Tuesday, October 5, 2010

ANGELS IN AMERICA Thoughts -- Professor Claire Gleitman

We continue our series of posts featuring people's thoughts on the power and impact of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Click here and continue checking back for more words from Broadway cast members, our current cast and creative team, Signature’s past Playwrights-in-Residence, and others in the theatre community. We also want to hear from YOU -- click here to find out how you can contribute.

"My first encounter with Angels in America occurred when I happened to come across it in 1992 in American Theatre magazine—to which I subscribed at the time (still do!), but which I didn't read religiously. I can't remember now what it was about Kushner's script that caught my eye, but I read it from cover to cover the day it appeared in my mailbox. Back then, I was a young assistant professor, teaching dramatic literature in the English department at Ithaca College, in Ithaca, New York. Once I read Kushner's beautiful, searing, ferociously angry and deeply compassionate play, I determined that I had to share this piece of theatre with my students. So I contacted the magazine (the play at that point was unpublished anywhere else) and ordered copies for my two classes--utterly unaware, at that moment, of the groundswell of excitement that was starting to gather around Kushner and rather proud of what I thought was my unique and very impressive discovery of an unknown playwright.

In the weeks and months that followed, I came to realize that I was not the only person to have discovered Tony Kushner. Indeed, I learned about the intense buzz that was swirling around Kushner and his play’s impending opening—to the point where an article in the New York Times Magazine described Angels' fortunes as "as a bellwether for the future of innovative drama on Broadway." (How’s that for heavy expectations to place upon a young, unknown author’s shoulders?) As Angels made its way toward Broadway surrounded by palpitating anticipation and (in some corners) ugly homophobia, my students and I did our quiet work in the classroom—reading the play with care and attentiveness and finding ourselves overcome by its richness, its beauty, and the complexity of its conversation with a tradition of American literature stretching from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Tennessee Williams. Kushner, it seemed clear to us, was hurling himself into a dialogue about what "America" means that began with the Puritans and that continues to the present day—and, quite strikingly, he was putting marginalized Americans (gay, female, Jewish, Jack Mormon, ill) at the center of that conversation.

It didn't take us long to decide that we simply had to see the play performed, and so I arranged to get us tickets to what should have been the first week of performances in the original Broadway run, but which turned out to be the end of previews, because the opening was postponed. (My memory is hazy here, but I think they had some technical difficulties involving the advent of the Angel...) My students and I spent an entire semester anticipating the day when we would board a rented college bus together and travel down to New York City to see the play that had turned out to define and shape our entire semester. We all got up very early that morning and boarded our bus in Ithaca, full of irrepressible excitement: we knew that our creaky little van was going to take us on a trip that would culminate with the greatest theatrical experience of our lives. We got as far as Owego, New York--where our bus broke down.

I'll never forget sitting on a curb in front of the Dunkin Donuts in Owego, New York, with 40 disconsolate and absolutely silent undergraduates, thinking: "The event which we all have anticipated for four months is not going to happen. We are going to return to Ithaca with nothing but stale donuts." Miraculously, really--or so it seemed at the time--our van got fixed, by a dashingly good-looking auto mechanic whose name I never learned but who remains my hero to this day. We dashed down the turnpike at breakneck speed; our driver (my self-sacrificing husband, another hero in this story) deposited us in front of the theatre at 2 minutes before curtain time, and we raced to our seats, arriving just at the very instant that the house lights went down.

The anticipation, needless to say, was nothing compared to the play itself. For me and for my students, seeing Angels in America was indeed and unquestionably the theatrical experience of our lives. What is remarkable about Kushner's play, however, is that reading it, too, is the theatrical experience of one's life—and that isn’t true of very many contemporary plays. Angels in America is a play that reads almost as beautifully on the page as it does on the stage. I have taught Angels virtually every year since I first discovered it in American Theatre magazine--and I hear back regularly from my former students, via email or Facebook, who report that reading Angels changed their lives, awakening them to sides of themselves that hadn’t been evident before. Angels is without doubt a play that changes people: it moves them, it politicizes them, it wakes them up, and (if they happen to be American, as most of my students are) it deepens and complicates their understanding of the nation in which they live. This is as true today as it was in those long-ago, pre-9/11 days; the play, amazingly enough, hasn’t dated, despite its keen connection to the historical moment that it dramatizes.

I am excited beyond words to see the revival of Angels in America. More than that, I’m excited to continue to teach this play, with which I first fell in love in 1992. I expect to go on teaching it—with pleasure, admiration and wonder—for the rest of my professional life as a teacher of dramatic literature."

–Claire Gleitman


Claire Gleitman is a professor and the English Department Chair at Ithaca College

3 comments:

iluthradanar said...

How can this play ever be dated, when homophobia is still alive and well. I live in Utah, were recent events are bringing out the gay population to make aware that prejudice of any kind is unacceptable. Gay people are not animals, they don't spread disease, nor do they have an agenda beyond being heard in their desires to be treated as people. AIA is also being performed here in Salt Lake City, and I may attend that performance in addition to my trip to NYC next year. I'm glad the word is "out", figuratively, and as well as literally. AIA will be timely until the day being gay is a non-issue.

iluthradanar said...

How can this play ever be dated, when homophobia is still alive and well. I live in Utah, were recent events are bringing out the gay population to make aware that prejudice of any kind is unacceptable. Gay people are not animals, they don't spread disease, nor do they have an agenda beyond being heard in their desires to be treated as people. AIA is also being performed here in Salt Lake City, and I may attend that performance in addition to my trip to NYC next year. I'm glad the word is "out", figuratively, and as well as literally. AIA will be timely until the day being gay is a non-issue.

Sally said...

Imagine my surprise in checking this blog to read thoughts on Angels in America and finding a post by Claire Gleitman, my former English professor and the person who introduced me Tony Kushner.

I was an undergrad student in one of Professor Gleitman’s classes that ventured to NYC to see Angels in America performed, though not the class that nearly missed the curtain due to a broken down van.

Reading and then having opportunity to see Angels in America performed was an important experience for me in many ways. This play opened my eyes to so much and helped me recognize how important the arts are in education, advocacy and in giving people a voice.

Professor Gleitman gave me my first opportunity to experience a professional performance and I am very thankful to her for that. As someone from a working-class background, attending the theater seemed somehow out of reach for me.

I still have my copies of Angels in America part I and II from her class and I re-read these works every year or two, my notes in the margins reminding me how important this experience was for me.

Sally