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Bills of Mortality

Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times

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Patrick Reilly

Bills of Mortality: Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times explores the dynamic between the fact of plague and the constructs of destiny deadly disease generates in literary texts ranging from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The volume is of interest to readers in both literary and scientific, especially medical, fields. In addition, it serves as an accessible introduction to plague literature and to the arena in which it has evolved since ancient times. To undergraduate and graduate students, Bills of Mortality affords an opportunity for scholarly engagement in a topic no less timely now than it was when plague struck Milan in 1629 or ravaged Venice in 1912 or felled Thebes in antiquity.
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Chapter Six: How to Survive a Plague. Angels in America

← 133 | 134 → CHAPTER SIX

Extract

Angels in America

Influenza was the last of the classical pestilences; AIDS, both unpredicted and unpredictable within the framework of the old nosology, is the first of the postmodern plagues.

—MIRKO GRMEK, THE HISTORY OF AIDS

“Nor am I so obstinate and foolish as to imagine that because I am master of my own will, I can control fortune of which I am not master.”

—A SYRACUSE LEADER (THUCYDIDES, THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR, 4.64)

“It’s 1986 and there’s a plague, half my friends are dead and I’m only thirty-one …”

—PRIOR WALTER, IN ANGELS IN AMERICA

Early in 1981 a lot of young, previously healthy men were dying of mysterious causes, especially in New York and San Francisco. For the most part they were homosexual men, and before it was named AIDS, the unexpected, new, and swiftly fatal affliction that visited America in the latter twentieth century became known as the gay plague.1 By 1985 AIDS had reached two Off-Broadway theaters. Larry ← 134 | 135 → Kramer’s The Normal Heart opened at the Public Theater in April, and in May William S. Hoffman’s As Is, which the Circle Repertory Company had staged in March, would transfer to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. Numerous more AIDS texts would follow, even as the plague continued increasingly to devastate primarily, but hardly exclusively, the gay community. While the cause of AIDS, the retrovirus HIV, had been determined in 1983, no hope for effective...

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