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Visitation Rites: The Elusive Tradition of Plague Lit

AIDSspeak: A Plague of Words

“Epidemics have often been more influen­tial than statesmen and soldiers in shaping the course of political history, and diseases may also color the moods of civilizations… [Yet] their role is rarely emphasized by his­torians.” So wrote René and Jean Dubos in their landmark study of tuberculosis, The White Plague (1952). They might as well have included novelists among the oblivious. With the notable exception of TB, whose association with creativity inspired reams of inspirational verse and fiction, some of our favorite operas, and one certified literary masterpiece (The Magic Mountain), the lit­erature of epidemics is as scant — or at least scantly remembered — as those tomes on phrenology that once graced transcenden­talist coffee tables.

Do we need a Visitation Lit? In the cur­rent crisis, it hardly seems like a priority: Give us a vaccine, a cure; give us condoms that work and laws that protect. But our failure to devise an effective response to AIDS is partly a product of the silence of our culture. We are raised to regard epidem­ics as relics of distant lands and ancient eras; when an outbreak does occur, it seems unprecedented, unnatural. We cast about for a strategy, ceding the task to medicine and politics (though we don’t really trust either profession), because we have no alter­native. There is no cultural tradition that gives meaning and order to the chaos of an epidemic. There is only religion, with its mechanisms of suppression and control. Art has abdicated its authority to counsel us in time of plague. And this absence of an aesthetic is part of our helplessness.

Why are there so many novels about World War I and so few about the influenza epidemic that followed it, killing many more people? Why doesn’t plague inspire litera­ture the way war does? Perhaps because, at least until the specter of nuclear annihila­tion, combat never threatened our hegemo­ny over the environment. War is something men declare, but epidemics are a force of nature, and until we unravel their codes and learn how to repel them, they subject us to assault on their own, inhuman, terms. War is politics by other means, but epidemics have no purpose or intention; they happen, often as an unintended consequence of social mobility, sometimes by chance. War is, in some sense, as deliberate as fiction. But plague is accidental history.

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The Grim Reaper notwithstanding, epi­demics are hard to personify. An invisible enemy versus a small band of crusaders, reeking more of disinfectant than manly sweat, is hardly the stuff of heroic fantasy. War is butch; it is the strange fruit of mas­culinity. To die in combat is a confirmation of gender, but epidemics are androgynous, and the loss of control they induce is usually represented as emasculating. Men who fall victim to disease are champions brought low, given to heroic speechifying; women just lie there in paler and paler makeup. They are the ones who whisper about love and memory; men weep over their loss of mastery. (Think of Sly Stallone as the leu­kemia victim in Love Story.) And real men die of some inner defect, not an infectious disease. Long before AIDS, we believed that epidemics strike — indeed, signify — the ef­fete. Thomas Mann’s social critique pro­ceeds from this assumption, and his apprehension about sexuality finds a ready emblem in diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. Aschenbach and even Hans Castorp enter into the state of illness almost by consent, as a logical expression of character. Susceptibility is fate.

Mann’s message takes a Nietzschean twist in America, where health is your own business and you’d better take care of your­self. The self-help cults that have arisen in response to AIDS reflect our assumption that illness is a character flaw made mani­fest, and usually preventable by good behav­ior. The process of “freeing ourselves from the bonds of karma, disease, problem rela­tionships” (as an ad for those New Age na­bobs, the Ascended Masters, puts it) sug­gests that not just desire, but nature itself, can be consciously controlled. The Eastern jargon is purely decorative; this view of the environment as a “peaceable kingdom” is central to American culture, and it persists — partly because literature has failed to deconstruct it — in direct denial of our actual history.

***

Pestilence may have an old-world ring, but epidemics were, until quite recently, a recurring feature of urban life in America, as well as a force in such emblematic events as the Civil War and the great westward trek. Congress could not be convened in 1793 until George Washington rode through the streets of Philadelphia to assure himself that an outbreak of yellow fever, which had decimated the city, was under control. As J.H. Powell’s riveting account of that outbreak, Bring Out Your Dead, reveals, the barbaric responses we associate with AIDS were commonplace in 1793: Refugees were stoned, shot, or left to starve as they wandered the countryside; newspapers from the capital were boiled in vinegar before anyone would read them; and the task of caring for the afflicted and burying the dead fell largely to impoverished blacks. This is an America you will not read about in fiction. There are no epics about the epidemics that struck New Orleans with such regularity that the death rate in that city remained higher than the birthrate for the entire 19th century; no chronicles of the devastation that disease wrought upon the ’49ers as they headed west. You can read all about cannibalism on the Donner Pass, but not about diarrhea.

When we aren’t discreet about the sub­ject, we leave it to the likes of Bette Davis to set the tone of American rhetoric about epi­demics — turgid and romantic. In Jezebel, she plays the ultimate coquette, all taffeta and eyelashes, who’s brought to her senses by a bout of “yellowjack” that strikes her jilted beau. The film ends with the essential American image of vanity chastened by pes­tilence: Davis on a crowded wagon, rolling through the shuttered streets of Charleston, nursing her love in quarantine. There’s a similar epiphany in Arrowsmith; when the young doctor’s wife dies during a Caribbean outbreak of the same disease, and he breaks the rules of his profession by providing ex­perimental serum to the natives without a control group. Though Sinclair Lewis meant his novel to be both a critique of scientism and a testament to its rigors, in the movie, such ambiguities are lost to the epidemic as otherworldly spectacle, complete with dark­ies chanting among the fronds.

