Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The dreamlife of angels

with one comment

A few weeks ago, I finally got my hands on a copy of The World Only Spins Forward, the oral history of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The journalists Isaac Butler and Dan Kois have delivered a book that feels indispensable, particularly at this historical moment, and it’s impossible to open it to a random page without being immediately sucked into the narrative. Its most vivid figure, not surprisingly, is Kushner himself, who emerges both as an authentic genius and as an insufferable collaborator. Here, for instance, is the account of his first viewing of Declan Donnellan’s landmark production in London:

Kushner: I typed up my notes on the plane flying back to the United States. I spent the entire flight just typing up notes. There were, like, fifty pages of notes. I hit the send button on the fax machine as soon as I landed, not thinking about what time it was in London.

Donnellan: Nick [Ormerod] and I came home, and I thought we’d been burgled because there was so much paper floating around! It turned out it was all coming from the fax machine.

And the director Oskar Eustis recalls: “The way Tony gives notes on his shows is incredibly difficult for every director he’s ever worked with. There’s a few directors who have essentially turned the room over to Tony and let him do the line-by-line work with the actors. There are directors who have barred Tony from the room and forced him to accept it. But there’s never been the ‘normal’ relationship between playwright and director with Tony. It doesn’t exist.”

Yet as much as I enjoyed Butler and Kois’s book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in politics or theater, it leaves one aspect of the story unexplored. Kushner is present throughout as an activist, an intellectual, a creative force, and a prickly personality, but only rarely as a writer. We hear surprisingly little about the decisions that went into the construction of these two massive plays. As far as the oral version is concerned, it’s as if Kushner took his grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, went away for a while, and came back with Millennium Approaches. Even his struggles with Perestroika, which he has never finished revising, occur mostly offstage. The closest we get to a look at his process is a tantalizing glimpse like this:

Kushner: We made a mistake. When I wrote Perestroika, it was five acts long. We had this play, Millennium Approaches, that everybody was really loving. Oskar and I both felt that Perestroika should replicate it in some way. It was inevitable that we were going to try to squeeze Perestroika into a three-act structure. It doesn’t work in three acts…

Eustis: The thing he did, and it remains the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen a writer do: he took this difficulty of making these characters change and he made it the content of the play.

This is heady stuff, but it just leaves us wanting more. And when Kushner does appear in the book, it’s often in the thankless role of a giver of notes, not that of the artist who somehow set this whole unlikely project into motion in the first place.

The picture that emerges is that of a play shaped profoundly by its cast and directors, which seems fair enough—Kushner wrote many of these roles for the actors who originally performed them in San Francisco. But also points to a weakness of the oral history format itself. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen an explosion in the form, both online and in print, and I’ve devoted entire posts here to similar books about the Creative Artists Agency and Saturday Night Live. And it isn’t difficult to see why they’re so popular. When properly done, they’re compulsively readable, and it’s much easier to envision the average reader plowing through ten thousand words of oral history than a conventional article of the same length. (For me, the ultimate example remains the twelve thousand words that Thrillist devoted to a single scene from The Avengers.) It also has its problems, as The World Only Spins Forward, which is an exemplary model of the genre, makes all too clear. It values the anecdotal over the introspective. The fact that it depends on good stories means that it can overstate how much of a phenomenon took place in public, or overemphasize the importance of elements that lend themselves to retelling. It naturally hinges on the candor and cooperation of the participants, which means that Kushner’s reticence about his own creative process leaves a hole in the narrative, however open he might be on other topics. When you rely entirely on the voices of others, it can lead to insights that wouldn’t emerge in any other way, but it also means that certain subjects receive less attention than they deserve. You can’t write an oral history about how a play was written in private, which would require a combination of memoir, interview, and textual analysis that just isn’t possible in the oral form. And the result serves as a reminder between the difference between history and what another gay icon once called “the bones from which someday a man might make history.”

None of this would matter if Butler and Kois’s book weren’t so good, and its limits only serve to highlight Kushner’s genius. The greatness of Angels in America lies precisely in its ability to orchestrate a range of voices, including ones that had rarely been seen before on the stage, and to fit them into a compelling structure. It demands something more than simple transcription, including weird, intuitive choices of the kind that an oral history can never completely manage. (Kushner’s play also deserves credit for making its viewers uncomfortable. The book compares its cultural impact to that of Hamilton, which is comparatively reluctant to explore the darker aspects of American history. Hamilton isn’t likely to disturb or implicate you unless you’re actually Mike Pence, and I have little doubt that Angels, which inspired protests as well as huge box office, is ultimately the greater work of art.) It’s the kind of play that could only have emerged through much solitary, unglamorous work, and it’s this unspoken element that may end up being the most instructive. We’re living in a time in which private life is under constant threat of being obliterated by the public, which may be another reason why oral history is thriving. At such moments, it can seem hard to justify the creation of imaginative literature, much of which necessarily occurs out of sight. The World Only Spins Forward is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it provides a crucial perspective as we try to figure out what kind of culture we’re going to get out of this agonized period of regression and rebellion, which has so much in common with the decade that produced Angels in America. But it takes a real effort of the will to keep the silent, lonely, even prophetic figure of the writer alive in the murmur of so many other voices. And that’s where the great work begins.

One Response

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  1. Honda ad popped up at “We’re living in a time in which private life is under constant threat of being” swear to God and testify to Oscar Wilde truth.

    Honda symbol. Wings.

    Ben Turpin

    August 28, 2018 at 10:35 pm


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