Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"AS IS:" Reflections

Edinburgh production

There are two good ways to enter a world that is to most folks quite unknown.  One is through a pair of lovers and one is through commerce.  On one hand is Romeo and Juliet and on the other hand is the Silk Road.  To penetrate unknown worlds is deadly dangerous, but people do it anyway, out of love.  And other things.

“As Is” was the first play about the beginning of AIDS, written by William M. Hoffman and first produced at Circle Repertory  where it was directed by Marshall W. Mason, a friend of mine from undergrad years whom I had kept track of through mutual friends.

Explaining how he began writing this play, Hoffman says:  

“All around me was illness and death.  I fell into a depression.

“So, sometime in 1982, as a sort of therapy, I started to express my feelings on paper.  I decided to write a play about a man named Rich — a writer and runner — who comes down with AIDS, his former lover, Saul, and their friends and families.

“I did my research, I visited friends who had the disease; I talked with a hospice worker; I went to support groups; I attended lectures; I made field trips to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (the most important organization dealing with the disease in New York City); I spent hours eavesdropping in gay bars, taking the public pulse.

“I was willing to go to any lengths for my play, except to imagine myself having AIDS.”  

It didn’t work until he let himself be funny — death humor is a part of eloquence.  At the time he began he was writing the libretto for “The Ghosts of Versailles” — why couldn’t his dying men be as eloquent?

The opera is set in an afterlife existence of the Versailles court of Louis XVI. In order to cheer up the ghost of Marie Antoinette, who is upset about having been beheaded, the ghost of the playwright Beaumarchais stages an opera.”  The play satirizes this opera-in-an-opera and asks the audience to accept fantasy as it shifts the terms of the scenes.  There are YouTubes.

Though Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993) pulled in ghosts in the form of angels, “As Is” only included dying people.  Still, it certainly must have prepared the way for the more elaborate and complex “Angels.”  The earlier Hoffman play was workshopped in scenes at Circle Repertory, everyone feeling their way into an unknown future.  In that year ('82) I was just leaving seminary and had almost no consciousness of HIV.  My “ethics of dying” class (taught by Don Browning) used melanoma as the worst case scenario.  But that’s not far from Kaposi’s sarcoma.

I left formal ministry in 1988.  By that time a valued colleague had died of the virus in spite of his partner, an MD, using every resource he could muster. By 1993 I was returning from Heart Butte, where some students were quietly gay, to Portland where the city was aswirl with needle drug users and uncloseted gays.  Arthur Ashe died of AIDS that year.  It was no secret, not much of a surprise.  The disease and its consequences swept over the continent faster than anyone could react effectively.  It’s still happening.

Marshall says in his production notes for "As Is"“I feel it is important that the actors remain on stage as much as possible, to witness as a community the events of the play in which they do not participate as characters.  The audience must be kept from feeling “safe” from this subject, so the actors of the “chorus” must act as a bridge between the fictional character and the real theater event . . .The desired effect is to assist the audience in a catharsis, as they are required to contemplate our common mortality.”

Marshall's production of "Trojan Women" at NU.
Dennis Parichy did the set, for both this and "As Is."

These ideas — from staging to moral passion — came from NU where Mason directed a performance of the “The Trojan Women.”  I was in it as a chorus member.  Characteristic of Alvina Krause’s acting classes and directing critiques was that they centered on high principles.  She came into theatre through the Methodist Garrett Seminary on campus, where she taught interpretation which segued into the stage as part of the School of Speech.  Greek theatre is the origin of catharsis, going back to Aristotle’s “Poetics” and usually taken to mean purification or purgation.  Theatre/opera/Greek plays are strongly Sacred.  

This is the thread I follow.  The Lutheran minister who headed my CPE program always said that one purpose of a congregation is to witness as a Greek chorus does and that nothing significant in human life is “real” to a person until it is witnessed by someone who grasps the meaning.

AK could not have seen a production of “As Is” or even have been aware of AIDS, since she died in 1981, but I would love to know her reaction and I expect Marshall would as well.  She had a lifelong female companion but veered off abruptly on certain subjects.  She was an Edwardian, very daring but only when totally hidden.  And yet she believed in going to the bony heart of pain and loneliness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcalL3C-zH4 is a sample of the TV production in 1986.  Though it was also written by Hoffman, the change of medium loses the stage fluidity and the chorus, but somewhat preserves the contrapuntal “libretto” of a scriptwriter who writes for opera and hears words as opera.  I’d much rather see a stage production, though film in the last 34 years has loosened up and learned a lot, so is far more musical.  The play did well enough at Circle Theatre (49 performances) to move to the Lyceum on Broadway for 285 performances.  I've only read the script and seen the YouTube clip.

Playing around with possibilities, one wonders what would have been different if this play had been written and produced by someone in San Francisco.  In retrospect, what if the first deaths of AIDS, in the Seventies which included women and children had become the markers for the disease instead of seeming like undiagnosed anomalies at the time.  The identification of HIV with gay men  — not just gay but sexually interactive — has skewed understanding and response ever since.  By 2015 the disease is still predominantly male in terms of new diagnoses but skews to Southern blacks.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_HIV/AIDS)

Can the impact of a play confronting this first of the mysterious jungle-emergent viruses ever be equalled by a play about ebola or Zika?  Were there plays as personal about malaria or yellow fever?  About polio?  Does Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” count as a film about the Black Plague that emptied Europe of a third of its population?  

As far as I know, no one has written a play from the indigenous point of view portraying smallpox at the time of its genocidal sweep in this intimate Manhattan way instead of broad political strokes.  Part of the power of “As Is” comes from the self-analyzing tight friendship and family circles of the specific Manhattan society with their feeling of being an elite.  Native Americans and maybe Blacks have seen so much hardship, they are not surprised and far more fatalistic.

"The Normal Heart" was developed at about the same time as "As Is," and produced soon after the more personal play.

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