In last week's article about AIDS and drama, the name of a local performance was misstated. It was "A Dance Against Darkness." And because of an editing error, University of Maryland theater professor emeritus Rudolph Pugliese was misquoted. He said: "Disease really doesn't figure much in theater prior to the last couple of centuries. (Published 1/5/88)

You've taken a lover?" asks the doctor from her wheelchair quietly, almost sadly.

"We live together," explains the young man, at first helplessly and then angrily. "What are we supposed to do . . . be with nobody, ever?" he erupts, snapping out a kicker, "it's not as easy as you might think," that catches in his throat as the doctor wheels herself directly in front of him. "Oh, Emma, I'm so sorry," he murmurs.

"Don't be," she says, brushing off the apology. "Polio is a virus, too."

With that exchange in 1985, the world of one play about AIDS -- Larry Kramer's angry off-Broadway diatribe "The Normal Heart" -- came crashing up against a history of pain. Plague dramas have cut a swath through dramatic literature deep into the 19th century, when science was just beginning to understand the true nature of contagion, and still further into the period when scourges like the Black Death and even pneumonia were so frightening writers were loath to deal with them.

Drama has always had the power to inspire fear, but it also has the capacity to render the fearful commonplace. In three short years, Americans have seen, in plays, movies, TV shows and documentaries, more faces of the AIDS tragedy than of any previous epidemic in the 20th century. And as

the public has been exposed to these images -- perhaps in part because of them -- compassion for people with AIDS has risen markedly. Some may not approve of the ways people contract acquired immune deficiency syndrome, but polls show that by large majorities, Americans don't think that those who have it should be locked in camps, evicted from their apartments or dismissed from their jobs.

Much has been written about the devastating effect of AIDS on the artistic community. The disease has claimed high-profile victims: movie star Rock Hudson, "A Chorus Line" creator Michael Bennett and showman Liberace, as well as such local artists as Jack Guidone and choreographer Choo-San Goh. But the community has taken its sorrow and, instead of choking on it, fought back.

"You can get mad at a disease," says playwright Harvey Fierstein, whose Tony-winning "Torch Song Trilogy" celebrated the joys of gay liberation, and whose latest trilogy, "Safe Sex" (which opens at Washington's Source Theatre Jan. 8) urges sexual restraint and compassion. "You can get mad at a virus, you just shouldn't get mad at each other."

That attitude has led to a striking difference between the dramatic literature concerning AIDS and previous works about disease: AIDS plays seek to modify behavior. The issue, ultimately, isn't the impact AIDS will have on the arts, but the impact the arts can have on AIDS.

From films like "Dragnet" and "Broadcast News," which feature characters who wouldn't consider sex without condoms, to TV shows like "L.A. Law" and "Cagney & Lacey," which awkwardly fit safe-sex lectures into their dialogue, writers have gone far beyond the kind of lip-service mentions of AIDS necessary to make their

contemporary characters credible. In the new scripts, writers have made a conscious effort to educate the public about how to avoid exposure to AIDS, and in the process, they've helped to create a social climate in which contemporary stories of promiscuity may simply not work anymore. Steve Tisch, producer of the 1983 hit movie "Risky Business," in which a high school boy turns his parents' house into a brothel, told the Los Angeles Times that the film "could not, and should not, be made in 1987," a mere four years later.

Which is not to say that everyone's consciousness has been raised. Troma Films, a movie company that specializes in low-budget spoofs with titles like "Surf Nazis Must Die!" is producing what may be the first true exploitation movie about AIDS. The film is "War!" (Troma is fond of exclamation points in its titles) and concerns a band of Cuban-led terrorists who plan to send a special brigade of seductive men infected with AIDS to "spread their charms" among American men and women. In one scene, according to press reports, the AIDS-infected blood of a darkly handsome terrorist is "mingled" with that of a captive clergyman. Then the terrorist rapes one woman, and when another "runs from her AIDS fate {she} is mown down by machine gun fire." Most audiences won't view any of this as particularly plausible -- infecting clergymen, after all, is a

less-than-efficient method of undermining America's health -- but the fact remains that someone in Hollywood thinks there's a market for this kind of blatant AIDSploitation.

