Born from the AIDS crisis and forged in the crucible of staged readings, workshops and multiple productions, “Angels in America” stirred excitement from its first public presentation of a very rough draft in San Francisco in 1989. A sensation in London in 1992 and on Broadway in 1993, Tony Kushner’s epic two-part drama has only grown in stature in the ensuing 25 years. It redefined what theater could be at the end of the 20th century, and it continues to be staged around the world. Kushner’s capacious script easily accommodates reinterpretations such as the National Theatre’s post-apocalyptic production starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, which moves to Broadway this month.
A full-bodied portrait of “Angels” and the many people who nurtured it emerges from “The World Only Spins Forward,” a vivid, intelligently organized oral history by writer/director Isaac Butler and journalist Dan Kois. The co-authors avoid a common pitfall of oral history — reprinting gossip that is neither fact-checked nor challenged — by scrupulously including various points of view on such contentious subjects as the recasting of parts as the play moved toward Broadway. Many of the hundreds of interviews they conducted in 2016-17 necessarily express opinions formed in hindsight. These are fleshed out with judicious excerpts from contemporary press coverage and a journal kept by an actor in the original workshop, as well as some marvelously evocative photos.
A snapshot of a bearded Kushner brandishing a sign reading “Killed by Bigotry” at an ACT UP rally captures the mood of defiance, rage and fear in which he conceived the play. It was written in outraged reaction to the conservative backlash that put Ronald Reagan in the White House and stigmatized AIDS as a divine punishment. Yet the recollections of his earliest collaborators at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, which commissioned “Angels” in 1986, make it clear that from the beginning Kushner intended to write something more expansive than a protest play. “OUR SYSTEMS ARE BREAKING DOWN: AIDS — the OZONE — the GOVERNMENT — and GOD HAS DISAPPEARED!” reads a poster for the Eureka’s 1989 staged reading. This replaced a planned full production because Kushner was nowhere near finished and had just decided to split the play into two parts. It proved impossible to cram into one evening everything he had to say about political and religious conviction, personal commitment and failure, judgment and forgiveness, the fear of death and the possibility of transcendence.
Kushner was striving for nothing less than an assessment of the American experience and the human condition, but “Angels” is not only a drama of ideas. The vitality of the people he created is palpable in the interludes devoted to each of the eight principal characters that punctuate the chronological narrative. Many of the parts were written with particular actors in mind, and three remained in the play from San Francisco to Broadway: Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter, who has AIDS; Kathleen Chalfant as Hannah Pitt, mother of a conservative Mormon lawyer; Ellen McLaughlin as the Angel.
From shrewd comments by the actors and directors, we learn that many people involved with “Angels” believe that Louis, often the play’s most unlikable character, has much in common with Kushner himself, and that the final resolution for Joe, the Mormon lawyer, is the only instance of the playwright’s empathy partly failing him. Even the monstrous Roy Cohn gets a (heavily qualified) benediction. It’s clear from this book that one of Kushner’s most extraordinary qualities as an artist is that he doesn’t just accept human flaws and contradictions, he relishes them.
The playwright was forever revising, to the despair of directors looking toward opening night and desperate for a final script. Directors also had to contend with his brutally candid and voluminous feedback on their work. A hilarious photo shows the fax machine in director Declan Donnellan’s London apartment spewing out a blizzard of paper containing Kushner’s notes on a run-through he hated. “[Tony] cares very, very much, and he has a very, very clear vision of what he wants,” says Donnellan.
But despite that perfectionism, Kushner remained receptive to input from his actors. When Jeffrey Wright expressed reservations during rehearsals for the Broadway production, Kushner returned with a new scene to address them. (Throughout the book, Kois and Bulter helpfully insert relevant dialogue from the script, which has the added benefit of underscoring Kushner’s dazzling way with words.)
Without in any way diminishing the exceptional quality of Kushner’s singular vision, Kois and Butler remind us that “Angels in America” was the result of a collective creative process. The book amply justifies their conviction that “writing a history of Angels as a collage of voices and sources in conversation with each other felt like the only way to tell its story.” Their own vision ensures that this book is more than just the masterful story of one brilliant play. “The World Only Moves Forward” demonstrates the essentially collaborative nature of theater as an art form.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
By Isaac Butler and Dan Kois
Bloomsbury USA. 448 pp. $30