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From Bogeyman to Bison: A Herd-Like Amnesia of HIV/AIDS in Theatre?1


Queer theorists from across a broad range of disciplines argue that we are in a ‘normalizing’ or ‘homonormative’ period, in which marginalized subjectivities strive to align themselves with hegemonic norms. In terms of LGBTQ rights and representation, it can be argued that this has resulted in an increased visibility of ‘desirable’ gays (monogamous – ideally civil-partnered, white, financially independent, able-bodied) and the decreased visibility of ‘undesirable’ gays (the sick, the poor, the non-white, the non-gender-conforming). Focusing specifically on the effects of this hierarchy on the contemporary theatrical representation of gay HIV/AIDS subjectivities, this article looks at two performances, Reza Abdoh's Bogeyman (1991) and Lachlan Philpott's Bison (2009–10). The article argues that HIV/AIDS performance is as urgently necessary today as in the early 1990s, and that a queer dramaturgy, unafraid to resist the lure of normativity or the ‘gaystreaming’ of LGBT representation, is a vital intervention strategy in contemporary (LGBT) theatre.

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2 Román David, ‘NOT-ABOUT-AIDS’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 6, 1 (2000), pp. 128.

3 Duggan Lisa, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), p. 50. See also idem, ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism’, in Castronovo Russ and Nelson Dana D., eds., Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 175–94.

4 Carter Julian, ‘Gay Marriage and Pulp Fiction: Homonormativity, Disidentification, and Affect in Ann Bannon's Lesbian Novels’, GLQ, 15, 4 (2009), pp. 583609, here p. 583. Carter argues for an alternative focus on ‘the affect that motivates homonormative choices’, at p. 583. See also, for example, Murphy Kevin P., Ruiz Jason and Serlin David, eds., ‘Queer Futures’, Radical History Review, 100 (Winter 2008), special issue on homonormativity.

5 McRuer Robert, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006), p. 175. McRuer puts forward ‘a theory of . . . “compulsory able-bodiedness” and argue[s] that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness, which in a sense produces disability, is thoroughly interwoven with the system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness’. Ibid., p. 2.

6 Warner Michael, ‘Introduction’, in idem, ed., Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. viixxxi, here p. xxvi.

7 Warner Michael, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 114.

8 Murphy Kevin P., Ruiz Jason and Serlin David, ‘Editors’ Introduction’, Radical History Review, 100 (Winter 2008), pp. 19, here p. 4.

9 Hennessy Rosemary, cited by Dana Collins in ‘“No Experts: Guaranteed!”: Do-It-Yourself Sex Radicalism and the Production of the Lesbian Sex Zine “Brat Attack”’, Signs, 25, 1 (Autumn 1999), pp. 6589, here p. 65.

10 Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo Television, 2003, television series; The Kids are All Right, dir. Lisa Chodolenko, Focus Features, 2010, film; The Ellen DeGeneres Show/Ellen, NBC 2003, television series; The L Word, Showtime, 2004; television series.

11 McRuer, Crip Theory, p. 180.

12 Collins, ‘No Experts: Guaranteed!’, p. 74. Collins is citing Douglas Crimp's use of ‘good and bad gay lifestyles’ in ‘Portraits of People with AIDS’, in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1992) pp. 117–33.

13 Phillip Brian Harper, ‘Gay Male Identities, Personal Privacy, and Relations of Public Exchange: Notes on Directions for Queer Critique’, Social Text, 52–3 (Autumn–Winter 1997), pp. 5–29, here p. 5.

14 Cindy Patton problematizes the ‘degaying’ of AIDS in Inventing AIDS (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 19, 112–13, 116–18.

15 Tomso Gregory, ‘The Humanities and HIV/AIDS: Where Do We Go from Here?’, PMLA, 125, 2 (2010), pp. 443–53, here p. 443. I am grateful to Ross Anderson for bringing Tomso's article to my attention, and for the discussions we have had about HIV/AIDS representation in relation to Northern Ireland.

16 Ibid., p. 443.

17 The production subsequently went to the Oval House Theatre, London (June–July 2010).

18 Román, ‘NOT-ABOUT-AIDS’, p. 1.

19 For a detailed account of HIV/AIDS representation in US theatre see Román David, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998).

