The Great Work Begins: The politics and activism of ‘Angels in America’

Although politics, from Reagan and the AIDS crisis to the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, are centre stage in Tony Kushner’s epic, sweeping, Angels in America, it never becomes polemical. It isn’t a piece of starkly activist theatre like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which even has one of the characters shouting “I’m trying to understand why nobody gives a shit that we’re dying.”

The exclamation in Kramer’s play is important, of course, but it’s much more nakedly political than Angels, more driven by the idea that we must rise up, rather than giving us the choice to.

Near the end of Perestroika, the second part of Angels in America, Prior Walter meets with a council of angels. This sequence is normally cut, but some of it is present in the National Theatre’s revival, which runs until September, and clocks in at over seven hours with intervals. The angels give Prior the option to die, if he wants to. Prior has AIDS, and has been living with the disease for around a year at this point. But still, Prior chooses to live. He says “bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.” Prior says he’s addicted to being alive, living past hope, and wonders “if it’s not braver to die.” But still, Prior lives. He is blessed with more life.

Being blessed with more life doesn’t turn Prior into an optimist, or an activist, or anything. He’s still Prior Walter. He says to Louis, his ex-boyfriend, “this is my life now, I’m not getting better.”

Prior does all he can with the life that he’s been blessed with. He lives. Simply living; with disease, with loss, with death, is what drives the characters in Angels. Whether its Prior living with AIDS, Joe Pitt coming to terms with his homosexuality, Harper living with addiction, these people try to live. Sometimes that’s all they can do.

It would be easy to make the characters activists. Lots of them are politically engaged. Louis and Belize, a nurse and drag queen, debate politics throughout the play, for better or worse. Belize says he hates America. “Nothing but a bunch of big ideas, and stories, and people dying. I live in America, Louis. I don’t have to love it.” The irony is, that Angels in America is big ideas, and stories, and people dying. In a way, that’s what the play has to be, since it’s about America, and that’s what America is.

But of course, that isn’t the only view of America that comes forward in the play, even if it is the one that seems to best describe the America that Angels takes place in. What Angels in America does so well, as a piece of theatre and as a piece of politics, is offer choices. It never tells the audience “this version of America is the America we want you to take away from the play,” or “this way of living is the best way of living,” or “this type of activism is most effective.” Instead it shows big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and lets the audience decide what matters about it, and, what to do when the lights come up.

The thing that stuns the angels the most is that humans keep moving. They try and get mankind to stay still, hoping it will bring God back to Heaven. Even their offer of death to Prior is described as a form of stasis, as the “Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation.” The world moves on, moves forward. Like Harper says on her night flight to San Francisco, chasing the moon across America, “in this world, there’s a kind of painful progress.” And there is pain in Angels in America, there almost has to be given the subject matter. But there’s progress too. Prior continues to live, Joe tries to live with himself, and Harper finds a sort of freedom at 35,000 feet. If Angels in America preaches any kind of activism, it’s that kind. That the world moves forward, and we have to move forward with it. We have to live, with ourselves, and with each other, and fight on with all the strength we can.

Of course, Kushner puts it much more eloquently than I can, and I couldn’t bear to cut any of it. It’s one of the few times that the audience are directly addressed, right at the end of the play, during a cold New York winter. Prior, still alive, still living with AIDS, gives something to audience, but they aren’t instructions:

“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

If the Great Work began at the end of Angels in America, it’s still in progress now. We have more life. We have to do something with it.