In his dressing room, a few days before the Broadway premiere of his trilogy of AIDS plays, "Safe Sex," Tony Award-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein snorted derisively at the suggestion that the evening might have been designed to educate the public. "I didn't want to write one of those television treatments," he said, "where the boy has to 'come out' to his parents, and everybody sits around the hospital bed, crying."
TV does sometimes seem to be producing disease-of-the-week dramas, but there's a fairly distinguished tradition of ailment plays (and screenplays) to back it up, among them: Cancer. "Terms of Endearment" by James Brooks. Film. Examines the relationship between a daughter and mother as the daughter dies of cancer. "Shadow Box" by Michael Christopher. Play. Patients in a hospice come to terms with their own mortality. Leukemia. "Love Story" by Erich Segal. Film. Doomed romance and deathbed wisdom about how love means never having to say you're sorry. Tuberculosis. "La Dame Aux Camelias" ("Camille") by Alexandre Dumas. Play. A dying woman sacrifices her own happiness to avoid being a burden to the man she loves. "La Traviata" by Giuseppe Verdi. Operatic reworking of "Camille." "Long Day's Journey Into Night" by Eugene O'Neill. Play. In a family already plagued by alcoholism and drug addiction, the character modeled on the author is about to be sent to a sanatorium. Neurofibromatosis. "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerantz. Play and film about a historical figure. A man made grotesque by an unusual form of this disease accepts his condition. Alzheimer's disease. "On Golden Pond" by Ernest Thompson. Film. As an aging father begins to lose his mental abilities, the family learns more about itself. Leprosy. "Ben Hur" by Lew Wallace. Title character's search for his mother and sister ends in a leper colony. Poliomyelitis. "Sunrise at Campobello" by Dare Schary. Chronicles the early years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's political ascendency. Lou Gehrig's Disease. "Brian's Song" by William Blinn. Based on the death of football player Brian Piccolo. Syphilis. "Ghosts" by Henrik Ibsen. Play. The sanity-stealing disease haunts generations. Cholera. "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann. Film. A "singular" aristocrat suffers from passion but dies as just another victim of an epidemic that swept Venice.