Many years ago, in London’s West End, I saw a play called Art. The plot centered on the rather dysfunctional friendship among three male friends, one of whom — the most successful and ambitious — buys an expensive piece from a trendy artist. The piece turns out to be a 4’ x 5’ white canvas — a completely white canvas that costs as much as a modest house.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around how different people react to this tabula rasa. Is it a work of genius, as the buyer insists? A “PoS”, as the pragmatic friend concludes? Or a neutral object that makes some people happy, as the spineless friend maintains?
That brings up questions about whether art matters, whether the artist matters, or whether it’s all a projection of the viewer’s ego. These questions are analogous to the questions of Reader-Response theory in literary criticism, which asserts that the reader’s response to literature is as important and has as much creative agency as the writing or the writer. It posits that the meaning of The Handmaid’s Tale is as much determined by the reader as it is by Margaret Atwood.
When taken to that extreme, it’s rather absurd on the surface, but there is something to it. The way I experience Atwood’s work is rooted in my memories, experiences, and world-view, and those are different from anyone else’s.
Angels in America is a sort of tabula rasa at this point. It is outdated, its original transgressiveness having been swallowed up by the complete mainstreaming of what used to be outrageous. Simulated sex acts? Yawn.
But for the crowd, most of whose members looked old enough to have been affected by the '80s AIDS crisis, this revival was nigh a religious experience, at once nostalgic and triumphal.
Angels in America runs at Cygnet Theater through April 20.