From the mid-2000s there has been an upsurge in reviving ‘Aids plays’ – from the 2008 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart to the National Theatre revisiting Angels in America in 2017.
Alongside that, newer plays that take on contemporary experiences of HIV are being written, while others such as Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance take a retrospective look.
Where is Aids theatre now? What does this steady stream of revivals mean? And how do newer works sit alongside them?
A rich history of playwrights from the US and across the globe have used theatrical performance as a platform for responding to the Aids epidemic.
From the very early days of Aids, performance was an integral part of activism in the US – initially as protest and to fundraise, but also as a means to respond and process collective community grief. Rather than simply a written or oral history, restaging Aids plays helps to re-engage with the period and keeps that chapter in history alive. Today, in reviving these plays, there is a sense of honouring legacy to be done.
Some of these plays have become a part of the theatrical canon and are revisited accordingly. They are empirically regarded as good works of theatre – Angels in America did not win the Pulitzer Prize just because it was about Aids.
Similarly, Jonathan Larson’s Rent did not run on Broadway for 15 years and win a Pulitzer just for being a hot political topic. These, and others like The Normal Heart or Falsettos are good works of theatre, and that is also why – alongside their historical and political significance – they are frequently revisited.
The politics of the era have shifted, but although the specifics of 1980s Republicanism in Angels in America might be something of a mystery, the feeling of helplessness against government prejudice today feels as fresh as in 1992. As is the feeling of grief and loss encapsulated in these works.
And what of new works? Much of the new work that deals with Aids is addressing contemporary HIV experience. Of course, there is legacy inherent in that. But works such as Chemsex Monologues, or Positive are concerned – rightly – with issues of today.
Occasionally work tries to blend the two, as in The Inheritance. Lopez’s epic work skilfully bridged the gap between past and present and managed to encapsulate some of the fear and grief of the 1980s and 1990s, alongside the present day. But his is a play that, as the title suggests, only works alongside its theatrical, cultural and political inheritance; it builds on what went before.
There is now a sense to revisiting history. The reason we revisit – and that we should revisit – these plays is in part what Lopez’s play instructed: inheritance. Because so many involved in the Aids crisis were died so quickly, much was also lost to history. For this reason, plays and musicals that were immediate responses to the crisis have become an important part of recording that history.
Emily Garside is a freelance writer, dramaturg and researcher with a PhD in queer performance