Finally — a great play about AIDS!
I don’t like what I call “AIDS plays.” By that, I mean The Normal Heart and Angels in America. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart doesn’t even bear discussing. Never has a writer gotten away with such bloody murder — that is, valourizing himself in a play as a much beleaguered, humble, flawed but ultimately transcendent hero. Kushner’s Angels in America places the dying gay man in a largely heterosexual, Christian context. What these horrible American AIDS plays have in common is that they are tragic, dark morality plays with a few campy quips thrown in now and then to relieve the gloom.
Is it possible that there could ever be an AIDS play that tells the truth? An AIDS play that is dirty, funny, real and not so insufferably moralistic and gloomy? An AIDS play that treats AIDS as a disease like any other, and gay men simply as people? Who could write a play like that? And who would come and see it?
In London, I recently saw My Night with Reg, a play written by Kevin Elyot and originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1994. It was a revival at a hugely popular West End venue.
The conceit behind the play is deft and witty. In the first scene, we meet a bunch of gay men at a dinner gathering — everyone but Reg is there. In the second scene, Reg is now dead from AIDS. It becomes immediately clear that that everyone has slept with Reg and/or is in love with him. He becomes a fascinatingly clear personality — especially for a character who never appears in the play. As the narrative progresses, some of the characters live, and some of them die from AIDS. Some are happy, some are sad. It’s a lot like life.
It might be hard for uptight North Americans (like us!) to imagine a play with such subject matter to also be downright hilarious. Well, the fun is due mainly to sexual frankness. One man says of a recent sexual obsession: “I’d eat his shit on a plate.” Amazingly, the largely straight, middle-class British audience that attended the play with me laughed at this line — uproariously.
But what really separates My Night with Reg from those endless, turgid, American AIDS melodramas is that the characters are not uniformly middle class — they are a mix of ordinary blokes and posh twits. One of the characters is a straight-acting gay bus driver, and another is a house painter. Working class people are notoriously more open and less judgemental around sexual matters; this adds a refreshing honesty to the piece. The only American play that compares is the odious Love! Valour! Compassion! (which also premiered in 1994). Terence McNally’s sanctimonious opus features middle and upper class gay friends who are nauseatingly unctuous, sentimental and infuriatingly uptight — as middle-class North American gay men unfortunately tend to be.
What’s most amazing about My Night with Reg is this: it’s a play about AIDS that does not demonize sex or promiscuity. The play is centred on gay culture (there are no straight characters), so there are no lessons to be learned by gay men — via their illness — about the profundity of straights (no pious characters like the self-eulogizing hero of The Normal Heart who marries his dying lover at the end of the play).
Because AIDS is just a disease. Yes, it can be — and still is — sometimes horrifying. But so is life. AIDS is no better or worse than cancer. (And now with Truvada, AIDS is no less treatable than diabetes!) And haven’t we learned to laugh at life when it gets us down? So what’s all the moralizing and hand-wringing in these horrible American AIDS plays all about, except the hatred of sex?
I was thrilled to at last see a really good AIDS play!
It’s a shame I had to go to all the way to England to see it.