When it comes to the arts, why does AIDS = DEATH?

Published 02, Feb, 2011
Author // Bob Leahy - Publisher

In which Bob Leahy reports on a beguiling dance/drama Questo Buio Feroce (The Wild Darkness) performed at Harbourfront this past weekend – and ponders how HIV has been portrayed in the arts.

When it comes to the arts, why does AIDS = DEATH?

Too bad it was here for only four days.  But Questo Buio Feroce, a visiting production that was part of Harbourfront’s World Stage series, deserved a wider audience. It’s from an Italian theatre/dance company, Compagnia Pippo Delbino, currently on a world tour, but I’m not seeing any more North American dates. Still, file the name of these people away in your memory banks in case they grace these parts again. They are incredible.

We decided to go last Saturday after reading a glowing review in the Toronto Star -  and because it’s about AIDS. I always go and see anything about AIDS.

I didn’t always go to see anything about AIDS; in fact I studiously avoided it for years. But that was then and this is now.

Anyway, what a curious show Questo Buio Feroce is.  It concerns the journey towards infinity of one Harold Brodsky whose 1996 essays “Wild Darkness: The Story of My Life” were written as he was dying of AIDS. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. This is a show with the grandeur and pizzazz of Italian cinema at its heart, very Fellini-esque, and thus at times, very odd. To be frank, there were times during the show I had absolutely NO idea what was going on, while other interludes were all too clear, speaking to the experience we’ve come to know, albeit second-hand, of living with HIV in its end-stages as it used to be. Gorgeous to look at, absolutely stunning in fact, this is a challenging avant-garde work indeed, which not all will take to. But if you like your theatre not just served up on a plate, already digested, but requiring thought, analysis and contemplation, this one’s it.

There’s a video of highlights of the show below from which you’ll perhaps get a taste of its cinematic visual style.  Take a look.


So what do you get with this one.  There are images of hospital waiting rooms, attendants in isolation suits, blood transfusions and pain. Lots of pain. There is also a death scene that's excruciatingly powerful. But all this is interspersed with lightness and music, visions of the past – sometimes gorgeous memories, much like a dying person might experience. I don’t know. I’ve never been there.

However difficult to fathom, I loved this show. What I liked less is the realization that virtually any treatment we see in the arts dealing with the epidemic inevitably ends with death.  We are, in fact, stuck in a time warp that in many ways is not helpful.

On stage, EVERYONE has AIDS.  No one is merely HIV-Positive.  It's less dramatic, after all.  Few members of the public understand the distinction between the two, which is why I haven't made that distinction here.

There have, of course, been some great moments on stage fuelled by the AIDS epidemic, but all embroiled in death. Think of Angels in America. Death. As Is. Death. Rent. Death (although there were major cop-outs in that one, all for the sake of a happy ending.)   These were, of course, written and first performed pre-protease inhibitors. And that is fine; we need a testament to the hell that many people lived through - or didn’t - in that awful era. It would be a shame if there wasn’t theatre from those days which was unflinching in its portrayal, even if AIDS = Death IS the message in all of these.


But AIDS DOESN’T equal death any more, at least for the majority of us in the developed world. Nevertheless there ARE present day stories there to be told – the huge arc many of us HIVers have lived through which includes staring in the face of death, walking away and reinventing ourselves. Those stories, dramatic in themselves, remain to be told. The arts have shied away from doing so, preferring instead, as in Questo Buio Feroce which is a relatively new work, to relive the dark days.

Perhaps our reality of surviving is NOT dramatic enough. I don’t know. But I’m not sure it serves us well to perpetuate the link between AIDS and death. Not all would agree; some in our community have a LOT invested in preserving the image of HIV/AIDS as just as dread a disease as ever. In fact that attitude is shockingly prevalent. Others have moved on.

So the arts have served the story of the epidemic well, but only to a point. They seemed to lose interest in us HIVers when we stopped dying, despite our stories continuing, some on an epic scale, dramatic as all get out. Even my own humble story would make a pretty cool screenplay, methinks; those of many others, including some that write on this site, even more so.

Perhaps, though, in the absence of Hollywood looking over our shoulders with chequebooks in hand, we should write our OWN stories. History, I think needs that to happen. And perhaps that's what blogs are for, at least for some of us. The stories of our lives, in installments of three hundred words or less. Preserved.  For history.

What do you think?

About the Author

Bob Leahy - Publisher

Bob Leahy - Publisher

Award-winning blogger Bob Leahy first made his social media mark a decade ago on LiveJournal.com where there are still to this day almost 3,000 entries of his available to be read. He was a featured blogger on Ontario’s HIVStigma.com campaign, along with PositiveLite.com founder Brian Finch. He joined PositiveLite.com at its inception in 2009 and became it's Editor a year later.

Born in the UK, Bob’s background is in corporate banking, which he gladly left in 1994, after being diagnosed with HIV the previous year.  He has chaired the board of PARN (Peterborough AIDS Resource Network) and has been an executive board member of both the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN) and the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS).  He was inducted in to the Ontario AIDS Network’s Honour Roll in 2005.  Bob is currently a member of Ontario’s GMSH (Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance). He also writes for TheBody.com.

In 2012, Bob was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal for his work and commitment to HIV/AIDS in Canada.

Bob continues to write for this site while in the Positivelite.Com editor’s seat, with a particular interest  in HIV prevention, theatre and the arts in general. He is accredited media for a number of Toronto theatres. He lives in Warkworth, Ontario with his partner of thirty-two years and three dogs.