Hostname: page-component-7479d7b7d-wxhwt Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-15T18:58:02.889Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2011


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.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



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

3 Duggan, Lisa, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), p. 50Google Scholar. 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. 175–94Google Scholar.

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. 583Google Scholar. 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)Google Scholar, 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. 175Google Scholar. 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. xxviGoogle Scholar.

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

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

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. 65Google Scholar.

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. 443CrossRefGoogle Scholar. 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)Google Scholar.

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. 59Google Scholar. 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. 97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Mufson, Daniel, ‘Introduction’ in idem, ed., Reza Abdoh (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 112, here p. 5Google Scholar. 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. 2831CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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. 44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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

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. 156Google Scholar.

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. 107–21Google Scholar.

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. 29Google Scholar.

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. 191Google Scholar.

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, TimUnlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009)Google Scholar; Tomso, Gregory, ‘Bug Chasing, Barebacking, and the Risks of Care’, Literature and Medicine, 23, 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 88111Google Scholar; Junge, ‘Bareback Sex, Risk, and Eroticism’.

75 Muñoz, Disidentifications, p. 23.