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1984 : Quarantine

Librettist’s Introduction

In 1984, Consenting Adults in Public premiered the first British play about AIDS, AntiBody, at the Cockpit Theatre. It was written mainly by Louise Parker Kelley, an American from Baltimore; I adapted it to make it fit a British situation - at that time the US was about two years ahead of Britain in dealing with the epidemic. The experience of doing that play is described in the Consenting Adults section of the website.

Quarantine Demonstration in New York

A year later, Louise sent me a novel - I forget the title - about a not-so-futuristic situation where homosexuals were sent into quarantine on an isolated island where they were left to starve and die - genocide by attrition. While much of it was powerful, it suffered in my opinion from an over-simplistic and naïve belief in the power of the media to expose and remedy injustices. Even with Watergate, the Washington Post didn't end graft, corruption and the undermining of American democracy. Now Fox News is all-pervasive.

Quarantine article

But I thought it merited something, and so I rewrote it as a 90-minute radio script and sent it to the BBC Drama department. They lost it. Two years later they found it but told me that my pioneering work was now out of date. In the meantime, there had been several other dramas about HIV/AIDS, including episodes in soaps. Gay Sweatshop had presented Compromised Immunity in 1986, and other plays followed, including British productions of Larry Kramer's older The Normal Heart (Royal Court, 1986) and As Is [1987]. As Is itself seems somewhat indebted to AntiBody.

When it came to writing The Gay Century, it seemed obvious that the experience of the AIDS/HIV epidemic was probably the defining experience of homosexual life for anyone born between 1920 and 1970 - and not just men, for lesbians in remarkable solidarity stepped up to help and campaign around a virus which barely affected them at all. Because of this centrality to the century, I decided that the play would, of all the works in the cycle, be full length. It stands at 50+ pages, with an interval.

I thought back to Louise's work, unpublished and neglected by the BBC. Much of what it predicted had never come to pass, but this really didn't matter, because the play was a remarkably accurate depiction of what it felt like within the gay community in 1984-85, when dystopia seemed not only imminent, but already upon us. As the prologue says,

This is not the way it was,
It is the way we felt it was.
This is not what happened,
This is what we felt might happen.
And it did.
In our nightmares.

Gay Plague

It is almost impossible to convey the extent to which this hung over our lives, seeped into our nightmares and permeated our sense of identity and worth. This is the time when the disease was called GRID [Gay Related Immune Deficiency]; when papers were full of accounts of the 'gay plague', or 'gay pneumonia'; when there were serious calls in Parliament to isolate homosexuals on islands; when women were sacked because their husbands had contracted the virus.

An Aids sufferer

There was no treatment, no protective vaccine and no cure. It was an almost certain death sentence, with the average length of time from diagnosis to death being ten months. Even action, which was intended as positive, the Government's admonitory campaign to encourage safer sex, was accompanied by images out of horror films - icebergs and tombstones and graveyards.

All the events in this opera, however outlandish, are based on real incidents.

I replaced Louise's optimistic resolution of the black impasse with something I thought altogether more plausible, which was to have an influential member of the government find that someone close to them had contracted HIV/AIDS. There is nothing like personal experience to change hearts and minds or mobilise action. One hopes that the same thing is happening now with Covid-19 and a Prime Minister who only weeks ago was still boasting that he was shaking hands with everybody, before having a near-death experience.

Ignorance = Fear cartoon

All characters in this are fictional, with the one exception of Norman Fowler, now Lord Fowler of Sutton Coldfield. He was Secretary of State for Health and Social Services 1981-87. It is a kind of tribute to him, in that from everything one hears, he underwent a remarkable conversion from the kind of knee-jerk homophobic reactions which characterised other ministers1, to embracing the idea of working with organisations of LGBT people, learning from them, and championing the cause of LGBT rights as a means of helping to contain and control the virus.

Norman Fowler with AIDS pamphlet

Fowler went on to remain involved in the cause of fighting HIV/AIDS long after his stint in the DHSS was over. He joined the boards of several HIV/AIDS charities in the 1990s, advocated for an EU ambassador with responsibility for AIDS, in the 2000s, campaigned for equal marriage, and in 2014 published a kind of sequel to the government's 'Don't Die Of Ignorance' campaign which he masterminded. This was AIDS: Don't Die of Prejudice.

I sent Lord Fowler a copy of the libretto of Quarantine, explaining what I had done, and he was happy to have his name used in this way, despite the depiction of his [fictional] family. Suffice it to say that he does not have a son called Sebastian.

AIDS Activists

Because this story has a panoramic focus, with many characters, it is written with a flexible open stage, minimal costume change, and quick switches between multiple characters for each singer. In the event of finding a production with a company with more resources, the roles can be spread between more singers.

This play is one - Skin Deep is another - where reference to popular songs of the day is made. I find it impossible to conceive a libretto about gay life from the 1920s onward where pop songs don't play some part in the experience and the psyche of lesbians and gay men, and that entanglement becomes closer and more urgent, the closer we come to the 21st century and the ubiquitous dance scene.

The music for this libretto has yet to be written. [I urged Robert the composer to hold off until we could see the scope and spread of the whole project, and how the cornerstone fitted in, and what it had to convey.] Robert has almost no knowledge of popular music, dislikes most of it intensely because of its superficiality, and is reluctant to dilute what he sees as the authenticity of his own composing voice, either with quotation from existing songs2 or by writing pastiche.

And yet, it has to be here, very specifically in the scenes with the 'Bar Flies', the apolitical lesbians and gay men whose most earnest desire is to have a quiet drink in a cosy pub they can call Home. They play and dance the moves of YMCA, which is a popular favourite, something which binds them into a community, and also becomes a symbolic act of defiance. How we will resolve this I don't yet know. But I'm sure we will come to an accommodation.

We always will.
Peter Scott‐Presland 19 April 2020

Read the Script (Music to follow)

All work is copyright of Peter Scott-Presland and Robert Ely.

Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email info@homopromos.org

Footnotes:

  1. He is reputed to have had to ask a civil servant to explain what a blowjob was. He was appalled when he was told. This rumour is retained in the script.
  2. To be fair, there is also a vexed issue of copyright, and the crippling cost of some permissions.
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