Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
Written by Tony Kushner
Characters Prior Walter
Roy Cohn
Joe Pitt
Harper Pitt
Hannah Pitt
Louis Ironson
Ethel Rosenberg
Homeless Woman
Date premiered May 1991
Place premiered Eureka Theatre Company
San Francisco, California
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting New York City, Salt Lake City and Elsewhere, 1985-1986
IBDB profile
Angels in America: Perestroika
Written by Tony Kushner
Characters Prior Walter
Roy Cohn
Joe Pitt
Harper Pitt
Hannah Pitt
Louis Ironson
Ethel Rosenberg
Homeless Woman
Date premiered 8 November 1992
Place premiered Mark Taper Forum
Los Angeles, California
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting New York City and Elsewhere, 1986-1990
IBDB profile

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning play in two parts by American playwright Tony Kushner. It has been made into both a television miniseries and an opera by Peter Eötvös.



The play is written for eight actors, each of whom plays two or more roles. Kushner's doubling, as indicated in the published script, requires several of the actors to play the opposite sex.

There are nine main characters:

Prior Walter – A gay man with AIDS. Throughout the play, he experiences various heavenly visions. When the play begins, he is dating Louis Ironson. His best friend is a nurse named Belize.

Louis Ironson – Prior's boyfriend. Unable to deal with Prior's disease, he ultimately abandons him. He meets Joe Pitt and later begins a relationship with him.

Harper Pitt – A neurotic Mormon housewife with incessant Valium-induced hallucinations. After a revelation from Prior (whom she meets when his heavenly vision and her hallucination cross paths), she discovers that her husband is gay and struggles with it, considering it a betrayal of her marriage.

Joe Pitt – Harper's husband and a deeply closeted gay Mormon who works for Roy Cohn. Joe eventually abandons his wife for a relationship with Louis. Throughout the play, he struggles with his sexual identity.

Roy Cohn – A closeted gay lawyer, based on real life Roy Cohn. Just as in history, it is eventually revealed that he has contracted AIDS, which he insists is liver cancer in order to preserve his reputation.

Ethel Rosenberg – The ghost of a woman executed for being a Communist spy, based on the real life Ethel Rosenberg. She visits Roy, whom she blames for her conviction.

Hannah Pitt – Joe's mother. She moves to New York after her son drunkenly comes out to her on the phone. She arrives to find that Joe has abandoned his wife.

Belize – A former drag queen, he is Prior's ex-boyfriend and best friend. He later becomes Roy Cohn's nurse.

The Voice/Angel – A messenger from Heaven who visits Prior and tells him he's a prophet.


Set in New York City in the 1985, Act One of Millennium Approaches introduces us to the central characters. As the play opens, Louis Ironson, a neurotic, gay Jew learns his lover, WASP Prior Walter, has AIDS. As the play and Prior's illness progress, Louis becomes unable to cope and moves out. Meanwhile, closeted homosexual Mormon and Republican law clerk Joe Pitt is offered a major promotion by his mentor, the McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn. Joe doesn't immediately take the job because he feels he has to check with his Valium-addicted, agoraphobic wife, Harper, who is unwilling to move. Roy is himself deeply closeted, and soon discovers that he has AIDS.

