I grew up with angels. My Catholic youth was full of stories about sublime beings who descended from heaven to warn us, to help us, and to predict our future. Angels arrived in my dreams, smoothing their feathers in gleams of blindingly white light.
Angels were not always beautiful and nice. On the wall at my school was a print by Gustave Dore showing the biblical Jacob wrestling with a mysterious angel. Jacob struggles until daybreak with the vastly larger angel looming over him. I held my breath whenever I passed it.
But not in my wildest dreams did I foresee the struggle that Prior Walter has with his angel in the play, “Angels in America.” This iconic and acclaimed work by Tony Kushner is now celebrating its triumphant return to Broadway 25 years after its premiere.
The play — actually two full plays with a break between them — unfolds in the last century, in the 1980s. It provides a compelling answer to anyone who thinks that we now live in crazy times and that everything used to be better. In those days, an unpredictable president named Ronald Reagan was in power. The Russians were threatening our democracy during the Cold War. And there was a monstrous modern plague, HIV/AIDS, striking an entire generation of young gay men. The bad guy in the play, the sinister lawyer Roy Cohn, brilliantly played with scenery-chewing relish by Nathan Lane, was an accomplice of the demagogic Communist baiter Joe McCarthy — and an early mentor of Donald Trump.
“Angels in America” brings the horror of AIDS back in full force. The fear of contagion, the battles for medications, the taboo on homosexuality. The isolation of patients who were ostracized and died lonely deaths. When Kushner wrote the play in 1991, more than a million people were infected with HIV. More than 150,000 people in America had died of AIDS and there was no prospect of treatment.
Kushner’s inspiration came when his friend, a ballet dancer, died and saw an angel in front of him. In the play, the angel arrives in time. But salvation from death is not automatic. Prior Walter, a 30-year-old gay man in pajamas in a hospital bed, is thrown into a fight full of despair, fear, and hallucinations.
His angel is not at all like the dainty sylphs of my youth. This is a frightening, imposing creature with a thunderous voice and enormous, dirty wings of broken feathers. It takes six shadowy puppeteers to manipulate her. She kicks the sickly Walter so hard in his stomach that he is catapulted high in the air and I am afraid he will not survive the fall. But Prior Walter ultimately triumphs — just as humanity is progressing in its own fight against this horrifying disease.
At midnight I walk down Broadway, still trembling, my head full of magnificent angels. I have been immersed in vivid hallucinations for almost eight hours, the immense battles between good and evil, progress and stagnation, morality and mystery, but also in the loving and often funny moments of everyday human interactions.
I think about the surprisingly hopeful ending of the play. Walter addresses the audience directly, standing in front of the statue in Central Park of the Angel of Bethesda who gave the bathwater its healing power.
“The world is only moving forward,” he says in the stirring final monologue. “We will be citizens. The time has come. Goodbye. You are wonderful creatures, each and every one of you. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.