The Normalizing Heart

How AIDS plays have changed since Larry Kramer raged

But, needless to say, they left little room for irony. That became the terrain of plays like Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, in which AIDS is evoked in an invented illness: Acquired Toilet Disease. Then there's Angels in America, with its grand synthesis of sex, politics, and metaphysics. These plays from the early '90s attempted to create new metaphors for AIDS, but they also pointed to a time when the epidemic would lose its symbolic power. By the new century, fewer people known in artistic circles were dying, and the anti-gay action had shifted to other issues. It became possible to create a new set of associations, in which the plague stood for the era when it arose. Along with yuppies and club kids, there was this deadly disease back in the Reagan years that can now be dressed in retro and set to music. Curtain up; light the lights.

On a bleary night, Hugh Jackman could pass for '80s song-and-dance man Peter Allen. He has the dervish-in-a-Hawaiian-shirt look down. His impersonation is the main reason why people are drawn to see Allen's life story in The Boy From Oz. But when it comes to Kleenexing the house, there's nothing like the moment when the ghost of Allen's lover (who has died of AIDS) comes back to inspire him, or when Allen's ghost urges us to follow our dreams. Something similar happens to the trans artist Leigh Bowery in the '80s milieu musical Taboo. "I'm not going to be famous as an AIDS victim," he gasps. "Promise that won't be my legacy." And it's not. Before the curtain falls, he's become a source of inspiration, with one denizen of the club scene singing, "Hold up your head/Never be afraid to shine."

Nineteen years and counting: Larry Kramer (left) and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Nineteen years and counting: Larry Kramer (left) and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine

How did AIDS become a reprise of "You'll Never Walk Alone"? By the same process that turns war into parades. Stylization allows us to seal up the past. We can freeze the time when panic had to be managed and desire suppressed, when death was all too proud. Even The Normal Heart has this anesthetizing effect. It reminds me that revisiting a trauma in the comfort of the present is a good way to forget. But maybe the play has another meaning for those who never experienced AIDS in its early days. To test my reaction, I went to see it with a gay man who was a child when the epidemic struck. I was stirred but unable to connect with the viscera of my feelings. He cried and cried.

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