Emma Thompson starred in HBO's adaptation of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America.
Emma Thompson starred in HBO's adaptation of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. Stephen Goldblatt/AP/HBO
Two decades ago, in 1991, the first part of an ambitious work of theater by playwright Tony Kushner took the stage in San Francisco. It was called Angels in America, and its two parts — Millennium Approaches and Perestroika — clocked in at an epic seven hours.
The work, about AIDS in the age of Ronald Reagan, shocked many for its obscenities, and blunt portrayal of sex and homosexuality. But the play was also a story, told with drama and humor, of how humans change and how society responds to those changes.
Angels in America debuted on Broadway in 1993. Since then, it has been transformed into an opera and an HBO miniseries. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993.
Tony Kushner joins NPR's Neal Conan to reflect on the era in which he wrote Angels in America. He discusses how American society has changed over the past two decades, as well as his play's appeal to young people.
On the mood in America when he wrote the play
"The sense of the world in the late '80s when I started thinking about the play, and in the early '90s when I wrote it — it was a lot more of a millennial consciousness than an apocalyptic consciousness. There was a strong anticipation. I was a medieval studies major when I was at Columbia, and I was sort of trained to think a lot about millennia. And everyone on the planet, of course, in the late '80s and early '90s, [was] waiting for the year 2000 to arrive. You know, the Y2K virus and all that. There was a certain amount of postmodern versions of old medieval tropes regarding millennia, and a sense that when this sort of auspicious or forbidding date arrived, there would be some sort of transformation — something big was about to happen ...
"During ... the Reagan years, there was a sort of sea change taking place in American politics — and then, as it turned out, in European politics as well, and ultimately in global politics, that we were entering a new period where old reliables were going to be overthrown, and a new way of looking at the world was at hand. And it wasn't necessarily an appealing way of looking at the world, at least for me. ... There was a sense that something was coming and it might be something great, and might be something terrible ...
"I feel, going back now, that the early '90s, the late '80s, for all the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, were comparatively innocent and carefree times compared to where we are now. In the mid-'80s when I wrote the play, it included things about 'eco-cide,' about the collapse of the ozone layer. I really didn't believe in my heart of hearts that the human race was now threatening the survival of life on the planet. There's now absolutely no doubt that that's the case. ... It's completely clear that what we were beginning to get worried about in the '80s was very serious and very real things ... so the play, and the times, both feel darker to me now than they did back then."
On high schools and colleges performing the play
"It's great that it's taught and performed in colleges. I still have to admit ... it's a little shocking — I grew up in Lake Charles, La., and went to public high school, where ... Shakespeare was considered OK, but not Romeo and Juliet because that was kind of naughty. ... But we were certainly protected from anything that was too overtly sexual. And the play is fairly blunt about how it deals with issues of sexuality.
"So every once in a while I express concern when I hear from a high school teacher who says that they're teaching it. But the high school teacher usually rolls his or her eyes. ... You know, I don't have kids myself, so I clearly have not been spending enough time around teenagers to realize that things have changed in the last 40 years, whenever it was I was a teenager. I think people are a little less impressionable and a little harder to shock.
"It makes me enormously happy that I think one of the largest constituencies for the play at this point are members of a younger generation ... I don't know how that happened, but if the play appeals to young people, that makes me very proud."
On colleges that bristle at the play's controversial subject matter
"The play is a really good target for people ... because you can pull quotes out of it and make it sound like it's just a piece of pornography, and get unenlightened people really freaked out about it. ... It's always going to have its uses for these kind of people.
"But I think that one thing that's enormously important is that when the administration in these universities stands up to the regents ... if the administration doesn't stampede, if it doesn't get scared, if it stands up for academic freedom, the other side caves very quickly. And the cases where the controversy has really gotten nuts have often been places where the administration was ... afraid of controversy."
On progress on gay rights since Angels was first performed
"There's been immense progress in terms of [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] rights, obviously, and we're in a very different place now [than] we were in the early '90s. And in my lifetime, I've seen unbelievable progress. And I have great optimism and absolute certainty that we're going to become fully enfranchised and protected by the 14th Amendment and so on. But in the meanwhile, we're not there yet. And there's still a tremendous amount of homophobia."