Angels in America

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As we wrap up our discussion of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in today’s Writing New York lecture, we’ll be talking in part about what Kushner gets out of incorporating historical figures such as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg into his play. Readers who want to get a handle on what Cohn meant in 1988, right about the time Kushner’s play begins to gestate, might check out Cohn’s Life magazine obit. In terms of New York City cultural history, the play situates Cohn most closely within the story of the Rosenberg executions; another place to turn is Cohn’s close association, in the 70s, with the owners of Studio 54 (pictured above). Certainly an individual full of contradictions.

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We’re closing in on the end of our Writing New York semester with some texts that explore utopian and dystopian elements of New York City at the end of the 20th century and start of the 21st. When we first taught this course in 2003, most students hadn’t seen Kushner’s Angels in America because they had been too young for its Broadway run. The HBO version hadn’t been made yet, either. But now we’ve seen both that adaptation and a Broadway revival and can reflect on two decades’ worth of the play’s impact on our culture:

When Angels premiered, critics hailed it as bringing salvation to the declining American theater — and to Broadway in particular. Our Cambridge Companion contributor Robin Bernstein quotes the critic John Clum on the play’s role in reframing American literature in relation to gay culture: the play marked “a turning point in the history of gay drama, the history of American drama, and of American literary culture … remov[ing] from the closet once and for all the enlivening relationship of gay culture and American theater and the centrality of the homosexual gaze in American literature.”

We’re now accustomed to see Kushner as a literary giant of the new millennium:

I haven’t seen that 2007 documentary. Have you? Any thoughts you’d like to share on Kushner’s place in American literature at the turn of the 21st century?

Here’s our post from last year offering a round-up of our Angels-related blog content over the years.

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We’re nearing the end of the semester in our Writing New York class. Many years we’ve concluded with Kushner’s Angels in America. This year we still have Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker to discuss, and so this morning I don’t feel quite the relief I often do when finishing my lectures on Angels. Still, it’s one of my favorite texts we teach in this course.

We’ve built up quite a few posts on Kushner’s play over the last few years. Here are a few of the highlights: Last year Cyrus supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting and on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this one, too, on that score). I’ve offered my own thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience, and a year earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene.

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