Friday, May 9, 2014

Idle Thoughts -- Birds of a Feather

6).   In Act 1 Scene 7, Harper says to Prior: "Deep inside you, there's a part of you, the most inner part, entirely free of disease" (40). What does she mean? Is she right ? Can the same be said of other characters? 

This is going to be hard, kid. I have never seen more than bits of the play when it was a new series on HBO,  and all I can remember is the scene where an angel appears. Also, I'm having trouble finding a script I can access immediately. So I'm going to dive into this and attempt to give you reasonable answers based on plot summaries. I don't really feel comfortable with that, but you have a deadline, and have read the play, so maybe you can piece together reasonable ideas out of this.

If this doesn't work, give me a call and I'll see if I can get a copy at the local library. That means a trip out and I'm trying not to leave the house today and then time to read the script... but if we have to we have to.

Stage directions of the play for the scene say: this is a  "Mutual dream scene. Prior is at a fantastic makeup table, having a dream, applying the face. Harper is having a pill-induced hallucination"...

So, first of all, we have to wonder, how did the hallucinations caused by the pills connect to the nightmare that the tormented Prior is having due to his illness?  Considering the religious strain that runs throughout the play, we assume that this is  taking place because of a miracle.  These two are meant to have contact and therefore these normally degrading experiences, a nightmare and a drug-induced fantasy, are used to bring about a greater good.

It is important to note that we are dealing with two people who are in many ways very similar. Both are suffering from terrible illnesses. One is suffering from AIDS; the other from depression and a valium addiction. For very different reasons, they are both sick and terrified. Moreover, they are also both suffering illnesses which are not considered to be socially acceptable.

At the time of the play, homosexuality was still regarded as a form of mental illness by society as a whole and even by medical professionals.  Prior, then, was mentally ill by the standards of the day even before he contracted AIDS.  The disease itself was physically devastating but on top of that Prior was denied support systems that are normally available to the ill. AIDS at that time often described as "gay cancer", but unlike real cancer patients, someone with AIDS was regarded as disgusting and highly contagious.

Whereas everyone would be expected to be at least sympathetic to a cancer patient, it was considered moral to condemn an AIDS patient. After all, they got this disease because of their choice to be homosexual. A choice which, remember, was regarded as sick and diseased, in and of itself. That's the simple choice which was disgusting, not to mention any illness which might result.  Therefore, it was a common belief that anyone who got this disease deserved their fate.  Even today, many people will declare that AIDS is a punishment from God. And since it's from God, it is obviously just and well-deserved.

Harper isn't in a much better position. Depression and mental health issues were still commonly regarded at the time is being signs of a weak character.  Strong people didn't allow themselves become mentally ill. Strong people didn't allow themselves to become addicted. So, Harper also faces condemnation and a refusal to give her sympathy or assistance by most of society.

Ironically, there are also severe differences between the two, and yet those differences are in many ways also similarities. She declares that she's a Mormon and Mormons don't believe in homosexuality, to which he responds that in his church they don't believe in Mormons. These two people, suffering in many ways similar fates, nevertheless find much to condemn in each other. Clearly, they should be more ready to give each other mutual support, but they, too, are members of the very society which is condemning and harming them.

The two of them laugh at the Mormon joke so there is a reaching out. They rather quickly realize that their prejudices are setting up artificial and unnecessary walls between them and that they should be giving each other mutual support.  Since both find themselves isolated and condemned by society, it makes sense to reach out to each other.

Harper comments, "Deep inside you, there's a part of you, the most inner part, entirely free of disease."  This is true of both of them. She is aware that she has an addiction. She knows this is not a good thing. She has a difficult time facing it, but that does not mean that she is able to convince herself that her fantasies are entirely real. Part of her knows that it is possible for her to return to mental health.

 Prior faces a similar situation.  Society is bitterly condemning him, yet he knows there is nothing wrong with being a homosexual. It is as natural as other types of sexuality.  Intellectually he is well aware that catching AIDS is no more punishment than someone else having heart disease. But with so many condemning him, it is hard to accept that fact.

As to the other characters, this is more a philosophical question than it is a question about the intent of the playwright.  Some of the characters clearly are rather comfortable with themselves and are able to give assistance and comfort freely.

Bélize is strong and deserves praise.   However, should we condemn Louis because the stress and strain of caring for a desperately ill partner is beyond his capacity? Is he a bad man or just humanly weak? And how is that so different from being homosexual or being addicted and not being able to take command of those situations?

The one character who seems truly a bad person in this play is Roy Cohen. He IS making choices. Nothing forces him to be an unscrupulous shyster. He could be a decent, honest lawyer. He really does choose not to be.

And yet, isn't his desire to remain a lawyer even in the face of the accusations made against him and in the face his own imminent death evidence show thst he does have still enough decency left to want to at least be able to put up a show of respectability? Or is this just another act of evil?  Is his being a lawyer just the makeup he is putting on, as Prior was putting on makeup in his dream, attempting to at least appear healthy?

Let me also note that later in play Harper finds that while it was easy to give comfort and to reach out to a person she has met in a drug-induced fantasy; when her husband turns out to also be gay, this is more than she can stand. If she being a hypocrite? Or is it just that it's easy to do something for someone with whom we are not intimate and very hard to do the same thing for your own husband and lover?

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