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The fabricator of pestilential rhetoric in America is Poe, whose interest in the sub­ject confirms its disreputability. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a paradigm of the dread epidemics arouse in us: Their ter­rible swift sword seems aimed directly at our hubris and hedonism — two sins Americans simultaneously celebrate and excoriate each other for. If the Red Death resembles any known disease, it is influenza of the sort that killed 20 million people in 1918. But in Poe, it comes on preternaturally, with pro­fuse bleeding from every pore that kills in half an hour. What better setting for this Visitation than a primordial kingdom with a party-hearty sensibility too splendid to sur­vive? When plague strikes, the royals retreat in a vain attempt to banish death. He enters anyway, dressed like the rogue in The Des­ert Song. “And one by one dropped the rev­elers in the blood-bedewed halls of their rev­el.” In other words, the party’s over.

Poe’s maunderings could only have mean­ing in a culture so phobic about disease that the subject must be addressed in terms of retribution. We get the fate we deserve for living like Vincent Price. At the core of Poe’s masque are guilt and denial, the very evasiveness our literature stands accused of displaying toward love and death. An epi­demic calls up the same response, since it forces us to confront both the intensity of human need and the fragility of all relation­ships. As a culture whose optimism is its most enduring trait, we cannot bear to look directly at this experience, except through the lurid refracting lens of moral causality.

Compare Poe’s Red Death with the de­scription of influenza that opens Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. It ­occupies less than a page, yet this account, as seen through a child’s eyes, says more about the grotesque incongruity of an epidemic than any allegory. Traveling from Se­attle to Minneapolis in a closed compartment, the entire family was stricken as the train proceeded east.

We children did not understand whether the chattering of our teeth and Mama’s lying torpid in the berth were not somehow a part of the trip… and we began to be sure that it was all an adventure when we saw our fa­ther draw a revolver on the conductor who was trying to put us off the train at a small wooden station in the middle of the North Dakota prairie. On the platform at Minne­apolis, there were stretchers, a wheel chair, redcaps distraught officials, and, beyond them, in the crowd, my grandfather’s rosy face, cigar and cane, my grandmother’s feathered hat, imparting an air of festivity to this strange and confused picture, making us children certain that our illness was the beginning of a delightful holiday.

McCarthy’s perspective belongs to anoth­er, far more naturalistic, tradition of Visita­tion Lit. It is not to be found in fiction, but in the less hallowed venues of journalism and memoir. From Pepys, we get the sense of pestilence as an ordinary experience — ­one of life’s elemental indignities. From De­foe, we get the larger picture of a social organism convulsing under bacterial siege. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is the first example of that paradoxical form we now call the nonfiction novel: It is “report­ed” as fact, but constructed as fiction, and all the more potent for its formal confusion. Defoe invented the “plot” we still impose on epidemics, and he intended it not just to convey but also to shape reality as a tangible expression of his ideology.

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As a Dissenter, Defoe was subject to pro­fessional and personal harassment by the Anglican authorities. The stance of a rebel­lious rationalist informs his tone, perhaps even his choice of subject matter. The extre­mis of plague gave Defoe a chance to rail at irrational “tradition” — in everything from quack cures to the futile quarantining of whole families when one member took sick. And nothing revealed the sanctimonious­ness of his peers like the high, theocentric prose in which epidemics were customarily described: “Now Death rides triumphantly on his pale horse through our streets,” read one typical account of the bubonic plague that ravaged London in 1665. “Now people fall as thick as the leaves in autumn, when they are shaken by a mighty wind.” Defoe, in contrast, is blunt, sensory, reportorial: “It came at last to such violence that people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair; whole streets seemed to be desolated… windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses for want of people to shut them.”

What comes handed down to us as “objec­tivity” was actually a rhetoric of rebellion against the political and religious institu­tions that put Defoe at personal risk. His response must have seemed like the prover­bial shoe-that-fits to Albert Camus, the Communist/resister who set out in 1947 to construct a metaphor for the German occu­pation and all it evoked in the French. Ca­mus intended plague to universalize the cir­cumstances of his own oppression, but so did Defoe. From the old Dissenter, Camus borrowed not just the specter of a city stricken by bubonic disease, but the per­spective of a rationalist in extremis, the anti-literary style, and the very form of The Plague. The subject attracts the alienated, perhaps because they sense the power of an epidemic to shatter social orthodoxy.

Both Defoe and Camus set out to instruct us about life beyond the boundaries of personal control. Both call up the impotence and isolation — even in fellowship — of those who must inhabit “a victim world secluded and apart,” as Camus describes Oran under quarantine. Camus could not have con­structed his deliberately modern paradigm of “death in a happy city” without Defoe’s radical vision of plague as a landscape where virtue and survival do not follow as the night the day. And though their subject is bubonic plague, with its ancient rhythm of explosive death, the dry rage and mordant irony Camus and Defoe share, their abiding sense of life’s precariousness, are the per­sonality traits of an AIDS survivor.

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There was no plague in Oran during the years Camus wrote, and as far as is known, he never actually experienced an epidemic. Rather, he assembled his description from secondary sources — as did Defoe, a child of five when the outbreak he describes took place. So the “plot” these journalists impose on epidemics is a fictional contrivance. More to the point, it is a contrivance that we inherit as reality. We still trot out Defoe and Camus to class up think pieces about AIDS because we trust their reporting, even though its authenticity is an illusion. The model they created gives meaning to the meaningless; it shapes an event that is terri­fying precisely because it seems chaotic. Can anyone who has never experienced an epi­demic imagine, in purely naturalistic terms, the terror of an invisible entity, not to men­tion the ghastly, often abrupt, changes an afflicted body undergoes? In a literary work, no matter how grim, there is order, progres­sion, response; when you add journalism’s claim to objectivity, and its obsession with good and bad behavior, an epidemic can be fitted with a tangible structure of cause and effect. This — and not just verisimilitude — is the power of reportage.

