Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jerker and Robert Chesley

On Friday night I saw what's been billed as the 20th anniversary production of Robert Chesley's play, Jerker or The Helping Hand, A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and A Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of them Dirty. I love that title.

This production has gotten a lot of attention in the local press, as it was directed by Michael Kearns, both the director of the original production at Celebration Theater in Hollywood in 1986, and one of the performers in its current (just closed) incarnation, having taken over the role of Bert. For those who don't know, the play is well known in part for its airing on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles and being the cause of an FCC battle. When KPFK challenged the FCC's shaky claims that they were violating regulations, the FCC responded by making regulations about adult material more vague, and we've basically been going downhill ever since. Check here for the NYTimes take on the matter.

If anyone's looking for a plot synopsis, you need not look much further than the title. And if you were to assume that, because it was written in 1986, it doesn't end well, you'd be right. In short, it's a two-character tragic love story contained entirely in a series of phone calls.

Kearns staged the play basically as a variation on reader's theater, with both actors dressed in black and using stands for their scripts. It was a strong choice, at least in part because it muted the play's provocation and focused it squarely on the language, and frankly, in a play consisting entirely of phone calls, that makes a certain sense to me.

As a reading, it's almost like a gay, hot, Love Letters: erotic, perhaps, but very much a love story. Funny and tragic, fraught with thematic tension, and for me, resonating far past the specifics of the AIDS crisis that provided the play's setting and subject.

My mind went a lot of places while watching the play. The play is an immediate metaphor for the isolating effects of the disease, and there's also an immediate tension in the relationship. I noted briefly the lack of literal plot complications in the script, but only as a minor distraction from my sitting there wishing these guys would just put down the phones and be together. And knowing they never would.

But there's also a warm chronicle of an intimacy that grows in spite of this isolation. It's an intimacy I've felt countless times in countless ways, and it's a moving testament to our ability to conjure closeness, humor, and meaning in the most confounding of situations.

I was reminded of an episode of This American Life on NPR that aired last spring; it was a revisiting of a couple of earlier broadcasts about the beginnings of the internet called "How We Talked Back Then." The show was a look back at the curious novelty of the internet in the late 90s, but the most compelling segment of the broadcast was an interview with Earl Jackson, a professor of comparative literature who had been monitoring gay chat rooms and bulletin boards in San Francisco. He remarked on how the internet had combined with the AIDS crisis to create a kind of "eroticizing of distance" and a "metaphysics of sexuality," which contained degrees of sexual contact. In the AOL rooms he had visited, one could engage in cybersex, real sex (which back then meant phone sex), or ultra-real sex (which meant real-time). It's so fascinating to me that at that time, there were gay men in San Francisco who referred to phone sex as "real" sex. Especially in light of seeing this play.

Jackson continues the interview by describing a daily sharing of fantasy he had with another gay man who had a boyfriend. Soon the sexual chat became an excuse to tell other stories...stories about personal history, childhood, etc. Eventually Jackson's cyber-lover tested positive for HIV. He started sending him all of his pornography, referring to specific scenes that had informed his fantasizing. In the final box he received, just before an email came informing Jackson that the man with whom he'd been chatting had killed himself, he found a note which read "I will always love you."

As he completes the story he insists what I would hope any sympathetic listener would have no problem understanding:

"None of this was cold."