Which probably means there is. Illness as Drama

The ancients, whose medical knowledge was at best rudimentary, regarded disease as an instrument of divine wrath. Plagues, they thought, were visited on cities and individuals by angry gods. While this may be good pantheology, it unfortunately doesn't give a dramatist much to work with in the way of motivation. In Greek theater, a character needn't have done something wrong to be smitten with some dread affliction -- he could be made to suffer for the transgressions of his ancestors, or simply on godly whim -- so illnesses tended to be mentioned in dramatic narratives only in passing.

"Drama really doesn't figure much in theater prior to the last couple of centuries," said Rudolph Pugliese, professor emeritus of theater at the University of Maryland.

It was Christianity, with its emphasis on divine justice, that changed that. The notion arose that a disease could be a particularly appropriate punishment -- say, some disfiguring ailment like leprosy or smallpox for the sin of vanity. And if ailments could be said to fit a person's character, they might also be used to represent character traits. When Shakespeare gives his monstrous anti-hero Richard III a hump, withered arm and lame leg -- deformities now believed to be much more severe than those actually afflicting the historical figure -- he does it with poetic malice aforethought to represent the king's tragic flaws.

Here at last was a dramatic dramatic for what Susan Sontag calls "Illness as Metaphor," in her 1977 essay of that title. "Doctors and laity believed in a TB character type," she writes, "as now the belief in a cancer prone character type . . . passes for the most advanced medical thinking." (The public perception of AIDS as a disease of outcasts, since its victims so far have included mostly homosexuals and intravenous drug users, is a contemporary application.)

Certain symptoms even became associated with romance. In an age that came to see love as an "affliction," the Bard and his contemporaries speak of lovers' "consuming passions" and "feverish stares" -- phrasing that would be equally appropriate for describing someone dying of tuberculosis. TB was, in fact, to become the romantic disease of choice several centuries later in plays like "La Dame Aux Camelias" ("Camille"), in which the dying Margaret Gautier languishes seductively, her cheeks rosy with fever.

Once tuberculosis was discovered to be caused by bacteria, though, it lost much of its power to inspire. In fact, when a cure was discovered with the development of streptomycin in 1944, TB was supplanted almost entirely in literary tragedies by a new mysterious disease -- the "white" cancer, leukemia, of which Ali MacGraw

would languish blamelessly, and apparently without pain, in "Love Story."

Syphilis was the 19th-century disease of sin. In Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts," Osvald's syphilis implies a moral judgment about off-limits sex and prostitution, though for dramatic resonance and deeper tragedy, it's visited upon the innocent son of the man who committed the transgressions. Even this late in the scheme of things, the mere suggestion of the disease on stage could cause a scandal.

Though Ibsen wrote "Ghosts" in 1881, its first production in the playwright's native Norway wasn't until a decade later, and that performance aroused such a storm of protest that the play didn't receive a public Norwegian showing until 1914.

In this century, playwrights have tended to take a somewhat more scientific view of physical affliction, while allowing common sense to enter into the equation. In an age of science and medical technology, after all, any playwright who gives the protagonist emphysema risks watching the character spend the last half of the play immobilized in an iron lung.

Except for cancer -- especially leukemia, which has the advantage for dramatic purposes of being often incurable, without visible symptoms, and not requiring disfiguring operations or too much talk of specific organs -- no scourge has come close to capturing the creative imagination the way AIDS has. Major outbreaks of poliomyelitis a few decades ago did not inspire polio-drama; there are no Legionnaires' disease plays.

What has happened instead is that contemporary authors tend to use fatal disease, when they use it at all, as a combination curiosity factor/hurdle for characters to rise above, as in "The Elephant Man," in which a grotesque character with a disfiguring and ultimately life-threatening form of neurofibromatosis is ennobled by his unflinching acceptance of his afflic- tion. Audiences can be counted on to be curious about symptoms for a certain amount of time, and the imminence of death itself is a prod that both quickens the action and assures a satisfactory emotional conclusion. Call it deus ex medecina.

AIDS is a different kind of illness, requiring a different kind of script.

Life and Theater Collide

In March of 1985, at the original Broadway production of William M. Hoffman's "As Is," there was something terrifying about leaving New York's Lyceum Theatre. The show, which was the first AIDS play to receive substantial critical attention, concerned a young poet named Rich who has just discovered he has AIDS and finds himself abandoned by everyone in his life except Saul, a lover he recently left.

