The drama in Angels in America seems like a nightmare from a long time ago, but still stands as a challenge to change our attitudes to HIV.
In Angels in America, HIV is the spur that causes the truth to come out. The original play by Tony Kushner is set in 1980s New York at the height of the Aids epidemic. Not only does HIV reveal the truth about all the characters and their sex lives, it also (through each person’s attitude to the disease) tells us a huge amount about society in general.
It’s a complex story. Louis leaves his gay lover Prior, who has been diagnosed with Aids, because he can’t cope with it all. In a separate strand, Roy, an apparently rightwing lawyer, is gay yet extremely homophobic. He is dying but he won’t let what’s killing him be called Aids; he euphemistically terms it “liver cancer”. And Prior is bullied by angels, who tell him to be a prophet – but he rebels, retorting that all people with HIV and Aids want is to be “citizens”.
The play has now been turned into an opera by Péter Eötvös. When I saw it recently at London’s Barbican, I wasn’t convinced that the music brought much to the party. But the opera did successfully depict the complex and often messy reality of living with HIV. The shift between grim reality and leaps of fantasy echoes the double perspective of HIV: it is a terrible disease, but it is also a call to arms, prompting debate over gay identity and liberation.
In the 1980s, HIV challenged gay sufferers in two ways – with the threat of death, and with having to reveal their sexuality. Nowadays, treatment is widely available, so much of the drama in Angels seems like a nightmare from a long time ago. But the stigma surrounding HIV remains: I still get calls from people with HIV whose families have abandoned them, or who are excluded from jobs, healthcare or school.
The opera’s penultimate line, “we will be citizens”, stayed with me. It’s a fitting tribute to those who endured the first terrible onslaught of the HIV epidemic. It stands as a challenge to change our attitudes to the disease.