20 Mary Luckhurst, for example, suggests that ‘political theatre’ has come to ‘stand as a synonym for the dominant form of social-realist drama in the Osborne tradition, and is a term that suggests an unassailable claim to authority in the representation of the political’. Luckhurst Mary, ‘Harold Pinter and Poetic Politics’, in D'Monté Rebecca and Saunders Graham, eds., Cool Britannia: British Political Theatre in the 1990s (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 5668, here p. 59. I have traced this argument in my thesis, ‘Experiencing Kane: An “affective approach” to Sarah Kane's experiential theatre in performance’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, the University of Melbourne, 2009), available at

21 ‘The gay plague’ was an informal but widely adopted term for AIDS, emerging from early diagnoses (1982) of what was initially named ‘Gay-Related Immune Deficiency’ (GRID).

22 Reza Abdoh, Bogeyman (July–September 1991), rehearsal script of Alyson Campbell (assistant director), unpublished.

23 Ibid., ‘Prologue’, p. 5.

24 Mufson Daniel, ‘Same Vision, Different Form: Reza Abdoh's The Blind Owl’, TDR, 39, 4 (Winter 1995), pp. 97107, here p. 97.

25 Mufson Daniel, ‘Introduction’ in idem, ed., Reza Abdoh (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 112, here p. 5. Some photographs in Mufson's monograph convey the size and ‘verticality’ of the set.

26 Michael Feingold, ‘Artaud You So’, in Mufson, Reza Abdoh, pp. 104–7, here p. 106.

27 José Esteban Muñoz has written about the politics of affect in ‘Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho's The Sweetest Hangover (and other STDs)’, Theatre Journal, 52 (2000), pp. 67–79. His work on ‘disidentification’ has been pivotal in theories of queer performance; see idem, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

28 Campbell, ‘Experiencing Kane’.

29 Sylvie Drake, ‘A Chaotic Plaint for Our Fouled Nest’, on Abdoh's Minamata, in Mufson, Reza Abdoh, pp. 91–5, here pp. 91, 92.

30 Massumi Brian, ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, in idem, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002) pp. 2831.

31 Drake, ‘A Chaotic Plaint’, p. 93.

32 Abdoh, ‘Monologue #7 (Fess up)’, Bogeyman rehearsal script.

33 Müller-Schöll Nikolaus, ‘Theatre of Potentiality: Communicability and the Political in Contemporary Performance Practice’, Theatre Research International, 29, 1 (2004), pp. 4256, here p. 44.

34 Bell John, ‘AIDS and Avantgarde Classicism: Reza Abdoh's Quotations from a Ruined City’, TDR, 39, 4 (1995), pp. 2147, here p. 36.

35 Román, Acts of Intervention, p. 220.

36 Gautam Dasgupta, for example, refers to his ‘theater of rage’ in ‘Body/Politic: The Ecstasies of Reza Abdoh,’ in Mufson, Reza Abdoh, p. 118.

37 Abdoh, in interview with Andréa R. Vaucher, ‘Excerpts from an Interview with Reza Abdoh’, in Mufson, Reza Abdoh, p. 44.

38 Bell, ‘AIDS and Avantgarde Classicism’, p. 44.

40 See Busby Selina and Farrier Stephen, ‘The Fluidity of Bodies, Gender, Identity and Structure in the Plays of Sarah Kane’, in Godiwala Dimple, ed., Alternatives within the Mainstream II: Queer Theatres in Post-war Britain (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), pp. 142–59, here p. 156.

41 Dasgupta, ‘Body/Politic’, p. 116.

42 Román, ‘NOT-ABOUT-AIDS’, p. 1.

43 Ibid. My emphasis.

44 For example, Harper, ‘Gay Male Identities’; Patton, Inventing AIDS; Binnie Jon, ‘AIDS and Queer Globalization’, in idem, The Globalization of Sexuality (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2004), pp. 107–21.

