Angels in America and England

Last night, a live performance of London’s National Theatre production of Angels in America was broadcast to movie theaters across the U.S. Angels has always had a special tie to London; it had a pre-Broadway run at the National Theatre in the early 1990s. That Angels found one of its earliest theatrical homes in England surprises for a play that is so, well, American. If God ever comes back, Prior instructs the inhabitants of heaven, in one of the play’s indelible lines, they “should sue the bastard.” The more British approach might be to send a strongly worded letter to the proper authorities, or to grumble without doing much of anything at all.

But, as the National Theatre’s production reveals, revisiting Millennium Approaches and Perestroika in our current end times introduces another kind of incoherence.  “The world only spins forward” the play defiantly announces. Come again? “We have no system of universal health care, we don’t educate our children, we can’t pass sane gun control laws,” Tony Kushner wrote in a 1993 article, when Ronald Reagan was the standard for a Republican president. Right now, the notion of having a standard at all seems quaint. England, amidst the waning of social democracy in Europe, confronts its own bewildering chaos: call it Brexitroika. Pleas that it gets better have crumbled everywhere, it can seem, into prayers that it won’t get worse.

Cue the angels. Kushner’s “Fantasia on National Themes” has, since this past spring, returned to the South Bank of the Thames, with Nathan Lane spewing bile as communist baiter Roy Cohn, unmistakably familiar in his philistinism and hatred. Andrew Garfield, tremulous and beautiful, climbs the walls as Prior, afflicted with AIDS and having angelic visions. More than just passably gay, the erstwhile Spiderman actor is aflame, wrapped like Little Edie of Grey Gardens in a fetching black cape shrieking that he is a PROPHET. The production, in other words, is fabulous; I haven’t even mentioned the pink neon! But the play’s soaring belief in progress risks landing flatly in our changed world, let alone in England.

Yet, we shouldn’t be hardened to our miracles: AIDS now seems like a bad dream to younger gay men. And even beyond that particular form of grace, the play can still sustain our hopes, even, just maybe, our hopes for politics. Angels parades a distinctly American kind of muscular optimism: a delightful early Australian review compares Angels to a “fantastically formed, hyper-masculine, strong and physically adorable” American visitor—“let’s call him Todd”—with a lot of opinions and “angryactivistloudaboutit.” The play (sorry, “Todd”) is unabashedly hardheaded. Kushner himself wrote, after all, in what he has called a “terrifying and galvanizing time.” But how does this fractured faith in America, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, play out in England: a country where everything can often seem already coated in a thin layer of disappointment? “Happy Christmas!” I heard a shop assistant tell a woman in London last year. “Let’s hope so” was her response. That sounds like Hannah, the stony-faced Mormon mother around whom, improbably, Prior and the play itself take a new lease on life. But at least she believes in Angels.

Some things inevitably get lost in translation upon reversing course from Salt Lake City to Plymouth Rock to England’s green and pleasant land. When I saw Part Two, a line that would have tickled Broadway—when Louis imagines his disappointed parents saying “He’s a fag, he’s an office temp, and now look, he’s saying Kaddish for Roy Cohn”—elicited lone yelps of pleasure from a pair of American women seated a row ahead of me (one of whom I tried to convince myself was, but who in fact was not, Meryl Streep). But even in England, a country where, ever ubiquitous Jehovah’s Witnesses notwithstanding, bibles don’t exactly proliferate, the point gets across. When the Angel proclaims her message, she not only reveals the lofty promises of religion as hollow and inadequate to the task, but a more pernicious agenda: calling for an end to progress, migration, motion, life itself. “‘Don’t migrate’? ‘Don’t mingle’? That’s kind of malevolent, isn’t it” Belize tells Prior. The Angel of Death she may not be, but the Angel of Brexit she most certainly is.