As for the plot: It is a tale without a protagonist. The “hero” is a collective — the suffering multitudes, called up in a thousand images of mortification of the flesh. At first, they refuse to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary, and the narrative feeds on this denial (we know why the rats are dying). But there comes a moment when, as Defoe describes it, “the aspect of the city itself was frightful.” Denial gives way to terror, and the suspense is not just who will live and die, but whether society will endure. Pestilence brings the collective into high relief. It must protect the uninfected, care for the stricken, and dispose of the dead. That it does function is — for both Camus and De­foe — a source of chastened optimism. Plague, the despoiler of civilization, has be­come an agent of social cohesion.

***

This existential saga is the shape we still give to epidemics. And in America, where the subject is seldom approached straight-­on, it is also the point of countless horror movies, in which the monster is like a scourge raining death out of Camus’s indif­ferent blue sky. The first victim is always an emblem of normality — a carefree bather yanked under the waves, or a baby-sitter ambushed by something in the closet. Then comes the warning — “They’re here!” — but to no avail. It’s too weird to be credible, and anyway, no one wants to frighten the citi­zenry. Finally, the system is brought to its senses — in the nick of time.

The horror movies of my youth in the ’50s were a plug for scientific progressivism, and a none-too-subtle plea for civic vigilance. But in recent years, the fatalism that underlies those tales of transformation we inherited from Europe has crept back into horror­-consciousness. In The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to mention two post­-modern remakes, the alien intrudes almost like a bacterium out of Mann, with the victim’s tacit consent; and the afflicted pass through all of Kübler-Ross’s stages, from denial to rage to resignation. In The An­dromeda Strain, the denial stage becomes a premise: Can the doctors stop an alien or­ganism before it kills so many people that the government will have to acknowledge its existence? In Jaws, an implacable force of nature has “vetoed pleasure” in Amity, just as it did in Camus’s Oran. Except for the rugged individualist (a/k/a crusty old shark hunter) who holds the key to survival, it is easy to imagine the author of The Plague set those on his terrain.

Randy Shilts’s history of the AIDS epi­demic, And the Band Played On, draws its power from precisely this tradition: It is a journalistic work with a fictional form. Its plot, as constructed by Defoe, renovated by Camus, and apotheosized by journalistic thrillmongers like Robin Cook and Stephen King, is the unexpected appearance of a deadly microbe; its stealthy progression, fostered by obliviousness and indifference; and the gradual emergence of a collective response. Shilts writes of death and denial with all the lurid energy of the Old Dissent­er. His alienation from (gay and straight) orthodoxy is entirely true to form, and so is his judgment on all the players — from gov­ernment to media, from the afflicted to the immune. The journalist shapes the event — ­has done so ever since Defoe.

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Of course, the model of Visitation Lit doesn’t entirely fit the reality of AIDS. Shilts’s fiercest rage is directed at the break­down of community when pestilence strikes. In Camus and Defoe, everyone is equally at risk, and therefore everyone must overcome indifference. But in Shilts, the collective that emerges consists of isolated groups­ — the infected and their doctors. The larger society is insulated by contempt for the afflicted and an illusion of immunity. The pariah experience that AIDS creates cannot be found in Visitation Lit (except perhaps in a didactic potboiler like The Nun’s Story, with its doting on leprosy as a test of godli­ness). There are ample accounts of shun­ning those who show the “tokens” of bubonic plague or yellow fever, but AIDS is a lifelong condition that leaves no visible mark until it becomes activated; shunning is decreed by the technology of diagnosis and, often, by the presumption of belonging to a group at risk. We can monitor the develop­ment of AIDS in both the afflicted and the infected, but we cannot improve their prog­nosis. The psychic and social bind generated by our helpless efficiency is also an unprece­dented product of this disease.

The precedent for AIDS in our culture is the “slow plague” of tuberculosis, which has shifted in its iconography from a disease of the artistic to a scourge of the impoverished. In the late 19th century, as word of its con­tagiousness spread (and before there was conclusive evidence that exposure does not usually result in infection), the image of the afflicted changed as well. Once they had been held in such esteem that the problem for epidemiologists was convincing the fam­ilies of consumptives to stay away. But by the turn of the century, TB patients were thought to be dissolute, if not degenerate; later still, Mann’s elegant mountaintop re­treat became a state-run sanatorium to which they could be committed against their will. The parallels with AIDS are striking but not exact. Sexually transmitted diseases carry a distinct stigma, and so do homosex­uals and intravenous drug users, the main groups at risk for AIDS. In the culture at large, there is no gay or junkie equivalent of the virtuous poor.

The AIDS epidemic, which is a highly literary event (the death of people in their prime always is), cannot be written about in traditional literary terms; because it shat­ters the social contract, it forces us to break with form. Those who live through this Visi­tation will have to invent not only their own communitas but a new system of represen­tation to make that process meaningful. So far, only the rudiments of such a system are in place. The AIDS plays that drew so much attention to the epidemic are all traditional in form: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart leans heavily on Ibsen’s ideology of the he­roic outsider (“The strongest man … is he who stands most alone”); William Hoffman’s As Is make a comforting melange of, Maxwell Anderson and William Inge; even Jerker, the controversial (because it is homoerotic) series of blackouts by Robert Chesley, veers toward the familiar modern­ism of Ionesco via Menotti. Only Beirut at­tempts to project AIDS into the dreamlife of our culture, but unfortunately it achieves its nightmare edge by misrepresenting the transmissibility of the disease.

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In fiction, it was mostly the gay presses that produced the first responses to AIDS. But these novels, like the plays, have been either didactic tracts or domestic dramas. Both are important themes — the danger of social violence is real enough, and the bond of love between men is rare enough, in or outside the context of sexuality, to be worth expressing. But, so far, these good inten­tions don’t achieve the power and range of literature, in part because the subject (ho­mosexuality) is still so culturally arcane, and in part because it takes more than a sea­son — or five — for the best authors to trans­form trauma into art.