During the performance, you could comfort yourself with the knowledge that the man suffering from AIDS on stage was only a character. But leaving the theater, you were forced to confront -- with an impact that was almost physical -- the reality of the audience. Perhaps 80 percent of the crowd filing out of "As Is" on a typical Saturday night was male and resembled in age, dress and bearing the characters on stage. The feeling was inescapable that in five years, many of these apparently healthy men would have succumbed to the disease to which the play had so eloquently explored our reactions. Life and theater had collided, and you could almost hear the explosion.

The reason they collided was that the playwright was filling an information void. AIDS was, as far as the general public was concerned in March of 1985, a brand new disease. Scientists were doling out information in a way that was hard even to understand, let alone act upon, but Hoffman, with dramatic necessity driving him, had made solid, disturbing sense of it all. And he was only the first of many.

Within a few months, the explosion you could almost hear at the Lyceum Theater had become a steady roar. When "As Is" opened, the number of American AIDS cases had climbed to 11,854. A month later the figure painted on the theater wall at Larry Kramer's "Normal Heart" was 12,061. Kramer, never noted for subtlety, had the numbers on the wall slashed through with red paint and updated frequently during the run of the play, which chronicled the gay community's early demands for governmental action to help stem the plague.

In November of 1985, NBC-TV presented "An Early Frost," about a family torn apart when their homosexual son develops AIDS. The estimated audience was close to 50 million, and AIDS hotlines across the country lit up with a deluge of calls from people wondering how AIDS was transmitted and convinced they possessed the symptoms they'd seen on television. The director of an AIDS hotline in Chicago noted at the time that, "before, it was just a disease the media referred to. Now it's something people can relate to."

That was, of course, the point. "An Early Frost," like the quite similar "As Is" (which also was televised that year, on PBS), wasn't so much seeking to open a debate as to close it. Here was a tragedy, said the authors, that had to be discussed without value judgments or pointing fingers of blame. Others might argue morality and politics, but in these shows at least, brothers would be reconciled, lovers would prove loyal, forgiveness and courage would, if not triumph, at least make death less cruel. Only one issue would be addressed: how individuals could come to grips with a new and terrible terminal illness.

Something, even then, was a little too narrow about this, as if AIDS were being reduced to a TV disease-of-the-month. The illness could have been cancer -- was, in fact, cancer (Kaposi's sarcoma) mixed with pneumonia and other opportunistic infections. To ensure that the mainstream audience didn't reject a story about people whose life style at the time seemed synonymous with the disease, both scripts had been obliged to state their cases carefully, and make their characters sympathetic in an airtight, coolly considered fashion.

In reality, people are not always courageous and pleasant; and this particular terminal illness is much more complicated than television likes to pretend. Other works made that clear. No one could accuse "The Normal Heart" of being careful or airtight. Larry Kramer's play sprawled, raged, accused, and made its audiences extremely uncomfortable as it suggested that New York's Mayor Edward Koch was literally killing people by not doing more about AIDS, and offered advice like "Get a VCR, rent a porn film, and use your hands" to the general public. It also fueled an ongoing debate about governmental and journalistic cowardice in dealing with AIDS. Whatever its failures as theater, it made headlines and forced people -- even those who wouldn't have dreamed of going to see it -- to think about the issues it raised.

More than a year before mainstream Hollywood films even mentioned condoms, an independent film, "Parting Glances," pictured an AIDS victim who was tough and cynical, and examined the reactions of others when he wouldn't accept their sympathy.

Locally, "A Dance Against Cancer," a D.C. musical review developed from interviews with AIDS victims and their families and caregivers, sneered at religion's response to the crisis in a number where a gospel soloist "confesses" to having AIDS, backed by a congregation that sings:

"I can't help it if God wants to punish you / It's your tragedy / Ask the Lord if there's something that He can do / Don't come runnin' to me." It's rousing all right, but what rises is bile.

Harvey Fierstein's "Safe Sex" (dedicated to his "Torch Song" costar, who died of AIDS) presented a character who uses safe sex not merely to avoid AIDS but also to avoid intimacy. The play flopped in New York, but its compelling concept goes beyond AIDS as a disease to deal with people and their adaptation to a world that contains AIDS.

In television's "Cagney & Lacey," "St. Elsewhere," even comedies like "The Golden Girls," characters are expressing sensible AIDS fear. Some are even dying of AIDS. And audiences are regularly hearing condom references that just a season or two ago would have been banned from the airwaves by network censors.

