Friday, January 3, 2014

Every Man for Himself

Alan Sinfield is pretty prolific: I need to pay more attention to what he publishes.  I hadn't heard of Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Yale, 1999) until I stumbled on a copy in a used bookstore, and I grabbed it.  It's an interesting survey, mostly of English-language GLB theatre, though it often felt a bit rushed, even at 350 pages of text; I'd have been pleased to see him say more on many of the plays he discusses.  I wouldn't be surprised if he had to trim it down for publication.  In any case, it's worth reading if you're interested in the subject, though I imagine most people who are would already have read it.

At one point in his discussion of drama dealing with AIDS, Sinfield contrasts American work with British, noting that mainstream theater in the UK produced much less original work on the subject, because of the different trajectory of the epidemic there.  (Most of the well-known US plays were staged in London, though.)  But there's another difference he finds:
The fact is, although the characters in the [American] plays discussed here are outlaws in that they are gay, in other respects almost all of them are notably privileged -- white, male, affluent, professional, metropolitan ... These men have no tradition of political dissidence.  They had not expected to need the State, and when they do they cannot quite believe that it is not on their side.  In Love! Valour! Compassion! the men hear a gay demonstration being broken up -- 'They've always hated us.  It never ends, the fucking hatred' (107).  But it is at a safe distance, in Seattle, on the television.  When Mickey in The Normal Heart gives voice to suspicions which challenge US democratic ideology -- suggesting that the virus may have originated as a military experiment -- he is quickly declared to be having a mental breakdown and hustled out of the action (67-68).  In 1995, in an interview with Lisa Power, Kramer says that lately he has been 'accepting and facing ... that all these myths I have swallowed about humanity and American and "one voice can make a difference" -- these things that we're all taught, that democracy works and all -- turn out to be bullshit when you're gay or you have AIDS or are a member of a minority or whatever the reason'.  'That was a surprise?' Power asks [323].
Notice that Kramer gave that interview after years of experience in AIDS activism, mostly with ACT-UP, which he founded.  But then, even though he lived through the Civil Rights Movement and the movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, he'd never had much interest in politics.  According to the Wikipedia page on Kramer:
Initially, while living on Fire Island in the 1970s, Kramer had no intention of getting involved in political activism. There were politically active groups in New York City, but Kramer notes the culture on Fire Island was so different that they would often make fun of political activists: "It was not chic. It was not something you could brag about with your friends... Guys marching down Fifth Avenue was a whole other world. The whole gestalt of Fire Island was about beauty and looks and golden men."
But then AIDS invaded Paradise, and like so many other privileged gay men, Kramer found that money and chic offered no protection against the plague.  Yet even fourteen years after reality came crashing down on his head, Kramer was evidently still struggling with it, and apparently only as it affected him and people like him.  I guess this isn't surprising: of course men (mostly they are men, of course) who thought they were part of the State, or at least part of the classes that run our society, were indignant when their sense of entitlement hit a brick wall because they were queer.  Of course they have no experience with political dissidence; dissidents are the Other, the losers raging ignorantly and impotently outside the Inner Circle of the Cool People.

"Despite its political pitch," Sinfield adds, "The Normal Heart tends always to pose issues as interpersonal dilemmas" (323-4).  On one hand, that's to be expected in drama, which uses people and their interaction to make its points.  On the other hand, it's especially typical of art and entertainment in the US.  One of the reasons Korean cinema was a revelation to me was its ability to situate characters in their society, with much more realistic political awareness than I've ever seen in US product.  Even a melodramatic TV series like Sandglass (1995) was anchored in Korean history in a way that I can't imagine any TV show in the US bothering with.  And right now the top-grossing film in South Korea is The Attorney, about human rights lawyers who defended victims of torture during the dictatorship that ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1987.  (I knew I should have gone to Korea for the holidays; I could probably have seen it, since big films are shown in select theatres with English subtitles during their first run.  But it'll be out on DVD soon enough.)

I've noticed before that Americans are prone to see political conflict as "interpersonal dilemmas."  Kramer, again, fits the pattern well: in the 1980s he largely blamed New York City Mayor Ed Koch and President Reagan for the epidemic, with a personal venom that overlooked structural and systemic factors.  I now understand that this wasn't just political strategy: he genuinely thought they were personally responsible, just like in the movies.  So it's funny when the Obama devotee and journalist (and former ACT-UP activist!) Garance Franke-Ruta laments the "fanfictionalization" of US politics; it has ever been thus.  (Ma! Ma!  Where's my pa?  In the White House, ha ha ha!)   Franke-Ruta admits this, but she can't see that she's part of the problem.  US politics has always been a sports bout, with the respective fans cheering on their team and its star.  The American fantasy of individualism, with its rejection of human interdependence, fits this tendency perfectly, enshrined in entertainment, political philosophy, and the social sciences.