Epitaphs for the Plague Dead, a small volume of formal, traditional verse, is a semi-breakthrough. Robert Boucheron has turned to Tennyson for a formal framework that is both strikingly antique and oddly abstract — giving his subject matter, the his­tories of gay men dead of AIDS, a timeless, entombed air. The content is often trite, sometimes clumsy; but these epitaphs, in a colloquial discourse rendered stately by iam­bics and rhyme, have the effect of ennobling not just the ordinary but the shunned. This is form in the service of a new idea, something the literature of any epidemic must achieve if it is to matter in the long run.

It may be too much to hope for parody as a weapon in the fight against AIDS, al­though the satiric edge in Boucheron’s poet­ry, Shilts’s journalism, and Kramer’s play is what most sets these gay writers apart from other chroniclers of plague. It is almost as if the rich vein of camp has been tempered into a mordant comedy of manners. What this promises for the future of both gay culture and Visitation Lit is anyone’s guess, but the spirit of Thackeray (not to mention Mann) must hover at the shoulder of any reasonably acute homosexual who thinks about AIDS. It certainly informs the pica­resque fiction of Armistead Maupin, whose work is a model of what the epidemic has done to gay sensibility. By the latest install­ment, Significant Others, AIDS has become a recurring motif that grounds the narra­tive. The characters we’ve been following through volume after volume haven’t so much changed their ways as their perspec­tive — on each other, on mortality. And Maupin’s tone has grown softer and fuller, as if to acknowledge the “feminine” emo­tions that gay rage suppresses right now.

***

Melancholy is the literary legacy of AIDS, for all of us. It informs the texture of more and more popular fiction, if only in its fasci­nation with pathology. A glance through Publishers Weekly reveals these plot prem­ises, all from books due out this fall: A wom­an engaged to be married discovers that she is a carrier of’ Tay-Sachs disease, raising painful questions about her true paternity and changing her life … A crotchety old truck driver, watching his wife die of cancer, reverts to wetting his bed. His anguish is heightened when she reveals the details of an extramarital affair that spawned their late son, a teenage victim of meningitis … A young cancer patient, withdrawn from chemotherapy by his mother, is placed in a halfway house for “roomers with tumors.” But when the boy’s estranged father tries to put him back in chemo, mom, son, and a handsome hospice worker run away to a hideaway in the redwoods, where …

Then there is Leslie Horvitz’s The Dying, a just-published novel of “biological horror” (actually another of those pesky Poe-like flus that kill in the flip of a page) complete with a dust jacket admonition that THE PLAGUE YEARS ARE HERE. And Shar­on Mayes’s Immune, whose protagonist, “at once a highly professional doctor and re­searcher, and a wild, erotic woman, addicted to cocaine,” must confront the threat of AIDS. That it “leads her to a rediscovery of responsibility and a nostalgia for a more stable and structured past” makes Immune “a tragedy of our time.” Or so the blurb insists.

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As a culture, we are losing our sense of immunity to disease and our confidence in sexuality as a route to self-discovery. These may have been constructions in the first place, but they were crucial to my genera­tion, and now they have been shattered. The assumption that AIDS will compel us to remake the libido in more “mature” terms is as cockeyed as any belief in human perfect­ibility, as utopian as the sexual revolution we are now exhorted to forsake. Only in a TV movie will this epidemic teach hetero­sexuals to value commitment and homosexuals to find their identity in rodeos and Proust. More likely, we will pull the wool over each other’s eyes in erotic masques of safety and salubrity. The gap between pub­lic morality and private behavior will pro­mote the very passions it suppresses. Those who can’t or won’t be locked in place will exude a faint aroma of mortality whenever they have sex. And if the epidemic is not contained, we will come to inhabit a land­scape where death and desire go hand in hand.

This is a very ancient landscape, but also the thoroughly modem setting of Valerie Martin’s novel A Recent Martyr, which takes place in a contemporary New Orleans mired in corruption, civil chaos, and a bur­geoning epidemic of bubonic disease. Sainthood and sexual obsession vie for women’s souls, while men hover, in their passion, between brutality and helplessness. It has nothing to do with the current health crisis, but a great deal to do with the emotional climate AIDS is generating. Martin’s model suggests that any epidemic — whether or not the disease is sexually transmitted — affects the libido, if only because it places ecstasy and imminent death on the same chaotic primal plain.

“The plague continues, neither in nor out of control,” Martin writes at the conclusion of her reverie, “but we have been promised a vaccine that will solve all our problems. We go on without it, and life is not intolerable. Our city is an island, physically and psycho­logically; we are tied to the rest of the coun­try only by our own endeavor … The fu­ture holds a simple promise. We are well below sea level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content, for now, to have our heads above water.”

This is the looking glass fiction can fabricate. Gazing into it, we confront what jour­nalism cannot imagine: the possibilities. ❖

 
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An Encounter With Simone Weil

In the abbreviated life of French philosopher and sociopolitical activist Simone Weil (1909–1943), the daughter of agnostic Jews went to workers’-movement meetings as a child, later fought in the Spanish Civil War, experienced three Christian mystical episodes, and filled 15 meaty volumes—some published posthumously with the help of her intellectual admirer Albert Camus. Julia Haslett’s absorbing if patchy ode to Weil, an advocate for the rights of the disadvantaged, confronts her subject’s ideas of moral responsibility through surprisingly personal and experimental means. Weil’s author niece and 97-year-old cousin share remembrances (as do theologians, literary critics, and one of her former students), but Haslett also turns the camera on her own brother Tim, a black-studies scholar struggling with severe depression since the suicide of their father. The link is a stretch, though suffering and self-sacrifice were themes of Weil’s career and ultimate demise: Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Weil died after refusing to eat more than the rations offered to soldiers in occupied France. Further trying to resurrect the spirits, Haslett supplements her running commentary by hiring an actress to conjure Weil while she interviews her. The effect isn’t as visceral as the director might believe, but her teary-eyed curiosity feels sincere.

