Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Speech Communication

First Advisor

Michael S. Bowman


This purpose of this study is to assess the efficacy of performance as a means of social change by focusing on performances that have arisen out of the AIDS crisis. Working from a cultural studies perspective, I attempt to delineate both the possibilities and limitations for this perspective on social change. By comparing the various forms these performances have taken, I offer an explanation as to how these forms inhibit or enhance the ability of a performance to challenge the dominant discourse on AIDS, and create and mobilize communities that can act in the fight against AIDS. I begin by presenting a history of the AIDS crisis, focusing particularly on how AIDS has been linguistically constructed by various institutions as "a gay disease," a "sexually transmitted disease," an affliction of intravenous drug users, and a scientific/medical problem. Next I provide a context for understanding AIDS performances by addressing issues specifically related to using art as a means of intervention, including the relationship between culture and society, and the politics of textuality. I conclude this discussion by explaining why performance is emerging as an important political tool in the contemporary or "postmodern" world. The study presents examples of three forms these performances have taken: plays (or conventional theatre), performance art, and demonstrations. Plays by William Hoffman (As Is) and Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart) represent the traditional theatre form. Performance art by Karen Finley (We Keep Our Victims Ready) and Tim Miller (Stretch Marks) exemplify performances based on avant-garde experiments that challenge the traditional theatrical form. Finally, the Names Project (the AIDS Memorial Quilt) and two demonstrations by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) are representative of performances that expand traditional notions of the performance event. Each chapter includes a summary of the texts, the critical responses found in the mass media, comparisons between texts that are of the same form, and concludes by discussing their efficacy for intervening in the AIDS crisis. In the final chapter, some conclusions are drawn regarding the efficacy of these performances for social change.