“Much to everyone’s surprise, it was as if it was happening today,” says Kramer, of the initial response to the 2010 reading. “It really freaked everyone out. Everyone thought about it as some kind of period piece.”
The initial audiences for the Broadway production, according to Kramer, were mainly older gay men. But the producers instituted a “30 under 30” policy, which gave $30 admission to people under the age of 30. The policy worked.
“The play started selling out with all these kids,” says Kramer. “They were just completely bowled over.”
Roth saw a double process in the intergenerational audiences that flocked to the show. The quarter century that had elapsed since the play was first produced allowed older audiences to experience it not just as a piece of political protest, but as art. And it allowed younger audiences to connect to older viewers.
“Being able to see the play from a distance had two benefits,” says Roth. “It was easier to view it as a piece of powerful theater because it wasn’t as devastating and raw as it was then, and it was a time for people of that generation to revisit and remember, painful as it is.”
Roth also noticed that many audience members came in groups. “Older people were bringing younger people.” Mothers came with their sons. “It was something that people wanted to share and talk about.”
That suggests that yet another, broad change is happening to the memory of AIDS. Collective memory is often tribal, jealousy guarded, closed to outsiders. The trauma of AIDS — or war, or genocide — binds those who experienced it so tightly that there is no energy left for other affinities. “You weren’t there,” and “You don’t understand” are the defensive reactions of people unwilling to see memory pass into collective possession, with the inevitable distortions, simplifications and cliches that come with giving up one’s personal past to History.
An exhibition produced by Transformerand Visual AIDS (a New York-based group devoted to addressing AIDS and preserving art made in response to it) hints at the complexities of the current, intergenerational moment in the memory of AIDS. Held at Fathom Gallery and curated by John Chaich, “Remixed Messages” juxtaposes works by canonical artists closely associated with AIDS, such as David Wojnarowicz and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, with work by younger artists who are not explicitly engaged with AIDS as a subject. Chaich says he is borrowing a term — “AIDS is a crisis of connections” — when he describes the organizing motif of the show. But it’s an apt description of most of the art in the exhibition, which feels under the influence of AIDS in a less urgent but deeper and broader way. Whether or not the artists had AIDS in mind, they seem to be grappling with a set of AIDS-inflected moral truths: That intimacy is full of both grace and danger; that great traumas punctuate life irrevocably and make time less elusive; that the suffering which defines us cannot, should not, must not be cast off, even if that were possible. A sense of irony and provocation also defines much of the work, often palpably echoing the graphic design and dark humor of AIDS arts collectives that once plastered the streets of New York with posters.