When William Hoffman sat down to revise his award-winning 1985 drama As Is for its recent revival at the Circle Repertory Theater, he ended up making only one major change. The original script contained a scene in which the six members of the play’s informal Greek chorus recalled the first time they had heard about AIDS – from a doctor, from a friend, from a newspaper. In the new version, the playwright extended the scene with a speech in which one character reminisces about the first memorial service he had attended for someone who had died of AIDS.

“Since that time,” the man says, “I’ve been to how many memorial services? Seth . . . Robby . . . Phil . . . Neil . . . “ The other characters begin to chime in with the mournful litany of friends they’ve buried, and as the list grows longer and longer, members of the audience silently add the names of loved ones they’ve lost to the AIDS epidemic.

“People are using the play to express publicly their grief,” says Mr. Hoffman. “With AIDS, grief is often in the closet. People don’t want others to know they have AIDS or a friend has AIDS. But they can go to a play and learn that other people feel exactly the same way. I think it’s important for people to know that feeling terrible is a normal response to sadness. Laughter is also a normal response. A work of art can give validation to our human responses.”

Mr. Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, produced two years ago at the Public Theater, took the lead in promoting education of AIDS and concern for the afflicted. As time goes on and the death toll from this mysterious disease mounts, there still have been no major novels or films dealing with AIDS (aside from independent features such as Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances and the German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim’s work A Virus Has No Morals). Although network television has produced one drama (An Early Frost) and scattered episodes about AIDS, it is theater artists who remain at the forefront in addressing the subject. 

Along with the revival of As Is (currently playing in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington), this theater season has also seen Harvey Fierstein’s Safe Sex at La Mama and on Broadway and Stuart Spencer’s Last Outpost at the End of the World in the Ensemble Studio Theater’s one-act marathon, both portraying people affected by the AIDS epidemic. Currently running Off Broadway is Robert Chesley’s Jerker, or the Helping Hand at the Sanford Meisner Theater, in which two men conduct a sexual relationship by telephone. Most recently Alan Bowne’s Beirut, the first play to address the impact of AIDS on a heterosexual relationship, opened at the Westside Arts Theater. Consciousness about AIDS outside of New York is also being reflected in plays that have originated in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, London, and elsewhere.

These plays are significant in that they assert the theater’s ancient function as a public forum in which a community gathers to talk about itself. What’s happening onstage and what’s happening in the audience is sometimes so similar that the script seems to disappear. It often becomes a mere pretext for an assembly of individuals collectively seeking information, seeking an outlet for anger, anxiety and grief, seeking to bolster a shaky sense of communal identity in order to face medical horrors and political backlash still to come. However history may judge their literary merits, plays about AIDS have an immediate social value in dealing with an issue so close to home.

“Theater deals with relationships between people, and that’s where AIDS has struck most deeply,” says the playwright Stuart Spencer. “Although AIDS is terrible and is completely changing the way all of us live, especially the gay community, the fact that someone is dying or has died of AIDS is not inherently dramatic. It’s the fact that you’ve lost someone that’s so large and inexplicable. It could be AIDS, it could be the Holocaust – anything that’s big and powerful and confusing to all of us.”

While AIDS has become a global concern – “a social phenomenon, not just a public health issue,” in the words of New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Stephen Joseph – it struck first and deepest in the gay communities of New York and San Francisco, which have high populations of creative artists. Undoubtedly, it was this personal contact with AIDS that triggered such an immediate response from theater artists. The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s report from the front lines about the formation in 1981 of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (the primarily volunteer organization that has become the model for AIDS service agencies around the world) is an impassioned call to political action. The play, which has been seen worldwide and will soon be made into a film by Barbra Streisand, has directly inspired many theatergoers to join the volunteer ranks of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

“It always moves a writer to think that he is able to provoke people,” says Mr. Kramer. “But I don’t personally think that I accomplished what I hoped to do. We’re entering the seventh year of the epidemic, and we still have a government, a Mayor and a President who are all very ignoble on the AIDS issue.”

