Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Free doctoring for 'bad blood' is
what Hodman, Willie, Caleb and
Ben thought they were getting
back in 1932. After all isn't that
what that nice Nurse Evers told
The poor blacks of Macon County, Alabama, were 'susceptible to kindness' concludes the stunning play Miss Evers' Boys.
What the authorities did to the people of Macon County is almost beyond belief. For 40 years from 1932, 399 black sharecroppers were denied treatment for syphilis. They were hoodwinked into believing they were being treated for all those years.
In fact they were the victims of a horrendous experiment. Even when the 'magic bullet' of penicillin was developed after the Second World War they were prevented from having it.
The syphilis ate away at their nervous systems. Many died or were left crippled. The men unwittingly passed on the disease to their family and friends. In return they received 'free healthcare' and $50 life insurance with the promise of a decent burial.
On the 14th anniversary of their (mis)treatment they all got a certificate from the United States Public Health Service in Washington and $14 gratuity--a dollar a year.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as it was called, was finally exposed as 'the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history'.
And what of Nurse Evers? She was the nurse who recruited the men to the experiment. In the play she takes the role of narrator, recalling for a shocked 1972 congressional hearing the diabolical experiment. She is not an evil woman. In a terrible way she at least started out thinking that she was doing good. After all, the authorities in 1920s America never, ever took any notice of blacks.
Now these poor black farmers were the centre of attention. And as the black doctor in charge of the experiment tells her, by examining the way the disease progressed, 'We could prove what the disease does, it does to all men equally'. Proving that syphilis rotted both black and white in the same way could be a blow to prejudice. The twisted logic of racism.
It would only be a six month experiment and then they would be treated. Then it was a year, then two, until 14 years had gone by.
When penicillin came on the scene it was too late. The men had to be prevented from taking the 'hip shot' that everyone else was getting. And then of course the goalposts were shifted to the 'endpoint'--the men had to die and be cut up to get conclusive results.
Nurse Evers loved the men. She turned down a job in New York to nurse them. She decided that if they were to be condemned to die the least she could do was be there for them.
Syphilis works in a pattern. You get a sore, then it seems to go away before resurfacing 20 to 30 years later to wreak its damage. Or as Evers puts it to make it understandable to her boys, 'You get it, forget it, and regret it.'
We see the men in all three stages. And like Evers the audience is put in a position of complicity. We know they are not getting any treatment while they think that they are.
The fabulous thing about the play is that the men never seem like passive victims. Hodman, Willie, Caleb and Ben are full of life. They are all in a band-which they name 'Nurse Evers' Boys' in homage to her.
Willie is a coltish young farmer who likes to dance. The experiment turns him into a cripple. Hodman is a big likeable man. The disease eats his brain. Ben is older, dignified and generous. He thanks Evers for looking after them all as he lies dying.
Caleb distrusts the favours that the white man is bestowing on him. He has a healthy suspicion: Why did you do that to me?' he asks the doctor who gives him an excruciating spinal tap.
He survives, like a war veteran, by 'keeping his anger'.
Miss Evers' Boys is showing at the the Barbican until 3 October and then at the Bristol Old Vic from 7 to 31 October. The Barbican is also hosting an acclaimed one man show from America. A Huey P Newton Story is on from 6 to 17 October
by David Hare
David Hare's Via Dolorosa, a
monologue about Israel and
Palestine, performed at the Royal
Court, has won much praise from
the critics, and rightly so. The play
stems from Hare's British Council
sponsored visits to Israel and
Palestine. He was able to meet
right wing Israeli settlers and their
political leaders, bitter Israeli Labour
Party politicians, and despairing
These encounters enabled Hare to produce a work which offers a deeper insight into the thinking of the protagonists in the Middle East than almost anything that appears in the newspapers. Hare's hour and a half long performance captures the schizoid nature of Israeli society and the abject nature of life for the Palestinians.
He travels from hedonistic Tel Aviv, where the Israelis he meets have the living standards and aspirations of prosperous Europeans and where the Palestinians barely feature, to the occupied territories. Here the settlers live in fenced off areas similar to US suburbia, surrounded by the poverty and degradation of the Palestinians. Reactionary, paranoid colonists sit by their swimming pools while Palestinians in the neighbouring village are forced to carry drinking water from their wells in jerry cans. These are the people who believe that the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was complicit in his own murder because he knew an attempt would be made on his own life, yet did nothing to prevent it.
Hare met Palestinian intellectuals too, and got important insights into the state of Palestinian society. He describes the poverty, squalor and brutality of life in the occupied territories under Yasser Arafat's rule. In a memorable phrase, the transition from Israel to the Gaza Strip is likened to going 'from California into Bangladesh'. Hare's Palestinian acquaintances rage against Hamas, the fundamentalist terror group, but demand he understands what makes young people turn themselves into human bombs.
The whole sorry mess is summed up by the young woman who, looking at the streets of Gaza, declares: 'There was a point once, there was a reason. You were fighting for a Palestinian state, and you were willing to die. What on earth would you die for now?'
There is also despair in Shulamit Aloni, once a minister in Rabin's government, who is now crushed by what Israel's right has done.
'We are going backwards,' she declares. 'The Jews were once victims, so now we are being brainwashed to believe we will always be victims and victims can do no wrong.'
Aloni believed the peace process that began in 1992 could bring a lasting settlement to the conflict between Palestine and Israel.
Hare, no doubt, would like to believe that too, but the questioning sparked off by his visits to Israel will not let him. He cannot accept Aloni's assertion that the current right wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is responsible for everything that has gone wrong. He knows Netanyahu emerged from the society created by Rabin, Aloni and their Israeli Labour Party predecessors.
Hare has few answers of his own, but then his play is art, not analysis and not propaganda. Good art challenges. It poses questions, and it is important that Hare asks them about Israel and Palestine.
It is 50 years since the birth of the state of Israel amidst massacres and ethnic cleansing. For decades the shadow of Hitler's genocide of the Jews made it very difficult to challenge Israel's legitimacy. That began to break down with Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its brutal suppression of the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, ten years ago. Let us hope Hare's play is a sign of a new, wider search for answers.
The play concludes with Hare repeating, in a powerful appeal, lines he heard from an Israeli playwright: 'Fuck the land. Fuck it. What does the land matter? The highest value to a Jew is human life. The idea that stones now matter more than lives is a complete deformation of the Jewish religion.'
This might be an idealised view of Judaism, but the desire to create a world in which human life was valued led millions of Jews into the socialist movement in the first half of this century. It took the triumph of reaction, which culminated in Hitler's gas chambers, to physically liquidate a mass socialist movement among Jews. That is the root of the tragedy that Via Dolorosa manages to capture.
Via Dolorosa is at the Royal Court Downstairs, London