On October 31st, 1980, an HIV positive French-Canadian by the name of Gaetan Dugas arrived at a New York City bathhouse. These “bathhouses” as they were known, served as saunas for gay men to meet and engage in sexual activities. At the time of Dugas’ visit to New York City, the United States had only seen a few isolated cases of the AIDS virus and where unaware of the causation and effects of the virus. Unfortunately that was about to change, as Dugas entered the bathhouse scene and planted HIV among the gay community of New York City. Over the next few years, the cases of AIDS infection began to spike, particularly in the gay community. By the mid 80’s over a million Americans had an AIDS diagnosis and this previously unknown disease had become an epidemic.
In 1991 a playwright by the name of Tony Kushner premiered his three part play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco. The play centered around the lives of multiple characters with the AIDS virus. This production became very important as a way of giving more insight into the AIDS movement as it received critical response, generated political attention and inspired further adaptations of it’s powerful story.
Tony Kushner was the recipient of much critical praise after the opening of “Angels.” Written in three parts, the play was admired all the way through, even winning the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the first part of the play, “Millennium Approaches.” Audiences and critics alike were deeply affected by the emotional nature of the content that Kushner had presented. On May 5th of ’93, Frank Rich reviewed the production in the New York Times, stating “Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years.” He realized the importance place that the play held in society saying, “Angels in America speaks so powerfully because something far larger and more urgent than the future of the theater is at stake.” Rich, was of course referring to the ever escalating problem of the AIDS crisis in America. The play would also go on to win four of nine Tony nominations including Best Play, Best Actor in a Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play, and Best Direction of a play. The positive reaction to “Angels”, insured that the play was an important and relevant historical piece, and gave the AIDS movement a spotlight in American society. In 2003, Dan Odenwald of the Metro Weekly called Kushner’s masterpiece, “One of the most important pieces of theater in the 20th century.”
Another way the production of “Angels In America” brought attention to the aids movement was from the heavy level of political scrutiny that it faced. During the culture war of the 1990’s one of the biggest hot button issues was that of homosexuality. Opinions on the topic were varied, and usually polarizing. “Angels” outraged many in the conservative community who opposed the frank representation of AIDS in the production. In one instance that occurred in 1996, members of the community in Charlotte, North Carolina held protests outside of Booth Theatre was showing a Charlotte Repertory production of “Angels.” These protests led to funding cuts for The Arts and Sciences Council of Charlotte. The protests also sparked outrage from liberals, and created an even stronger dialogue about the AIDS epidemic in America. While not always positive, the increasing attention that the production generated only brightened the spotlight on the AIDS movement, proving that negative press isn’t always bad press.
Arguably one of the most important ways “Angels” is able to have such a lasting impact is the ability to transform Kushner’s piece into a story for different mediums. Since it’s release in 1993, “Angels” has been adapted multiple times including for film, and opera. In 2003, HBO turned “Angels” into a miniseries that included the great talent of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. The miniseries went on to win five Golden Globes and eleven Emmys. The film adaptation was received very well and maintains an 8/10 user scorre on IMDB. Composer, Peter Eotvos, as an Opera, also adapted Kushner’s script. “Angels in America – The Opera” premièred in Paris France at the Theatre du Chatelet in November of 2004. The Opera would continue to be performed in other European countries and as a live performance on PBS in 2005. These other adaptations of Kushner’s legendary script prove that the messages of “Angels” have had an immense effect. Kushner raised awareness to the AIDS crisis, and created a story that had the ability to translate to different mediums. These adaptations have furthered Kushner’s obejective to make the AIDS crisis more visible, as they have given many people the opportunity to see productions of “Angels” who have might not otherwise had the opportunity.
“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” is widely considered by critics and audiences to be one of the most important pieces of Theatre in the late 20th century. This play stands as a testament to the power that Theatre can have on the minds of people and society by generating strong critical and political responses, and inspiring other artists to create different ways of sharing the messages within.