Ash John discusses tensions between representing sexual desire and the moral histories of HIV/AIDS in contemporary AIDS theatre.
What we think of now as the AIDS Crisis has become both a cultural and historical event. AIDS crisis is now positioned as a definitive historical period both temporally and spatially contrasted with a contemporary moment. That is, biomedical interventions have rendered life with HIV as a chronic condition. HIV/AIDS as a cultural moment is likewise temporally and culturally chronic; it is a constant in the background of queer culture and queer lived experience. This linear narrativisation of HIV/AIDS, in which we follow a route of progress from illness to wellness, operates as a form of “generational amnesia” which has the impact of “cutting gay men off from memories that provide alternative models of sexual and political community” (Castiglia and Reed 2011, 45).
Matthew Lopez’s 2018 play The Inheritance provides an interesting case study of this amnesic effect. Lopez positions the play as a successor to popular plays from the 1980s and 1990s, including Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991), and sustains certain tropes and representations that overlook ongoing issues of AIDS crisis, creating a wilful amnesic effect (see John 2021). By exploring the representations of Eric Glass and Leo from The Inheritance, I hope to demonstrate the subtle ways in which queer sex is depicted as either safe or dangerous, and how these depictions inform the ongoing cultural amnesia of AIDS crisis.
Early in the play we receive a titillating monologue from Adam – played by Samuel H. Levine, who also plays Leo. In this monologue, Adam describes his
experience of group sex in a Prague bathhouse, before revealing that this encounter led Adam to be exposed to HIV antibodies. However, thanks to the quick prescription of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) Adam is rendered only temporarily HIV-positive, or in Adam’s own words he “came as close to the edge as possible and at the last second […] was rescued” (Lopez 2018, 76). Though there is a suggestion at the end of this scene that the entire scenario was fabricated by Adam, it highlights how this play engages in conversations about sex: Adam understands that group sex in a bathhouse is a convincing geographic locale for his potentially becoming HIV-positive. The potential dangers of specific geographical sights and number of sex partners are frequently drawn upon as indicators of either dangerous or safe sexual experiences.
Eric Glass is emblematic of the “settled” gay man: he has a job, a long-term partner, and an apartment in Manhattan. He is the idealised homosexual, undistinguishable from his heterosexual counterparts. Early in the play, Eric has condomless sex with his partner, Toby. As part of his dirty talk Eric cries out: “It’s okay, Toby. Cum inside me. Yeah, Toby. Yeah. God I love you. I love you. I love you. God, I wanna get married” (Lopez, 32). A jarring and comedic effect arises from the supposed misalignment of the sexual and the romantic. During post-coital conversation Eric expresses his disbelief that “I’ve got your cum inside my ass and we just got engaged” (Lopez, 34). In gay parlance, Eric has been “bred,” literally impregnated by Toby’s cum. In psychoanalytic terms, Toby is the masculine, penetrative father, while Eric is the submissive mother. By closely associating this act of queer sex with marriage, which has historically been read normatively as heterosexual and monogamous, condomless sex is presented as safe with minimal chance of HIV transmission. During this scene, neither actors are in any state of undress, merely mimicking the act of anal penetration which leads to a further sense of absurdity, once more adding to the prophylactic effect between audience and actor. The bodies engaging in a pantomime of condomless sex are safe to one another and to the audience.
While Eric explains his relationship as somewhat open – sexual fidelity is not expected nor required: “Let’s just say there’s a difference between monogamy and monotony” (Lopez, 49). Eric does not have sex at any other point during the play, which has a run time of almost eight hours. Despite expressing a desire for sex, Eric himself becomes a de-sexed body. In this way The Inheritance follows in the footsteps of early AIDS drama in which “AIDS history is exploited in service of a sexual politics that resonates with the neoconservative consensus in which marriage and the suite of privileges that come with it have become […] the sine qua non of contemporary LGBTQI+ politics” (Kagan 2018, 219). In the late-2010s being gay, and non-normative sexual acts, are no longer enough to form an identity. It is suggested within the play that safe sexuality is the same as invisible sexuality: “But being gay isn’t all you are, baby. You’re a lawyer, you’re married, you’re about to become a father” (Lopez, 82). Safe sexuality comes from understanding oneself not through the lens of queer culture but rather the way in which the individual is situated within a wider economic frame. Discussion about sexual health and the use of HIV medications such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (aka PrEP), which is designed to stop potential transmission of HIV among those who are HIV negative, are not necessary between Eric and his friends. Their position within society, Lopez suggests, renders their bodies safe from disease and viruses due to their willingness to conform to heteronormative ideals. In this way, by presenting an idealised gay relationship in the vein of heterosexual marriage, we are presented with an example of how popular culture can operate as a tool of cultural amnesia: alternative relationships are presented as nonviable.
