By Isaac Butler
Something's been nagging at me about that LA Times piece I linked to earlier this week. I have to say, once again, before I delve in here, that I actually think it's a great article. Exactly the kind of arts coverage we want. It has an interesting question at the heart of it, and instead of turning inward towards what the author believes to be the case, it goes outward into the world, using research and interviews to come to some kind of answer. It's provocative and asks some good questions, which is why this is the third post on it you'll read here this week.
The more I thought about it, though, I realized it was predicated on a kind of odd assumption. Let's roll tape (emphasis on the below is mine, not the author's):
"Angels in America" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993 and best-play Tony Awards in 1993 and '94 (one for each of its two parts, which opened on Broadway in separate theater seasons). It has gone on to sell more than 500,000 copies in book form. There's a fairly broad consensus that it is the greatest American play of the last third of the 20th century — and that nothing has happened in the 21st to rival it. Now that a generation has passed, it seems fair to ask whether the American theater remains equally capable in 2012 of what it brought forth back then.
Can such great voyages still exist?
Could five years, more than $2 million in today's currency and so much of an audience's time be set aside to write, develop and perform an unprecedented kind of work by an unproven playwright?
The article is proceeding from a series of linked, unspoken assumptions. They are:
(1) That Angels is a truly great play, a mammoth undertaking that paid off spectacularly.
(2) That nothing like Angels has come since.
(3) That this is strange and worth examining.
After all, the author asks if such "great voyages" can still exist. That still is telling. That we haven't had a new "Angels" twenty years after "Angels" provokes the question of whether we can still create such a work as a theatrical culture.
But here's my question... In the twenty years before "Angels," did we create an "Angels"? Did we create a play that was hugely ambitious, deeply substantive, that also slipped out through the walls around American theater to touch and shape the zeitgeist?
I'd argue that the answer is obviously no. I took to twitter and facebook to ask people if they had suggestions. And people had some good ones. Fences came up multiple times, as did Glengarry. But there was no consensus. And given that part of Mike Boehm's defintion of greatness involves mass consensus around a piece's greatness, I think that means that we can probably disqualify both shows. Also, while Glengarry is substantive and touched the zeitgeist, it's not ambitious. And while Fences is probably a deeper play than Glengarry and, in its own way, more ambitious, I doubt that many non-theater goers would know what the hell you were talking about if you made a reference to it.
Often, reading lists for American drama classes will skip fairly blithely from Streetcar (or Salesman) to Angels without batting an eyelash-- or perhaps witha brief stop off to "weird" fare like Buried Child-- and this is telling. Angels in America really was an epochal moment in American theater. I think you could argue using Mike Boehm's formulation of what greatness is that Angels was the first cannonically great play to come around in decades. I don't necessarily agree with his definition, and i think there were other great plays between, say, Salesman in 1949 and Angels in the 90's, and obviously any definition of "greatness" that leans too heavily on consensus will end up discriminating agianst works by people of color and women.
But while we're bemoaning whether or not another Angels is possible today, it's worth noting how rare something like Angels was in its own time. That's part of what gave the show such momentum and power. We all knew as we walked out of the theater, feeling more alive than we had in months, that we'd witnessed history being made. We felt it.