Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart: World Premiere on HBO Tonight

 

“Life in Manhattan began to resemble the tale of Edgar Allan Poe: Death had arrived at the ball and it wore a mask,” wrote Andrew Hollerman in the Introduction of the 1985 print edition of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

Oh HBO, please don’t fuck this up. Of course, my pleas are pointless, this project has been done and ready to go. But I have more faith in HBO than I do in any other television network, or in any major Hollywood film studio. HBO was a good choice, though was not the first. Kramer was supposed to be collaborating with Barbra Streisand to bring Heart to film, but that fell through after several attempts over two decades; he wanted a million dollars, she said it was too high for the studios. Kramer scoffs at Steisand’s ‘inability’ to afford his fee, and said, ” ‘If she had made my play about AIDS, ‘The Normal Heart,’ in 1986, when she first acquired the rights, only to sit on them for a full ten years without filming it, she could have done something for gay rights when we were really in the sewer of death. But no, she chose to go off and make such vitally important and classic movies as ‘Nuts’ and ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces.’ “.

Both are reputed to be difficult. Kramer, at least in the 80s, was because the house was on fire and his political urgency made him militant. Streisand seemingly because she can be: she is rich and powerful and was and is one of the biggest shills for Bill Clinton and the rest of the neo-liberal Democratic Party establishment.

Kramer was a founding member of the Gay Mens’ Health Crisis in 1982, when gay men were dying and no one knew why. Heart is semi-autobiographical in that the character, journalist Ned Weeks becomes frustrated by the slow and timid efforts of the non-profit that he started in the face of indifference of the political and media elites. Even Dr Emma Brookner, the physician who is treating dying gay men in NYC tells Weeks that his organization is , “useless”.

Kramer would go on to help start ACT-UP, a direct action organization that forcibly confronted Ed Koch over lack of funding and George HW Bush over his lamenting, “behaviours” of gay men in the face of the AIDS crisis.

GRID, the dumping of lovers’ ashes on the White House lawn. It’s been forgotten.

This movie is important.

 

 

Ellen Barkin as Dr Emma Brookner, and Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks

Ellen Barkin as Dr Emma Brookner, and Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks in the 2011 Broadway production of The Normal Heart

Closing Performance of The Two Worlds of Charlie F.: British Militaristic Propaganda

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I caught the last performance (Sunday afternoon at 2 PM) of The Two Worlds of Charlie F Sunday March 9 at the Toronto’s for-profit Princess of Wales Theatre, owned and operated by Mirvish Productions. Canada is always fighting, culturally, for its slice of pie, and theatre is no different. Mirvish imports most of their works from New York and London. So Mirvish, like other big Canadian theatre companies, gives short shrift to Canadian playwrights. Canadian plays can be seen at smaller theatres, though they have smaller audiences, and a smaller budget, which of course, means a shorter reach to the public. Borders, flags, and nationalisms have done humans much more harm and really no good, so I do not sympathize with Canadian playwrights for any sort of nationalistic reasons, but for the fact that artists in a certain geographical location cannot get their works as widely produced in their own backyards thanks to US and British dominance.

And of course, only certain kinds plays are getting into Mirvish. Squeaky clean shit like Jersey Boys. Charlie F made the cut because it is patriotic storytelling, and in that respect, it too is squeaky clean. Personal stories of British soldiers who were injured on the battlefields in Afghanistan, a war that drags on that most of the public never thinks about. Eight of the roles in the play are performed by ex-vets, some with missing limbs. The other seven, by trained actors.

The play starts off with the noise of a bomb exploding, louder than any sound designer would normally set the volume in a play. We are seeing “Charlie F”, Lance Corporal Charlie Fowler (a role played by retired Royal Marine Cassidy Little), a Canadian who enlisted with the British forces, behind a screen, in a hospital bed, thrashing about and cursing at the nurse because he is trapped in flashbacks. He thinks he is still dealing with the Taliban. After a few visits from loved ones, he jumps through the screen and we see that he is missing a leg from stepping on an IED. He talks to the audience and the rest of the soldiers come out and stand with him and start identifying themselves and telling their stories.

