Whither the Angel in Angels in America?


Arts & Culture

Emma Thompson in the HBO film of Angels in America.


There are some of us who would rather face death than face our own delusion and, friends, I am one of those people. I have argued for the existence of horrible things—ovarian cancer, bedbugs, even a gluten intolerance—rather than face the fact that I am a healthy hypochondriac with a genetically inescapable amount of anxiety. New York did me in, like it does so many people. What began as low-grade anxiety transformed—after a period of uncertain part-time jobs, rent beyond my income bracket, and Daily News ebola headlines—into near dementia. Why would I want to believe that I was the problem? Creating my own headaches? Heart palpitations? The desire to believe in the self is strong. Hundreds of times that year, as I felt wandering pains and icy chills, I was faced with two options: I was sick in some serious way or I was—at least partly—insane. The former seemed preferable.

During the worst of my anxiety, one of the many things “I couldn’t do” was sink into Angels in America. In the past, it had been my easy remedy for a bad day or a worse night. I would just open up my two-disc set and turn to any scene in the six-hour masterwork. But anxiety kills empathy, and, when I was at my worst, I couldn’t see Kushner’s story of human dignity. All I could see was sickness.

Since the fall, a painfully negotiated détente has meant I’ve been able to turn to it again. With a starlit revival now up on Broadway, I realized it had been at least a decade since I’d read the play itself. There is a magic to seeing the play performed, a magic I still seek to understand, but in rereading the play, I found myself with a new unanswerable question: Is there really an angel in Angels in America

Angels in America begins in the autumn of 1985 and reaches into January of 1986. After Pryor is diagnosed with AIDS, he is abandoned by his lover, Louis. Betrayed, scared, and very sick, he is visited by an Angel. She comes to him many times, played by a female actress on a wire, each time splendid, fabulous, a being of light and spectacle. I’ve always thought she was real—real with the “realness” of vogue ball culture, real to Prior, real to the audience. It never occurred to me to read her as a hallucination or a metaphor.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Kushner’s playwriting is its ambiguity. Line by line and in his stage directions, he breaks the fourth wall, then the fifth and sixth. Nestled in a flashback, there is a scene in which the angel actually crashes through the ceiling, showering dust and glory. Prior tells his friend and former lover, Belize, about it as they stand together outside of a “dilapidated funeral parlor on the Lower East Side.” Scene 2 is marked by these notes:

 Prior changes out of his [current] garb and into his pajamas onstage. He does this quietly, deliberately, forcing himself back into memory, preparing to tell Belize his tale. At first Belize watches from the street, but soon he’s drawn into the bedroom.

A visit from an angel is complex enough to stage, but it becomes even more so when Prior and the angel copulate (suffice to say it is hot and divine). Afterward, Belize enters the room.

BELIZE (he’s heard enough; stepping into the bedroom): Whoa whoa whoa wait a minute excuse me please. You fucked this angel?

By stepping into Prior’s memory, Belize reminds us of the fictional constructs of the story. In a dizzying, wonderful manipulation in the script, Belize fails to see the angel, though of course all three actors are standing together on stage. Kushner has said that of all the versions of Angels he has seen, he prefers those with the most conspicuous stagecraft: “Richard Eyre was concerned that the angel wasn’t flown in on thin, nearly invisible wires but that instead she came swinging in on this big obvious rope. But I loved that. I thought, Exactly. That’s the idea.”

The play is about many things, although of course it is also undeniably about AIDS. Kushner came out to his parents in the early eighties. He watched the AIDS virus devastate his community. But in 1985, when Kushner began writing Angels, he had not yet lost anyone close to him to the disease. He eventually would, but never a lover.  The story of illness and abandonment between Prior and Louis is based on Kushner’s relationship with a straight woman. In 1984, his friend Kimberly Flynn, his very close but nonromantic companion, was in a traumatic car crash. Flynn, twenty-eight at the time, was studying to be a clinical psychologist, but she emerged from the accident with serious neurological repercussions. Kushner tried to be her partner in sickness as well as in health. In 1992, the journalist Arthur Lubow interviewed both Kushner and Flynn for The New Yorker. “[Flynn] was furious at her doctors,” Lubow wrote, “who administered routine pinprick tests despite her protest that her problems were cognitive, not neurophysiological.” As her friend, “it took Kushner some time to conclude that Flynn’s injuries were severe and, to some extent, permanent. As she wrestled to understand what was wrong with her and how to begin to remedy it, he became her sounding board, her medical guide, her companion in doctors’ offices.” A year after Flynn’s accident, Kushner accepted a directing fellowship in Saint Louis. He worried he was abandoning his friend and suffered from survivor’s guilt. Kushner has said that part one of Angels, “Millennium,” is “completely infused with dealing with the consequences of the accident.” In The World Only Spins Forward, a new oral history of Angels in America edited by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, which speaks to the flourishing offstage life of the play, Flynn confirms her role in the character of Prior: “The articulation of crisis followed by outrage, and the sense of ‘Can I get a witness’ that you hear in Prior was in part fueled by something I was experiencing and that Tony was hearing on a daily basis.”