As the seven-hour play progresses, Prior is visited by ghosts and an angel who proclaim him to be a prophet; Joe finds himself struggling to reconcile his religion with his sexuality; Louis struggles with his guilt about leaving Prior and begins a relationship with Joe; Harper's mental health deteriorates as she realizes that Joe is gay; Joe's mother, Hannah, moves to New York to attempt to look after Harper and meets Prior after a failed attempt by Prior to confront Hannah's son; Harper begins to separate from Joe whom she has depended upon and finds strength she was unaware of; and Roy finds himself in the hospital, reduced to the companionship of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and his nurse, Belize, a former drag queen and Prior's best friend, who meanwhile has to deal with Louis's constant demands for updates on Prior's health. The subplot involving Cohn is the most political aspect of the play. Portrayed as a self-loathing, power-hungry hypocrite, he prides himself on his political connections and influence, which he has amassed through decades of corruption. In the play, he recollects with pride his role in having Ethel Rosenberg executed for treason. As he lies alone in the hospital, dying of AIDS, the ghost of Rosenberg sings him a Yiddish lullaby and then brings him the news that the New York State Bar Association has just disbarred him, destroying his final hope of dying as a lawyer. The play ends on a note of optimism. After his friends procure for him a stash of AZT, in 1990 Prior is still alive and is managing to live with AIDS. With his friends, he looks at the statue of an angel in Bethesda Fountain and talks of the legend of the original fountain, and how it will flow again some day. The play is deliberately performed so that the moments requiring special effects often show their theatricality. Most of the actors play multiple characters (e.g., the actor playing Prior's nurse also appears as the Angel). There are heavy Biblical references and references to American society, as well as some fantastical scenes including voyages to Antarctica and Heaven, as well as key events happening in San Francisco and at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

Production history

Front cover of the programme for the 1992 Royal National Theatre production of part one of the play.

The first part, Millennium Approaches, was commissioned and first performed in May 1990 by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, as a workshop. Kushner developed the play with the Mark Taper Forum, with which he has a long association. It received its world premiere in May 1991 in a production performed by the Eureka Theatre Company of San Francisco, directed by David Esbjornson.[1] It premiered in London in a Royal National Theatre production at the Cottesloe Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan.[2] Henry Goodman played Cohn, Nick Reding played Joe, Felicity Montagu played Harper, Marcus D'Amico played Louis, and Sean Chapman played Prior.[2] Nick Ormerod provided the scenic design, Mick Hughes the lighting design, and Paddy Cuneen the music.[2] Opening on 23 January 1992, the production ran for a year. In November 1992 it visited Düsseldorf as part of the first Union des Théâtres de l'Europe festival.[3]

The second part, Perestroika, was still being developed as Millennium Approaches was being performed. It was performed several times as staged readings by both the Eureka Theatre (during the world premiere of part one), and the Mark Taper Forum (in May 1992). It received its world premiere in November 1992 in a production by the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. A year later on 20 November 1993, it received its London debut at the Royal National Theatre, in repertory with a revival of Millennium Approaches. This production had the same director and designers as the 1992 London production.[3] David Schofield played Cohn, Daniel Craig played Joe, Clare Holman played Harper, Jason Isaacs played Louis, Joseph Mydell played Belize and won the Olivier Award as Best Supporting Actor for the role, and Stephen Dillane played Prior.[3] The production was dedicated to Jeffrey Chiswick.[3]

The play debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, directed by George C. Wolfe, with Millennium Approaches being performed in May and Perestroika joining it in repertory in November. The original cast included Ron Leibman, Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Wright, Ellen McLaughlin, David Marshall Grant and Joe Mantello. Among the replacements during the run were F. Murray Abraham (for Ron Leibman), Cherry Jones (for Ellen McLaughlin), Dan Futterman (for Joe Mantello), Cynthia Nixon (for Marcia Gay Harden) and Jay Goede (for David Marshall Grant). Both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika were awarded the Tony Awards for Best Play back to back in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Both parts also won back to back Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play.

The published script indicates that Kushner made a few revisions to Perestroika in the following year, thus officially completing the work in 1995.[4]


The tone of the play goes back and forth between comedy, dark humor and the supernatural. Some special effects may require special machinery (for example, the Angel is supposed to crash through the ceiling of the theater) but Kushner insists on the fact that this machinery is meant to be visible by the spectators. In the "Playwright's Notes" he says: "The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands — which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic [...] are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion — which means it's OK if the wires show, and maybe it's good that they do..." It is definitely an instance of what Bertolt Brecht theorized as the Verfremdungseffekt, which can be translated as "alienation effect" or "estrangement effect", whose goal is to constantly remind the spectators that what they are seeing is not taken from the real world but is an artefact created from scratch.

