AUSTIN PENDLETON — UNCLE BOB — REVISED EDITION — 1995–2005
This play is magic in many ways because it concentrates a condensed version of an enormous problem in just a few pages, in just a short time with only two characters plus one absent from the stage itself. The two characters are Bob in his early sixties, the uncle, and Josh in his twenties, the nephew. The absent character who opens the play with a long soliloquy by Bob is Sally, Bob’s wife who has left him though she comes by from time to time. She left him because his disease, AIDS, is making him more and more locked up on himself and inside himself, hence excluding everyone else and arguing with them to what we could call the death, his death actually.
Bob is a surprising person. One of the two sons of an industrialist, he was entrusted with the family business when the father died and he nearly ruined it. His brother took over and is still trying to redress and restore it, but he decided to take care of Bob and pay him his living in New York where he is dreaming himself an actor, in vain mostly.
He reveals that he has been attracted by Josh since the boy was eight. This means in him there is a deep pedophile tendency that he repressed. For a long time, he had a married life with probably some clandestine homosexual episodes. But he is one of those crazy people who decided they could not enjoy safe homosexual sex and thus took the risk of getting infested, knowing that it appears Bob is a passive homosexual. And the risk became a reality. Apparently, he accepted to have safe sex with Sally, his wife. At least we can assume this since it is alluded that they still have intercourse and she is healthy.
So why does Josh, a declared heterosexual character, though a drifter in society living more or less on charity from his own father, a bigot hater of homosexuals, with extremely strong and aggressive words against them several times in the play, with his favorite word on the subject being “faggot”? Why indeed? Bob is aggressive, rejects him, orders him to go back home, in vain by the way since Josh has decided to remain and take care of Bob, in spite of all the aggressive violence that develops between them.
There is no real answer to the question except love but Josh’s love is not at the physical level. Bob assumes it is charity and even pity for his sick state. But he is wrong. For Josh that sickness is death and nothing but death and Josh refuses that death. Yet he maintains the contact and we wonder why. Apparently, Bob decides, under Sally’s incitation, to go to an audition somewhere in the suburbs on some kind of amateur project having to do with Hamlet. Josh does not encourage him, and yet his provocative attitude motivates Bob who finally goes. But does he go to really take part in this audition? We can doubt it since Hamlet is traditionally seen as being a late teenager just old enough to go to some university in England. Bob pretends Hamlet is in his late thirties in the text of the play itself, which is surprising since Ophelia is something like fifteen years old and her reaction to being rejected is typical of a teenager. But Bob is in his early sixties which is stretching the age of the young Hamlet a lot.
Sure enough, he did not take part in the audition but he harangued the people there with their total incomprehension of the deep human psyche of Hamlet because they stick to conventional illusions about the character and Shakespeare.
But then Josh is revealed under a new light. His desire to express his love to and for Bob, his desire to physically merge with him, leads him to an incredible act. Since he knows Bob cannot accept safe homosexual sex, to convince him to make love to him he decides to get himself contaminated first and he just goes out and picks the first sick-looking hustler and lets him or makes him impregnate him with the disease. Which is a pure illusion because it takes more time than just one night to get infested, even if you are sure your partner is sick. The disease may take the first time or may not and it will take some time before it appears as you being HIV positive, which is not the disease yet, just the “promise” of it.
Josh at that very moment appears to be out of his mind, out of any kind of sane mind anyway. For Bob to love him, he decides to make it sexual and to literally beg for a homosexual act, which is not love, by the way, but just plain intercourse. To force Bob to accept it he has himself raped by an infested sick man to be sick himself and thus to convince Bob that he can have unsafe sex with him since he is already contaminated.
More than twenty years after the creation of the play we can look at this plot as being typically and uniquely American. In 1995 the treatment to contain AIDS was already advanced and death was no longer the immediate end as it was ten years before still. But this treatment is extremely expensive and most people did not have any health insurance covering that disease since health insurance at the time was mostly specific and covering only some clearly listed risks. What’s more, many Americans did not have any health insurance at all, some 45 million people at the time, and not including illegal immigrants, and to get some health insurance after knowing that you were HIV positive, a test result being required by the insurance company, would have you refused automatically. Yet at the time Bill Clinton was introducing some measures to cover the disease with Medicare and Medicaid, but true enough not the full and expensive treatment, rather a reduced treatment that did not guarantee survival for a long time. That explains why Josh says Bob is ruining the family business since his father is taking care of his own brother, hence is paying for the treatment.
Strangely enough then the main interest of the play today is sociological about the basic problem in America: health insurance that is NOT universal, far from it, in spite of Obamacare and thanks to the various attempts at Trumpcare. The sacrifice of Josh on the AIDS sacrificial altar to be able to express his love to his uncle is a barbaric solution, an insane decision and a totally deranged vision of the two men frolicking in bed exchanging their respective AIDS viruses, united in that act and even united by the death that will necessarily ensue. It is an anthropological regression to the time of human civilizations that practiced human sacrifice to expurgate evil from society. Imagine in America the common practices of Aztecs, Mayas and many others in Central and South America. Imagine the Northern American Indians dismembering and slicing up war prisoners to celebrate their victory and hanging the various body parts around the camp and settlement. Imagine the Spaniards cutting hands and feet of all male Indians considered as pagan hostile beasts, and left there to die of their own bleeding limbs.
The worst imaginable horror in the name of love. That’s what AIDS produces in a society where universal health insurance does not exist. Opioids to die smiling and even laughing.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU