In a dream sequence from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Prior (Stephen Spinella), suffering from AIDS, looks in the mirror and announces glumly, "I look like a corpse." He then dons a colorful turban and pleased with the transformation, shouts gleefully, "A corpsette!" The audience, which until then was tittering nervously, erupts in relieved laughter.
The playwright has described his acclaimed award-winning epic at the Walter Kerr Theatre as a "manual of survival for gay men" and humor has always been an important tool in that kit. Another playwright, Paul Rudnick, author of the Off-Broadway comedy hit "Jeffrey" (which opens in L.A. Sept. 24 at the Westwood Playhouse) calls it "gay soul"-- those witty epigrams and sophisticated banter that have long been the staple of gay writers and artists.
Until now, gay humor has been the first line of defense against the oppression and hostility of bigots and bullies. Indeed, in "Jeffrey," when a trio of street toughs threateningly approach the title character and one menacing taunts, "We've got knives. What do you have?," the gay young man replies, "Irony, adjectives, eyebrows." But the difference these days is that the repartee is now being aimed at a far more insidious and devastating enemy: AIDS.
After more than a decade in which the disease has wreaked unimaginable suffering, gay writers and artists increasingly are approaching the subject with humor, their works supplementing the library of more serious material by such colleagues as Larry Kramer ("The Destiny of Me"), Randy Shilts ("And the Band Played On") and conceptualist Nayland Blake. In the process, these statements on the absurdist predicament of living in the era of AIDS have begun to redefine the very notion of "black" or "gallows" humor that long has attended tragedy. In pushing against the boundaries of what is "acceptable" in referring to illness and dying--some in weird and wildly funny ways--these artists are helping many to deal with the crisis at the same time that they are making others uncomfortable.
Three examples are Rudnick's surprise hit play, Robert Plunket's comic novel "Love Junkie" (which Madonna has optioned for a film), and a recent exhibition of works by conceptualist Barton Benes at the not-for-profit White Columns, a gallery in Greenwich Village. All the work reflects what Rudnick maintains is an emotional spur to the Zeitgeist of the AIDS Era.
"Everything you've assumed about death and illness no longer holds," said the 34-year-old playwright in a recent interview. "All bets are off. Whatever guides people had to handle, discreetly, the situation just aren't useful anymore. We've had to make it up as we go along."
There are dangers, to be sure, in treading such sensitive ground. In the vignettes of gay life in "Jeffrey," there are the predictably funny scenes in the gym, the chintz-covered apartment and the sex club. But the jokes continue inside the hospital room and on to the memorial service. Whenever Rudnick felt he was nearing rocky shoals of perceived bad taste in writing the play, he says he had one solution: He headed straight for them.
"Whatever is making you uncomfortable is probably what's important and funny in the most unexpected way," Rudnick said referring to, among other things, the idea in his play that gay men attending memorial services could be looking to pick up dates at the same time. Writing "Jeffrey," he added, led him to explore publicly what he'd previously thought of as private "guilty thoughts."
"I wondered if I and my friends were the only ones who giggled at the side of a hospital bed or at a memorial," he said. "Thank God, these were things that were on other people's minds as well. The audience is shocked, but once they realize it's OK to laugh, they settle down and enjoy it."
Rudnick is mindful that his comedy could only come after dramas such as "As Is" and "The Normal Heart" established the nightmare of AIDS: the criminal neglect, the despair, the unrelenting rage. Even so, some critics attacked "Jeffrey" for coming perilously close to trivializing the suffering. And some gay activists, taking issue with what they consider to be unflattering stereotypes, have also wondered if it doesn't invite complacency.
Rudnick answered his critics by saying, "Political correctness doesn't inspire action. It just leaves people squirming. This play forces an audience to look at a whole set of characters who they may have once belittled as a stereotype and accept them as a human. I don't think audiences come away saying, 'Oh, AIDS, la-de-da.' The stakes are very high."
The emotional roller coaster of "Jeffrey," mixing as it does humor with horror, is a departure from the neatly delineated comedy-dramas of the past, such as Neil Simon's "Chapter Two," as well as the cruel, hard-hitting graveyard cackle of Joe Orton's satires like "Loot."
"Black humor finds human behavior hopelessly ridiculous," Rudnick said. " 'Jeffrey' finds it delightfully ridiculous. Memorials are a way of honoring the dead in their own style and style gets you through."
Style, too, is the mantra of the lead character in Robert Plunket's acclaimed novel "Love Junkie." In this work, Mimi Smithers, a middle-aged social climber from Bronxville, N.Y., falls into a zany web of sexual high jinks when she meets and goes to work for an artsy gay Manhattanite. The book, recently reissued in paperback, never mentions AIDS. But as a comedy of sexual manners set in the late '70s and early '80s in Fire Island and the sex clubs of the Village, the specter of the disease infects the novel until it ends with a memorial for someone who has succumbed, presumably, to AIDS.
Plunket began writing the book in the early '80s, before the onslaught of AIDS, and at one point, the incipient plague stopped the book dead in its tracks.
"When AIDS happened, suddenly the material wasn't funny anymore," he recalled in a interview from his home in Sarasota, Fla. "But I realized that what I was being handed was the most dramatic material in the world."
Unlike Rudnick and Plunket, 50-year-old artist Barton Benes has tested positive for the AIDS virus. He employs this personal knowledge to create conceptual works of art, using his own blood, that are sharply ironic statements of what it is like to live with AIDS.
A good many of the works in his recent show at the White Columns Gallery are titled "lethal weapons": innocuous dime-store novelties, like dart guns and squirting joke flowers, which--filled with his own HIV-infected blood and encased in clear boxes--take on a powerful and arresting aura. "Poison Pen" is a pen with a blood-filled cartridge; "Molotov Cocktail" is a vial of blood wrapped with firecrackers; "Silencer" is a syringe that fires rubber-tipped suction-cupped darts. The pieces mischievously play with the fear of contamination that surrounds AIDS at the same time that Benes sends up his status as outcast and accidental terrorist.
"Barton Benes addresses the issues without sentimentality and without self-pity," said Jeffrey Schaire, former editor of Art & Antiques magazine and himself HIV-positive. "People find them moving precisely because they are witty."
The artist, speaking in his curio-filled studio at Westbeth, N.Y., said "At first, when people come into the studio and look at the work, there is this silence. Especially when they discover it is my blood and that I'm HIV-positive. When I tell them to 'lighten up,' they relax."
For Benes as much as for the other artists, wit and style can become a useful tool in achieving a personal sense of triumph over AIDS and it is one that appears to work for many people. After a decade, many are "hungry" for new ways in which the suffering can be processed and placed in perspective.