Emily has already covered many of the things I loved about The National Theatre’s production of Angels in America, including Andrew Garfield’s stunning performance and questionable comments about what it means to be a gay man in America (I like RuPaul’s Drag Race, too, Andrew, and I’m not a gay man as far as I can tell). One thing Emily and I both agree on is how fantastic Harper is. As one of the few women in the play, Denise Gough shines as Harper, commanding attention each time she’s on the stage. Harper is funny, sad, and above all, strong. She also inhabits a liminal space for much of the play, a nowhere place somewhere between delusion and dream, where she meets Prior and sees visions of her husband Joe. Harper’s visions are one reason why audiences and scholars have called Angels in America magical realism, or something close to it.
I have to disagree. Magical realism, in this case, might be a way of shirking off the more painful reality of the play: Harper’s mental illness.
Throughout the play, Joe chastises Harper for her Valium problem, which contributes to her visions and delusional episodes, and multiple characters suggest that Harper wake up from her delusions and live a normal life. Joe’s mother tells Harper to snap out of it and put on a dress, to get out of the apartment more. In other words, no one believes Harper actually travels during her Valium episodes. No one but Harper.
Magical realism is hard to define. I took a semester long graduate class with a wonderful professor and roomful of smart students. By the end of our time together, none of us could fully define what magical realism is exactly. We knew it when we saw it, we said. Someone posited Ted (you know, the movie about the giant teddy bear that talks) was magical realism. No one could really disagree.
As I see it, magical realism is a genre that features small elements of magic or the fantastic in an otherwise realistic world. The catch is that characters must accept this magic as a part of the world, as real. For example, Gabriel García Márquez’s genre-defining One Hundred Years of Solitude has many instances of small magic within the world—a woman’s son dies and his blood crawls across the land to return to her home. THAT is magic—but the characters accept this magic and really, they don’t even comment on it. It’s part of the world. Everyone knows this. It is known.
In Angels in America, characters chastise Harper for her visions. The only person who ever truly accepts that her visions are real—and even then, only maybe—is Prior, who meets Harper once in real life, but encounters her several times in the dream world. Most of the characters in the play view Harper’s visions as a sign of mental disability, or mental illness if you prefer that term (which I don’t—see the podcast for more details), which goes against what’s at the heart of magical realism: Magic.
Prior also experiences visions throughout the play, or rather visits from the Angel, who tells him prophecies he must record for the world. Prior tells several characters about these visions and they, like Harper’s family, tell him that it’s just dreams, or hallucinations induced from AIDs, or his imagination. No one really believes he sees an angel. Not really.
When Harper and Prior meet each other in the liminal in between space of visions, they acknowledge that what’s happening is crazy. They don’t believe it’s real themselves. Even when Prior and Harper meet for real—in the Mormon museum, no less—they spend some time considering how they know each other, and wondering if they’re going crazy. The Mormon museum meeting lets the audience know that the “magic” of the play, the visions and visits from otherworldly beings, are indeed real, but even the characters can’t wrap their minds around it. The magic isn’t believed by anyone, not even those who experience it.
Harper and Prior are the visionaries of the play. They see what the world is capable of beyond the present and make efforts to genuinely move forward at the end of the play. For Harper, making a new life for herself away from Joe means that her fate hasn’t been decided yet. Prior ends the play with a beautiful speech (that Emily references in her blog) that celebrates life—not just his, but life for everyone, and a more positive world because of it. In a way, Harper and Prior grow and change because of their visions, not in spite of them. Their struggles within their own minds unite them in a way no two other characters manage throughout the play.
Magical realism is complicated, and includes so many more details than what I’ve mentioned in this short blog post. It’s hard—if not impossible—to define. That being said, Angels in America is a lot of things, but it’s not magical realism. I think we should take time to examine why there’s an urge to classify it as such. Is it because we’re scared to talk about mental illness (especially in the early 1990s when Tony Kushner wrote the play)? Probably. It could also be because a lot of media romanticizes mental illness in a bizarre way.
As Emily and I have both said before, we love Angels in America. It’s an ambitious, complex play that deserves all the praise and study it has received. However, as we move forward—especially when considering new productions of the play—we should consider what the play is doing, which might not be what people previously thought.
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.