I fell in love with Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” when I read the script for class two years ago, so the drama department adventure to Philly (and when I say adventure, I mean of epic proportions) was something of a dream come true. But I never dreamed that yesterday’s staging of one of the most definitive plays of the twentieth century would throw me deeper into the world of King Lear.
A basic overview of “Angels”: It’s a two part epic, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” (Part one: “Millenium Approaches,” and Part Two: “Perestroika”). It’s a 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning play, arguably the most definitive and influential of its generation. It starts with three seemingly unrelated narratives, then weaves them together through reality and fantasy sequences. It brought AIDS and homosexuality into the spotlight in a time when such issues were largely ignored in American theater, and America itself for that matter. Kushner tells this gigantic story with a such grace and poetry that it becomes unexpectedly intimate, a terrifying and beautiful glimpse into late twentieth century America. So how could Wilma Theater’s production possibly resonate so strongly for me in terms of Lear? Below is a brief list of parallels I noticed last night, both in terms of the text and the specific production:
- They’re both epics. Parts one and two combined, “Angels” is about seven hours long. There are more than 50 scenes, and the small eight person cast has to play a variety of roles to bring the story to life. Lear, uncut, is about four hours long (so the same length as “Angels” part two). When I divided it up into units for my junior seminar class last semester, I came up with a grand total of 45. For decades, it was considered one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, but utterly impossible to stage. Both plays, however, are strangely intimate. They are incredible on a grand scale, certainly; they both grapple with highly philosophical and resonant themes, one as they affect a kingdom, the other a country. But it’s the intricate, fragile nature of the relationships portrayed among the characters that affects audiences so deeply. In Lear, we remember the broken king with his dead daughter in his arms much more than the political spat between France and England. In “Angels,” the images I remember most aren’t about democracy or civil rights. I remember Prior, naked and covered in sores, his fantasy slow dance with Louis, the homeless woman screeching over her trash can, Roy begging for companionship in his hospital bed.
- The overt theatricality. This production of “Angels” was performed on a massive, white stage. The furniture was simple and unassuming; actors changed set pieces with stagehands; two scenes were often played simultaneously, the action weaving between the two. It was the actors’ job, not the set designer’s, to create the world of the play. Our design concept for Lear is minimalistic as well. Our director emphasizes time and again the importance of having a bare stage, giving the actors an empty slate for them to play off of. During the Q&A after part one, the director explained that there is no possible way for “Angels” to be staged realistically. It is a story full of illusions, jumping in and out of reality as quickly as Lear moves from the inside of a castle to the middle of a storm to a battlefield.
- The concept of immortality. Roy Cohn, especially, refuses to accept his approaching death. He has lived a commanding, selfish life, and even on his deathbed, he fights to live by lashing out at the very people trying to help him. “I am immortal,” he says, and later is compared to “a dragon atop a golden hord.” I heard that line and immediately remembered Lear and his warning to Kent in scene one: “Come not between a dragon and his wrath.” Roy and Lear are both staring death in the face, but instead of reconciling with their fate, they scream and fight to stay alive. Roy’s final hours in the hospital echo many of Lear’s Divine Right of Kings ideology. Lear discovers humility by the end of his saga, albeit too late to save those he has already hurt. Roy doesn’t find peace or forgiveness in death. I think Prior’s plea to the angels near the end of Part One speaks volumes:
“I’ve lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children – they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still bless me anyway. I want more life.”
- Abandonment. In “Angels,” God has abandoned heaven, and his servants are completely alone. My director and I have talked again and again about what place God and fate have in Lear. Have they abandoned the world of the play? Do the characters believe in a heaven of gods who simply don’t exist? Or, as Gloucester says, “flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/ They kill us for their sport”? Many modern Lear interpretations reference Jan Kott’s “King Lear of Endgame,” actually. Kott says: “In King Lear the stage is empty throughout — there is nothing except the cruel earth, here man goes on his journey from the cradle to the grave.” As inspired as the director and I were by Kott’s reading, we weren’t as convinced as some by this concept of total abandonment. In Kott’s Lear, humans are totally alone, thrown into life to die. If we take this philosophy to heart, though, what is the point of Lear’s suffering and redemption? Why tell his story at all? Kushner’s idea, that life has value even if it’s abandoned by its creator, felt more along the lines of where we’re going with our Lear.