Established as a specifically left-wing outfit. 7:84 now embraces gay rights and AIDS as issues to be addressed politically. ‘What’s great about Angels In America is it‘s post-Brechtian.’ he says. ‘Plays like Mother (‘ourage had a humanity at the centre of their politics which made them universal —- and I think ultimately made them great. This play is the first I can think of that’s really managed to do the same thing.‘
Tony Kushner attributes the play’s worldwide success partly to good timing. ‘lt came along at a particular point in American history that made it suitable for elevation to a status that plays in this culture very rarely attain. in terms of publicity and noise. By the time I got around to writing the second part. the first part had already started to take off. so I had a sense that something unusual was happening: but even then I didn't realise that it would go on and on and on and on and on.‘
Among the play's many strands. the notion of angels as solid. living creatures has attracted most attention. Kushner studied medieval mysticism and religion at New York’s Columbia University. and becatne fascinated by the upsurge of mystical experience. at the close of the 10th century, when monks recorded rains of stones and blood. dragon-shaped meteors and mysterious fires. On New Year‘s Day AD 1000. the entire population of Iceland reputedly converted to Christianity — but then hangovers do tend to bring on acts of repentance.
Kushner believes that his play ‘both contributed to and benefited from’ a millennial movement that has been growing in America since 1990. It was then that Sophy Burnham published The Book ()fAnge/s. an account of angelic activity in the 20th century credited with kickstarting America’s widespread enthusiasm for angels.
Burnham‘s belief was inspired by an incident twenty years earlier — while she was skiing in France. a man of extraordinary strength saved her from falling over a cliff. ‘I stood up and looked at him and his eyes were so beautiful. they werejust pools of love.’ she recalls. ‘I said.
“merci monsieur." but he wouldn‘t speak.’ Despite her efforts to engage him in
conversation. the man mysteriously vanished: years later. Burnham’s research showed his behaviour was typically angelic.
‘An angel comes with three qualities, and everyone who has had any contact agrees on these three.‘ she explains. ‘The first is warth and radiance and absolute, unfathomable. unconditional love. The second is that it always says the same thing: “don‘t be afraid. we’re here; we’re taking care of everything; let go; don’t worry”. The third thing is that you’re a little bit different afterwards. You may not
accept it but you can’t forget it. and there’s a piece of you that wants to see it again.’
During two decades, Burnham encountered a range of mysterious — but always benevolent — phenomena. She concluded that she had, indeed. met an angel. and began recording her own and others’ experiences in The Book of Angels. It became a bestseller. provoking a flood of letters from people with their own stories to tell. [t was translated into seventeen languages and led to two more angel books by Burnham. and hundreds by other authors. 80 many were published that American bookshops began designating special sections for angel- related literature.
By the end of 1993, the enormity of the angel cult was such that Time and Newsweek featured it on their covers. A survey in Time last spring found that 69 per cent of Americans believed in angels. By December 1995. the cover of Life
‘It’s interesting what gets deﬁned as an angel. Basically any ﬂash of inspiration is considered having been touched by an angel.’
magazine attested that it was no passing fad. The American market for angel T—shirts, tote bags. greetings cards and brooches (designed to sit on the shoulder like a guardian parrot) has never been healthier. There’s even a television drama series. Touched By An Angel, in which a female angel appears in people’s lives to fix their problems.
Burnham accepts that ‘there are people who
are disturbed and troubled and looking for a dramatic reason for living,’ but believes most angel books are written from genuine experience. Other commentators are more sceptical about it.
‘I think it’s like any fad. an emblem that
people become intrigued by or find fashionable.’ says Elizabeth Brodersen, publications director at the American
Conservatory Theater, where Angels In America enjoyed a hugely successful San Francisco revival in 1994. ‘lt’s interesting what gets defined as an angel. Basically any ﬂash of inspiration is considered having been touched by an angel.
‘I do think there is a serious need for something to believe in, because the standard religions just aren’t providing what people need any more. They’re looking for personal conduits to God. People are really scared, and they’re looking for comfort. This is sort of a 24-hour—a- day shrink or a mom. The angel cult is a much fuzzier, warmer view of angels than in the play.’
Burnham agrees. ‘I happen to vastly dislike Part Two: all his God Is Dead stuff.‘ she says, referring to scenes in Perestroika which show the angels struggling in God’s absence. ‘I absolutely totally disagree with [Kushner’s] image of angels and of God — but it’s brilliant playwriting,’ she concedes. As director of the Fund for New American Plays, she should know: the organisation sponsored Angels In America to the tune of $220,000.
For his part, Kushner remains philosophical.
‘I think if the millennium is a powerful event then it makes sense that there be a kind of rebirth of spirituality, but it does join in with various kinds ofdubious New Age spiritualities. A lot of people were disappointed with Perestroika because they thought the angel was going to come down bearing crystals and wind chimes and mantras to chant. The fact that she turns out to be a confused, reactionary Luddite was upsetting to some people.’ Angels In America Part One: Millennium Approaches opens at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow on Friday 29 March; then at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on Wednesday 8 May. A Book Of Angels by Sop/2y Burnham is published in the UK by Rider at £9.99. To win free tickets to see Angels In America, sponsored by leyte & Mac/ray, see page 100.
The List 22 Mar-4 Apr 199611