Wednesday, 15 May 2013

AIDS Drama

Astrid Haas, Stages of Agency: The Contributions of American Drama to the AIDS Discourse (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag WINTER, 2011)

In Stages of Agency, Astrid Haas gives a brisk and very fully researched survey of the most significant American plays that have addressed the AIDS epidemic as their central theme. In accordance with the specific manner in which this catastrophe unfolded—now, since 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and so forth, largely forgotten except by those it most directly affected and goes on affecting—the theatre of AIDS began with a concentration on white gay men before turning to the experience of ethnic minority communities and women. (White, heterosexual men have been characterised mainly as the villains of the piece.)
            The disproportionate way in which AIDS first affected, and was first observed among, gay men determined the hostility with which it was treated by mainstream media and the languor, not to say fatal negligence, with which official agencies responded, or refused to respond, to it. Only when government could be persuaded that not just faggots but anyone—and, in particular, ‘The Family’—was at risk, was anything like a suitable emergency response forthcoming. (This same pattern was observed in most of the developed nations.) Later, around the turn of the 1990s, gay activists and writers had to ‘re-gay’ the crisis in order to try to ensure that what meagre funds had been released for the fight against AIDS would not, absurdly, disproportionately, be spent only on ‘respectable’ groups, who were actually those least affected.
            Following the same pattern, AIDS drama began and ended (for other topics have now taken over the public interest) as gay drama, and only in a brief interim period did it temporarily focus on minority ethnic groups and women qua people-with-AIDS rather than merely as the family or friends of such people. So Haas’s account begins with in 1985 with William H. Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the latter written at the very Ground Zero of the crisis, autobiography functioning as agitprop, and urgently aiming to change both the sexual and political behaviours of gay men; and her account ends with Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (1998).
Between these two poles, Haas pays detailed attention not only to Tony Kushner’s bloated Angels in America (1991, 1992), whose main purpose appears to be to transcend the epidemic by drawing palatable, general conclusions from it about equality and fairness, within a context of etiolated, secular spirituality; but also to such plays as Cheryl West’s Before It Hits Home (1991), the most prominent AIDS play by an African-American writer, and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz (1991), another of only very few by women to have been widely performed and reviewed.
The research is dutiful, methodical—and dull. It would be difficult to pinpoint a strong opinion of Haas’s own. Everything is footnoted. To the claim that in Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me ‘an acerbic wit tones down the moments of anger’, she adds the footnote ‘Cf. Destiny 132, 139-46, 149, 155-62, 167, 177-79, 183-84, 189-92, 195-97, 206, 211, 213-15, 227-33, 241-43, 246, 250-51’ (p.166). What one is supposed to do with such lists of page numbers is unclear.
The limitations of each play are listed, mainly along the lines of which issues do not arise and which constituencies are not addressed. There is a crude understanding of how audiences relate to characters, all of whom are treated by Haas not as roles but as ‘role models’. The fact that Chay Yew’s play A Language of Their Own (1995) has only one white character, who is also the only individual who has no connection to the ‘world’ of AIDS ‘allows white viewers to dissociate themselves from AIDS and affirm the widespread racist pathologization of people of color as disease-ridden’ (p.259). This could only hold true if an audience ignored all previous knowledge of the epidemic. Does Haas really expect a playwright to restate the whole history of AIDS, to avoid the chance that one Rip Van Winkle will find himself in the stalls? The same train of thought leads her into the absurd position of implying that a playwright should not write about gay men with AIDS because it ‘reinforces the ongoing essentialist, pathologizing popular connection of the syndrome to gay men’ (p.283). If one follows this approach to its logical conclusion, ever daring to write anything about AIDS is going to pathologize someone or other. Would Haas prefer a discreet but egalitarian silence?
But the silliest moment of all is when Haas says, of re-reading The Normal Heart twenty-five years on, that currently rising HIV rates among American gay men have ‘provided the play with a tragic dimension’ (p.121). What on earth did she think it had in 1985?
The book has been poorly proof-read and lacks an index.

[This review first appeared in the Journal of American Studies (November 2012).]

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