45 Román, ‘NOT-ABOUT-AIDS’, p. 8.

46 Fran Martin is cited by critical geographer Jon Binnie as making a distinction between ‘desirable and undesirable homosexuals’ based on ‘an ability to participate in consumption’, in The Globalization of Sexuality, p. 135. I have discussed this in my article ‘Translating ‘Gaytown’: The Collision of Global and Local in Bringing Australian Queer Play Bison to Belfast’, Australasian Drama Studies, 59 (October 2011).

47 Duggan, ‘The New Homonormativity’, p.182.

48 Patton, Inventing AIDS, p. 112.

49 Philpott Lachlan, Bison and Colder (Brisbane: Playlab Press, 2010), p. 29.

50 Tomso, ‘The Humanities and HIV/AIDS’, p. 444.

51 AVERT, ‘Worldwide HIV and AIDS statistics commentary’,, accessed 28 February 2010.

52 Román, ‘NOT-ABOUT-AIDS’, p. 5.

53 Junge Benjamin, ‘Bareback Sex, Risk, and Eroticism: Anthropological Themes (Re-)Surfacing in the Post-AIDS Era’, in Lewin Ellen and Leap William L., eds., OUT in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), pp. 186221, here p. 191.

54 AVERT, ‘Worldwide HIV and AIDS statistics commentary’,, accessed 21 March 2011.

55 Tomso, ‘The Humanities and HIV/AIDS’, pp. 443–4.

57 Patrick Healy, ‘New Gay Theater Has More Love than Politics’, New York Times, 23 February 2010, A1. Available at, accessed 4 December 2010.

58 Tomso, ‘The Humanities and HIV/AIDS’, p. 444.

59 The oeuvre of Frank McGuinness is a notable exception to this.

60 The festival initially featured theatre and performance work imported from England, such as David Hoyle's SOS, and Pig Tales by Julie McNamara. The performance and research programme Queer at Queen's, initiated by Drama Studies at Queen's University Belfast in 2008, has seen an increased focus on Northern Irish work, although the 2010 Queer at Queen's programme again relied on work made in England. See

61 Barry Duke, ‘Homo-hater Iris Robinson says Jesus and God Have Forgiven Her Adultery’,, accessed 20 July 2010.

62 Lisa Smyth, ‘HIV Numbers in Ulster Quadruple’, Belfast Telegraph, 1 December 2010,, accessed 3 December 2010.

63 Henry McDonald, ‘Homophobia and Racism on Rise in Northern Ireland, Survey Shows’,, 24 June 2009, available at, accessed 2 October 2010.

64 Lachlan Philpott, ‘some thoughts on Bison’, email to author, 3 August 2009. See also Alyson Campbell, ‘Introduction’ to Philpott, Bison and Colder, pp. 6–12.

65 Like the Northern Irish statistics, Australian figures are rising: having peaked in 1987, followed by ‘twelve years of decline . . . the rate of diagnoses grew again to reach 973 in 2008’. AVERT, ‘Australia HIV and AIDS Statistics’,, accessed 28 February 2010.

66 Joe Nawaz, ‘Theatre Review: Bison’,, accessed 2 December 2009.

67 Tomso, ‘The Humanities and HIV/AIDS’, p. 443. On the problem of representation of AIDS subjectivities see also Tim Lawrence, ‘AIDS, the Problem of Representation, and Plurality in Derek Jarman's Blue’, Social Text, 52–3 (Autumn–Winter 1997), pp. 241–64.

68 See Campbell, ‘Introduction’, p. 6.

69 Lawrence, ‘AIDS, the Problem of Representation, and Plurality’, p. 254.

70 Tomso, ‘The Humanities and HIV/AIDS’, p. 449.

71 Philpott, Bison, pp. 56–7.

72 Ibid., pp. 59–60.

73 Tomso, ‘The Humanities and HIV/AIDS’, p. 450.

74 Ibid. p. 449. See also Dean's Tim Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Tomso Gregory, ‘Bug Chasing, Barebacking, and the Risks of Care’, Literature and Medicine, 23, 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 88111; Junge, ‘Bareback Sex, Risk, and Eroticism’.

75 Muñoz, Disidentifications, p. 23.

1 My heartfelt thanks to Lachlan Philpott and the cast and crew of Bison. And a long-belated thank-you to Reza, who really made me want to make theatre.

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