The play takes us through the histories of the characters, their reasons for joining, their enlistments, their personal dramas with their lovers and loved ones, played by a trio of female actors who take on various roles throughout the play. Their time on the field, in some instances, the moment where they were injured: we see Rifleman Leroy Jenkins (played by Rifleman Dan Shaw) when he first lost both his legs. Some terrible musical numbers, though one witty tune in rehab where the vets are singing the names of their medications. And an exercise number where the bombs go off again. Soldiers come out and see that they have accidentally bombed Afghani civilians, the dancercisers playing the roles of the dead. It is pointed out that the soldiers often cannot tell the difference between civilians and “insurgents”. And the dance massacre is one of only two instances where we hear about the loss of life amongst those who are occupied. We never hear the word “occupied” or “occupation” in this show, though we are treated to a brief, sanitized history lesson with board and pointer from one of the actors in uniform, telling us of the three Anglo-Afghan Wars and of, “fighting the communist threat”.

And not only did the writer coast on the history of British occupation in Afghanistan, but both the writer and director seem to coast on the story and production. They are wounded soldiers and we know that the audience will eat it up, they seem to be thinking to themselves, so we really don’t have to work that hard. The writing is a bit flat, and the stories are cliched. British celebrities came out of a previous performance of Charlie F and praised the show. What other response could they give? To do anything less than rave would be flirting with the possibilities of public backlash and ostracism.

One must analyze the current political climate to review such a show: this occupation is continuing, and there are still 5,000 British Troops still stationed in the country. And the “support the troops” mantra is used by British, Canadian and the US governments to sidestep questions of whether or not this war should have ever taken place or if the occupation should continue. It also attempts to browbeat critics into silence. History is written by the victors, the colonizers, and by those who prop-up theocratic regimes and dictators. And the capitalists who make a killing on lengthy occupations. And the pain of war is documented, but for only one side.

But the absence of Afghani suffering is not my complaint with this play. It is the absence of the “other” in the thoughts of the soldiers in the play. Charlie F, in the final scene, addresses the audience and attempts to claim a universality for all on the globe who are wounded in war, but that really does not work. War injuries cannot be discussed in a vacuum, and all vets are not equal in the eyes of the British and US Empires. I believe that at least some of these soldiers think of those who were forced into occupation: the Afghani civilians who did not have the option of enlisting for any of this. But it was cleaner and easier for the playwright to not incorporate those thoughts, save for the aerobics massacre and the comment from Lance Corporal Maurilla “Simi” Simpson about the hard choice to gun down an armed child, to kill or be killed.

It was easier and cleaner, especially since the British military underwrote the production and its current UK tour, and the Canadian Armed Forces publicly endorsed it while it played in Toronto. Does anyone think that this production would be funded and supported by these militaries if it gave a human face to Afghanis? This step would lead to questioning the war and its architects. Maybe it would lead some to believe that these people lost their limbs for nothing. And if the British can fund this production, why can’t they provide adequate services for their vets?

While I do feel that some of the vets probably question the cause, or think about civilians who have perished, I am not naive enough to think that all of them would oppose the war and on-going occupation, possibly, none of them oppose it. There are the two opposite poles: opposing the war, and thinking about the legitimacy of the military and the British Empire it represents. An American example of a case like this would be Jeremy Hinzman, a conscientious objector who fled to Canada to evade deployment to Iraq and who is still, years later, waiting on word of whether or not he can stay in Canada. The other pole of thought would be the jingoism and hatred for any population that England invades, which, given the nation’s history, is a significant part of the world. And invasion, occupation, white supremacist conquest, and looting are all a significant part of England’s identity. Keep in mind: this country still has a Queen who, while a figurehead, is the Constitutional Monarch of sixteen soverign states, including Canada. In the words of American journalist Glenn Greenwald, “The political elite of [England] cling desperately to 17th century feudal traditions. Grown adults who have been elected or appointed to nothing run around with a straight face insisting that they be called ‘Lord’ and ‘Baroness’ and other grandiose hereditary titles of the landed gentry. They bow and curtsey to a ‘Queen’, who lives in a ‘palace’, and they call her sons ‘Prince’. They embrace a wide range of conceits and rituals of a long-ago collapsed empire.”

