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Assessing the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, a generation on

My Night with Reg, Kevin Elyot’s 1994 play, has returned to the London stage, poignantly only a few weeks after the death of the playwright. Set in London’s gay community in the 1980s, the play follows…

My Night with Reg. Donmar Warehouse

My Night with Reg, Kevin Elyot’s 1994 play, has returned to the London stage, poignantly only a few weeks after the death of the playwright. Set in London’s gay community in the 1980s, the play follows a group of friends against the backdrop of the mounting AIDS crisis.

And My Night with Reg isn’t the only such example of this revival of interest. Recently, the early days of the epidemic have been revisited in a number of new books and films, as well as high-profile stage revivals. Now, 30 years after it was first isolated in a Paris laboratory, the cultural and historical impact of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is being subjected to thorough reassessment.

And with (some) fresh eyes. There’s been a generational shift in the West. An acronym that terrified me as a child, rearing its head in government adverts, biology lessons and playground slurs, has ceased to be a near and present danger to those too young to remember a time before antiretroviral drugs, a time when people would put their lives and jobs on the line to campaign for access to medical research.

My Night with Reg was first performed in 1994, during the first wave of the epidemic. At this time cultural responses to AIDS were so numerous that the writer Edmund White feared publishers would close their lists to them. Two years later, protease inhibitors went on the market, and while writing about AIDS in the USA and Europe didn’t halt completely, there was certainly a marked shift in its tone and frequency.

Dallas Buyers Club: another reassessment.

It was panic and polemic that was most notable in this period – for example in Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart or Sarah Schulman’s novel Rat Bohemia. Later in the 1990s, this gave way to literary experiment, for example in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a tribute to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway that transforms the shell-shocked Septimus Smith of the original novel into a modern-day writer in the late stages of AIDS-related illness.

By the mid-2000s novelists were writing “historic” novels of those early, fearful years (Will Self’s Dorian; Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty). These novels may initially seem to consign AIDS to a clearly defined “past”. But really they remind the post-1996 generation, used to the idea of HIV as a “chronic”, medicated condition, that we ignore recent events at our peril.

Sarah Schulman has been particularly outspoken regarding the danger that the early years of the epidemic are being forgotten. She calls this process the “gentrification of the mind”. To combat it, she has devoted the last few years to collating vast amounts of documentary material from the New York ACT-UP archives, some of which was included in the film she co-produced with Jim Hubbard in 2012, United in Anger.

United in Anger was not a one-off. It’s part of a growing trend. 2011 saw the release of We Were Here, David Weissman’s documentary film about community activism in San Francisco, and Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito, which pays tribute to the writer and LGBT rights campaigner Vito Russo. These were followed in 2012 by the Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, a moving tribute to the original cohort of ACT UP campaigners who did so much to speed up medical research and assert the human rights of people with AIDS.

How to Survive a Plague. David France

Tom Hanks won an Oscar for playing an HIV-positive lawyer in Philadelphia 21 years ago. And earlier this year, a film with a similarly wide reach has kept the first wave of the AIDS epidemic alive in the public consciousness. Matthew McConaughey repeated Hanks’s success, portraying Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club.

What all of these films and stage revivals deal with is the politics of 1980s and 1990s AIDS. Despite their distinct contexts, they forge valuable connections with more recent movements and, at their very base, serve as a simple reminder of the power of activist dissent.

And now, My Night with Reg returns to the London stage. On first performance in 1994, many people noted its debt to the drawing-room comedies of an earlier era. While 20 years have elapsed since then, Elyot’s play shows little danger of being consigned to mere “historical interest” like many of those forebears. Perhaps it is only now that we are beginning to reflect on the scale of the early epidemic; each piece of AIDS-related art in the early years was after all a work of consciousness-raising, as well as a documentary, or an elegy.

And My Night with Reg is a timely reminder that global catastrophes can be staged in kitchens and conservatories, as well as through protesters marching into Washington or apocalyptic angels crashing through ceilings.


My Night with Reg is at London’s Donmar Warehouse until September 27 2014.