As sleazy divorce lawyer Arnold Becker told a colleague recently on "L.A. Law": "If you're going to practice surgery, take it from someone who knows: Never operate without your gloves on."

What happened between the premiere of "As Is" in March of 1985 and the premiere of "Safe Sex" in March of 1987 is that AIDS dramas, whether in playhouses or on television, ceased trying to shock people with the tragedy of the disease, and began to encourage audiences to look inward and -- more to the point -- to alter behavior.

Slow Motion in Hollywood

In Hollywood, the lead time for a film can be as much as three years -- and when AIDS awareness finally arrived this past summer, Tinseltown's impulse was to downplay it as much as possible.

The first real evidence of Hollywood's new AIDS stance came this year with the James Bond movie "The Living Daylights." The serial's new 007, Timothy Dalton, isn't the womanizer his predecessors were in the role. Where once the Bond formula had 007 bedding three women per picture, the new James Bond has a single girlfriend whom he sleeps with three times. (Serial monogamy, perhaps?) Anyway, the message was obvious, even though AIDS was never mentioned: It's one thing to risk your life when someone's shooting at you, another to place yourself at risk for a one-night stand. James Bond takes only calculated risks, and his calculations this year involved an extra variable. In fact, only the bad guys in "The Living Daylights" were willing to chance casual sex, and the life expectancy of bad guys in 007 movies isn't much to start with.

Hollywood's business is entertainment, of course. It makes money by taking audiences away from their problems, but AIDS is such a pervasive concern, it can't be left outside the box office at our neighborhood ten-plexes, a fact that is being recognized in almost every film that comes out these days.

Casual sex is conspicuously out of fashion -- to such an extent that recent sexually charged movies like "9 1/2 Weeks," "Blue Velvet" and the "Porkys" comedies already seem like period pieces.

In today's social climate, you don't even need to know what a film is about to detect unspoken AIDS messages. Without the question mark in its title, the upcoming film "Casual Sex?" would certainly have marketing problems. And it's not alone. How does the title "Dying for Love" strike you in 1988? MGM has already decided not to take chances. When the film comes out, it'll be called "Masquerade."

But no one's masquerading when it comes to concern. No area of public life has been hit harder by AIDS than the entertainment industry, and Hollywood knows that as a dream factory, it has to come up with a way to create dreams of romance, without conjuring up nightmares. Current films that have been praised for their erotic content -- "The Big Easy," for example -- tend to emphasize foreplay, then cut away from the action before things get too involved, an approach that would have seemed ludicrously coy in R-rated films of a couple of years ago.

A much-publicized moment in the film spoof of "Dragnet" has Tom Hanks, who's lying in bed with a gorgeous blonde, reach to the night table for a box of condoms. When he finds it empty, he sighs dejectedly -- and the film cuts to another scene. It's simple. Cool. Hip. "Safe Sex arrives in Hollywood" was the conclusion drawn by most columnists. One thing they usually failed to note was that the film's only real romance -- one which the filmmakers carefully do not hold up to ridicule -- is the decidedly old-fashioned one between Hanks' partner, played by Dan Aykroyd, and a woman he persists in calling "the virgin Connie Doyle." The filmmakers went to great pains to give their relationship a sweetly erotic charge.

In the police thriller "Stakeout," when Richard Dreyfuss comes back from an encounter with a beautiful woman, his partner, adopting a protective tone, asks, "Well, did we practice safe-sex?" It's a perfectly reasonable question, and one which, frankly, the audience was already wondering.

The most talked-about film of the fall movie season, "Fatal Attraction," never mentions AIDS, but that hasn't kept commentators from noting that its story -- a weekend fling between a happily married man (Michael Douglas) and a business acquaintance (Glenn Close) that turns out to have an ugly aftermath -- is about the dangers of uncautious sex. When Close tells Douglas she's pregnant, it's hard not to think, "if only he'd used a condom." And by the time she's become violent and unpredictable, threatening first Douglas and then his wife, the audience has gotten the message: Sex outside of a monogamous relationship is dangerous, both to the participant and to his or her sexual partner.

Hollywood doesn't have to deal with AIDS per se for the subject to creep into the conversation. In "The Witches of Eastwick," the three women who sleep with Jack Nicholson aren't particularly worried about the fact that they don't know much about his sexual history -- he is the Devil, after all. But although AIDS isn't brought up directly, it does surface later in a frustrated pseudo-sermon by Nicholson: "Maybe," he rails at a distressed church congregation, a maniacal glint coming into his eye as he contemplates the evil he sees in women, "we can protect ourselves. Find a cure. Get a lot of exercise. Build up our immune systems."

