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Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

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Title: Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes  
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Subject: Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Bayeux Tapestry, Compass Players, Roy Cohn, Tony Kushner, Jason Isaacs, Flatbush, Brooklyn, Ben Shenkman, Helen Hayes Awards Resident Acting, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama
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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
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

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a 1993[1] Pulitzer Prize-winning play in two parts by American playwright Tony Kushner. The two parts of the play are separately presentable and entitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, respectively. The play 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 – An agoraphobic 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, clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, and friend of 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 HIV and the disease has progressed to AIDS, which he insists is liver cancer 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 and execution. She is traditionally played by the same actress as Hannah Pitt.

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.

There are also a series of supporting and minor characters played by the core eight actors:

Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz– An elderly orthodox Rabbi. He performs the funeral service for Louis' grandmother in Act one of Millennium Approaches and gives him advice on his situation with Prior. Played by the same actress as Hannah.

Mr. Lies– One of Harper's imaginary friends. A smooth talking agent for the International Order of Travel Agents. Played by the same actor as Belize.

Emily– A smart-mouthed nurse who attends to Prior. Played by the same actress as The Angel.

Henry– Roy Cohn's doctor, who diagnoses him with AIDS. Played by the same actress as Hannah.

Martin Heller– A flackman to the Reagan Administration's Justice Department and Roy's toady. Played by the same actress as Harper

Prior 1 and Prior 2– The ghosts of two of Prior Walter's ancestors. Prior 1 was a gloomy Yorkshire farmer from the thirteenth century while Prior 2 was a seventeenth century British aristocrat. They both arrive to herald The Angel's arrival. Played by the same actors as Joe and Roy, respectively.

The Man in The Park– A gay prostitute Louis has sex with in Central Park. Played by the same actor as Prior.

Sister Ella Chapter– Hannah's realtor friend who helps her sell her house. Played by the same actress as The Angel.

The Woman in the South Bronx– A crazed homeless woman Hannah encounters when she arrives in New York. Played by the same Actress as The Angel.

The Eskimo– An imaginary friend in Harper's Antarctic hallucination. Played by the same actor as Joe.

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov– "The World's Oldest Living Bolshevik", whose speech in the opening of Perestroika sets up the theme of whether the world should continue to move forward. Played by the same actress as Hannah.

Mormon Family– A mannequin family in the Diorama Room of the Mormon's Visitor Center where Hannah and Harper volunteer. The Father resembles Joe, and later becomes him in Harper's delusions. The Mother comes to life in Harper's imagination and speaks to her. She is played by the same actress as The Angel. The two sons, Caleb and Orr, are voiced offstage by the same actors as Belize and The Angel respectively.

The Continental Principalities– The Angel Council Prior confronts in Heaven. They are in charge of both Heaven and Earth after God's desertion. They are the Angels of Europa (played by the actor playing Joe), Africanii (played by the actor playing Harper), Oceania (played by the actor playing Belize), Asiatica (played by the actor playing Hannah), Australia (played by the actor playing Louis), and Antarctica (played by the actor playing Roy).

Sarah Ironson– Louis' dead grandmother whom Prior meets in Heaven playing cards with the Rabbi. Played by the same actor as Louis.


Set in New York City in 1985, the play opens with Louis Ironson, a gay Jew, learning that his lover, WASP Prior Walter, has AIDS. As the play and Prior's illness progress, Louis becomes unable to cope with the emotional stress and moves out. Meanwhile, closeted homosexual Mormon and Republican Joe Pitt, a law clerk in the same judge's office where Louis holds a clerical job, is offered a major job opportunity 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 espionage. He uses his connections to procure a massive stash of AZT. As he lies alone in the hospital, dying of AIDS, the ghost of Rosenberg sings him the Yiddish lullaby "Tumbalalaika," 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. Meanwhile, Belize informs Louis that Joe is "Roy Cohn's buttboy," leading Louis to search in the judicial archives and discover the extremely reactionary judicial opinions of which Joe is the actual author. Louis confronts Joe with these; in the ensuing argument, Joe strikes Louis and bloodies his face, after which Louis attempts unsuccessfully to have Prior take him back.

The play ends on a note of optimism. After Cohn dies and Prior's friends procure for him a share of Cohn's supply 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. Harper seems to have regained some, if not all, of her sanity and informs Joe that she is taking his credit cards and moving to San Francisco, a city which has been compared in various ways to Heaven in the course of the play.

The play is deliberately performed so that the moments requiring special effects often show their theatricality. Most of the actors play multiple characters. 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 National Theatre production of part one of the play.

The play's first part, Millennium Approaches, was commissioned by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, with which Kushner has a long association. It was first performed in Los Angeles as a workshop in May 1990 by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum.