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SHOP AROUND

These are hard times for capitalism—an erratic stock market, recessions at home, unrest abroad. But Here Arts Center continues to embrace the system, cheerfully exchanging its artistic products for small amounts of currency at Culturemart, its annual chance to flog new works. Call it “The Wealth of Stages.” Here’s Soho space opens for a variety of performances in various media, provided by resident artists. Highlights of this year’s festival, which runs from today to February 11, include Aaron Landsman’s City Council Meeting, which combines documentary drama with participatory theater; The Strangest by Betty Shamieh, a counter-reading of Albert Camus; and Keep Your Electric Eye on Me, by Shaun Irons, Lauren Petty, and Mei-Yin Ng, which concerns a woman living adrift on a defunct satellite equipped with a live video feed.

Tue., Jan. 24, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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Vile Italians in Women Beware Women and Caligula

As George W. Bush’s reign nears its inglorious end, many believe that his presidency ranks among the worst ever: Worse than corrupt Warren G. Harding; worse than even dirty trickster Richard M. Nixon. Still, theatergoers might be moved to regard our lame duck with new fondness if they were to attend Albert Camus’s Caligula or Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, two plays depicting rulers far viler than our current POTUS. Caligula favors murder, incest, and parading in his underwear, while Middleton’s more warmly dressed Duke commits a casual rape that results in wholesale slaughter.

Women Beware Women marks the fourth production from Red Bull Theater, a company devoted to staging Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Women benefits from a $100,000 grant from the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund, spent apparently on a surfeit of silk gowns and chandeliers. Spread over four playing spaces at the Theater at St. Clement’s like ganache, the design has a tarted-up air—luxe and tawdry at once. This seems somehow appropriate for Women, a derisive tragedy that occasions little pity.

In Women, Middleton crafts a drama of sex and class. Nice bourgeois newlyweds Leantio (Jacob Fishel) and Bianca (Jennifer Ikeda) learn corruption courtesy of rich widow Lavinia (Kathryn Meisle) and a lascivious Florentine duke (Geraint Wyn Davies). Meanwhile, an uncle seduces a niece, a fool learns courtship, and a Cardinal plots to gain power. Jesse Berger is a lively director, rendering the Jacobean language nicely accessible, but much of the staging feels like he’s marking time until the wonderfully ridiculous fifth act, which begins as a wedding masque and concludes in a bloodbath. Here, Berger’s competing impulses—toward both the tragic and the camp—achieve fruition rather than friction. The sight of so much taffeta and gilt laden with so many bodies is a delight.

Some of the actors seem unable to reconcile Middleton’s tonal difficulties and Berger’s divided interests. But Meisle, as the very lusty widow, offers a wonderfully vibrant performance—she’s the most fatal of femmes. Fishel, as her bourgie boy-toy, also acquits himself nicely. Of course, they, too, meet wretched ends. As the poor, ravished Bianca says, a moment before her own death, “Pride, greatness, honors, beauty, youth, ambition/You must all down together/There’s no help for ‘t.”

Pride, greatness, honors, and lots of young men with their shirts off cannot save Horizon Theater Rep’s uniquely terrible production of Albert Camus’s Caligula, in which Rafael de Mussa directs the production and plays the titular role. Compounding his heavy Spanish accent with a furious devotion to mumbling, he portrays the decadent Roman emperor and occasions existential crises in much of the audience (“Why am I here? What is the meaning of this? Why is the theater world so cruel?”).

To say that celebrated Scottish playwright David Greig phoned in his translation is to afford him too much credit. Perhaps he composed it using predictive text messaging: The script teams with clichés like “Nature is a great healer” and “We must keep up appearances.” On the plus side, it does offer a rather singular method for dealing with any budget crisis: “All patricians shall be henceforth obliged to disinherit their children and make a new will leaving everything to the state. [And] as the need for cash arises, we execute people. Randomly.” Someone alert the transition team!

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SO CRUEL

Caligula, or Caius Caesar Germanicus, was assassinated at the tender age of 29. But he managed to cram prodigious amounts of insanity, misrule, incest, and cruelty into that little life. He also once attempted to have a favorite horse declared consul. Albert Camus’s play, newly translated by David Greig, doesn’t feature any equine amusements—it’s rather too busy exploring ontology.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Mon., Dec. 22, 8 p.m.; Tue., Dec. 23, 8 p.m.; Mon., Dec. 29, 8 p.m.; Tue., Dec. 30, 8 p.m. Starts: Dec. 4. Continues through Dec. 21, 2008

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Settling for Beauty’s Cold Comfort

“A saturation of glorious signs bathing in the light of their absent
explanation.” This line from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1996 meditation on
political and aesthetic non-intervention teasingly describes the
experience of the director’s late-period work—intricately crafted,
visually masterful films that leave the interpretive heavy lifting to
the viewer. For Ever Mozart is a virtual litany of the
director’s cinematic signatures: bold primary colors, jagged shards of
music, rapid-fire quotations, gunshot sounds, multilingual dialogue,
waves breaking on the beach, riffs on previous Godard films, melancholy
ruminations on history-bound Europe. The second and longest of the four
loosely connected sections follows a group of French actors—including
the fictional granddaughter of Albert Camus—on a quixotic quest to
stage Alfred de Musset’s One Must Not Play at Love in war-torn
Sarajevo. Their absurd failure opens up troubling questions about the
ethics of artistic engagement that reverberate for the duration—a key
moment finds a film crew using its shoot’s elegant costumes to cover a
pair of corpses. The purposefully shoddy staging of war and atrocity
co-exists uneasily with bits of lyrical abstraction, as when a spasm of
crude violence ends with the camera lingering on a shot of a dead
woman’s foot protruding from the dirt. Profoundly pessimistic,
For Ever Mozart evinces little faith in design or intelligence,
settling in its cryptic final scene for the cold comfort of beauty.

