The first cases of AIDS were found in North America in 1981; the HIV virus was isolated and named in 1984. Some of the best theatrical works of the late Twentieth Century focused on that plague. Now, twenty years later, those plays are being revisited with a combination of memory and new perspective.
Two of Harvey Fierstein’s AIDS plays are currently being performed in London at the Tristan Bates Theatre. When they were new in the 1980s, “Safe Sex” and “On Tidy Endings” were groundbreaking plays about gay men grappling with the horror of then new disease called AIDS. The central monologue of “Safe Sex” considers how people can continue to live full lives as they shudder under the emotional toll of ubiquitous death and a new-found fear of sex.
In 2010 Michael Greif’s intimate production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays graced the stages of the Signature Theatre in New York. The twentieth anniversary of David Drake’s deeply personal work, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, was celebrated a year ago with a one-night-only benefit performance. The script was reworked to modernize it.
HBO’s much-touted film version of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart will be shown starting May 25, 2014. This follows the Tony-winning Broadway production in 2011 of a play originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1985.
The next step beyond reviving classic AIDS plays is the creation of new works that acknowledge the history and present of the disease. Leave it to playwright Terrence McNally to recognize this issue and encapsulate it in a work for theater. His new play, Mothers and Sons, currently at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, explores the changes in how AIDS affects different generations.
AIDS is still with us. In some parts of the world, it rages on as mercilessly as ever. If we in the “first world” become complacent about the disease, it may well threaten to drown us again. Whereas AIDS theater was once primarily a safety valve for expressing the almost inexpressibly painful, it has become an essential reminder of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and why we must never turn back.