The script for Angels in America draws heavily from crucial junctures in World history. To help guide you through some of the references made in Angels in America, we have constructed a timeline - this week's installment is the second half, 1980 C.E - 1990 C.E.
1980 - A mysterious constellation of diseases in forty-one different patients in discovered. The patients are all gay men living in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta publishes a report on the outbreaks of Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) and pneumocystic carinii pneumonia (PCP). The epidemic is later referred to as Gay Cancer or GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency).
Jan 1981 - Ronald Wilson Reagan is inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States. The GOP gains control of the Senate.
March 1981 - Ronald Reagan is shot 60 days into his first term. Although seriously wounded, he becomes the first U.S. President to be shot and survive. He leaves the hospital 21 days later.
July 1981 - PCP is discovered among intravenous drug users in New York City; most of the patients are heterosexual.
Jan-Feb 1982 - In several cases across the United States, infected Factor III blood is identified as the cause of PCP cases in hemophiliacs.
The script for Angels in America draws heavily from crucial junctures in World history. To help guide you through some of the references made in Angels in America, we have constructed a timeline - this week's installment is the first half, 300 B.C.E - 1969 C.E.
300 B.C.E. - The development of the Hebrew alphabet. Beginning with the appearance of a pictograph of an ox head, the aleph glyph becomes the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the initial letter of God’s name at the time of Creation. The aleph is one of the three words alluding to His Ineffable Name.
68 or 95 C.E. - John of Patmos writes The Book of Revelation (named after its first word, apokalypsis), creating the most common Christian image of the end of the world.
525 C.E. - The Anno Domini dating system is invented by the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguous (Dennis the Small). To make cosmic history coincide with the Roman Diocletian calendar, he assigns Jesus’ birth as December 25, so the assumed date of his circumcision fell on January 1, 1 AD.
1348 - The Black Plague enters Europe. By the end of 1350, one-third of the population of Europe is dead. Prophecies of the End of the World abound.
“Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.”
Tony Kushner uses this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson as the epigraph for Perestroika. The title of the second half of Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” refers to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “restructuring” (the meaning of “perestroika”) of the now-defunct Soviet Union. We get glimpses of the Soviet Union in its dotage in Perestroika, but the relationships of all the characters undergo restructuring as well. As Tony Kushner writes about the two halves: “Millennium Approaches is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion. The events in Perestroika proceed from the wreckage made by the Angel’s traumatic entry at the end of Millennium. A membrane has broken.”
The idea of “membrane” is important. Skin, and the body (both individual and politic), echo through Millennium Approaches as emblems of identity, along with the related themes of movement and stasis. Here they come to the fore. How do people and societies change? Especially in the midst of the “mad swirling planetary disorganization” that has seemed to characterize our world for the past quarter-century?
Prior Walter, a gay man living in New York City, has been diagnosed with AIDS. Unable to deal with the challenge, his lover, Louis Ironson has left left him, and is beginning a tentative relationship with the closeted Mormon Republican lawyer Joe Pitt.
Joe's wife Harper, who suffers from a mild valium addiction, has encountered Prior in a hallucinatory scene she refers to as “threshold of revelation.” Traumatized by the discovery of Joe’s lies, Harper has fled their apartment after a fight, and is in a dream Antarctica with the imaginary travel agent Mr. Lies. Joe's mother, Hannah, has sold her house in Salt Lake City and comes to New York after Joe tells her he's gay.
Meanwhile, Joe's mentor, the rightwing fixer and shady lawyer Roy Cohn, has also been diagnosed with AIDS and is facing disbarment. After a series of severe abdominal spasms, he has been visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he helped execute in the 1950s. Ethel has called an ambulance for him.
Meanwhile, Prior has been seeking help from his friend Belize, a male nurse, because of Louis and because he's having visions and hearing strange voices that make him fear he's losing his mind. Millennium Approaches ends with an Angel bursting through the ceiling of Prior's apartment and announcing:
The Great Work Begins:
The Messenger has arrived."
In the final installment of his interview, Matt Saunders describes the impact of the Yale School of Drama on his development as a designer, why he returned to Philadelphia, looking forward to Perestroika, and the impact Angels in America had on him as a high school student.
Walter Bilderback: Many of our audiences have seen your previous work at the Wilma as well as at other Philadelphia theaters, especially New Paradise Laboratories and Theater Exile, may also have seen you act in the past, too – a couple of years ago you left Philadelphia to earn an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, but you moved back here. What additional tools did Yale give you as a designer, and then second,