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On my way to a preview of Part Two back in May, I ran into some anarchists. Passing through central London was the tail-end of a May Day celebration, of the kind that I attended back when the fears of anti-capitalist protest could preemptively board up a Starbucks. What looked like a remnant of May Day march was in fact that march itself. The tub-thumping anarchists, ragtag youth in Guido masks, and random crusties with cans of cider were at least equaled in number by bemused police officers in yellow jackets. On my arrival to the other side of the Thames, I ran into a communist. Perestroika begins with an incantation from Aleskii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik. “You who live in this Sour Little Age cannot imagine the grandeur of the prospect we gazed upon” he intones. “And what have you to offer now, children of this Theory? […] Market Incentives? American Cheeseburgers?” (Such a disappointment, these children). The next day, I gave a talk about apocalyptic dread and the disappearance of viable leftist alternatives, amidst talk about the possible dissolution of the Labour party in Britain: the title was “The End of Politics and the End of the World.”

What a difference a May makes. Theresa May had recently called June’s general election thinking that defeat of Labour (and perhaps the defeat of progressive politics for a generation) was a done deal. A few weeks later, May’s Conservative Party were clinging onto power, aided only by a grubby deal with the United Kingdom’s most homophobic religious-political faction. Labour, meanwhile, appeared gloriously resurgent, under the demurely radical leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The Oldest Living Bolshevik may have had a not too distant cousin in Corbyn, an old school leftist in sensible trousers, quietly plotting revolution from his North London allotment. Politics, it turns out, might keep moving forwards after all, even in England.

Forward momentum or not, the stench of death has been in the air this English summertime. And so has the nastily familiar sense that some lives matter than others. Grenfell Tower was mostly inhabited by non-white UK nationals and recent immigrants. While their city council members plucked strawberries at their country homes, these residents worried about fire safety in their block of London council flats. They did the British thing and wrote strongly worded letters to the proper authorities; they were left to burn alive. The tower block had recently been encased in materials that made the building look less like what it was—a public housing project—at a good price. The council had made sure of that. They did not care to notice, or noticed and did not care, that in using a cheaper, flammable material they had created a death trap. Around 80 died when the building was engulfed in flames after a refrigerator caught fire last month. This was, in part, a manmade disaster. Conspiracy theories have put the number of dead much higher, as many as two or three hundred. Unfounded reports have circulated in the local community that forty unreported Muslims perished in a room together as they prayed for Ramadan.

Rage and injustice can make you see things. The AIDS crisis, too, was, in part, a manmade disaster. Kushner’s play makes its rage and injustice the crucible for prophecy. Did the divine presence still walk on “England’s mountains green”? asked William Blake in “Jerusalem.” That poem has become an all-too-trite little-England-celebrating hymn. But Blake was also a radical prophet who railed against Mammon and “dark Satanic mills”—the Youngest Living Bolshevik. “I will not cease from Mental Fight,” Blake wrote, in the part that gets droned away in the hymn-singing “Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand; Till we have built Jerusalem, In Englands green & pleasant Land.” If God does come back, we should probably still sue the bastard.

In the meantime we get on with things. Carrying on is what Brits do, or so they tell us. It’s certainly what the nurses do. Angels’ nurse character Belize, caring for dying AIDS patients to the end, is the beating purple (sorry, mauve) heart of Kushner’s play: tough, fabulous, and kind. And this angel gets all the best lines. “You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital,” Belize tells Louis, in the play’s most searing speech: “I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy, and mean.” Things have recently felt more terminal than usual. Where Louis has his theories and justice, Belize tells us to keep fierce and carry on. “I live in America,” he tells Louis, “that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it.” But he does live there. And because he does, so can the rest of us.

There are no angels in England, either. But there are plenty of nurses. The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics had scenes of dark satanic mills and England’s mountains green. But at the heart of this Fantasia on National Themes were thousands of nurses, spinning brilliantly white hospital beds into the initials of our other national religion: the National Health Service. For all that we grumble, the British keep our own fractured faith in our national services. Or so it always seemed. When I first read the play as an undergraduate in England, British society seemed secure and America seemed alluringly vast and incomprehensible. Now things everywhere seem shrunken and mean. But even watching from a country that doesn’t really do optimism, Angels in America still maintains its capacity to galvanize. And American muscle aside (sorry, “Todd”), the play may even expand its wingspan at a time when, all over the globe, things are cracking up, once again.

–John Havard teaches in New York. He is finishing a book on the origins of political disaffection.