by Fiona Wright
I saw ‘Angels in America’ over two evenings at the Belvoir St Theatre last week. I have a long history with Belvoir – when I first moved out of the suburbs, one of the advantages of my new proximity to the city that I was determined to make best use of was my sudden accessibility to theatres, and I corralled two of my three housemates (the other one was a train driver) into taking out youth subscriptions, which in those days included a free drink with each show, namely a ‘Sierra Slammer’ pre-mix, made of ‘tequila flavour’, triple sec, sugar and water. As a teenager, I’d been certain I was destined for the stage long before I ever wrote my first poem.
My friends had all seen the mini-series that was made from the play in 2003. I had not and didn’t know what to expect. I want to write that Angels is transformative, I want to write that Angels is an experience, but it just sounds so trite, or it sounds like I don’t really mean it. I don’t write enough about theatre to really know how to do it.
But what happened on those two evenings is something that I’m still trying to understand. I was rivetted by the play, drawn so entirely into its world and the lives of its people that I lost all sense of time, of the physical environment I was actually sitting in. Theatre is immersive like this when it’s at its best, there’s something about the aliveness of the performance, the intimacy of seeing real people and real bodies move and speak that’s so different from the cinematic dream, that always feels more vital, more dangerous somehow. And Angels is an illness play and Angels is an identity play and this made it all the more difficult to maintain any kind of distance from what was unfolding before me.
There’s an exchange in the first part of the play where the young, still-closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt speaks with his mentor Cohn about transgression and power; it’s really a veiled conversation about sexuality and self-determination. I can’t quote it because I didn’t know at the time that the exchange was going to be so important to me, but Cohn urges Joe to transgress, to do something that he wants or needs to do rather than is supposed to do, to imagine living with freedom, without fear. Cohn already has AIDS, and both actors who play the ill characters in the play were painfully thin, had obviously lost weight for the roles, although in the early stages it was disguised by thick layers of clothing. I kept looking at those bodies and remembering the pain they must be in: how difficult it would be to concentrate enough to learn lines alongside hunger, how cold they’d feel, how tired towards the end of the three-and-a-half hour stretches of the play. How their very bones must ache, how they’d bruise and worry and snap at the slightest provocation. And seeing just this body speak about moving beyond fear, about living unafraid, just broke my heart.
There’s so much illness, so much madness in Angels, so much questioning of the self and its power and its striving for perfection and I couldn’t help but be involved, and to feel uncomfortable about my own involvement. I kept seeing parallels – it took a long time to understand AIDS, AIDS was so horribly stigmatised, AIDS happened to people who’d had to question their own identity at some stage in their lives, AIDS made its victims thin and weak and powerless within their bodies. I kept seeing these parallels, and knowing all the while that my illness is not the same, my experience is not the same, and it’s awful and so hugely problematic to feel otherwise.
Because Angels, for me, was also one of those strange coincidences of reading and thinking that happen so often for writers, I think, where the things that we’re reading about, or writing about, or both, seem to bleed out into the wider world. When I saw Angels last week, I was reading, at long last, Susan Sontag’s Illness and Metaphor, a book I’ve been trying to get my paws on for a very long time. This was the original edition of the essay, where the focus is on cancer and tuberculosis; Sontag did write an additional chapter later on, called AIDS and its Metaphors – I’m not the first to see strange parallels here at all.
Illness and Metaphor essentially charts the ways in which the ‘modern’ diseases of cancer and consumption have been used by writers to symbolise social or moral decay, or faults of character, environment or condition; and Sontag asserts that these metaphors attach themselves to diseases like cancer and tuberculosis – like anorexia, like AIDS – because they are, or at least were at the time in which their metaphors had most currency – mysterious. Because their causes were unknown, their treatment uncertain, because, that is, science and medicine could not explain these illnesses, metaphor became a way in which they could be understood, even made tame, in a way contained. But illness is not a metaphor for people whose bodies and brains are suffering, sick people are not symbolic, they don’t mean anything other than themselves, and thinking otherwise is disempowering and dehumanising. I knew all of this, I agreed with all of this, but felt the impulse nonetheless, because, I think, we’re always using stories, always using acts of empathy and alignment to make sense of our own experiences, however dubious a practice it might seem.
A coda: I discovered later on that two of my other friends, both writers, saw Angels in American in back-to-back sessions this weekend. One of them had read the play and seen the series some years ago, when she was deeply unhappy, and found herself suddenly revisiting that period of her life as they play unfolded. The other was distressed by the way in which Prior, the character who is visited by the eponymous angel, is abandoned by his lover when he becomes ill, because he can’t cope with his breakdown, with his need because the experience resonated a little too closely with something she’d experienced just last year. I was amazed by these three very different, very powerful experiences of the play that we’d all had, at the strange and coincidental meshing of the personal and the fictional that we’d not been able to escape, how we’d all, in our own way, seen a very different angel those nights, heard a very different prophesy; seen, somehow, a play that was the one we’d wanted, or even needed, at the time.