How the AIDS epidemic became the first disease to give rise to a vast body of dramatic literature

April 17, 2012

WBEZ theater critics Kelly Kleiman and Jonathan Abarbanel review the Court Theatre production of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's award-winning play about the AIDS crisis. Today on Eight Forty-Eight, Kleiman, Abarbanel and UIC Professor Jennifer Brier look at how theater changed the conversation about HIV/AIDS in the 80s and 90s. Brier is a cultural historian and author of Infectious Ideas: US Political Response to the AIDS Crisis.


It was a colleague, another theater critic, who first told me about AIDS, which now has been part of our lives (yes, I mean ALL our lives unless you live on Planet Nine in Outer Space) for 30 years. "Jonathan, have you heard about the gay pneumonia?" he asked me. This was the early 1980's, and he breathlessly told me there was a new type of pneumonia gay men were spreading to each other in bath houses. I didn't believe him. "How does pneumonia know who is gay and who isn't?" I said.

Already by that date, one of my best friends from high school had died of AIDS, only no one called it that yet; indeed, the illness had not been identified. Jeffrey, who was tall, dark and handsome, moved to New York with his girlfriend when he was in his late 20s, came out, and had a picture-perfect life: career success, a penthouse apartment (tiny, but with terraces) and a Victorian house in Sag Harbor. I spent two Thanksgivings there with Jeffrey, the second when he was dying of what his doctors only could identify as lymphoma.

By 1984, anyone with half-a-brain knew, although that cohort excluded President Ronald Reagan and the health care establishment he controlled. The early acronym GRID (Gay Related Immune-Deficiency Disease) has been superseded by AIDS as scientific authorities recognized it was NOT a gay illness.

Almost at once, theater communities nationwide began to produce plays that dealt with AIDS in one way or another. Just as AIDS theorists project a "Patient Zero," there was a "Play Zero" about AIDS, and it happened right here in Chicago. The play was One, by Jeff Hagedorn, a young Milwaukee writer (whom I first met in 1979 when I was Literary Manager for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre) who had moved to Chicago. One was produced in 1983. Jeff turned out 11 plays in all, most dealing with AIDS in one way or another, before he himself died in 1995 from AIDS-related illnesses.

Death and AIDS walked in lockstep for a lot of years. I could fill the remainder of this column with the names of Chicago theater artists who died of AIDS; a handful of women but overwhelmingly men: designers David Emmons and Matthew Hoffman, directors Larry Sloane and David Perkins, writers Jeff Hagedorn and Scott McPherson, actors J. Pat Miller and Gregory Williams, composers Warren Casey and Tony Zito and on and on.

Equally, I could turn this story into a laundry list of the scores and scores of theatrical works that deal with AIDS, from Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart to Jonathan Larson's Rent, from William M. Hoffman's As Is to Alan Bowne's Beirut (a heterosexual AIDS play), from BLANK to Scott McPherson's profound Marvin's Room, a response to AIDS that isn't about AIDS at all. Indeed, we now are seeing our third generation of AIDS plays along with revivals of some of the earliest major works.

Here's the point, the real point: major geo-political and socio-political events spawn entire sub-categories of art (poetry, novels, plays, films, musical works, visual works, dance, etc.). Think of the vast, stand-alone bodies of literature inspired by the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. World War II, for example, inspired theater works as varied as Stalag 17, South Pacific, The Diary of Anne Frank and This Happy Breed.

But no illness, no disease, no pandemic EVER has given rise to a vast body of dramatic literature...until AIDS. There are individual works about polio or cancer or mental illness but not a continuum of works, not a cohesive and evolving and expanding collection of works as there is about AIDS now, and going forward.

The reasons why are several. First, theater always is the art form that responds most quickly and accessibly to the world around it. Plays are written in the vernacular and generally lack some of the levels of abstraction of music or dance or some works of visual arts.

Second, artists create works about their own experiences. Writers write about what they know. For whatever genetic or bio-chemical reasons there may be, the arts have a high percentage of LGBT individuals working in them; perhaps not a higher percentage than other fields of endeavor, but certainly more open about who they are.

Finally, AIDS may be the very first global pandemic in which those with the syndrome--call them patients, victims, carriers, subjects as you will--refuse simply to lay down and die, or deny and disappear. They embrace instead the dictum of Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gently into that dark night." Artists have been at the heart of AIDS-related political action organizations such as Act Up and Gay Men's Health Crisis, and also at the heart of AIDs-related charitable organizations such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS in New York and our own Season of Concern here in Chicago.

The impact of AIDS on theater reached a threshold long ago; now the relationship is about the impact of theater on AIDS. More than any other force outside of the scientific community itself, American theater has given voice to the various AIDS communities locally, nationally and among developed nations, fiercely refusing to allow those with AIDS to be disenfranchised as they were not so very long ago. Unfortunately, vast portions of the world retain benighted attitudes about AIDS and those who are HIV-positive. Whether at home or abroad, theater will continue to fight such ignorance and indifference one production at a time in one community at a time in the battle for hearts and minds.