Artwork or sketchy political statement: Lee Siegel’s criticism on the play Angels in America
Angels in America: Second-Rate Work or Masterpiece?
It’s nearly impossible to name an HIV/AIDS related work that hasn’t been met with unanimous praise by those outside the religious right wing. Lee Siegel’s review of Angels in America, however, takes a strong stance against both the play and its HBO production. While he raises many valid points throughout his article, the criticism presented is somewhat two-dimensional, ignoring the play’s artistic merits through contrarianism.
Siegel describes Angels in America as “a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay.” He argues that the play’s focus on AIDS “repels criticism.” While the first half of this statement is based purely on his own personal opinions, the latter half is somewhat grounded in truth. Exploitation of marginalized groups and real-life tragedies can be very lucrative, and Kushner himself has made quite the career off of this, as Siegel explains throughout the review. As a homosexual who lived during the AIDS pandemic, Kushner has a personal investment in this chapter of history that entitles him to write on the topic. But Siegel points out some of Kushner’s other works that exploit minorities in a trite manner. Kushner’s musical, Caroline, or Change as presented as an example. He argues that there’s “not a single black character in Caroline [sic] who is not a mammy, a pickaninny, a schvartze, or an entatiner with lots of rhythm.”
This critique of Caroline, or Change, illuminates one of the more problematic aspects of Angels in America. Because AIDS is featured so prominently throughout the play, one might overestimate how progressive it really is. Several characters in the play are written as stereotypes, and Belize is a perfect example of this. Belize is the play’s token black character who provides comic relief through sassy one-liners. He’s witty and fabulous, but that’s about all Kushner writes him to be. A supporting role in several of the play’s interwoven subplots, he has no subplot of his own. And for a play that explores national themes such as prejudice, it’s ironic that its only black character is among the shows least developed. Still, Belize is not the only character portrayed stereotypically. Hannah is devout Mormon, stereotypically portrayed as homophobic. But what gives her character depth is her ability to overcome this prejudice, when she takes Prior to the hospital and comforts him. Belize is never portrayed in a negative light. But he’s still a flat character, despite his prominence and flamboyance.
But what Siegel fails to recognize is how Angel’s in America is a well-crafted work, focusing primarily on its flaws. He describes the play as formulaic, and unoriginal. This is an unwarranted criticism, as Kushner’s play features a plot unique from the AIDS literature that preceded it. Prior to Angel’s in America, hardly any AIDS-related fiction existed. Writers such as Larry Kramer would sometimes write fictionalized accounts of true stories, but Kushner was among the first to produce something entirely new.
His views on the HBO production are even more negative. He argues that its director, Mike Nichols has made a desperate attempt to make his adaption relevant in 2003. He sees the digitally-inserted World Trade Center as a gimmick to keep the play topical, by drawing a parallel between Harper’s speech of apocalypse, and the apocalyptic day of September 11th, 2001. But the World Trade Center is a relevant image in 1980’s New York. It was clever for Nichols to feature this image, because it makes the film resonate even more with its 2003 audience. It doesn’t change Kushner’s plot at all. It’s used instead as a subtle nod, allowing the HBO mini-series to reference another national theme that would become prominent after the play’s events. And contrary to Siegel’s remark, the film was not “made long after 9/11.” It premiered only two years later.
Gretchen Minton and Ray Shultz argue that the play became even more relevant after the events of 9/11. In their article, “Angels in America: Adapting to a New Medium in a New Millennium,” they note how the “current political and aesthetic context in which the adaption has been created offers a significantly different Angels than both Kushner’s published play” and “earlier performance texts.” Parallels between Roy Cohn’s McCarthyism and a fear of terrorism after 9/11 can easily be drawn. In addition to this, their article mentions that “a fear of terrorism” could “potentially lead to a McCarthy-like hunting of suspected criminals,” making “the themes and philosophies of Angels seem relevant as ever.”
That’s the genius of Kushner’s play and Nichol’s adaption. They bring the AIDS crisis into the broader scheme of American history, proving its continued relevance as more than just a period piece. It may not be a perfect play, but it perfectly fulfills its role of exploring national themes.
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Angels in America: Second-Rate Work or Masterpiece? It’s nearly impossible to name an HIV/AIDS related work that hasn’t been met with unanimous praise by those outside the religious right wing. […]