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Sade-ways: The Story of Story of O

“I just want to be a hole,” says the pensive masochist in Catherine Breillat’s Romance. The heroine of Story of O, godmother to cerebral submissives, encodes that wish in her orifice-shaped moniker. Whipped, chained, pierced, branded, a three-course buffet spread for her boyfriend and his associates, the self-nullifying O consents to epic mortification as proof of her unconditional ardor. Prosecuted, banned, burned (by prudes and feminists alike), and never out of print since its scandalous appearance in 1954, Story of O, credited to the fictitious “Pauline Réage,” can be read as secular transfiguration of religious devotion, deadpan parody of s/m erotica, or—as the author’s amour, Parisian literary giant Jean Paulhan concluded—”the most fiercely intense love letter a man could ever receive.”

He received it from Dominique Aury, his mistress and colleague at the peerless Gallimard publishing house and the Nouvelle Revue Française—the sole woman in a rarefied circle that included Albert Camus and Raymond Queneau. She was 47 and afraid of losing Paulhan; he was a quarter-century her senior, married to another woman, a philanderer, and a big fan of the Marquis de Sade. Aury wrote Story of O at night—in pencil, no revisions, no copies—under her parents’ roof, where she still lived; Paulhan delighted in his Pauline, and it only helped matters that local authorities proclaimed the work “violently and constantly immoral.”

Pola Rapaport’s slender documentary-cum-reconstruction Writer of O disappoints in its workmanlike approach to such fragrant material. Catherine Mouchet’s scowling, sour-bluestocking performance as the O-era Aury—mouth twisted in resentment, tremulous voice on the verge of a sob—does a disservice to the expansive, articulate woman we see in the film’s engrossing interview clips, while the re-enactments of scenes from the book are tame even by Skinemax standards. Elaborating John de St. Jorre’s 1994 New Yorker piece that unveiled Aury as O’s author, the writer-director adds banal first-person testimony (reading Story of O “felt like being burned in a fire”) and unfortunate expressionist illustration, as when she drops in some stock footage of, um, a train entering a tunnel.

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The Next Batch of Serious Theater Critics Takes on an Impressive New Caligula

Behold the man
By Chris Mills

Has André De Shields made a deal with the devil? As Caligula, in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s current production, he claims he is God. He sleeps with his sister. Most potently, he has a WWF-style smack-down with Jesus Christ himself—an act he mourns only because, given how handsome Jesus is, he’d really rather have sex with him. But the proof of De Shields’s Faustian bargain is in the performing. As a swirling vortex of energy, charisma, and charm, he becomes the creature of pure Roman ego that he knows we’ve come to see. Once this nearly 60-year-old performer takes the stage, he never gives it up, and the audience, caught up in his buoyant portrayal of the nearly mad emperor, wants him to keep it. Denouncing Camus’s and Bob Guccione’s treatments of his story, this new Caligula offers sex as philosophy and decadence as poetics. Blithely skipping over the atrocities of the emperor’s reign, the production focuses on the spirit of rebellion and excess at its heart. The cast’s chanting of “ecce homo”—as Caligula preeningly displays himself to the audience—underscores the production’s desire to present the emperor as a poet of the flesh who resists constraining religious beliefs. It is here that the show cracks a bit under the strain of its conflicting impulses: The angry mob murders and then deifies Caligula for his deeply held and boldly displayed resistance.

What the show lacks in dramaturgical coherence, however, it makes up for in campy jubilation. Hints of Sun Ra and James Brown run cheek by jowl with a testifying Gospel style—including a call to the altar, where audience members are led into the “Cosmic Pool” to receive their “healing.” CTH founder Alfred Preisser’s light directorial touch extends through an articulate and playful staging which combines Roman senate with contemporary circus; cast members stand on truncated pedestals, a kilt-clad muscle boy represents both a sexy court member and the race of Celts, and a striped-shirted peanut vendor functions as both audience greeter and (ignored) oracle. Caligula‘s costume design is a winning mix of Egyptian sandals and gold lamé. The lighting cleverly extends all the scenic hints the audience is given, helping the production take full advantage of the cramped space.

Though Caligula’s last night is foretold by the peanut vendor, the tragic dimension is only a brief episode. Instead, it’s Caligula’s “Let’s get this party started” attitude that remains in the mind long after the show is over.

Chris Mills is an ABD doctoral candidate at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies.

Hot times under the Harlem big top
By Emily M. Long

As one of ancient Rome’s most eccentric emperors, Gaius Caligula Caesar has long been a subject of fascination for writers ranging from Suetonius to Albert Camus. Classical Theatre of Harlem takes its turn with Caligula, a new play with music written by CTH co-founder and executive producer Alfred Preisser and Donkey Show creator Randy Wiener.

Set in a circus, Caligula depicts the emperor’s final entertainment. The title character is fearlessly and energetically played by two-time Tony nominee André De Shields, for whom the role was written. He runs the show, complete with beautiful dancing slaves and a ringleader clad in purple thigh-high fishnet stockings and gold short shorts. His court is one of liberation and excess, where horses can be named senators and sex with siblings, women, men, children, and animals is encouraged. As Caligula’s wife Caesonia points out early on, the dirty work of government is being done elsewhere by others, so there’s not much to worry about here. What Caligula does worry about, though, is the possibility of his people worshipping someone other than himself. When outside religions threaten his supremacy, Caligula pushes everyone around him past the brink of tolerance for his antics.

