Every time somebody stages the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People, the comparisons fly. The 1882 drama concerns a righteous doctor who warns his town that the local spa waters are being polluted by a tannery – only to find himself denounced and ostracized. When the play was performed at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto this month, people recalled Walkerton, they mentioned the oil sands, they pointed to Snowden.
The literary evidence suggests, however, that Ibsen (who had been heavily criticized for daring to hint at the existence of syphilis in his previous play, Ghosts) intended An Enemy as a philosophical satire about the independence of the individual in the face of the tyrannous majority. It's only over the years that we have come to ignore the rabidly anti-democratic things that the good Dr. Stockmann says and interpret the play entirely as a political defence of whistle-blowers. At the Tarragon, audiences were outraged by the pacifying cover-up delivered by the slick town councillor Peter Stockmann, older brother to the doctor, and a character made so fiendishly familiar by actor Rick Roberts that you could almost put a name to the political spin master. In a scene where audience participation was encouraged, theatregoers took delight in arguing back at him as An Enemy of the People proved itself a living classic.
But what if you haven't got 130 years to work this kind of theatrical magic? What if somebody is polluting the water in your town today? The answer is that you get down and dirty, and create some single-issue agitprop: those all-too-topical plays about bullying or drug addiction or racism. It's rare that this works well either as theatre or as advocacy, but there's an interesting exception to that rule now touring Ontario.
Tainted is a play about the tainted blood scandal that erupted in the 1980s when Canadians who used blood products, in particular hemophiliacs, begin to suffer from AIDS and hepatitis C. It took the Krever Inquiry in 1993 to finally expose the appalling bureaucratic lassitude and defensiveness responsible for infecting an estimated 20,000 Canadians with potentially lethal illnesses.
Tainted was written by playwright and activist Kat Lanteigne, a woman who has seen two members of her extended family suffer AIDS. One was a gay uncle who died in 2001; the other is a close family friend who contracted the disease through her husband's exposure to blood products. Lanteigne first found out about the scandal when she was a teen and saw that woman speaking on television during the campaign for an inquiry. Her tearful mother's explanation of what was happening stuck with her; she did not mention AIDS or blood products, she simply said of their friend: "She has been betrayed."
That sense of betrayal snakes its way through the members of the fictional Steele family in Tainted: All three hemophiliac sons and one son's wife get AIDS as the play follows the tragedy through mysterious infections in the 1980s to death-bed advocacy in the 1990s. This is not Ibsen, more movie-of-the-week, minutely focused on the issue at hand.
Ten years ago, Lanteigne wanted to make a film of the story but couldn't find funding: A mere decade after Justice Horace Krever had recommended the complete overhaul of the Canadian blood collection system to prevent a repetition of disaster, people seemed uninterested.
"I experienced a lot of denial," she said. "People had problems seeing the AIDS crisis from a family perspective. They were socialized to the idea it's the gay [disease.]"
Nonetheless, she persisted and eventually wrote a play about a fictional family whose losses are a pretty accurate representation of how tainted blood killed hemophiliacs. Coincidentally, preparations for staging the play in 2013 were just under way when a private company was setting up a plasma collection centre in Toronto. Lanteigne discovered she was in a perfect position to play go-between among the various parties she had interviewed, and became a lead advocate for Ontario legislation that would ban paid blood donations – as is already the case in Quebec. The Ontario Liberal government proposed a bill to that effect before last spring's election and has now reintroduced it.
Tainted was fully staged in a theatre last year; now it is being performed as a series of readings sponsored by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (which represents blood service workers) to keep the issue alive as the Ontario bill heads toward second reading. Monday, a troupe of actors read the play at the provincial legislature; Wednesday, they are appearing on Parliament Hill where they hope federal Conservative cabinet ministers will be in attendance. After Monday's reading, three Canadian hemophiliacs in their 50s spoke, issuing quiet reminders of what happens when you mix public health and private profit. Less dramatic and less practised then the actors who had preceded them, they instead offered living corroboration of a disaster that decimated their cohort. Most of the other hemophiliacs they knew as boys and young men are dead now – which is where theatre comes in.
"It's one of the only places where ghosts can talk and tell their truth," Lanteigne observes.
My colleague André Picard has explained the particular need for plasma and the narrow circumstances in which paid donors might be necessary, but mainly he has argued that, 20 years after Krever, we should not be permitting private-industry blood collection without vigorous public discussion and oversight. Lanteigne is using theatre to provoke that debate.
"This isn't a protest," she says of the readings in political settings. "It's a form of action to make sure the politicians know this will not be forgotten. It's their job to protect the public."
Of course, there will be people in positions of authority who have reassuring things to say about privatized blood collection. They will sound as plausible as Roberts' smooth-talking Peter Stockmann at the Tarragon. After all, actors and politicians make it their job to convince us.