If The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell had been instead titled The Masterpiece Artist, the book would probably look a lot like Whitefish Bay native Dan Kois’s new book, The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America. The book, an ambitious and expansive oral history Kois co-authored with Isaac Butler, began as a cover story for the online magazine Slate, published in 2016 just as its subject, Tony Kushner’s award-winning play Angels in America, turned 25. And if it’s true that the politically traumatized America of 2018 is glutted on the irony served up by The Disaster Artist and its ilk, this oral history supplies doses of palliative earnestness in much the same way its subject did more than 25 years ago.
The play, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” was first performed in 1991. Meryl Streep and others quoted in the book call it “the Hamilton of its day” (though this feels a bit like saying Madonna reminds you of Lady Gaga). The World Only Spins Forward charts the play’s trajectory alongside the country’s concomitant political and cultural happenings — the AIDS crisis, the rise and fall of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the ever-reverberating Reagan-80s. Like the book’s title, taken from one of the play’s final lines, these undulating timelines help to illustrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s adage about the justice-bent arc of the moral universe. Beyond the world of Angels and all its rich history, the book serves to contextualize the recent past and present in a world of “two steps forward, one step back.”
The book comprises more than 250 interviews, highlighting the voices of actors, directors, crew, critics and more, each with vivid recollections of their first introduction to Kushner’s play. Kois himself, who used to usher at The Rep (and, for the record, remains firmly on team Kopp’s), considers his first introduction to Angels a transformative experience.
“I had never seen a work that just completely changed the scale of my ideas about what you could make in any kind of artistic format,” Kois says. “It forced me to reconsider a lot of my own prejudices.”
The book’s structure, which unselfconsciously mirrors the play’s five acts, complete with a handful of interludes and a “cast of characters” appendix, also mirrors the play on a deeper level.
“The goal was to have the book sound like an extremely lively conversation between all these people. Angels in America itself is built on a series of dialectics,” Kois says. “We wanted the book to feel like you were getting the impression of intellects bouncing off each other and striking sparks.”
Kois and Butler’s sharp pruning and assembly of these lively conversations recreates a living, breathing version of the truth only possible via crowdsourcing. Dissenting opinions are juxtaposed, contradictory misrecollections delivered back-to-back (just whose idea was it to split the play into two parts, anyway? The book offers at least three possibilities). The story that emerges is not only one of unbelievable talent and hard work, or even the who’s-getting-fired/who’s-getting-hired gossip that thickens the broth of any good origin story; no, the real story is the sheer tenuousness of the play’s grip on success. Its narrative reveals a number of turning points which, out of either happenstance or angelic interference, all went the right direction.
“Realizing the extent to which luck, perseverance and collaboration created this thing that now we just accept as a cornerstone of modern drama was pretty fascinating,” Kois says. “It’s not inevitable that Angels in America became the thing that it is.”
Much is made of the play’s long writing (and rewriting, and re-rewriting) process. Kushner’s telling of an early draft session of the play takes an apocryphal sheen, as he recounts writing 700 pages in ten days inside a “spider-infested cabin on the Russian River,” all by hand. The book itself bears a similar inevitability, like the story had been sentiently seeking a sieve through which to become narrativized. Kois says his batting average for landing celebrity interviews has never been higher.
“It’s like everyone had been waiting 30 years for us to call them so they’d finally have a chance to talk about this thing. When we took the cork off the bottle, hundreds of thousands of words of passionate interviews flew out immediately,” Kois says.
Though the book’s building blocks are not the words of Kois or Butler, their authorial voice shines through in delightfully unexpected ways. They create conventions, such as the tags for each quoted voice—“Stephen Spinella (actor)”—only to subvert them later to humorous effect: “Caryl Churchill (world’s greatest living playwright).” Some of the more famous participants come with “best known for” footnotes—Debra Messing for Will & Grace and Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge. Meryl Streep is “known for being Meryl Streep.” That authorial touch is felt playfully in places where one speaker seems to illustrate what another has just said about him—George C. Wolfe’s frenetic speaking manner is particularly charming in this context—and poignantly in others, as in the way each section’s final quote resounds through the white space leading into the next chapter.
“We had this enormous mess of raw material, and we together had to figure out how to craft it into a thing. It was a joy to make,” Kois said.
The world that Angels was born into was, in many ways, eerily similar to the one Kois’s book now greets. In 1981, one interviewee recalls, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock was just four minutes short of midnight; today it is two minutes closer. “At the time, the fact that we were electing a B-movie actor to be president of our country was horrifying,” said production manager Alice Krasinski of Ronald Reagan. The book’s comparisons between then and now vary from inferential to explicit, culminating in an archived photo of Donald Trump posing with Roy Cohn in 1984 in the book’s final chapter.
Finishing the book, which ends with an 80s-era photo of Bethesda Fountain and a comment from Kushner on the resiliency of democracy in “dark, very dark days,” leaves the reader feeling as though they’ve been through something.
“Two years ago, when we first thought of this project, it felt in a lot of ways that Prior’s prediction at the end of the play, that progress cannot be stopped and that change is the natural state of human beings, really was happening — that humanity was moving in the right direction,” Kois says. “There was this sort of record-scratch moment for all of us: There is clearly still work to be done. America is capable of stopping in its tracks and moving backwards in ways that we never thought it was, which in many ways made the play a little more relevant. To know that it is still possible that the seeds of change could be sprouting underneath us is helpful and inspirational.”
Hear a partial reading and discussion of The World Only Spins Forward at The UWM Visiting Writer’s Series Presents Dan Kois on Thursday, Mar. 15 at 7 p.m.