This is our first text where we encounter HIV/AIDS as the subject of contagion in our course. Event though I am sure we all know what HIV/AIDS is and what the distinction between the two terms are, here is a short video reminder nonetheless.
What can we say about the symbolic role of the disease in Angels in America? How can we relate the fact that the main symptom of AIDS is our body’s inability to protect itself from external threats, just like some of the characters were unable to protect themselves from the harm caused by loved ones (think Harper) or the society?
Interestingly, AIDS has been casually called the ‘gay plague’ during the initial outbreak. When we have been discussing devastating diseases thus far, part of the horror was their indiscriminate nature. Yet the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the beginning of the ’80s has demonstrated just how ugly society’s response can be when only a subset of the population is at risk, especially minorities that are already discriminated against. Here is a short video of the early AIDS news coverage, or the “GRID,” gay-related immune deficiency, as it was first called.
What happens when ‘the plague’ suddenly started choosing it’s victims? When it seemingly starts targeting what could perhaps be called the most hated minority of the time? When the disease comes alive with a taste for certain humans?
Finally, what happens when the doctors refuse to test the blood that they know may be infected with a deadly virus for which there is no cure, simply because it might damage revenue and give the blood to haemophiliacs? To quote And the Band Played On, a great book on the epidemic: “when the doctors start acting like businessmen, who do the people turn to for doctors?” In all the books we read so far, the doctors were mostly portrayed as positive characters. What happens when we can’t rely even on the ones that are supposed to save us? Who were the respective characters in Angels in America relying on in the play?
As can be seen through both the play and history, a disease that inflicts a politically unpopular minority will often cause societal responses to be unsympathetic and judgemental, as if the disease were some sort of punishment that they deserved. This can be seen through both Hannah’s initial reluctance to help out Prior (reluctance to raise her hand to check his fever), and Roy’s insistence on calling his sickness liver cancer.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that the two main medical figures, Henry and Belize, are almost complete opposites. Henry is a white American male who is doing his job out of fear of Roy’s power. He helps Roy fake his medical records. Belize, on the other hand, is a black homosexual man who is doing his duties as a nurse. Unlike Henry he portrays compassion through not only his conversations with his friends but also in stealing Roy’s leftover stash of medicine for others in need. It is as if the play is casting a positive light on Belize as a representative of societal minority groups.
Unfortunately, since plague continuously appears to be a metaphor for society, the AIDS disease that targets homosexuals could reflect the meaningless marginalization of these men by their fellow humans. Once the virus attacks its victim, there are few people who stay by his/her side (e.g. Hannah and Prior), while others decide to save themselves from the plague’s attack (e.g. Louis’ abandonment of his lover). Likewise, when society marginalizes a certain group of people, few stand up and care for this attacked group, while the majority acts as bystanders hoping to escape the cruel attack of society. In other words, society can be as heartless and apathetic as a virus in terms of labelling and targeting a specific group of people, and so in this text, AIDS functions as a metaphor and reflection of 20th-century society.
In response to the last quote in your post, I’d ask the following question: when loved ones start acting as strangers, who do people turn to for friendship? When Louis leaves Prior, who else can he turn to? When Joe abandons Harper, where else can she go? Can such actions ever be justified, both in the play and in today’s world? Why do people still turn away from their original roles and responsibilities?