn, one is defined by one's power, not one's sexuality, and power and gay identity are irreconcilable opposites. For him, the law is not an agent of order but an expression of the chaotic, dangerous universe. Kushner's Cohn is a moral monster, but his energy, both godlike and demonic, makes him an image of America itself.

Cohn's protégé is a young Mormon lawyer, Joseph Porter Pitt, who believes in the new order of the Reagan revolution (it is 1985) and the Jehovah-like fury and arbitrary power of Roy Cohn. Like Cohn, Joe cannot fit his homosexuality positively into that order. Since homosexuals do not exist in the Mormon faith, or in the Reagan revolution, Joe has tried his best to deny his sexuality and live within a loveless marriage, performing the "cheerful and strong" persona demanded of Mormons.

But whereas the shameless Cohn can live his contradiction happily, Joe hates his dishonesty and sees himself only as "a shell." Joe leaves his unhappy, valium-addicted wife, Harper, and joins in a turbulent liaison with another self-hater, the literal and figurative "word processor," Louis Ironson.

Louis has left his lover, Prior Walter, because he cannot deal with the gruesome reality of Prior's AIDS-related illnesses and impending death. He has failed "the hard law of love," and put his own needs and fears before those of his partner. Linked in their attraction and their self-hatred, Joe and Louis feel that they are doomed. Both have betrayed their commitments to lovers. They cannot go back, neither can they forgive themselves.

The dissolution of relationships and the various unmoorings of Part I: The Millennium Approaches seem to be the prelude to a revolution, the creation of a new order, heralded by the climactic appearance of an angel to the ailing Prior Walter.

However, when Part II: Perestroika opens, Prior learns that the angel, instead, calls for stasis, death. Prior, however, wants "more life" and will, like Jacob, wrestle with the angel to get it. When Prior ascends the ladder to heaven to argue for his life, he finds that heaven is a simulacrum of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, ruled by squabbling, leaderless angels.

Perestroika continues and develops a series of alliances and misalliances begun in The Millennium Approaches. The brief romance of Louis and Joe ends in a fight that gives Louis, at least, the punishment he wanted for abandoning Prior. Joe Pitt's stern mother, Hannah, becomes Prior's caregiver. Belize, the Black drag queen, becomes Roy Cohn's private nurse and guardian of his stash of AZT.

But this conventional series of collisions and separations is punctuated by more mysterious interventions, more links between the historical and the spiritual.

The principal issue in Angels in America is not what stance heterosexuals should take toward gay people (the answer to that is obvious) or even the more complex question of what stance gay people should take toward heterosexual adversaries but what, in defining our community, do gay people do with homosexual adversaries like Roy Cohn or Joseph Porter Pitt. The answer comes from the key words in Angels in America: love, justice, blessing, and forgiveness.

Like the classics of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, Angels in America manages to bring serious drama to the commercial theater. More important, this uncompromising, unabashedly gay play has become the most talked about mainstream dramatic work in New York and London (where it has been produced at the Royal National Theatre) in decades. Its critical and commercial success signifies the centrality of gay artists to the contemporary American theater.

John M. Clum

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Berman, Ed, ed. Homosexual Acts: A Volume of Gay Plays. London: Inter-Action Imprint, 1975.

Davis, Jill, ed., Lesbian Plays. 2 vols. London: Methuen, 1987, 1989.

_____. Gay Plays: An International Anthology. New York: Ubu Repertory Theatre Publications, 1989.

Helbing, Terry. Gay and Lesbian Plays Today. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993.

Hoffman, William M. ed. Gay Plays: The First Collection. New York: Avon, 1979.

Osment, Philip, ed. Gay Sweatshop: Four Plays and a Company. London: Methuen, 1989.

Shewey, Don, ed., Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1988.

Wallace, Robert, ed. Making, Out: Plays by Gay Men. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1992.

Wilcox, Michael, ed. Gay Plays. 4 vols. London: Methuen, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1990.


Case, Sue-Ellen, ed. Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989.

Clum, John M. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia, 1992. Revised paperback ed., 1994.

Curtin, Kaier. We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians. Boston: Alyson, 1987.

deJongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. London: Routledge, 1992.

Ludlam, Charles, Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly: Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam. Steven Samuels, ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992.


    Citation Information
    Author: Clum, John M.  
    Entry Title: Contemporary Drama  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 17, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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