Kushner’s Premieres on Broadway

With its rich variety of characters and its determination to address social problems and the AIDS crisis, Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America was widely hailed as the most original work on Broadway in the 1990’s.

Summary of Event

With its subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America announces its aspirations to supernatural, sexual, and political commentary. For that portion of the Broadway audience in the early 1990’s that hungered for serious nonmusical plays, the two parts of Angels in America provided a serious meditation on social upheaval at the end of the millennium, the struggles of an unlikely coalition of minorities (gays, Jews, and Mormons) to preserve their dignity and identity, the consequences of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) crisis, the abuse of justice in American society, and the need for acceptance—of AIDS victims and gays, of sharp political differences, and of human mortality. HIV/AIDS[HIV AIDS] Even more startlingly, in a commercial theater not known for its sensitive treatment of religious issues, Angels in America explored the transcendental meaning of human suffering and the possibility of divine intervention, in the form of angelic messages from heaven and ghostly appearances, and pondered the sobering notion of God’s disappearance. Angels in America (Kushner)
Millennium Approaches (Kushner)
Perestroika (Kushner)
[kw]Kushner’s Angels in America Premieres on Broadway (May 4 and Nov. 23, 1993)
[kw]Angels in America Premieres on Broadway, Kushner’s (May 4 and Nov. 23, 1993)
[kw]Premieres on Broadway, Kushner’s Angels in America (May 4 and Nov. 23, 1993)
[kw]Broadway, Kushner’s Angels in America Premieres on (May 4 and Nov. 23, 1993)
Angels in America (Kushner)
Millennium Approaches (Kushner)
Perestroika (Kushner)
[g]North America;May 4 and Nov. 23, 1993: Kushner’s Angels in America Premieres on Broadway[08600]
[g]United States;May 4 and Nov. 23, 1993: Kushner’s Angels in America Premieres on Broadway[08600]
[c]Theater;May 4 and Nov. 23, 1993: Kushner’s Angels in America Premieres on Broadway[08600]
Kushner, Tony
Cohn, Roy M.
Rosenberg, Ethel

The play interweaves a rich collection of fictional characters, including an AIDS victim who is given a prophetic role by an angel and a gay Mormon Republican lawyer who is torn by conflicting values, with vivid historical characters: Roy M. Cohn, the American lawyer and power broker, and, with a deft Shakespearean touch, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the American housewife who was tried and executed for passing nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. Like William Shakespeare’s Richard III, the dying Cohn is visited by an otherworldly nemesis: Rosenberg comes to haunt Cohn for sending her to the electric chair but stays to say the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, for Cohn when he is in the last stages of his deathbed agony.

Angels in America was originally commissioned by the Eureka Theatre Company, Eureka Theatre Company and the two parts were performed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London before settling in on Broadway. Part one of Angels in America, titled Millennium Approaches (pr. 1991), opened on Broadway on May 4, 1993, and then was joined, in repertory, by part two, Perestroika (pr. 1992), on November 23, 1993. With the success of Millennium Approaches on Broadway, Kushner persisted in revisions of Perestroika until its opening a half year later. Nothing is resolved in Millennium Approaches, which elaborately sets up the exposition for Perestroika; the promised angelic intervention occurs in Millennium Approaches only as the curtain falls and is revealed in full in the second play. Perestroika contains the three richest scenes in the two parts but retains signs of hasty revision and ends on an ambivalent note of cosmic optimism.

Angels in America contains four main plots. Two of these show the deterioration of a pair of relationships: In the first, a gay couple, Prior Walter and Louis Ironson, separate when Ironson is frightened by the onslaught of AIDS in Walter; in the second, a Mormon married couple, Joe Pitt and his wife, Harper, are broken apart by Joe’s neglect of his wife, his slow recognition of his homosexuality, and Harper’s subsequent dependence on drugs and escape into a fantasy life. The third plot deals with Cohn’s refusal to accept his diagnosis of AIDS and his own physical deterioration and disbarment after a notorious career as a lawyer. The fourth plot deals with a series of supernatural interventions, including the angel who appoints Walter as a prophet, the fantasy figure (“Mr. Lies”) who visits Harper in her drug-induced euphoria, and the ghost of Rosenberg.

Millennium Approaches sets up the exposition, and Perestroika impressively pulls together the various plots. The first part ends with the arrival of the long-promised supernatural intervention; the second ends with the hope of eventual healing. Cohn is gone, but Walter has survived five years after the onset of AIDS, and there is a hint that he and Ironson may be reconciled. Various other characters, such as Joe Pitt’s pious Mormon mother, Hannah, and a male nurse and drag queen, Belize, help to connect the main plots.

