In two full-length plays–Millennium Approaches and Perestroika–Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world. Prior is a man living with AIDS whose lover Louis has left him and become involved with Joe, an ex-Mormon and political conservative whose wife, Harper, is slowly having a nervous breakdown. These stories are contrasted with that of Roy Cohn (a fictional re-creation of the infamous American conservative ideologue who died of AIDS in 1986) and his attempts to remain in the closet while trying to find some sort of personal salvation in his beliefs.
Angels in America is a pretty legendary play, even outside the gay literary world. It won numerous awards, including two Tonys as well as the 1993 Pulitzer prize in Drama. It’s long for a play, so long that it’s actually split into two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, but don’t let its relative length scare you off. It’s still much shorter than a novel, and just the right length for a TV series, like the 2003 HBO mini-series (which is pretty good). The ideal way to experience it is, of course, to see an actual production, but Kushner included enough stage direction to make it an engaging read too, easy to visualize how each scene plays out. These stage directions are actually pretty important to the experience of the play because Kushner is constantly calling attention to the story’s existence as a play. He writes, for example, that the angel should be suspended from a very conspicuous, very visible wire. It’s supposed to look campy, even fake and unbelievable, which is something the T.V. series fails to capture.
AIDS can be difficult to talk about, especially through a literary form. When we’re confronted with something so agonizing and terrible, viewing it through an artistic lens can be like staring into the sun. It’s too raw, too real, and much too human. That’s why some artists, like Kushner, may have looked for ways to soften the blow, ways to divorce their story from reality because reality was just too much. Samuel Delany’s 1985 “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” is one of the first fictional treatments of AIDS and also takes a surreal, experimental approach to depicting it. Perhaps it is from a place of grief that Angels in America takes inspiration for its more fantastic elements. And these elements serve an important purpose in communicating Kushner’s ultimate message: that this will not be the end of us, we are eternal, and we will continue to live and grow and change no matter what comes our way.