I must admit that I went into Caligula with certain expectations. I figured that a show about one of history’s most compelling tyrants would be horribly tragic and filled with the suffering of his mistreated subjects. Instead, I left Harlem with upbeat show tunes running through my head. Until the very end of the play, we don’t see any of the dire consequences of Caligula’s actions. The slaves seem to be having a great time singing, dancing, and enjoying one another, while the appointment of Caligula’s horse to the senate and the emperor’s sexual relations are occasions for broad humor.

We have nothing but fun watching Caligula—that is, until the last 10 minutes, when the more serious drama kicks in. While his downfall is a poignant example of what happens when power is abused, the show is ultimately memorable for its menacing humor and energy. Caligula can be disturbing, but it’s mostly a guilty pleasure.

Emily Long is a student in Columbia University School of the Arts program in Dramaturgy/Script Development

Imperial leather
By Emily Otto

Buoyant calliope music greets the audience. A peanut vendor in a pink-and-white-striped shirt chats affably with patrons while climbing over their seats. The performance space evokes a tarp-and-pole big top. This jovial atmosphere hardly seems appropriate for Caligula, an emperor known for cruelty and perversion. But then again, Caligula was acclaimed for his “entertainments”—circus-like performances in which he shamed and abused his subjects. In the Classical Theatre of Harlem Caligula, the infamous emperor becomes the charismatic leader of a cult of celebrity, contextualizing his vices in a contemporary, self-aware setting. This Caligula strives to outdo his past incarnations, mocking the Guccione/Penthouse film that made sex boring, as well as Brecht’s “forgettable” rendering and Camus’ “term paper” of a play. He knows that history can be rewritten, and sets out to be the biggest, baddest, sexiest Caligula of them all.

The play takes place on what will prove the final night of Caligula’s life. His legion of followers slithers onstage, enthralled by fervent devotion. As a live percussionist creates a cacophony of shimmering rumbles, Caligula’s long-suffering lover Caesonia (Carmen Barika) sings a soaring, otherworldly aria. The rhythm intensifies and the chorus erupts into a frenzy of writhing bodies.

When Caligula enters, his intoxicating aura commands every inch of the stage. And despite our knowledge of Caligula’s evil, we can hardly blame the chorus for their zeal. Who could help but fall under André De Shields’ sway? With a glint in his eye and a seductive smile, he directly addresses the audience for most of the performance, pulling the entire house into Caligula’s twisted world. His razor-sharp focus and rock-hard body spotlight his self-possessed, piercing intelligence as a performer. As Caligula, he simultaneously mesmerizes and terrifies.

The full force of Caligula’s wrath, however, lies in wait. Most of the play is dominated by song, dance, and exuberant copulation. Occasionally, the peanut vendor interrupts the festivities, warning Caligula of his impending fate. Caligula, meanwhile, revels in the joys of unfettered power, parading around the stage atop his horse (Noshir Dalal, clad in s/m leather) and naming the animal head of the Senate. He proudly flouts his incestuous relationship with his sister Drusilla (played by Zainab Jah with haunting subtlety), and after defeating Jesus Christ in a shrieking, body-slamming wrestling match, declares himself the one true deity.

When Caligula suspects his subjects of disloyalty, he unleashes his whip-cracking fury. His followers finally turn on him, and their swift, brutal retribution strips him of his power, revealing his underlying insecurity. When he turns to the audience and utters the words “I’m afraid of dying alone,” we see a man who spent his life desperately trying to be crazy enough to be remembered. In 2005, when average citizens will lie, cheat, and eat calves’ brains while hanging naked from a helicopter in order to see themselves on television, Caligula’s call for excess echoes the relentless pursuit of fame in our contemporary American empire, where decidedly common people seek validation through public reinvention. After Caligula’s death, De Shields tells the audience, “There is no Caligula. It’s just a play. I made him up. We all did.” By reframing history with a whip and a smile, this production slyly illuminates the present.

Emily Otto is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy at A.R.T.’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University
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Dirty Hands

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre, the privileged, amphibian-faced philosopher, befriended Albert Camus, the Bogart-esque, working-class novelist who shared his “gritty humanism.”But the friendship went up in smoke in a notorious dispute in 1952. Sartre converted to Communism and insisted that revolution meant getting your hands dirty, while Camus wanted to be “neither victim nor executioner” and denounced the Soviets. For Camus, Sartre’s insistence on political “commitment” was an attempt to shanghai artists onto a “slave galley.”

Ronald Aronson sees this fight as a tragedy in which each side was “half-right and half-wrong”; the ideal would be a hybrid “Camus/Sartre.” Aronson admits, though, that Camus “will remain the more sympathetic of the two.” It’s hard to disagree; for instance, while Camus took actual risks in the Resistance, the “tangential” Sartre did little more than publish some articles in the final days of the liberation—which were actually written by Simone de Beauvoir. In the ’50s, Sartre refused to condemn anti-Semitic purges in Czechoslovakia and the USSR. The one comparable flaw in the French-Algerian Camus is his tendency to condone French colonialism.

Aronson does a fine job of reconstructing this relationship and its undoing. The ideas at stake (like those in the King-Malcolm X dispute in the U.S.) are important. Sometimes, though, you wonder whether all the details of the 52-year-old polemic are worth rehearsing; they can come across as a tempest in a Parisian teapot, where the rhetoric and personalities overshadow the ideas. Not to deny the book’s nonintellectual pleasures. Sartre and Beauvoir surrounded themselves with a famille (Left Bank for “groupies”) in which all the heterosexual combinations were eventually exhausted—providing fodder for Beauvoir’s roman à clef The Mandarins. Well, all the combinations but one: Camus rebuffed Beauvoir’s overtures. As he explained to Arthur Koestler, “Imagine what she would be saying on the pillow afterwards. How awful—such a chatterbox.” It’s not the only point in this history where Camus shows good judgment.

