Fighting Evil, Keeping Faith, and Angels

A 1980's AIDS Volunteer and Activist on Angels in America

Separating life from art can be impossible in some cases; Angels in America is the most painful instance I know.

Now that the award-winning Broadway play has been superbly translated to TV by the playwright, Tony Kushner, and director Michael Nichols, that work of separation has become even more difficult for me, and will be for others. (Angels is running on HBO in two
parts: Sunday, December 7 and the following Sunday, December 14.) I recommend it heartily to viewers, not only as a great work of art but as an introduction to a time just passed in which people fought for survival and for justice on the streets and in the places in which now another generation lives—sometimes unaware of what went on there not so long ago.

What was precious then
When in the film Prior Walter—the gay man diagnosed with AIDS during the rock-bottom year (1984) of the epidemic—is first hospitalized, his lesion-ridden lungs demand the nurse (Emma Thompson) attach an oxygen mask to the sick man’s face. I knew exactly what kind of mask she was attaching, that putting Vaseline along the rim prevented chafing to the face, and that the straps had to be taut to ensure no spillage of precious air.

The people I visited in many hospitals across New York during the decade I was an AIDS volunteer needed those oxygen masks to survive. Every time Justin Kirk, who played Prior, struggled to speak, stopping in frustration because he’d forgotten he couldn’t talk with the mask on, I cringed: they always hated wearing that mask.

I had the same response to the medicine trays at Prior’s bedside, and the hoarded AZT in Roy Cohn’s (Al Pacino) room. How we used to pounce when a client or friend died: “Hospitals will take all the drugs back, even if they didn’t dispense them,” I heard, many heard, from experienced gay health professionals. “We can distribute them to people with AIDS with no insurance, no access to anything. So if your client/friend dies, get those drugs!

Making sense of the past
“How did you feel watching Angels?” people who know of the years I spent in the midst of the epidemic ask. I don’t how to respond.

20 years after my role in this disaster began, 10 after the play on which the film is based ennobled a piece of that event, Angels the film is now encouraging me to look back, to try to make some sense of what happened to me.

Bravery, cowardice, and survival
When I overcome memory’s power to manage a little retrospective emotion about my AIDS years, it’s usually shame at what I should have done, or anger at what I did, or others didn’t. By 1981, people were dropping all around me; to my credit (I guess) I didn’t ignore what was happening or run from it. Like thousands of other gay men and their friends, I tried to make things better for people who had AIDS, and tried to figure out how my country should properly protect its people from it. (A task that it has never adequately done and seems to care less about now than ever; this December 1 President Bush’s White House didn’t breathe a word about World AIDS Day.)

But people who consider someone like me admirable or brave might not want to know how much more vividly (and frequently) I failed to help others, or missed chances to be more than a witness to the agony going on. I was an AIDS coward; I stayed in place and tried to help, but when it became too much for me I ran within myself.

Angels‘ author, Tony Kushner, whom I often saw at ACT UP meetings and demonstrations during the years he was writing his play, addresses all this very intelligently, especially in his character of Louis, the Jewish word-processor who abandons his lover Prior and spends much of the play suffering over his choice. When I saw Angels onstage for the first time soon after its Broadway opening, I hated Louis. We all did. “Someone needs to slap that little bitch until he can’t whine anymore,” a fellow AIDS person hissed.

A decade later, Louis moves me so much because he admits how frightened he is, how unbearable AIDS made our lives and years, even as we thanked God it didn’t stake an ultimate claim on our own lives. Louis addresses an aspect of the plague we as a society (especially gay people) have yet to admit: our survivor guilt.

Angels and revelation
doesn’t quite resolve this issue of survival and guilt. Nor does it do what we all hoped it would when word first passed around of a great play on AIDS: show us a higher vision of existence, one in which the bickering and hate-mongering and budget-cutting and acting out (and up) were appeased by the belief our struggles were not all for nothing, and that the dead we couldn’t hold on to were released into a redemption they deserved. People who spend much of their lives trying to fight evil (often with the sinking suspicion they are losing) want that belief more than anything.

But rather than follow-through its first-part teasers of impending revelation to a vision of completeness, a transcendence in which acceptance and forgiveness are possible, Kushner’s Angels fold their wings in all-too-human helplessness, and ultimately fly away. In the Central Park finale, the sky is empty of them, except for the angel statue in the Bethesda fountain. The message is implicit: art and activism are our deliverance, the means by which we bring comfort.

Life and film
But for me, as one who walked those halls with Priors and Louises, the closure the end of a play insists upon is not possible. Acting up and making art are not enough. Some other belief, some other perception of what this was for and why we still live, remains beyond our reach. Faith might be the bridge across to it.

This is a film and a play that mirrors a good deal of my life; but it isn’t my life. In my life the absences get sharper as the years pass, the battle for some kind of life in which memory is not a nightmare and forgiveness no longer a hopeless ideal goes on, and on.