Millennium Approaches received its world premiere in May 1991 in a production performed by the Eureka Theatre Company of San Francisco, directed by David Esbjornson.[2] In London it premiered in a National Theatre production at the Cottesloe Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan.[3] Henry Goodman played Cohn, Nick Reding played Joe, Felicity Montagu played Harper, Marcus D'Amico played Louis, and Sean Chapman played Prior.[3] Opening on 23 January 1992, the London production ran for a year. In November 1992 it visited Düsseldorf as part of the first Union des Théâtres de l'Europe festival.[4]

The play's 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 in 1991), 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. In November 1993 it received its London debut at the National Theatre, in repertory with a revival of Millennium Approaches, again directed by Declan Donnellan.[4] 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 for Best Supporting Actor, and Stephen Dillane played Prior.[4]

The entire two-part play debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, directed by George C. Wolfe, with Millennium Approaches performed on May 4 and Perestroika joining it in repertory on November 23, closing December 4, 1994. 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). Millennium Approaches and Perestroika were awarded, in 1993 and 1994 respectively, both the Tony Awards for Best Play and 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.[5] He made additional revisions to Perestroika during a run at the Signature Theatre in 2010. That production was directed by Michael Greif and featured Christian Borle as Prior, Zachary Quinto as Louis, Billy Porter as Belize, Bill Heck as Joe, Zoe Kazan as Harper, Robin Bartlett as Hannah, Frank Wood as Roy, and Robin Weigert as the angel.[6]

A Canadian production by Soulpepper Theatre Company in 2013 and 2014 starred Damien Atkins as Prior Walter, Gregory Prest as Louis, Mike Ross as Joe, Diego Matamoros as Roy and Nancy Palk as Hannah, Ethel Rosenberg and the rabbi.[7]

"Millennium Approaches" made its Edinburgh Fringe Festival debut, in a production by St Andrews based Mermaids Theatre, in August 2013 to critical acclaim.

Asia premiered the play in its entirety in November 2014 at the Singapore Airlines Theatre.[8]


Kushner prefers that the theatricality be transparent. In the "Playwright's Notes" he writes: "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..." Kushner is an admirer of Brecht, who practiced a style of theatrical production whereby audiences were often reminded that they were in a theatre. The choice to have "no blackouts" allows audiences to participate in the construction of a malleable theatrical world.

One of the many theatrical devices in Angels is that each of the eight main actors has one or several other minor roles in the play. For example, the actor playing the nurse, Emily, also plays the Angel, Sister Ella Chapter (a real estate agent), and a homeless woman. This doubling and tripling of roles encourages the audience to consider the elasticity of, for example, gender and sexual identities.



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") 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.

Critical reception

Angels in America received numerous awards, including the 1993 and 1994 Tony Awards for Best Play. The play's first part, Millennium Approaches, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play garnered much praise upon its release for its dialogue and exploration of social issues. “Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years,” wrote The New York Times.[9]

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.”[10]

By contrast, in an essay titled "Angles in America", Lee Siegel wrote in The New Republic, "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."[11]

Conservative reaction

In response to the frank treatment of homosexuality and AIDS, and brief male nudity, the play quickly became subject to controversial reaction from conservative and religious groups, sometimes labelled as being part of the "culture war".[12] In Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1996, there were protests held outside a production of the play by the theater company Charlotte Repertory Theater which was at the Booth Theater.[13][14] This led to funding cuts for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte, the city's arts funding agency, in the following year.[15][16]

Awards and nominations

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. ^
  2. ^ "The Public Theater at Stanford Presents: Artistic Team". The Bacchae. Stanford University. 2007. Archived from the original on 10 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  3. ^ a b From the programme to the RNT's production of Millennium Approaches in 1992.
  4. ^ a b c From the programme to the RNT's production of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika in 1993.
  5. ^ Kusher, Tony. Angels in America: Parts 1 & 2, Nick Hern Books, London, 2007
  6. ^ Dziemianowicz, Joe (29 October 2010). Angels in America' review: Zachary Quinto flies high in perfect revival of Tony Kushner play"'". NY Daily News. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  7. ^ "Theatre Review: Soulpepper’s Angels in America is heaven sent". National Post, August 8, 2013.
  8. ^ "Angels in America Part 1 and Part 2, LASALLE College of the Arts Events page. Accessed 11 October 2014.
  9. ^ The New York Times . 
  10. ^ "Soaring Angels: Angels in America on HBO: TV section". Metro Weekly. 2003-12-04. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  11. ^ Angles in America
  12. ^ Tannenbaum, Pery (7 April 2009). "Southern Rapture recalls the local Angels in America flap". Charlotte Creative Loafing. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  13. ^ "A Question of Morality: Artists' Values and Public Funding for the Arts". Public Administration Review 65 (1): 8–17. 2005. JSTOR 3542577. doi:10.2307/3542577. 
  14. ^ Sack, Kevin (22 March 1996). "Play Displays a Growing City's Cultural Tensions". New York Times. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  15. ^ Dobrzynsky, Judith H. (14 August 1997). "Across U.S., Brush Fires Over Money for the Arts". New York Times. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  16. ^ "County Strikes At Arts Council Over Gay Play". New York Times. 3 April 1997. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  17. ^ a b "Fund For New American Plays" Kennedy Center, accessed April 25, 2011
  18. ^ "Pulitzer Prize, Drama", accessed April 25, 2011

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