Regardless of whether these vets embrace anti-war internationalism or racist hatred of all Afghanis, or the more realistic options of anything in between, it would have been good to hear their views, it would have made their accounts richer, which would have made a much more engaging play. We do hear about Simi as a child in Trinidad and Tobago, dreaming of growing up to join the military and living near the Queen after Elizabeth came to her country on a state visit. Does she still possess such warm feelings? (Simi’s leg was injured while she was stationed in Germany in 2010. She did three stints in Iraq, but never served in Afghanistan).

But of course, such a play would never be performed at Mirvish. Keep in mind, My Name Is Rachel Corrie was going to be performed at Canadian Stage Company and then-Artistic Director Martin Bragg was working to secure rights to the play in 2006. CanStage soon backed out, the official reason given was that the work itself was “flat”, but I have a source in the Ontario theatre community who says that CanStage board was about to ax Bragg if he did not kill the deal. And there is this account that Socialist Equality Party published on-line. (Bragg left Canstage in 2009 and is now Executive Director of the Alberta Ballet).

Rachel Corrie, the 23 year old peace activist murdered by the IDF.

Rachel Corrie, the 23 year old peace activist murdered by the IDF in 2003.

Plays like My Name is Rachel Corrie get pulled while the establishment welcomes a sanitized, lazy piece that asks no real questions, and doesn’t penetrate the true depth of war or the losses for any of its victims (despite having lots of material to work with by having eight real-life vets in the show), and is used as a promotional project for the British military.

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The Depoliticization of AIDS in Angels in America Through Time and Television

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is coming to Toronto’s Soul Pepper Theatre in June. Image Most are familiar with this work through the 2003 HBO mini-series, its screenplay also penned by Kushner. The mini-series is a majestic spectacle, with A-List actors and a budget of about 60 million.

The play has two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Both together run under seven hours. Usually, theatre companies run them as two separate shows. Looking at the, “Playwright’s Notes” in the beginning of the script for both parts, Kushner asserts that the, “play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!) employing the cast as well as stagehands–which makes for an actor-driven event.”

In the next paragraph: “The moments of magic…are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion–which means it’s OK if the wires show…”

Sparse scenery, rapid shifts with visible stagehands, and wires showing are a far cry from the high-budget, ornately-designed HBO production starring Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, and Meryl Streep. While being quite a fan of the mini-series and enjoying its dazzle, I believe that the play’s television incarnation does depoliticize the story in certain respects such as the intro, where the camera is in the clouds, crossing above the Golden Gate, and then landing on a statue of an angel in NYC’s Central Park. This camera work, along with the medium of television does put us at a distance from the story and from the history of AIDS.

Angels takes place in late ’85 to January of 1986 and while it doesn’t “look 80s”, it does give its viewers a sense of the past with the Reagan Era and the clinical trials of AZT. Of course, the play and the mini-series cannot be compared in isolation as we must consider the 15 year span between the time that Kushner was commissioned by San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company to write Angels in America in 1988 and the premiere of the mini-series in 2003. Also, the story is set in a period when the AIDS virus had only been publicly recognized in the United States for four and a half years. And it was until 1984 that AIDS was believed to be a “gay disease” and we had all of the hysteria that came with this idea that politicians and the media were only too happy to whip up. After the fictional events of Angels, ACT-UP was formed in 1987 as many in the gay community were frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the Gay Mens Health Crisis and it was becoming clear that militancy and direct action were needed. (Another great play, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) is also worth our attention, which I will give it in another article in the near future. Heart gives us an chillingly accurate picture of the climate of AIDS-induced fear in the gay community in the early 80s. Kramer co-founded the GMHC and was an integral part of ACT UP, after he left GMHC).