Of her neurological trauma, Flynn has said, “The experience was entirely new—not only something that had never happened to me or anyone I knew, it was something I had no idea was possible.” As those with atypical ailments know, it is a special kind of medical nightmare to know something is amiss but to be told that you are exaggerating or that it is all in your head. I wouldn’t know. I am exaggerating, and it often is all in my head.

When I got to an exchange between Prior, who’s seen the angel, and Belize, who hasn’t, I began to see a subtext of the play I never had before. Prior isn’t just being betrayed by his body, and his boyfriend, he’s beginning to wonder if he is being betrayed by his mind. It took my own betrayal of the mind to notice it.

BELIZE: Visited, Prior. By who? It is from you, what else is it?

PRIOR: Something else.

BELIZE: That’s crazy.

PRIOR: Then I’m crazy.

BELIZE: No, You’re—

PRIOR: Then it was an angel.

BELIZE: It was not an—

PRIOR: Then I’m crazy.

It was like catching an unexpected glimpse of myself in a mirror. You? Here? I thought, I have had that conversation. Prior is bargaining with the last chip he has: his sanity.

The way the play is written, it had never occurred to me to wonder if the angel was real. Of course, she was real and she was splendid and multitudinous, with eight vaginas. Now, I am not asking you to believe in the angel any more than I am asking you believe that Peter Pan really frequented Victorian London. But no one suggests lead paint fumes played a role in Wendy’s encounter with the lost boys, and it never occurred to me that, within the reality of the play, pharmaceuticals or other aspects of AIDS-related dementia were a coauthor of Priors visitations.

But in The World Only Spins Forward, the actor who played Prior in the Dutch production by Ivo van Hove insists, “The Angel is something Prior imagines, because it’s inspired by those early days of patients having AIDS medicines and becoming delirious and seeing hallucinations.” The Kushner devotee, the Jew, and the hypochondriac in me all cried out together, How can you be so sure?! Kushner however, sounds off next: “The central tension comes from Prior, and the question of whether this is real or a delusion, AIDS-related dementia, is it some sort of runaway psychological manifestation of something.” If the central tension of Angels is whether Prior’s reality was a delusion, then I’ve been missing the point of Angels for twenty happy years. In recent months, I have seen at least half a dozen references to ADC, or AIDS-dementia complex, the medical term to referring to neurological side effects of the disease. In middle school, I had done a lot of research on AIDS. I must have known about its neurological effects before. I knew them until they became a threat to my own mind and I lost them.

The character Hannah Pitt, who is Prior “ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother,” speaks right to the theology of the issue. Prior finds Hannah and asks her: Do angels exists? Hannah and Prior make quick work of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

HANNAH: People have visions.

PRIOR: No they—Not sane people.

HANNAH: (A beat before deciding to say this): One hundred and seventy years ago, which is recent, an angel of God appeared to Joseph Smith. In Upstate New York, not far from here.

PRIOR: That’s ridiculous, that’s—

HANNAH: It’s not polite to call other people’s beliefs ridiculous.

PRIOR: I didn’t mean to—

HANNAH: I believe this. He had great need of understanding. Our prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that.

Hannah cuts us the ultimate slack. And by us I really mean me, with my need for a scan and my need, at two A.M., to make a three A.M. appointment, and to have walk-in hours, and a thermometer and blood tests and ophthalmology tests and one super unnecessary, and you better believe expensive, upper endoscopy. There is something I have realized about hypochondria and anxiety: it is largely the need for confirmation. When I trust neither my rational nor my irrational self, I need a tiebreaker.  I was brought up to think a doctor’s as good an authority as any, but if you took away my health insurance I would find another arbiter. Faith, as I understand it, is about sitting with your uncertainty. I hope to read Angels again and again, till the end of my long, healthy life, and I hope to never fully know.


Julia Berick works at The Paris Review