One of the many particularities of Angels in America is that each of the eight main actors has one or several other minor roles to play: for example, the actor playing the nurse Emily also embodies the Angel of America. And in this multiple doubling of roles, the gender of each character is deliberately played upon: the actor playing Hannah, Joe's mother, also plays the part of the Rabbi. This shows the dramatist's decision to throw some light on the arbitrariness and elasticity of the traditional notions of gender categories.



In 2003, HBO Films created a miniseries version of the play. Kushner adapted his original text for the screen, and Mike Nichols directed. HBO broadcast the film in various formats: three-hour segments that correspond to "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika," as well as one-hour "chapters" that roughly correspond to an act or two of each of these plays. The first three chapters were initially broadcast on December 7, to international acclaim, with the final three chapters following. "Angels in America" was the most watched made-for-cable movie in 2003 and won both the Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Miniseries.

Kushner made certain changes to his play (especially Part II, "Perestroika") in order for it to work on screen, but the HBO version is generally a faithful representation of Kushner's original work. Kushner has been quoted as saying that he knew Nichols was the right person to direct the movie when, at their first meeting, Nichols immediately said that he wanted actors to play multiple roles, as had been done in onstage productions.

The lead cast includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright (repeating his Tony-winning Broadway role), Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson, and Mary-Louise Parker.


Angels in America – The Opera made its world premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France, on November 23, 2004. The opera was based on both parts of the Angels in America fantasia, however the script was re-worked and condensed to fit both parts into a two and half hour show. Composer Peter Eötvös explains: "In the opera version, I put less emphasis on the political line than Kushner...I rather focus on the passionate relationships, on the highly dramatic suspense of the wonderful text, on the permanently uncertain state of the visions." A German version of the opera followed suit in mid-2005. In late 2005, PBS announced that they would air a live filmed version of the opera as a part of its Great Performances lineup. The opera made its U.S. debut in June 2006 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.


The text of Prior Walter's soliloquy from Scene 5 of Perestroika was set to music by Michael Shaieb for a 2009 festival celebrating Kushner's work at the Guthrie Theater. The work was commissioned by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, which had commissioned Shaieb's Through A Glass, Darkly in 2008. The work premiered at the Guthrie in April 2009.[citation needed]

Critical reception

Angels in America received numerous awards, including the 1993 and 1994 Tony Awards for Best Play. The play also was the recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play garnered much praise upon its release for its sharp dialogue and exploration of social issues. “Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years,” wrote The New York Times.[5]

A decade after the play's premier, Metro Weekly labeled it “one of the most important pieces of theater to come out of the late 20th century.”[6]

However, the play was criticized for its length (over seven hours when the two parts are combined). Writing in The New Republic, Lee Siegel said, "Angels in America is a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play about being gay, and about AIDS, no one—and I mean no one—is going to call Angels in America the overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess that it is."[7]

Awards and nominations

Millennium Approaches
  • 1990 Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays (non-competitive grant)[8]
  • 1991 Bay Area Drama Critics Award for Best Play
  • 1991 National Arts Club Joseph Kesselring Award
  • 1992 Evening Standard Award for Best Play
  • 1992 London Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play
  • 1993 Drama Desk award for Best Play
  • 1993 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play
  • 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama[9]
  • 1993 Tony Award for Best Play
  • 1992 Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays (non-competitive grant)[8]
  • 1992 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play
  • 1994 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play
  • 1994 Tony Award for Best Play

The play merited inclusion as the very last item in Harold Bloom's controversial list of what he considered to be the most important works of literature, The Western Canon (1994).


  1. ^ "The Public Theater at Stanford Presents: Artistic Team". The Bacchae. Stanford University. 2007. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  2. ^ a b c From the programme to the RNT's production of Millennium Approaches in 1992.
  3. ^ a b c d From the programme to the RNT's production of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika in 1993.
  4. ^ Kusher, Tony. Angels in America: Parts 1 & 2, Nick Hern Books, London, 2007
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Siegel, Lee. Angles in America, The New Republic, December 29, 2003
  8. ^ a b "Fund For New American Plays" Kennedy Center, accessed April 25, 2011
  9. ^ "Pulitzer Prize, Drama", accessed April 25, 2011

External links

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