In the werewolf movie "Howling III: The Marsupials," a once-bitten doctor dismisses a colleague's concern by saying, "It takes more than a bite, it's got to be an exchange of body fluids." And in fact, any vampire movie -- "The Lost Boys," for instance -- becomes an instant AIDS parable because the "undead," through an exchange of blood, make their victims vampires too, capable of passing on the affliction.

If contemporary audiences can make this kind of connection in films without a shred of reality to them, obviously romance on film these days is going to be dicey. In the comedy "Cross My Heart," which is solely and exclusively about 1987 dating rules, and which therefore couldn't possibly avoid the subject of safe sex, Martin Short and Annette O'Toole end up in bed together on their "all-important third date" and spend an extraordinary amount of screen time discussing herpes and the use of condoms. They manage to avoid the "A"-word, but to miss the point, an audience member would have to be comatose.

And in the current comedy "Broadcast News" (which was filmed in Washington and opened this weekend), there's a moment where a savvy news producer (Holly Hunter), who's preparing for a date with a TV anchorman (William Hurt), briefly turns away from a friend to pop a packet of condoms into her purse. Two years ago, the scene would have been regarded as coarsening Hunter's character. Today, it simply shows her to be sensible, and gets a laugh of recognition.

But the sequence doesn't end there. Hunter meets Hurt at a large public function at which there is heavy security. When she realizes her purse will be dumped out on the table at the security checkpoint, and the condoms exposed to her date, she takes his hand and quietly leads him away from the party. They end up at the Jefferson Memorial, quietly talking about intimacy. That's different from a wordless moment in "Dragnet," or a single casual comment in "Stakeout." AIDS is now affecting the plots of films, much as it is affecting real life.

If "Broadcast News" had been made a few years ago, the two characters probably would have ended up in bed. Now, they only talk about it.

A New Awareness

Sometime around Jan. 1, the number of U.S. AIDS cases will pass 50,000. If there is any significance in that number, it is probably that it doesn't even seem large anymore. Americans have come to understand that as many as 2 million people are already infected with the virus, that thousands and thousands more will die in coming years.

Paradoxically, as AIDS reaches out to affect more of the public, dramatic treatments that specifically address the subject are likely to decline, both in importance and effectiveness. The closer you are to the problem, the more you have shared in someone's pain, the less theater has to offer. For those who have had to deal with the tragedy directly, an AIDS story's only conceivable value is the therapeutic one of experiencing the pain with an audience that can share it.

Having watched a cousin's wife and child succumb to AIDS this year, I'm now finding most theatrical treatments of the disease accurate, but essentially unhelpful. As others find themselves in similar situations, that's likely to be the reaction of an increasingly large segment of the audience. Authors who only recently were writing to educate an uninformed public may find themselves preaching to the too-well-converted as a new set of audience assumptions reshapes the way their scripts can be written.

From now on, a character in a film, play or teleplay who takes sex too casually, or refuses to use a condom, will immediately seem suspect to any audience -- untrustworthy, irresponsible, possibly dangerous. That wasn't the case when the early AIDS plays were written. In "As Is" and "The Normal Heart," characters could be decent and affirmative but still need to be convinced of the necessity of being careful. In that sense, those plays are still coming from a pre-AIDS sensibility. Today, we start with careful, and move on from there.

Harvey Fierstein, whose "Torch Song Trilogy" was a pre-AIDS play, and whose "Safe Sex" is an AIDS play, puts it succinctly: "I think the history of sex in the world has just changed. I don't think people realize that from now on we will all be practicing safe sex."

Fierstein came to that realization after years of confronting this new plague. The rest of Broadway followed shortly after. Hollywood, with its long lead time, has so far only produced films that incorporate the AIDS debate into some other plotline.

Yet it is Hollywood, having arrived late to the discussion, that may unwittingly have arrived early at what will be its ultimate resolution: that AIDS prevention, AIDS awareness, and fear of AIDS can be understood to govern the behavior of characters without needing to be mentioned aloud. Rather than being a focus of future story lines, AIDS will simply be a part of their basic fabric.

Just as it is in life.