Peter Scott-Presland from Homo Promos introduces Anti Body, the first play in the world about HIV and AIDS, which is being performed by the company on Zoom next month.
I have a confession to make. I think I must be the last gay man in the country who hasn’t watched Russell T Davis’s It’s a Sin. Call it protectionism if you like. I am about to direct a Zoom reading of Anti Body, which was the first play in the world to deal with HIV/AIDS; I don’t want to dilute the raw, visceral effect of a play wrested from the grief, fear and confusion of the epidemic as it was beginning to take a grip. It was written over the winter of 1982/83, out of the experience of Baltimore, Maryland – a city which, through John Hopkins University, was at the forefront of research and treatment, such as it was. Most importantly, it was written by a lesbian. Author Louise Parker Kelley remembers:
“Nearly forty years ago, I was afraid most of my friends were going to die. There was an entire floor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital just for people with AIDS. And the surge of funerals had begun . . . So, I sat down in a grotty hotel outside of Windsor and began writing a play about a gay man who was dying of AIDS. I was inspired by my friend Arthur Stutsman, who had just been diagnosed with it when I left Baltimore to move to England with my lover. I was devastated. I was frightened, furious and I had to do something. I wrote Anti Body in about three weeks. Then I sent it to a London theatre company called Consenting Adults in Public.
“It is the story of one man, William Davis, and what happens to him. The protagonist was based partly on Arthur, and also on my father, who died of lung cancer in 1976. And the other characters were mostly activists, his friends that were his family, his mother and brother, and gay doctor. That was Anti Body.”
Louise Parker Kelley in 1990
In early 1983 we didn’t even know what to call it. The scientists were still arguing as the US, in the form of Robert Gallo, and the France of Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute squabbled over who discovered what. It was heavy. There were accusations of theft, lawsuits. At stake was personal and national prestige, and funding. Patients seemed to be low on the priority list in this clash of egos. So – what the hell was it? HTLV3? GRID? LAV? HIV?
When I first read the play there were some fourteen diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS in the UK. By the time we went into rehearsal there were 29. When we opened at the Cockpit Theatre in October 1983, there were about forty.
How can you fight something which doesn’t even have a name, let alone a cause? There were rumours that it spread on the air, you could catch it off lavatory seats, sharing towels. It took a year to get to the point where it was generally agreed that body fluids had something to do with it. But what exactly did that mean? What was the transmission route? The earliest preventive action advocated was simple: Give up sex. For a generation which had spent twenty years and more fighting for the right to have sex, this advice was a non-starter.
There was no reliable test for – whatever it was. The best that could be offered was, get yourself checked out. Again this fell on stony ground: what was the point of testing for an unnamed disease for which there was no treatment and no cure? Despite this, and the complete absence of interest in the mainstream media, lesbians and gays started organising, tentatively at first but with increasing confidence. But we knew jack shit.
Barry Scanes played William in the original production
When I first read the play there were some fourteen diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS in the UK. By the time we went into rehearsal there were 29. When we opened at the Cockpit Theatre in October 1983, there were about forty. Michael Callan and Richard Berkowitz had published How to Have Sex in an Epidemic in May 83, which was the first book to advocate safer sex; here Gay Switchboard was advising callers to avoid having sex with Americans. The Terrence Higgins Trust started as a small informal support group in August 1983, but didn’t get formally set up till the next year.
There were many things I liked, and still like, about the play. It is very good at placing William within a friendship network, his family of choice, people who live and work in a real community. They run a gay newspaper, organise Pride Parades, join a Gay Alliance, put on plays. It is terrific on the involvement of lesbians in the fight against AIDS and support for their gay brothers, something which was not acknowledged for many years.
Looking at the script today, all this confusion, and the speed with which events moved, stands out starkly. In addition to its merits as a play, it is an accurate representation of how it all felt at the time; particularly in the sense at the beginning of Act One that it is something to be laughed off, not that serious, followed by the chilling realisation through the play that 40% of those infected will die. A year later the death rate was 55%. The script Louise sent me was American, reflecting her experience, and as Director I wanted to make it English, so it couldn’t be dismissed as something ‘out there’ and nothing to do with us. In the rewrites we inserted a powerful speech about safer sex. This was not popular, and we were accused of being sensational, alarmist, scare-mongering and sex-denying. Nevertheless I think we made audiences think, and kicked off the movement towards playing responsibly.
There were many things I liked, and still like, about the play. It is very good at placing William within a friendship network, his family of choice, people who live and work in a real community. They run a gay newspaper, organise Pride Parades, join a Gay Alliance, put on plays. It is terrific on the involvement of lesbians in the fight against AIDS and support for their gay brothers, something which was not acknowledged for many years. This is in contrast to many of the plays of the 80s and 90s, which used the format of solitary martyrdom, possibly with a straight woman as best friend or advocate.
Anti Body gives fair weight to the feelings and beliefs which kick back against the limitations on sexual freedoms, which see the advocates of controlling one’s urges as being puritan – literally ‘anti-body’ in another sense. This makes dialogues about monogamy and ‘promiscuity’ very sharp and pertinent, especially in contrasts between lesbians and gay men. It’s also relevant in its treatment of isolation, still devastating in the current pandemic. And one line brought me up short: “If it was heterosexuals getting it, they’d find a cure in a year. A vaccine at least.” Remind you of something?
Finally, the true triumph of the piece is to take an inexorable progress towards death, and to create an assertion of will in the face of that death. In spite of the odds, it is an affirmative play. We create our own agency.
As of this writing, the death toll from AIDS worldwide stands at somewhere over 33 million. There is still, 40 years later, no cure, and the prophylaxis available to us in the UK which makes younger people blasé about unprotected sex is completely out of reach to at least 50% of the world’s population. So, as It’s a Sin should remind us, this is not an issue to dismiss yet.
Peter Scott-Presland today
I will watch Davis’s series, though I fear the whole process of going through a huge mini-series production mill may have put a false patina on the period. In the meantime, if you want to know how it really felt for those who were girding up for the fight for survival of the next twenty years, Anti Body is a place to start.
To see Anti Body on Zoom, follow this link:
The play is at 7.30pm on Tuesday 2nd March. The doors are open from 7pm. Feel free to join in the conversation afterwards. Evening closes at 10.20pm.
Homo Promos is performing more plays from its archive on Zoom every Tuesday at 7.30pm until 31st March. The full programme is at Homo Promos – Zoom Readings. All plays can be accessed by the same link.
Top photo of Peter Scott-Presland in 1982 by Emmanuel Cooper