Robert Chesley didn't always process the fallout of AIDS' impact on the gay community in such careful ways as he did when he wrote Jerker. In And The Band Played On, Randy Shilts quotes a letter Chesley wrote to gay paper the New York Native, in which he attacked one of Larry Kramer's typically strident warnings to the gay community for its clinging to promiscuous behavior:
"Basically, Kramer is telling us that something we gay men are doing (drugs? kinky sex?) is causing Kaposi's sarcoma.... Being alarmist is dangerous. We've been told by such experts as there are that it's wrong and too soon to make any assumptions about the cause of Kaposi's sarcoma, but there's another issue here. It is always instructive to look closely at emotionalism, for it so often has a hidden message which is the real secret of its appeal. I think the concealed meaning of Kramer's emotionalism is the triumph of guilt: that gay men deserve to die for their promiscuity.... Read anything by Kramer closely. I think you'll find that the subtext is always: the wages of gay sin is death.... I am not downplaying the seriousness of Kaposi's sacroma. But something else is happening here, which is also serious: gay homophobia and anti-eroticism."
It's easy to dismiss this kind of sentiment as excuses for bad behavior, but its essence is rooted in Chesley's defense of his very existence. These men were fighting for their lives. Not just literally, but for the justification of their identities, their politics, their insistence on their freedoms. Another passage in And The Band Played On is one I can only paraphrase, but it involved a doctor telling a patient facing his last days with all the understandable moral questioning about what got him in that hospital bed, "You have caught a virus. This has nothing to do with morality." It was, of course, not exactly the philosophical answer the patient might've been searching for, but basically true. And accordingly, there's such a poignancy, a sad sweetness to Jerker, and its insistence that the gay liberation of the seventies was "basically good," as J.R. calls it. It's the insistence of a culture that is constantly fighting for its legitimacy, whether it's through the Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, same-sex unions, gay pride parades, or, most devastatingly, the AIDS crisis. And how badly they must've needed that reassurance during the AIDS crisis....

In Jerker Bert, the AIDS-stricken character, fights through his anger with the following:
[E]veryone's putting it down nowadays. "The party's over! The party's over!" Well, fuck it all, no! That wasn't just a party! It was more: a lot more, at least to some of us, and it was connected to other parts of our lives, deep parts, deep connections.... For me, for a lot of guys, it was...living; and it was loving.... And I don't regret a single moment of it: not one.... It was love. And...a virus can't change that; can't change that fact.
A blog called The Mark of Kane turned me on to a recent article in the New York Blade about a 30-something's odd experience of watching a documentary called Gay Sex in the 70s and having strange feelings of disgust at the excesses described in the movie. The article has generated something of a backlash, and Mark has a lot to say about the journalist's insensitivity. I find the article poorly written because of the ways in which the author seems to ignore the political and historical significance of the sexual excesses that he finds so distasteful. In a less moralistic society, a movement of gay sexual freedom might've been unnecessary, but our repressive culture required exactly that kind of movement. Our homophobic nation bred it, in fact. One could argue that the insidiousness with which homophobia exacerbated the spread of AIDS and the AIDS crisis extends decades before the virus even appeared in this country. Centuries. To the origins of Judeo-Christian civilization, even.

And yet, it's just a virus.

When I was in college, I attended a panel discussion with a cross-section of school leaders and community leaders about the AIDS crisis. There were people with HIV and members of the clergy, among others, and I remember being livid at the young religious conservative in the group who suggested that AIDS was different from other diseases in that it was a disease brought about by the choices of its sufferers. Back then I lacked both the specfic knowledge, confidence, and rhetorical savvy to expose this argument as specious, so I sat and steamed. I remember recounting it to my minister father, who just shrugged and said, "you should've told him that's about the same as saying the earth revolves around the sun."

The earth revolves. Viruses flourish. We fight for our lives.

There was a beautiful moment towards the end of Kearns' staging of Jerker in which the actor playing J.R. left his place at his music stand and came to a chair in the audience to deliver the following monologue -- part of a storybook fantasy he invents to comfort his ailing lover:
We take our seats across from each other, knowing we are to wait for the appearance of our host, and it turns out that he has been the music we have heard: the sweet, gentle music...coalesces, comes together and becomes visible at the head of the table, and there he stands, a beautiful man, without age, smiling. And when we see him, the last bit of fear we had in all our wonder just melts away, and we know we are safe at last, and that his magic is good. And as we take our supper we tell him of all the adventures and perils and...bitter sorrows we had journeying through the Forbidden Forest, to find his palace; and he questions us about each adventure, peril, and sorrow, and from the answers he brings forth from us we understand that each one, even the most terrible, was a lesson on our journey to the palace; and we understand that we ourselves were lessons for others whose paths crossed ours in the Forest.
It is all history. Nothing more, nothing less. Just as we are history. The connection. The culmination. The continuation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful blog - your thoughtful and insightful observations are well-regarded. kisses and hugs ... from the actor who joined the audience.

ps - although people are trying to forget history, "... we're still in that same wilderness, beneath that moon," Robert Chesley