Playwright who put AIDS on center stage dies

William M. Hoffman, a playwright who forced theatergoers to confront the stigma and agony of AIDS with his play “As Is,” died April 29 at the age of 78. He is survived by his husband William Russell Taylor II, who said the apparent cause was cardiac arrest.

Hoffman, who cultivated gay authors as an editor and anthologist, was also celebrated as the librettist of composer John Corigliano’s opera “The Ghosts of Versailles.”

When As Is premiered in New York City in 1985, scientific knowledge of AIDS was in its infancy. Few treatments existed to halt its deadly course. In the cultural realm, there were few literary works to guide patients, their loved ones and the public to understand the epidemic erroneously known at the time as the “gay cancer.”

Hoffman, who memorialized individual AIDS patients by listing their names in playbills, said his purpose in writing “As Is” was to “show that there are people involved in this catastrophe — not numbers.”

“In every death there are people,” he told the New York Times in 1985. “It’s not ‘they.’ It’s ‘we.’” The play was co-produced by the Glines, a gay theater production company, and the Circle Repertory Company and quickly moved to Broadway. It starred Jonathan Hogan as Rich, a novelist newly diagnosed with AIDS, and Jonathan Hadary as his abidingly devoted former lover Saul, who accepts the dying Rich “as is.”

The play was a product of intense study — and intense suffering — by Hoffman. He said of those days he went to “memorial service after memorial service,” often wondering: “Who’s going to be next? Am I?”

To better understand the experience of AIDS patients, he attended support groups where he alone was not suffering from the disease.

“Of one group I attended, everyone is now dead,” Hoffman told The Washington Post in 1987. “At the same time my father and my uncle were dying [not of AIDS] and my cat was dying too. I was surrounded by death and dying — and at the same time by life…The play was my therapy.”

The play proved therapeutic for viewers, as well.


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