The first play about AIDS, 1985
Directed by Marshall W. Mason
I subscribe to my “Alma Mater” publications in order to feel connected to my education though I’ve moved far away from anything they would recognize. I just received the most recent issue of “Dialogue” (Summer 2016), which is about the Northwestern University's “Communication Studies” department. Just the fact that they call themselves “studies” instead of “arts” is significant, signalling a kind of distancing, a cooling, a reliance on data. In my day (1957-1961) it was all about passion and (hopefully) genius.
Department of Communication Studies
"The Department of Communication Studies explores the social, political, and cultural functions of communication as it occurs in diverse settings ranging from interpersonal interaction to global media. Drawing on both qualitative and quantitative methods, the department’s teaching and scholarship explore communication practices, media, institutions, and arts as they shape agreement and dissent, competition and cooperation.
"Our faculty are leaders in the study of new media, public culture, social networking, technology and social behavior, and other areas as well. They address both perennial problems and emergent phenomena in a context of interdisciplinary collaboration. Students have opportunities for direct involvement in state of the art scholarship. Additional programming ensures a rich academic environment for acquiring the understanding and skills that will be expected for leadership in the twenty-first century."
The illustration at the head of the above includes an Asian woman and a North African man. They might actually be from the countries that are their genetic sources or they might be several generations' American. When I was attending, there were no people who looked like this photo. There were two groups that have been otherwise stigmatized over time but were quietly included: one was Jewish and the other was gay. Both were well-represented in the Theatre Department, but I know of men who were arrested for being gay. No one was arrested for being Jewish. Several of both groups have been major successes in the arts. There's a bit of overlap.
A subset of the theatre department students of the School of Speech (which is what we called it then) were devoted to Alvina Krause and her “Method”, signalled by being chosen to work in Eaglesmere, Pa, in the summer theatre. A high percentage had family connections to Broadway and other acting/production venues. We wondered whether we might be a community that history would note as a “hot spot” of creativity and brilliance. By now, I think it has turned out that we were. Not myself, because I returned to the West, where I am now, part of a different but echoing story.
Marshall W. Mason
In this issue of “Criterion” the Alumni Achievements include a thumbnail of Marshall W. Mason (C61). Marshall, founder of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, is one of two recipients of the 2016 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre. The other recipient is famed Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick (BSM49).” Marshall grew up in Amarillo, Texas. He’s still comfortable south of the border but is not Mexican. He was on the faculty of Arizona State University for a decade and remains emeritus professor there.
In an interview after receiving this award, a culmination of a career of awards, Marshall says that he is most proud of producing “As Is,” by William F. Hoffman at Circle Repertory. Here’s the Samuel French description:
"Winner of the Obie and Drama Desk Awards
"The time is now, the place New York City. Rich, a young writer who is beginning to find success, is breaking up with his longtime lover, Saul, a professional photographer. The split is particularly difficult for Saul, who still loves Rich deeply, but the mood is one of bantering and ironic humor as they divide their belongings. However Rich's idyll with his new lover is short-lived when he learns that he has AIDS and returns to the goodhearted Saul for sanctuary as he awaits its slow and awful progress. Thereafter the action is comprised of a mosaic of brilliantly conceived short scenes, some profoundly moving, some brightly humorous, which capture the pathos of Rich's relationship with friends and family; the cold impersonality of the doctors and nurses who care for him; and the widely diverse aspects of New York's gay community—for which Rich's plight is a chilling reminder of their own peril. In the end the effect of the play is emotionally overwhelming—an honest and unsparing examination of a deeply felt human relationship shattered by a mindless, destructive force which cannot be tempered or turned aside.
"Winner of the Obie and Drama Desk Awards, this powerful, deeply affecting play was originally presented Off-Broadway by the Circle Repertory Company, and then transferred to Broadway where it was nominated for a Tony Award. Dealing with the AIDS crisis in the homosexual community, the play blends humor, poignance and brilliant theatricality as it details the bravery and compassion with which two young men face the shattering revelation that one of them is affected with the dreaded, and fatal, disease. "…the most impressive work presently being performed on or Off-Broadway…It is beautifully written and splendidly performed." —Variety. "AS IS is one of the few theatrical evenings in town that may, if anything, seem too brief." —NY Times. "A wonderful and frightening play…" —NY Post. "…this is the best new play of the season." —NY Magazine."
from the London Production of "As Is"
Peripherally in the AK group, I was fairly close to the gay men, but not the women. I suppose I was a beard, but for what I’m not sure. They tell me now that in those late Fifties they were aware that they were “different” but not what it meant. They were “artistic”. Or something. When I talk to them now, they are surprised that I always knew they were “homosexual” which was a phobia in my childhood household, but of no concern or real interest as a college student. My student teaching supervisor was gay. He told the beautiful and gifted student actor she had no career ahead of her because she was black.
Looking at the poster for “As Is”, the actors seem recognizably gay: plaid shirts with sleeves rolled up, Air Force mustaches, but no black leather jacket. There were no markers like that at NU in the late Fifties, so I don’t know what I was picking up on. Much less what they saw in me, except that we were all head-trippy in a — brace yourself — corticolimbic way. That is, the WHOLE head plus bodies as a means of thinking and reacting, global sensory awareness as a source of identity, and never shutting down everything that wasn’t processed in the prefrontal cortex (the post-animal) which everyone else clung to and the school seems to have returned to.
Blue tailed skink.
Tony Roberts (no idea about his romantic preferences) did his class exercise assignment of embodying a living creature as a skink, a lizard that does nothing unless it’s in danger or hungry, so we all scoffed at him. He was being humorous (he does that) but he also put up a pretty good defense about achieving a mind that’s only reflexes. I can’t remember anyone doing a class scene directly about gays. Not even Oscar Wilde. But we were pretty invested in Tennessee Williams. Maybe that was not so much euphemism as a kind of slant displacement.
We talked a lot about culture in terms of sensory styles (food, clothing, climate) and family dynamics, but I remember almost no discussion of drugs or politics. Most people smoked, some drank too much. The Peace Corps was just beginning, the birth control pill was approved in 1960, there had been no assassinations yet. No one had any real idea what American Indians were like because they were all portrayed by Italians. No one had any awareness of AIDS though in retrospect it can be identified as far back as the Twenties and maybe earlier.
"Ghosts" by Ibsen, directed by Mason
Marshall Mason writes quite a bit about theatre. I’m wondering whether he might trace out the larger evolution of his consciousness about HIV between the secret of one’s desires in 1960 to the frank confrontation of 1985 and what has happened since then, now that it's 2016. It seems to me that the years at NU gave us such a broad, deep and intense understanding of human beings in all their permutations that maybe this new and ghastly spectre could be wrestled with honor, painful as it is.
Today’s HIV/AIDS is a far different issue for a pre-adolescent boy entangled in sexwork, needle drugs, starvation, collateral trauma, and lack of shelter — bereft of family. What seems to pull those boys back from suicide is the same thing that we at NU thought was the source of genius: a group, a community, a family. But now they don’t write three-act plays. They blog, they vid, they photo, they sing and dance, they skateboard (which is now an Olympic sport). I’m not sure the present incarnation of NU’s elaborate Communication Studies has caught up to that. They seem a little too cold and distant to me. Not much like Timo.