In contrast to Eric is Leo – who becomes HIV positive. Leo is representative of a dangerous sexuality. It is telling that he is first introduced as a hustler, though he, like the historical reality of sex workers, if not necessarily their cultural portrayal, is aware of safe sex practices. Sex workers are villainised and placed into danger because dominant cultural narratives present these people as vectors of disease transmission. Leo’s character arc from being HIV-negative to HIV-positive reinforces this harmful dominant cultural representation of sex workers:
Leo You have a condom?
Toby Oh. Um –
Leo I brought some.
Toby I’m neg for what it’s worth.
Leo Me too, but I don’t fuck raw. (Lopez, 125-6)
During the play, Toby – who ends his relationship with Eric – and Leo begin a quasi-relationship that leads not only to increasing drug use but also Toby taking sexual ownership of Leo’s body:
Young Man 5 Toby had turned Leo into a commodity that summer –
Leo – trading Leo’s body away for access, for drugs –
Young Man 5 – for the friends he feared he couldn’t otherwise obtain. (Lopez, 203)
The summer in question involves a trip both take to Fire Island, off the shore of Long Island, a locale known for offering queer freedom, be it sexual or social. Fire Island has come to represent queer excess in the popular imagination. It is during this trip that Leo becomes HIV positive, or more accurately, it is Leo’s belief that his time on Fire Island was the cause of his seroconversion. He also assumes that his positive status was a result of anal penetration, despite him also injecting crystallised methamphetamines during the same period: “Which of the nameless strangers had it been?” (Lopez, 242). While Eric represents the upstanding housewife, Leo is closer associated with the syphilitic sex worker of the 1800s. As Leo Bersani (1988, 211) suggests: “A fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity in this fantasy, far from merely increasing the risk of infection, is the sign of infection. Women and gay men spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction”. Lopez presents this destruction as not only internal. He seems to suggest that this destruction has the potential to become outward facing. After all, it is once Leo’s status as HIV-positive is confirmed that Leo fully embodies his role as dangerous sexual body:
The money Eric had given him was all that he had until he could hustle up some – but no: his diagnosis, his… virulence. That would be irresponsible. But what of the man who had given it to me? What had been his responsibility to me? Leo’s stomach growled and he thought: fuck it. And he went out in search of another trick. (Lopez, 247)
By comparing Eric and Leo, we can see how Lopez presents the home or private sphere as a space for safe sexuality, while locales that bring together large numbers of a certain group, in this case, gay men – the public sphere – is an area of dangerous sexuality. The public sphere poses a danger to the private. The home becomes a panacea against revolutionary queer activism which further benefits the religious and governmental institutes that prioritise individualism. The more frequently we are presented with idealisations of queer home lives, the more difficult it becomes to remind queer communities that a revolutionary spirit and community is possible.
It is human nature to want to see your work as following in the footsteps of those you admire, and in The Inheritance, Lopez presents a history of AIDS that is a love letter to plays that have come before, but this admiration can come with insidious real-world implications. Writing about The Inheritance, theatre scholar Virginia Anderson worries that the play “will continue to reinforce a history that relegates conversations about the history and future of HIV to the 1980s, to New York City, even to white gay men. Surely, this history is vitally important, but it’s not the only history of the AIDS epidemic and it’s not the only present and future” (Anderson 2020, 259). Remembering those who have died of AIDS-related complications means not only remembering the palatable faces of the crisis. It means remembering those who chose not to use condoms, it means remembering sex workers, the poor, and intravenous drug users, and acknowledging that these stories not only deserve to, but need to be told. HIV is a chronic condition, which means HIV plots are also chronic; there is still time to offer alternative narratives.
Ash John is a second-year PhD researcher exploring the ways in which the theatre of HIV/AIDS has informed contemporary cultural understandings of the AIDS Crisis as a historical moment, and HIV as a medicalised entity. They can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and sometimes on Twitter at @ashpernpapers.
Anderson, Virginia. 2020. “Selective Memory and Other Perils of Representing AIDS on the Twenty-first-century Broadway Stage.” Somatechnics 10, no.2: 254-261.
Berlant, Lauren. 2007. “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency).” Critical Inquiry 33, no.3: 754-780.
Bersani, Leo. 1988. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” In AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, edited by Douglas Crimp, 197-222. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Castiglia, Christopher, and Christopher Reed. 2011. If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
John, Ash. 2021. “’Well, close the fucking curtain!’: The Ailing White Body and the Disposability of Minoritised Medical Professionals in the Theatre of HIV/AIDS.” https://ashpernpapers.substack.com/p/well-close-the-fucking-curtain-the.
Kagan, Dion. 2018. Positive Images: Gay Men & HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’. London: I.B. Tauris.
Kramer, Larry. 2000. “The Normal Heart” In Two Plays, 1-118. New York: Grove Press.
Kushner, Tony. 2013. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Revised and Complete Edition. New York: Theatre Communication Group, Inc.
Lopez, Matthew. 2018. The Inheritance. London: Faber & Faber.