The summer before last, on the day Lawrence Steger's performance piece The Swans (re-mix) was scheduled to open, the show's writer, director, and star lay gasping for breath in a tuberculosis isolation ward at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He hadn't mounted an evening-length piece for nearly five years, and he'd spent almost a year developing this one with fellow cast members Laura Dame and Douglas Grew. It's traumatic enough for a performer to cancel opening night, but for Steger, who learned in 1990 that he has HIV, it was the realization of one of his worst fears as an artist.
"For a long time I thought I should switch from performance to film in anticipation of not having control of my body, of being unable to even get to the theater," he says. In The Swans he casts himself as that filmmaker; the show is a live performance of an absurdly Hollywoodized screenplay based on the lives of two historical figures: Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc's lefthand man (and later the model for Charles Perraut's Bluebeard), and Ludwig II, the "dream king" of late-19th-century Bavaria.
Steger plays a tyrannical director struggling to create scenes sophisticated enough to contain his grandiose cinematic vision. But the harder he tries, the more quickly his scenes collapse. "It's all about losing control," he says. "That fear runs the show."
The Swans first began percolating in Steger's imagination a few years ago when his friend Steve Lafreniere, coeditor of Straight to Hell magazine ("the Manhattan review of unnatural acts"), suggested he write a piece about the two infamous men. Steger was captivated by the way both of them went to theatrical extremes to indulge their grand passions.
Ludwig, who spent two fortunes--his family's and his country's--commissioning operas and building fairy-tale castles, devoted more time to dressing his attendants in Louis XIV costumes and taking boat rides across his indoor lagoon than tending to affairs of state.
Rais, on the other hand, was all for the glory of gore. "As marshal of France, Gilles de Rais staged enormous battles," Steger explains. "And then a few years later, when the wars were over, he restaged his victories on the same battlefield with full armies. People would come from miles around to watch, because they could see a war without getting hurt."
In later life Rais applied his bloody theatrical flair to systematic pedophilia. He would instruct his assistants to bring local boys to his castle and begin to strangle them. Rais would suddenly appear to "rescue" the boys, of whom there are thought to have been more than 100. "He would play the savior in order to get the final tear," Steger says. "Then once he got it he would slit their throats and fuck their insides."
Rais and Ludwig pulled out all the stops to maintain a state of ecstasy--or in Steger's metaphor, "to fuck for as long as they could." Each man's extravagance was ultimately his undoing, since preserving euphoria was as impossible as it would be for any of us to keep ourselves at the point of orgasm all night long. "When you're fucking, you slip out, somebody farts, whatever," Steger says with a laugh. The Swans is one monstrously operatic fart.
Steger says that his fascination with passion's brief shelf life has a lot to do with his health. "How do I sustain interest in a world that I'm scheduled to not be part of very soon?" he asks.
Actually, Steger's estimated time of departure may be later than originally estimated. A week after leaving the hospital, he was center stage in The Swans, apparently no worse for the wear. The show played to packed houses at Randolph Street Gallery and then traveled to Glasgow. After 18 months of TB medication (which had to be completed before he could start his current course of protease inhibitors) he's back to his old impishly dissipated self--and then some. Sitting in a cafe, his bleached scrunch of hair a bit more unruly than usual after a night of overindulgence at a Museum of Contemporary Art opening (he never made it past the beer table), he stares through tinted glasses into a Marlboro Lights pack containing one lonely cigarette. Like Rais and Ludwig, he finds reality decidedly lacking.
By publicly acknowledging his HIV status, Steger knows he runs the risk of being pigeonholed as an "AIDS artist," and of The Swans being reduced to a soliloquy on his impending premature demise. Understandably he resists such a limited interpretation. "I hope that people who are interested in my work are interested in my work, not in my T-cell count and viral load," he says. But he also knows he has no choice but to accept the preconceptions people may project on his work. "I'm on this bus ride, and there's really no way to get off," he says. "So I have to just roll with it."
In a way, Steger notes, all art is "victim art"--an epithet applied to recent work by fellow HIV-positive performer Bill T. Jones. "I am the victim of performance," he says. "I am the object. If I don't do something right and the audience doesn't like it, all of that dislike is focused right on moi." He lights the cigarette and gulps a handful of pills meant to keep him alive. "Performance is essentially the constant possibility of becoming a victim, of dying onstage, of just fucking up gloriously."
Steger and crew will perform an expanded and restaged version of The Swans (re-mix) Friday at 9 PM, Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 7 PM at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. Tickets are $9 for members, $10 for students and seniors, and $12 for everyone else. Call 312-397-4010.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Randy Tunnell.