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The trauma of AIDS then and now: Kushner’s Angels in America on the stage and small screen

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Although Tony Kushner's 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation of Angels in America was largely faithful to the original theatrical production, the miniseries failed to achieve the same power. What makes Kushner's play Angels so important, and what makes it stand out from most of the other early 1990s works concerning AIDS, is the idea that Angels (particularly the theatrical version) bears witness to the AIDS crisis by deploying disruptive narrative strategies, including the refusal of the typical downward spiral from diagnosis to death, the wildly varying tone even in moments of death, and various meta-fictional elements, to name a few. This article argues that the miniseries of Angels, on the other hand, even though it is a relatively close adaptation that was, in fact, written by Kushner himself, is not successful in deploying these strategies and thus does not bear witness to the collective trauma of AIDS to nearly the degree that its source material does; the tone of the miniseries is much more even and consistent and most of the meta-fictional elements have been eliminated. In part, this failure of connection can be attributed to the respective eras in which each version of Angels was produced; while in the early 1990s AIDS was still actively devastating the American gay community, by 2003, when the HBO version was released, AIDS was largely perceived as no longer an American problem since science had created drugs that made living with AIDS possible. The traumatic and ongoing reality of the early 1990s had become, by 2003, largely a matter for nostalgia. Thus, while many of the words, scenes and characters are shared between play and miniseries, the dynamic of battling an ongoing crisis vs remembering a trauma of the past results in very different cultural documents.
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Keywords: AIDS; Angels in America; Kushner; adaptation; epic theatre; trauma; witnessing; ‘quality television’

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Wisconsin Platteville

Publication date: 01 December 2012

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  • Adaptation, or the conversion of oral, historical or fictional narratives into stage drama has been common practice for centuries. In our own time the processes of cross-generic transformation continue to be extremely important in theatre as well as in the film and other media industries. Adaptation and the related areas of translation and intertextuality continue to have a central place in our culture with a profound resonance across our civilisation.
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