Angels in America: Then and Now

Angels in America was an unlikely candidate to become a hit play in the early 1990s: a 7-hour epic focusing mostly on the lives of five gay men (two of them closeted Republicans) and the Valium-addled Mormon woman married to one of the closeted men; “a Gay Fantasia on National Themes” including democracy, socialism, the immigrant nature of American identity, Jewish mysticism, and what Leo Tolstoy called “the American religion,” Mormonism. The critic David Savran described it shortly after its Broadway success:

 “Bringing together Jews and Mormons, African- and European-Americans, neoconservatives and leftists, closeted gay men and exemplars of America’s new ‘queer politics,’ Angels attempts nothing less than the creation of a cosmic-scale history of America in the age of Reagan and the age of AIDS.… Exploring the sometimes tortuous connections between personal identity (sexual, racial, religious or gender) and political position, it dramatizes the seeming impossibility of maintaining one’s private good in a world scourged by public greed, disease and hatred.”

When the play was new, the millennium most people saw approaching was the year 2000, but as Hannah Pitt reminds us in Perestroika, “the capital M Millennium” has nothing to do with the accidentals of calendar system invented by a sixth-century monk trying to date Jesus’ circumcision. In America, the millennium has always been approaching, whether its herald is John Winthrop in Plymouth Colony, Joseph Smith preaching a new gospel on the Western frontier in the 1830s, or today, when the internet is full of imminent apocalypses for every ideological stripe.

Photo: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497–98
Albrecht Dürer
Woodcut

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