Plays about AIDS are sometimes as much an education about the lives of gay men as about the disease. “Lots of people don’t think gay people are human, in a literal sense,” says William Hoffman. “They think they’re animals. When they come to a show like As Is and see gay people portrayed like them, they see that AIDS is like the cancer their mama had or the heart failure their son had, and they start to be able to translate it into something they know. At one performance on Broadway, an obviously straight guy was crying in the lobby afterwards, and I heard him say over and over again, ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t know.’ In a way, that’s my deepest wish – to make AIDS more ordinary, to make people understand that it’s not a moral affliction, it’s another disease.”

Theater continues to play a significant role in AIDS education in the gay community. “There’s a big push in the media to emphasize that it’s not a gay disease but a virus that affects everyone. That’s great,” says Doug Holsclaw, whose romantic comedy The Life of the Party – a spinoff of The AIDS Show, a revue first performed at San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros in 1984 and broadcast on PBS earlier this year – is simultaneously playing in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “But in San Francisco, after four or five years, we’re dealing with AIDS on a possibly permanent, certainly indefinite basis. Urban gay men have been so ravaged and devastated by AIDS in every aspect of their lives that it’s not possible to write a play abut gay men without dealing with it. So Life of the Party is what I’d call a second-generation AIDS play. I wrote it as propaganda. I wanted to show four healthy, attractive, respectable men openly discussing the difficulties and advantages of safe sex.”

Unlike other AIDS plays, Alan Bowne’s Beirut eschews any educational role. Rather than being a realistic portrait of heterosexuals dealing with AIDS, Beirut dramatizes the life force that drives two people to risk death to be together. Approached by a couple of young actors two years ago to write a play that they could perform in an East Village club, the playwright adapted Romeo and Juliet as a nightmarish fantasy set in the near future when New York is overrun with an unnamed plague. So-called “blood-positive” individuals are tattooed on the buttocks, quarantined on the Lower East Side and inspected for symptoms daily by a Lesion Patrol.

Although the play freely borrows medical terminology from AIDS literature, the playwright says, “I didn’t feel responsibility for education because I thought the disease I created was worse than AIDS.” Subsequent developments gave the play macabre overtones. “Not long after I wrote the play, William Buckley came out suggesting tattooing people who tested positive for the AIDS virus,” he said, referring to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Mr. Buckley, which appeared in March 1986. “After that, Lyndon LaRouche got on the ballot in California with a referendum calling for quarantining. Right away, life started imitating art.”

As a grotesque fantasia inspired by AIDS, Beirut resembles Robert Chesley’s 1984 play Night Sweat. Set in a sex club for the terminally ill, it was the first play about AIDS seen in New York. Mr. Chesley’s latest work, Jerker, belongs to Mr. Holsclaw’s category of second-generation AIDS dramas. The play’s subtitle – “A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in 20 Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty” – makes it sound raunchier than it really is. The dialogue between JR and Bert, strangers who conduct their entire relationship on the telephone, begins with sexual fantasies, but as the men become closer they share complete personal histories.

Departing from their usual masturbatory fantasies, toward the end of the play JR enchants Bert with a bedtime fairy tale about two young boys who battle their way through the Forbidden Forest to arrive at the castle of a handsome prince. “He questions us about each adventure, peril, and sorrow,” JR recounts, “and from the answers he brings forth from us we understand that each one, even the most terrible, was a lesson on our journey to the palace; and we understand that we ourselves were lessons for others whose paths crossed ours in the Forest.”

The playwright is less concerned that the audience share his characters’ specific sexual fantasies than that they cherish the vitality of the sexual imagination in the face of death. “I think it’s important to remove the stigma against sex that AIDS has created, and it’s important to remove the stigma against gay men,” he says. “What I’m talking about is humanizing lives which are otherwise disregarded or despised or destroyed. As the epidemic goes on, we don’t really know what is happening or what will happen, but it’s important to tell our stories before they’re gone for good.”

New York Times, June 21, 1987

Historical Note: As this article was going to press, the New York Times changed its long-standing policy of using the word “homosexual” instead of “gay,” except in titles and direct quotes. My editor called me with this news, and we went through the text putting the word “gay” in as many times as possible. So this was one of the first, if not the first, article in the New York Times to use the word “gay” the way people do in real life.