Tony Kushner.

(Columbia University/Courtesy Jay Thompson)

It was audacious of Kushner to link the AIDS crisis in the gay community of the 1980’s with the anxieties and expectations concerning the millennium in the 1990’s. His decision to include the historical figure of Roy Cohn among a set of invented characters created some controversy, but the choice pays off with the emergence of a great comic villain. Because the main plot follows Ironson’s inability to deal with the advent of AIDS in his lover, it makes good dramatic sense to add a character such as Cohn, who seems historically to have denied to the end that he was gay and that he had AIDS. One of Cohn’s biographers, Nicholas von Hoffman, quotes him as saying, “There would be no reason to stick around and live if I had AIDS, so I don’t.”

Cohn is largely remembered among liberals as a bogey figure, famous as a prosecutor for winning the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and for his role as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy McCarthy, Joseph during the Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn had a deep hatred for Ethel Rosenberg, even though most legal scholars now see her role in the case as secondary, and he is widely suspected of using illegal influence over the judge in his effort to secure the executions of both Rosenbergs. As a gay Jewish playwright living in an age more sympathetic to, but still uneasy about, homosexuality, Kushner grasped the dramatic potential of a contradictory figure such as Cohn.

The complex sources of the play include biographies of Cohn, the Book of Mormon, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and the angelic visions of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. The play favors the overwrought emotions and improbable coincidences of nineteenth century melodrama, and the vivid characterization of Cohn resembles both the villains of melodrama and the “trickster” character in folk literature. When Walter, at the urging of Joe Pitt’s mother, wrestles with the angel who has come to invest him with prophetic powers, the playwright taps into the Old Testament story (in Genesis 32) of Jacob wrestling with the angel: “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him there till daybreak. . . . The man said, ’Let me go, for day is breaking,’ but Jacob replied, ’I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” Walter demands of the angel, “Bless me anyway. I want more life.” The blessing is playfully inverted in the scene where Cohn, on his deathbed, tricks the ghost of Rosenberg into providing him with the blessing on the dying, the Kaddish.


Even before its premiere on Broadway, Angels in America was widely praised for its richness, complexity, and vivid theatricality, and enthusiastic reports from the National Theatre production in London created high expectations for the Broadway production. Audiences enjoyed the vivid characterizations and the flair of George C. Wolfe’s Wolfe, George C. direction. Theater critics were generally highly enthusiastic about the play, praising it for its willingness to confront American problems and anxieties on the edge of the next millennium. The reviewer for The New York Times called Millennium Approaches “the most thrilling American play in years” and argued that Perestroika serves as “a stunning resolution” of the issues raised in the first part. The Broadway production won several Tony Awards, Tony Awards and Millennium Approaches earned for Kushner a Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;drama in 1993.

Angels in America reawakened hopes that Broadway, which had witnessed the great plays of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, would once again stage plays of complex ideas and cosmic scope. Angels in America is especially unusual in breaking with the predominant form of spoken plays since the 1930’s, the realistic middle-class drama, for which playwrights such as Williams and Arthur Miller had set a high standard in the 1940’s. In some ways, Angels in America is closer to older historical plays such as Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (pr. 1938) than to the more narrowly focused domestic plays of Miller and Williams.

Angels in America rejects the psychological credibility of “method acting,” dominant on Broadway since the 1940’s, in favor of a broadly comic and melodramatic style of acting. In his flamboyant villainy, the play’s Cohn seems closer to Shakespeare’s wicked kings or Charles Dickens’s villains than to the more familiar tormented introverts of Williams, Miller, and Edward Albee. The angels, meeting in heaven, speak in a kind of Whitmanesque discourse, while the earthly characters speak in a rich polyglot, including the pious Mormon platitudes of Hannah Pitt, the Yiddishisms of Ironson and the rabbi who officiates at the funeral of his grandmother, the “girl talk” of Belize, the anguished moral confusion of Joe Pitt (who mixes pious Mormon talk with the bromides of Reaganite conservatism), and the boisterous profanity of Cohn.

The three most theatrically effective scenes in Angels in America come in Perestroika. The first is a flashback in which Walter explains to Belize how the angel crashed through his ceiling (the moment shown as the climax of Millennium Approaches) to charge him with his prophetic commission to reveal that the “Great Work” has begun. The second takes place in the Mormon Visitor’s Center in New York, where Hannah Pitt and Walter (who is there to investigate angels) join the delusional Harper Pitt in watching the diorama of the Mormon pioneers’ trek across America. To their surprise, the roles of the mechanical pioneers are usurped by Joe Pitt and Ironson. The scene links the plot elements of the abandoned wife and gay lover with the themes of Mormon rectitude and the possibility of supernatural intervention.

