Silence = death

SILENCE = DEATH Project (Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Li. SILENCE=DEATH, 1987. Offset lithograph, sheet: 33 9/16 × 21 15/16 in. (85.2 × 55.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Robert Thill in honor of Robin Renée Thill Beck, 1998.109. © artist or artist’s estate (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1998.109_PS6.jpg)

While we were talking about Ibsen’s Ghosts today, I mentioned that the play resonated with the 1980s AIDS crisis. I poked around the New York Times archives after class and found a 1982 review that mentions how ubiquitous the play had recently become but doesn’t yet mention AIDS (though it describes Mrs. Alving’s truth-telling as a “coming out”), and one reviewing an Irish production in 1990 that explicitly updates the play and changes Oswald’s disease from syphilis to AIDS. The first of those reviews, from 1982, seems to reproduce the problem of remaining silent about the obvious. It refers to the play as “an intimidating classic that, for some most mysterious reason, has been too much with us of late.” Could the reason have been so mysterious? The fact that the paper couldn’t just name the advent of HIV/AIDS as the “mysterious reason” anticipates what would become a major activist critique (see the poster above) of the Reagan administration’s failures in confronting the crisis, which will return as an issue when we read Kushner’s Angels later this semester.

(For an interesting look at the effects of the New York Times’s early AIDS coverage, which began in 1981 with a now infamous article on a new “gay cancer,” see this take from the Covid era.)

While I was looking at these older reviews I also found this clip, which I hadn’t seen before, of Lesley Manville (who played Mrs. Alving in recent productions in London and New York) reading some lines out of costume: she’s staggeringly good, and really makes plain just how modern the play can still feel.

I’d seen another clip before, of her in costume on stage, performing the scene we’ve spent so much time discussing. She’s amazing. Enjoy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.