From Stage to Screen features Angels in America, Another Country and The Children’s Hour.
Angels in America
(Stage Debut 1991 / Screen Debut 2003)
Tony Kushner’s epic gay fantasia on national themes started life in the late 1980s when Kushner found himself approached by a San Francisco theatre company. The company was keen to explore the ongoing impact of the AIDS epidemic on LGBTQ+ community life, equality and representation. Kushner started work immediately, drawing on his own experiences; however, it wasn’t until 1993 that his epic finally took shape through a sweeping tale of religion, epidemic, fear, and politics that would premiere in New York and London simultaneously.
Angels in America is unlike any play before it in its sheer scale and themes. Angels dissected Reaganomics and the oppression of individuals and communities as a new millennium approached. In Angels in America, the horror of AIDS would be viewed through a prism of division and intolerance as the capitalist machine continued its march across the west, offering opportunity and social division in its wake. Here Kushner’s play stretched far beyond the AIDS epidemic at its heart, as its wings wrapped the audience in themes of community, religion, acceptance, coercion and belief.
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However, what could have become an oppressive play in its scale is full of optimism, hope and humour. Each character is multi-dimensional, nuanced and grounded, their lives layered with differing world viewpoints, political opinions, unions and love. In every line of dialogue, Kushner reflects his personal experiences of gay life during the 1980s with a uniquely heavenly voice. His work simultaneously reflects America’s growing social division and the illusion of equality and freedom. The result is a play that asks its audience to delve into their own beliefs, motivations and ideals. Here, the emotion, humour, and drama on stage mirror the personal journey each audience member has taken, creating a profoundly personal theatrical experience that resonates on multiple levels.
Few plays before or since have achieved this sense of journey or the ability to dissolve the space between the actors on stage and the seated audience. In 2003 HBO’s lavish TV adaptation would honour the play’s structure and form with an all-star cast including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, to name but a few. As a result, Angels in America would earn 21 Emmy nominations and eleven wins, including outstanding miniseries. However, this was far from the end as Angel’s would return to London’s National Theatre in 2017, winning global praise alongside a live cinematic debut.
The power of Kushner’s Angels in America sits within its broad and complex discussions on the interface between individual, community and national equality and inclusion. While at the same time exploring the relationship between belief, hope and avoidance of reality. Its characters reflect the diversity of our LGBTQ+ communities and the challenges and differences that so often divide us. But its heart asks us to come together in overcoming oppression, embracing those living angels who help to demolish the walls governments so often erect between us.
(Stage Debut 1981 / Screen Debut 1984)
Not to be confused with James Baldwin’s 1962 novel of the same name, Julien Mitchell’s 1981 play owes much to If… (1968) in terms of its themes of toxic class culture. But, its story is rooted in reality as it reflects the journey of the British spy Guy Burgess. Here, Mitchell examines class conflict, hypocrisy, homophobia and culture in the private education system. While at the same time shining a light on the hotbed of hidden desires, bullying and snobbery that surrounded the British private school system. Here young men either accept a culture built on secrecy or face ostracism from the club their parents pay for.
Opening with the suicide of a pupil named Martineau who was caught having sex with another boy, Mitchell quickly establishes the school’s oppressive atmosphere and cultural norms. Each boy is held captive by a bubble of segregation and privilege where possible public scandals are avoided through a culture of brushing things under the carpet, including suicide.
Another Country excels in its discussions on difference, emotional repression, political challenge and equality. Here we find the openly gay Bennett haunted by the suicide and a deep feeling of guilt, confusion and anger as the walls around him close in around him. While at the same time, his best friend Judd attempts to fight the system of oppression and subservience built over decades of Empire.
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Mitchell offers us a fascinating discussion on the origins of toxic masculinity, poor male mental health and homophobic bullying as he unpicks the class system and a series of imperial educational beliefs. Here we find an urgent need to maintain the class divide in holding onto power – the arrogance and contradictions of the British aristocracy laid bare as two boys accept their inability to change the system. Here one boy will later defect to Russia while the other will accept his sexuality must remain hidden in achieving his political goals.
The original 1981 production introduced Rupert Everett as Bennet and Kenneth Branagh as Judd, with the movie introducing us all to Colin Firth in 1983. Since then, Another Country has largely vanished from view and never gained the respect it deserved as a genuinely groundbreaking slice of LGBTQ+ British cinema.
The Children’s Hour
(Stage Debut 1934 / Screen Debut 1961)
On November 20, 1934, Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour premiered at the Maxine Elliott Theatre New York, attracting largely positive reviews. But this was also a play that took a sledgehammer to the glass ceiling that had banned themes of sexuality from the New York stage. However, with Hellman’s play proving so popular, the powers that be had no option but to let it run. Therefore, when the opportunity to transfer her play to the screen came knocking, there was hope the same level of rebellion and challenge would surround the film under director William Wyler.
However, despite William Wyler’s ambition, he was well aware that his 1936 film adaptation of the material These Three had found itself subject to a strict Hays Code with its lesbian relationships airbrushed away. So could, The Children’s Hour finally break the glass ceiling? Unfortunately, despite the relaxation of the Hays Code, his dutiful adaptation in 1961 didn’t fare much better. However, does that mean we should disregard both of his films and their place in LGBTQ+ film history? For me, the answer to this question is simple, no!
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To Wyler’s credit, he was determined to bring Hellman’s story of accusation, rumour and illicit love to the screen in full. Hellman’s play had been adapted from a real-life event in Edinburgh in 1810, where a young student named Jane Cumming accused her schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, of having an affair in their pupils’ presence. While Wyler found himself constricted by the destructive American code of decency, he did manage to thread many of the play’s core themes into his 1961 movie. Shirley MacLaine would later state that Wyler’s film was not as powerful as it could have been because of his trepidation. Therefore, he chose nuance to directly indicate the love held between her character and Audrey Hepburn’s.
Despite this, The Children’s Hour holds an important place in the history of LGBTQ+ stories on screen. Here Its screenplay reflects a society where ‘gay shame’ reigned supreme, and while it may not directly combat some of these themes, it’s an important stepping stone on the road to representation.
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