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HIV/AIDS theatre after Angels in America: How neoliberalism stifled the genre’s counterhegemonic origins

Authors
  • Hann, Louisa
Publication Date
Dec 16, 2020
Source
Manchester eScholar
Keywords
Language
English
License
Unknown
External links

Abstract

Since the outbreak of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, playwrights have been using the stage to process, engage with, and negotiate its political and cultural effects. In the early years of the crisis, particularly in the US, HIV/AIDS plays homed in on the ways in which neoliberal governance stigmatised and oppressed those affected by the virus, a reaction largely attributable to its association with gay men and intravenous drug users. In some ways, the auditorium offered a place of solace for those witnessing death and pain, many of whom were queer or marginalised, as well as a platform on which to disseminate political ideas and galvanise audience members to fight wilful governmental inaction. The political and biomedical developments that have taken place since then have been seismic, with HIV now treatable as a chronic illness and the burgeoning neoliberalism of the 1980s having secured ever more robust hegemony as the new millennium has worn on. In turn, the HIV/AIDS genre has continued to evolve. In certain respects, it has retained its queer roots, with many twenty-first-century plays continuing to scrutinise how such marginalised groups are detrimentally affected by the virus despite the introduction of new treatments. At the same time, however, the genre has (somewhat inevitably) been affected by the marketisation of theatre under neoliberalism. To varying degrees, theatres’ impetus to sell tickets and imagine their spectators primarily as consumers has stifled the counterhegemonic spirit found in earlier work. Somewhat paradoxically, such political suppression has caused the genre’s popularity to wane. Despite a glut of recent HIV/AIDS plays such as Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance having enjoyed mainstream success, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, premièred in 1991, appears to hang on to an unofficial role as the most critically acclaimed and intellectually rich example of the genre. In part, this can be explained by its frequently cited relevance to today’s political landscape, with reviewers of Marianne Elliott’s 2017 production of Angels at London’s National Theatre drawing strong comparisons between the Reaganist political landscape Kushner depicts and the socio-political volatility of today’s world. However, this thesis complicates such a reading, arguing that the ongoing attachment to Angels is also related to its uniquely galvanising and politically hopeful dramaturgy, drawing inspiration from Walter Benjamin to Bertolt Brecht to come up with a politics intent on improving the lives of the queer, the HIV-positive and the marginalised in a way that resonates with audiences to this day. To support this line of enquiry, a significant portion of this study is spent tracking how neoliberalism has continued to shape the genre’s dramaturgies from the première of Angels in the early 1990s until the present day. The theoretical framework on which my analysis hangs is cultural materialist in nature, used to compare several HIV/AIDS plays produced across some of the world’s most neoliberal nations including Australia, the UK, and the US. I focus on their potential as tools for anti-neoliberal intervention and queer liberation, as well as the extent to which the increased marketisation of theatre as an institution has hindered the production of counterhegemonic dramaturgies. I am particularly interested in uncovering the extent to which the plays I have chosen to examine established themselves as either mainstream or countercultural and, by extension, the extent to which this has helped them gain political traction. In establishing a kind of materialist genealogy of HIV/AIDS theatre, splitting up the genre into three distinct generations, this study elucidates some of the ways in which neoliberalism has indelibly affected such a popular genre, as well as analysing the wider implications for queer theatre more generally and the potential for the production of counterhegemonic work in future.

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