December 09, 2008

This weekend I attended an engrossing production of The Seagull on Broadway”€”and I was lucky enough to be accompanied by the intelligent and beautiful great granddaughter of Manfred von Richthofen, the German ace of the Great War. And though I was much affected by the bourgeois tragedy unfolding on stage, my thoughts tended towards the Red Baron and his lovely scion. As the play goes, the young woman portraying Nina too often acted in a breathy, overwrought, “€œI went Drama School!”€ style. But this was more than made up for by the pitch-perfect performances by Kristin Scott Thomas (Arkadina), Art Malik (the Doctor), and, best of all, Peter Sarsgaard, whose Trigorin was alternatively droll and menacing.

After the cast received its due applause, Sarsgaard remained on stage as his colleagues departed, and I could feel the audience girding itself for the inevitable “€œbut seriously, folks…”€ charity pitch. I was shocked”€”though perhaps I shouldn”€™t have been”€”when Sarsgaard used the Broadway bully pulpit to raise awareness for … HIV/AIDS. All part of the unionized Broadway Cares/Equity Fights HIV/AIDS.

As the global economy collapses around us, and America looks bound for a Great Depression redux, it seemed ridiculous, if not downright obscene, for this man to be agitating for the most overexposed of diseases, and one that actually affects, at most, one half of one percent of the population. But then if you find this kind of scene befuddling, you just don”€™t know AIDS. 

AIDS has always been the world’s most pretentious disease”€”remarkable as it’s associated with intravenous drug use, anal sex, and love “€œon the down low“€ in da “€™hood. An organization like “€œBroadway Cares”€”Syphilis”€ or some kind effort to weave gonorrhea quilts would be taken as grotesque, and if Sargaard had stood on stage announcing that he wanted to take time out to talk about herpes, they would have been running for the aisles. AIDS, on the other hand, is never considered dirty or embarrassing (at least not over the past 20 years) and, indeed, has often connoted something like martyrdom and grand tragedy. Whenever a celebrity with political pretensions or a brain-washed public school student says, “€œOne day, we”€™ll find a cure”€”€”and they almost use the collective “€œwe”€”€”they sound much like devout Christians speaking of the Second Coming or exiled leftists from the 1930s talking about Social Utopia”€”or Yuppies pontificating on Barack Obama. And think of all the energy and funds that could have been used to research real problems that have instead been wasted on AIDS all because the disease has accrued this special aura. 

Back in 1987, Oprah Winfrey informed her viewers that by 1990, one fifth of all heterosexuals would suffer from AIDS. The Big O was a wee bit off in her epidemiology, but, perhaps more importantly, she missed the boat entirely with regard to what the disease would come to mean in the American pop imagination. AIDS is not for everyone“€”and certainly not one fifth of all boring straight people! AIDS is the MacArthur Grant of diseases”€”it only strikes down those who possess unbounded potential and devastating creativity, and it invariably proves fatal only when its victims are “€œin their prime.”€ The great Tom Wolfe captures this perfectly in The Bonfire of the Vanities when he has a foppish publicist for Manhattan’s Man of Letters of the moment introduce his patron as such: “He’s on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. He has AIDS.” Which credential is more glamorous? This “€œexclusive”€ aspect of the disease was also missed by the conservative social commentators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their otherwise hilarious “€œEveryone has AIDS”€ song from Team America: World Police. Again, not everyone has AIDS”€”and it’s only the LES hipster-saints who are allowed to perform the Passion Play before the boring, straight, middle-class rest of us.  

(As an aside, perhaps tertiary syphilis is a better candidate for the disease of real genius, as it has claimed, among others, Henery VIII, Vincent Van Gogh, and Nietzsche among its ranks. The list of AIDS suffers seems mundane by comparison.)

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Of course, AIDS fascination is mostly a 1990s phenomenon, and it seems to be going the way of “€œgrunge”€ and Mario Lopez. In the late 90s, once it was clear that there was no real AIDS epidemic in America, the disease got re-branded as a “€œglobal”€ problem and became wrapped up with all sorts of third-world causes and used to justify financial programs to various foreign-aid sinkholes, especially in Africa, the ultimate playground of international “€œdevelopment”€ initiatives. And with so much moolah floating around, is it any wonder that the extent of the disease in the Dark Continent was vastly overestimated? Eventually, no less a person than George W. Bush took an interest in saving Africa, and the U.S. is now throwing 9 Billion at the continent per year. Expect dramatic results any day now…

But even the meme of AIDS as global catastrophe is a bit out of place in our post-Iraq, economic-meltdown world. When Peter Sarsgaard stood on stage, he seemed much like a blast from the past, taking us back to a simpler time when we still lived in Bill Clinton and Alan Greenspan’s Bubble and the only thing that really worried us was that story of some New York artiste of staggering promise who was struck down at his creative zenith, and whose installation art piece are now fetching millions. Tragic, really.       


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