The year was 1984, the restaurant was Dobson's on the Upper West Side, and the diners were eight gay men involved in theatre. Conversation turned fearfully to the mysterious illness that had blighted their tightly-knit community in recent years. Maybe someone at the table had heard the news that a French scientist had finally isolated the virus that caused the disease.
None of the eight men knew if they were infected, since no test existed yet, but they couldn't let themselves imagine they had AIDS. They were young and felt healthy, they didn't party all that hard: each man had a rationale, saw himself as an exception. But as Tom Viola remembers, "Well, that was 1984. By 1992, of the eight of us, four were dead and two, including myself, were HIV+." It's hard for anyone, except maybe a wartime soldier, to comprehend how quickly and savagely AIDS struck the theatre community in the 1980s.
In 1987, Viola would go on to help found Equity Fights AIDS, the theatre union's response to the health crisis, which merged with Broadway Cares in 1993. Decades later, he describes the day-to-day experience of life during a plague: "You would go into a rehearsal period, and before you could get to previews, people would have disappeared. People would've gotten sick and landed in the hospital — possibly to come out, possibly not."
Amid the devastation, rumor and terror begot misinformation. Bigotry — of families, friends, and coworkers, of secular and religious institutions, of news organizations, and most shamefully of the American government itself — stigmatized and isolated people already suffering from disease. Facing a major crisis, the theatre community rallied to support its own. Equity Fights AIDS and its counterpart from producers, Broadway Cares, were just two of many programs, in show business and outside of it, in New York City and across the country, that aimed to provide social services for the sick. These vital organizations provided infected men and women with health care, emotional support (including suicide hotlines), housing and legal advice, even meals and palliative home care. At a time when mainstream America seemed determined to ignore the alarm, this community moved to help the victims.
Younger theatregoers may only know this era of desperation and confusion through "The Normal Heart," in its fine HBO adaptation or the recent Tony-winning revival. Larry Kramer's autobiographical drama shows how political activism and agitation were vital in combating the disease itself. The play also serves as an exemplary case of how American theatre proudly took on the role of town crier.
In the 15 years between the first official reports of infection and the availability of therapies to combat the virus, 1981 to 1996, playwrights created an entire sub-genre of drama about AIDS. This category echoes artistic responses to other catastrophes — like the poetry of World War One, literature on the Holocaust, films about Vietnam. Following the seminal As Is and Kramer's The Normal Heart (both 1985), Broadway audiences bore witness to Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss (1988), Richard Greenberg's Eastern Standard (1989), Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995), and of course Jonathan Larson's Rent (1996).
Even a short list of masterworks could run much longer — Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles (1989) and Paula Vogel's Baltimore Waltz (1992) show how profoundly the epidemic affected the friends and families of victims — and could look far beyond Broadway. Perhaps the crowning achievement was Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1993), whose superb script, rich array of characters, bravura theatricality and sheer vision have made it the essential American play of the late 20th century.
This abundance of magnificent drama is a salve to the pain of recalling those early days. It also stands as a memorial to those who died of HIV. Viola often thinks about theatre artists who did not live past their youth — an even more poignant loss than those who died at the height of their career. "What's been lost in our culture when some young man who never lived beyond the age of 32, when they were just coming into their own as an artist?" he asks. It's not just the potential Pulitzer winner or Tony performance either, but the lost segment of a thriving community, whose small works and daily collaborations never happened.
Another consequence of the AIDS epidemic is the greater sense of self-advocacy and activism for the LGBT community. The movement to come out of the closet was an imperative partly because it proved that gays were everywhere and anyone. By the mid-1990s, homosexuals were increasingly visible in television and film, while the Clinton White House was hosting AIDS awareness events. At the same time, treatments to prolong lives became available, and so had home-testing kits for HIV. AIDS was no longer necessarily a death sentence. As the annual rate of infection slowed, the victims, activists, organizations, and theatre community found a new equilibrium.
For organizations like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the mission didn't end but it has expanded. "It's basically now about HIV as a part of the fabric of our social condition" says Viola. For him that includes poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, job loss, lack of resources and lack of power. "So that's why we continue to assist literally hundreds of organizations across the country, whether that's food banks and food delivery programs, housing programs, harm-reduction programs, quality-of-life programs." Progress continues to build on the foundation laid by AIDS activists. If the Supreme Court decides favorably for same-sex marriage this month, credit is due partly to those who faced down bigotry in the era of President Reagan and Mayor Koch.
But of course, much remains to be done — for AIDS victims and for gay rights, since the two are still inextricable. Gay and bisexual men are still the population most seriously affected by AIDS. About 50,000 Americans are newly infected each year, and each year about 14,000 die from AIDS-related illnesses. And one infected person out of seven doesn't even know they have the disease.
The same thinking that blinded the table of gay men at Dobson's in 1984 continues to influence behavior. Viola has spent decades fighting the virus, literally and metaphorically, and he sees how HIV spreads: "People make mistakes, people think they're infallible, or they are just having a good time. Others are just tired, or exhausted, or thinking they don't matter."
But each and every one of us matters. theatre is a collaborative community, and so is New York City. It's imperative that everyone practice safe sex and get tested regularly. With current medications, if people get treatment immediately they will not spread the virus to others. We cannot eliminate AIDS any more than we can erase it from theatre history, but we can contain it.