Those who can make you believe absurdities, will make you commit atrocitie —Voltaire

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Theatre of HIV & AIDS

It is inevitable that I should search through the long list of dramatic literature I have read over the years to find parallels to what is happening in our world and lives. Up until a year ago I would have said that Tony Kushner’s Angeles In America was the only work dealing with the subject that history would adopt as a marker for this HIV and AIDS phenomenon. I saw the play in its first London production in the early 90’s when it opened at the National Theatre and had since then kept it in high regard. Just like everyone else, I also hailed it as a landmark in modern theatre too. It was to the HIV & AIDS question what Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is to feminism. They share similarities in form and structure as well as the blending of reality and fantasy to bring out the epic dimensions of the content. Both seem to deal with the political side of their respective issues in such a way as to say they are sure of their place, and the stamp of approval they have gained as almost pieces essential in mapping out the human experience in dramatic terms and in relation to history. They both give you a glimpse as to how the past has conditioned the present, and, then show you some possibilities or logical outcomes for the future.

Angles In America was the only piece of dramatic literature that really deals with the AIDS question in America (and subsequently with AIDS in the western world in general as the basic pattern, from the viral hypothesis right down to the political debate were all imported from there). So in London we all related to it in a very direct way as well. I have had the script of the play ever since it was first published, and have read both parts many times. I have used it in drama class with students I even had it on the obligatory reading list along with Top Girls and many other plays. I have used Harper’s last speech about dead souls flying up from earth and patching up the hole in the ozone layer in class even to do group work. I bought the DVD box when it was made into a TV film that swept the Golden Globes, bringing together names like Pacino, Thompson and Streep, it was a must for the library. I even gave it out as a gift to some friends and family. I was horrified when I suddenly had to face the fact that everyone had really died from AZT and not HIV, it made the whole thing seem ridiculous, so my beloved Angeles In America would not after all even qualify to be considered as representative and so fail the official list compiled by time and history on the subject of HIV and AIDS. It had to be reclassified. It found itself on a par with some very clever safe sex adds at best. It became nothing more than another piece of well-crafted deceptive propaganda that sold a big lie.

No Angeles In America by Richard Oxman

So I decided to put together a small list of plays that would hopefully, all together, cover all aspects of this affair. These are the plays that best deal with a range of the issues that arise in relation to HIV and AIDS, though none deal specifically and directly with HIV or AIDS, as all save one; Far Away, were written well before HIV and AIDS appeared. I recommend reading them or seeing them if possible. Maybe they can help us understand a little better how we got into this mess and how to find the way out.

I have linked each title to a page where you can find more information about the play including lists of TV adaptations or film for those that find it hard to follow a dramatic text, with its particular demand on the minds eye to simultaneously see the action, or with its heavy reliance on subtext and in some cases stage directions too.

Life Of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht
Man vs Dogma. One man facing power and the irrational abstract belief systems of the Catholic Church.

An Enemy Of The People by Henrik Ibsen
A Doctor discovers the water of the local baths is contaminated. He tells city officials of his discovery. The finding threatens to bankrupt the town as the holiday season in just around the corner. He is declared an “enemy to the people” in a meeting of the town’s people by both the political establishment and the people themselves. He is persecuted and silenced. Finally he seems to want to give up and decides it’s time to take his family and leave the town. Then his house is attacked, and that’s when he decides to stay and fight on.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Classic Arthur Miller. This play is about how mass hysteria can be used for political gain and personal desires and vengeance. I think everyone knows this work.

Far Away by Caryl Churchill

Three short scenes about how collaboration with horror is now our daily exercise. Eventually the play shows how it leads to the total disintegration of the very fabric of life as we know it and its natural order. It is an apocalyptic and horrific play and an exceptionally good bedtime read. It’s short play format gives it added power.

The Visit by Freidrich Durrenmatt
The most unsettling play ever written. It’s about the corruption of an entire town presented as a microcosm of the world. It shows how a town collaborates with a plan to kill one of its citizens in exchange for money. Even the mans wife and children collaborate. The central character is a ninety year-old woman with one arm and a wooden leg, an entourage of crazy types including eunuchs and two blind men, an ex husband now a butler (just like in Sunset Boulevard) and a black panther, who returns to her native town called Gullen (a word meaning shit in Swiss) and offers the town money if they agree to kill her ex-lover who dumped her fifty years earlier and when she was pregnant. The town react in horror and reject her offer. She says she will wait. Suddenly you notice how everyone is wearing new clothes, and buying new things. Even the church has a new bell. Every one is buying on credit. Clara is also buying up the whole town. In very little time she owns everything and everyone. Finally, the whole community in the middle of a festival execute the man, and they all exclaim that he died of… “Joy”! The doctor signs the death certificate and Clara takes his body back to her villa in Capri to bury him there.

HIV & AIDS nearly 25 years on is still a headache for us today, maybe now it is a little clearer to see that it is one of corruption and not scientific error anymore. It has corrupted science and truth perhaps irredeemably. It has turned our dreams into nightmares, and left us all feeling and looking a little like Lady Macbeth, standing in the dark and ringing our hands in a sleepwalking daze, trying desperately to avoid all mirrors so as not to see our own reflections there.

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