While Angels takes place in the mid-80s, Millennium had its world premiere at Eureka in May of 1991 and Perestroika in November 1992 at the Mark Taper Forum. By this time, famous heterosexuals like Arthur Ashe as well as Elizabeth Glasier, who lost two children to AIDS, were coming forward with the disease. On the stage in the early 1990s, Angels immediately tailed the memory of the brutality of the disease, the lives lost were fresh as were the inactions of politicians such as Ed Koch, Ronald Reagan, and then-President George H.W. Bush who, in 1991, was admonishing those infected with HIV/AIDS for their “behaviors”.

From the 90s into the 2000s, the demographics of the disease spread from disproportionately affecting gay men to disproportionately striking women of colour, largely Black and Latina, and full-blown AIDS was no longer an automatic death sentence. Public health campaigns that had the nationwide exposure in the 80s later faded, and AIDS is now not on the public’s radar, though 35 million worldwide live with HIV/AIDS today. It is not even seen as an American problem, though a million Americans are infected, it is relegated to Africa, where Western tolerance for suffering has always been higher than anywhere else in the world. Women of colour here or overseas have never been a priority for America, neither were gay men, of course, but the 80s were a time of great resistance to that invisibility and indifference. The absence of a movement like the one that erupted in the 80s keeps those currently infected out of sight.

The history in the United States of the struggles against HIV/AIDS: against death, homophobia, and inaction has been lost. Those who dumped the ashes of their dead loved ones on the White House lawn; the 1984 direct actions of those who protested Ed Koch, who only spent 24K in response to tens of thousands of deaths in New York City; and ACT-UP’s drowning out of Bush I’s Health and Human Services Secretary in his Keynote Address. This lost history takes the political punch out of the mini-series concerning AIDS.

But politically, all is not lost in HBO’s Angels. Kushner introduces new generations to the human abomination known as Roy Cohn and the memory of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn worked hard to have executed. Cohn would later go on to be propped up by that prizefighter for the elites Barbara Walters, who referred to him as a “friend” and acted as his date on many occasions to help him to stay in the closet. Kushner grinds his ax on the memory of Roy Cohn and through his play, he allows Ethel Rosenberg to extract vengence. Kushner regains another history that has been lost: the anti-communist witchhunts. This translates well on the TV screen: the elaborate set of Cohn’s apartment, where Ethel calls 911 for Cohn as he is lying on the floor, telling the operator her name and identifying herself as an “old friend”; Ethel Rosenberg in blue light as she stands by Cohn’s hospital death bed, describing her “acid green” star of hatred that burns for Cohn; and Ethel assisting Louis with the “Mourner’s Kaddish” so he and Belize can take the dying Cohn’s AZT for Pryor without feeling guilty. This is why I love the mini-series: Roy Cohn’s comeuppance and his introduction to younger audiences.

My observations about the depoliticizing of AIDS in HBO’s Angels are not new. I am not the first to make them. Many others have. In her article in Journal of Adaptation of Film and Performance, (2012, Vol 5 No 3), Laura Beadling compares the stage techniques of visible wires and stagehands on the stage with the passivity of following the characters on television: 

“Kushner’s play, clearly in the epic theatre camp, refuses to allow the audience to lose itself ‘passively and completely’ in the characters and emotions and instead uses a number of techniques to jolt the audience into recognizing the artificiality of the play and thus becoming a ‘consciously critical observer’. The miniseries, however, deletes or minimizes most of these strategies and instead often allows the audience to become absorbed in the emotion of the characters and situations. The miniseries avoided any attempt to replicate the Brechtian alienation of epic theatre….”

While I can see the depoliticization of AIDS in the mini-series, and I have read both parts of the play numerous times, I cannot compare the mini-series to a live performance. I have never seen Angels in America onstage. That will change on June 19 as I will be seeing Millennium Approaches at 1:30 at Soulpepper and returning for Perestroika at 7:30 that evening. Can a 2014 staged production of Angels in America bring its audience back to the horror and severity of AIDS in the 1980s in a way that the mini-series cannot? Is it fair to ask this of the play? I will do my best to answer these questions in my review that will be posted on this blog.