To slake my need for sincerity, I’ve finally seen Angels in America. I am so done with cynicism. We need more media that isn’t afraid to be open and honest, which is to say, we need more media like Angels in America. This post is not a review because there is no need for me to add my voice to the critical and audience consensus that it is amazing. So instead, this is simply a collection of reactions. Spoilers follow, but seriously, just go see it.
As a writer, Angels in America scares me. It scares me because the absolute best writing sits on that raw edge of emotional intimacy, an edge which I am afraid to approach for fear of revealing something too personal about myself and for fear of looking ridiculous. Angels in America walks that edge without hesitation.
And what strikes me is how essential it is for a masterpiece like this to hit the intersection of great writing and great acting. The writing is beautiful, but in the wrong hands it could easily become silly and campy for the very same reasons it’s good: Because it’s so utterly sincere and because it never keeps anything at arm’s length. But the uniformly talented cast keeps it together, pulling you constantly into the emotions of the moment so that, even in the play’s exaggerated fantasy sequences, you never have a chance to wonder if what’s happening onscreen (or onstage) is a little bit goofy.
No wonder actors love this play: It’s full of monologues. Monologues have fallen out of fashion as media has moved towards realism, because they’re not a realistic type of speech. But adhering to strict verity in dialogue does a work a disservice, because the point of fictional media — books, movies, and plays — is not realism. It’s truth. And, as every fiction writer knows, truth and reality are not the same thing. Angels in America, with its six-hour runtime, gives its characters ample time to explore and elaborate on ideas in ways that ordinary dialogue does not allow.
This dichotomy between truth and reality also plays out within the story. Prior struggles with the fear that he’s losing his mind as he tries to figure out if his visions are real or imaginary, but in the end, he finds his peace not by addressing the reality of the message, but by addressing its truth. We never do find out if the angels are real or not, because that isn’t the point.
If Angels in America has a flaw, it’s being a product of its time (the late 80’s to early 90’s) and of its movement (the gay rights movement). Which is to say, it’s pretty heavy on the white guys. Harper is well-developed, but Hannah, the only other important female character, is primarily part of Joe’s and Prior’s stories, and I can’t help noticing that Belize, the only character of color, is also the only male character who doesn’t have an arc. Still, topics like race and especially religion are handled well and the play is sensitive to all its characters.
And it’s about the only play I’ve ever seen, certainly the only miniseries I’ve ever seen, that ends with a benediction.
One last observation: Louis is a jerk. I hate that brand of self-flagellation where your own failure to be a decent person becomes the reason you think you deserve pity. Prior is right not to take him back. (It’s interesting — and refreshing — that a story with such prominent themes of love and hope ends with everyone single.)