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Anthrax as AIDS

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Everyone has been citing that noble old nostrum—and it’s true where anthrax is concerned. One person has died, several more deaths are suspicious, and perhaps 40 people have tested positive. Yet the country is reacting as if the earth has opened up and swallowed the Yankees. The media are doing their usual number—stoking fear with nonstop coverage while criticizing people for being afraid—and the pundit posture of choice is to narrow the eyes like a sailor in a Camels ad and go into Greatest Generation mode. In the new culture of war without end, anxiety is the mark of a sissy. If you’re scared, you better keep it to yourself. Yet like most dirty secrets, anthrax angst should not be dismissed.

AIDS taught us that the right response to panic is to bring people to their senses by unpacking the metaphors of illness and deconstructing magic thinking. But the current outbreak of anxiety is not just a symbol of some deeper unrecognized terror. It’s also an appropriate response to an actual threat. After all, anthrax is not the only organism that can serve as an agent of bioterror. If you’ve been following Nightline, one of the few news shows to confront the danger head on, you’ve heard that the ideal strategy is to spread a variety of germs so that no particular therapy can suffice. It may be very hard to carry that off, but in an intricately congested place like New York, it’s a real possibility. This is why so many people are worried. The specter that haunts us now is not anthrax but genocide.


Why do I focus on the worst-case scenario? Not just because, like many journalists, I’m prone to apocalyptic thinking, or because I won’t abide by psychic censorship. I’m caught up in this situation because it resonates with something I’ve seen before. I need to acknowledge that sense of déjà vu, if only to admit that it disposes me to grim conclusions about the current threat. So call me hysterical—and I hope you’re right. But every time I urge a complacent colleague to be careful when opening mail, I realize that the reason I’m hyper-vigilant is the memory of AIDS.

I lost perhaps 20 close friends and several former lovers to HIV (by no means a high toll for a gay man of my generation in New York). I realize what a luxury it is to speak of this disease in the past tense. I don’t live in a country where AIDS is the leading cause of death. I’m not tethered to the epidemic by a harrowing regimen of pills. But neither am I free of its grip on my imagination. I retain the imprint of AIDS anxiety, and the knowledge that what’s most terrifying about a crisis is not what you know but what you don’t.

During those early years, when images beyond my worst imaginings unfolded before my eyes—and there seemed to be no hope for the infected—fear seeped out of the inner reservoir where it makes a permanent home and spread throughout my consciousness. I was hardly the only member of what the caring profession calls “the worried well.” All across the city and eventually the world, even people at negligible risk were terrified.

As the death toll climbed, the worst instincts emerged, mostly because the infected belonged to our most notorious pariah groups. The fear of pollution that always surrounds the stigmatized led to all sorts of casual brutality. Colleagues shrank from shaking my hand. A friend refused to eat bread that I had touched. A stranger in the subway pointed to me and started screaming, “He has AIDS!” And then there were the rubber gloves. The sight of them on mail carriers today is like some tainted madeleine, bringing back the days when gloves were used for handling people who happened to be gay.

I was enraged by this behavior, but I also understood it. Hadn’t I come home after meeting someone with KS lesions on his face and washed my hands with alcohol? Wasn’t I obsessively examining my body for blemishes and endlessly palpating my glands? Didn’t I find myself shrinking from a kiss?

I had to deal with these reactions because I lived at the epicenter of the epidemic. There was no way out, and it was useless—not to mention wrong—to behave this way. My life and my ability to love depended on reconciling fear with reason. It was a close call, but as reliable information replaced supposition I was slowly able to right myself. I hate all attempts to draw moral lessons from illness. I’m not a better person for having survived AIDS. But I can attest to the fact that fear, when fully expressed, can be a source of safety and strength.


Not that the lessons of the HIV epidemic are entirely applicable to the present danger. There are crucial differences, not the least of which is that this time we really are all at risk. There’s no question of which victims are “innocent” and which are not. That means the government will be much quicker to respond if the worst occurs. It won’t take years for the president to utter the name of the infectious agent, as it did with AIDS. And any terrorist attack is likely to be acute but finite; unlike HIV, it will pass.

But there are also hellish possibilities that a sexually transmitted agent doesn’t pose: hospitals overwhelmed, social life extinguished, the city sealed. For these reasons, anthrax anxiety seems more rational than the AIDS panic was. Yet it is much harder to articulate, if only because it serves no larger social agenda. On the contrary, fear is deemed unpatriotic now. “WIMPS” is what the Post called the House of Representatives for closing down last week. No one who wanted to round up people with AIDS ever got called a coward. No one was urging us then to get on with our lives.

War changes the metaphors, of course. But in one key respect the fear of anthrax and AIDS are the same. It’s not the facts that scare us but the shock to our schema of reality. Something is happening that was not supposed to occur, something we can’t see or touch. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus calls this “death from a clear blue sky.” It matters less that an enemy sows the seeds of disease than that the logic of control has been breached. This is a primal source of human terror, which is why Camus considered epidemics existential events. They force us to confront the contingency of life and the fragility of social formations. In the end, all we can do is what we must, in the hope that it will be enough.

You don’t prepare for that awful prospect by staying calm and repressing feelings that might intrude on normalcy. You begin by respecting anxiety. There’s nothing shameful about fear in the face of danger; it’s something to be governed but heeded. So dare to imagine the unthinkable. Demand that the government make a plan that maximizes survival. Know that terror is the root of courage (since people who have no reason to fear also have no need to be brave). And believe that when the danger passes, for better or worse you will forget.

That’s how I’ve come to terms with AIDS. My own dirty secret is that I don’t think about the epidemic very much—until something happens that triggers my memory of death from a clear blue sky.