The third notably effective scene, that of Cohn’s death, successfully mixes pathos and comedy. The ghost of Rosenberg tells the dying Cohn of his disbarment and offers to forgive him for sending her to the electric chair. In his delusion, Cohn calls Rosenberg “Ma” and asks her to sing. Rosenberg provides a Yiddish lullaby and thinks Cohn is dead, but in the tradition of the folk trickster, Cohn pops up and says, “I fooled you Ethel, I knew who you were all along. . . . I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing!” Only then, after this heroic burst of energy, does Cohn fall back and die. The scene is so startling that the play’s final act, which ties up a number of loose plot elements, runs the danger of being anticlimactic.

Audiences generally responded enthusiastically to the play’s epic grandeur and buoyant engagement of such widely disparate topics as the AIDS epidemic and angelic intervention. Some of the mainstream Broadway audience found the play “too gay,” but others understood that Kushner was adding to the efforts of gay playwrights such as Larry Kramer, Kramer, Larry Harvey Fierstein, Fierstein, Harvey and Terrence McNally McNally, Terrence in bringing gay culture into the mainstream in Broadway plays. Others took exception to the play’s apparent Mormon bashing, to the simulated episodes of gay sex, and to the relentless obscenity of Roy Cohn’s language.

The weaknesses of the play include the sprawling and diffuse plot, which relies heavily on coincidence: For example, one of Walter’s earlier lovers, Belize, improbably turns up as the nurse for the dying Cohn. The play’s opposing moral poles, the prophetic Walter and the demonic Cohn, are never shown together. The play’s depiction of heaven is unpersuasive, and it seems a remarkable admission of defeat that Kushner lists as optional three scenes set in heaven in the final act of Perestroika.

Angels in America, which had undergone a long period of gestation in productions before arriving on Broadway, reminds audiences jaded by high-tech movie special effects of the power of theater when it is willing to entrust the discussion of great contemporary themes to vivid characters who use distinctive styles of speech. The play has a frank dependence on melodramatic devices but also a willingness to contemplate the possibility of divine interaction with human affairs. What reporter and AIDS activist Randy Shilts Shilts, Randy said of the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s was true of Angels in America in the 1990’s: “The AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice . . . and redemption as well as despair.” Kushner’s epic play helped to advance tolerance of homosexuality, compassion for AIDS victims, and awareness of the need for understanding, forgiveness, and “more life.” Angels in America (Kushner)
Millennium Approaches (Kushner)
Perestroika (Kushner)

Further Reading

  • Berkowitz, Gerald M. American Drama of the Twentieth Century. London: Longman, 1992. Provides an excellent overview of the work of U.S. playwrights just prior to the emergence of Kushner. Stresses American drama’s long dependence on realism and domestic issues and suggests the need for more experimental approaches.
  • Cohn, Roy. The Autobiography of Roy Cohn. Edited by Sidney Zion. Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart, 1988. Cohn’s life story in his own words. Zion labels Cohn “one of the most fascinating characters imaginable.”
  • Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches. Part Two: Perestroika. 1993/1994. Reprint. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Both parts of Kushner’s sprawling work available in this single volume. Includes photographs from productions.
  • Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Presents an exhaustive study of the evidence against the Rosenbergs. Asserts that Julius Rosenberg was “the coordinator of an extensive espionage operation” and that Ethel almost certainly “acted as an accessory,” but nonetheless concludes that the government was guilty of “a grave miscarriage of justice.”
  • Sharlitt, Joseph H. Fatal Error: The Miscarriage of Justice That Sealed the Rosenbergs’ Fate. New York: Scribner’s, 1989. Ponders the “gross miscarriage of justice” that sent the Rosenbergs to their execution.
  • Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Famous indictment of the American government’s early indifference to AIDS as merely a gay issue helped to galvanize public support for AIDS research.
  • Von Hoffman, Nicholas. Citizen Cohn. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Acerbic look at Cohn from a liberal perspective stresses the deep contradictions in Cohn’s character: Jewish man, homosexual, lawyer, conservative power broker, and sincere anticommunist.
  • Wilmer, S. E. Theatre, Society, and the Nation: Staging American Identities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Examines how theater in the United States has reflected political and social change since the time of the American Revolution. Chapter 7 includes discussion of Angels in America.

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