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The drama and serious literature of more recent times have only occasionally made use of VD as a significant part of their theme. An unmentioned gonorrhea is an important detail of the play by Tennessee Williams, Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). The male lead had infected his first sweetheart, the ingenue; and, their love having been thwarted by her politician father, the lead has become a gigolo.
After the earlier performances, we learn again from Moore, "syphilis even began to be mentioned, though rarely, in the public press." But "rarely" is the word to emphasize. Surgeon General Thomas Parran, of whom we will hear more, was not allowed to speak of syphilis on the radio in 1939. It was only in his time that the word "syphilis" finally appeared openly in the newspapers, some twenty five years after Richard Bennett's crusade. After another thirty years and more, we are still trying.
The early history of the play in the United States is furnished in part by Upton Sinclair, whose novel based on Damaged Goods appeared in 1913. The play was presented for the first time in the same year, at a Friday matinee on March 14, in the Fulton Theater in New York, evidently a private showing before members of a group called the Sociological Fund. It had been produced by Richard Bennett, the actor, as we are told by M. Moore:
Twenty years later the French playwright Eugene Brieux tried the theme of syphilis again, but in a very different way. Shaw, who introduced Brieux to the English speaking world and wrote a preface to the translation of the play, Les Avaries (Damaged Goods), says:
The play reintroduced the subject of syphilis to a startled world which for many years had done its best to sweep the whole disagreeable subject under the rug. Through the syphilis theme Ibsen attacked the prudishness and hypocrisy of his time, as he had done in A Doll’s House by other means.
VD as a subject for literature seems to have become submerged under a lid of polite and informal but none the less effective censorship. It seems possible that pressure was building up under the lid, and that eventually it reached an intolerable level. Perhaps some such process can explain Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, which did in fact burst upon the world with the force of an explosion.
He knew venereal disease as he knew a range of other diseases, which is to say, very much as contemporary physicians knew them. Again there was nothing unique about his concentration on this subject; much the same can be said for his knowledge of the law, not to speak of statecraft and the arts of war.
But before we get into the details of VD in Shakespeare's works it may be a good idea to prepare the way with a few related matters. It has been suggested, for one thing, that the bard's concentration on VD syphilis, almost exclusively implies that he had it himself but no evidence that he did.
Even recurrent herpes of the genitals has been thought of as a venereal disease, but the circumstances are peculiar. D. C. Hutfleld says it “often breaks out with each successive intercourse as a result of the reactivation of virus latent in cells at or near the site of primary infection. This may be related to the trauma of intercourse, or may possibly have a psychosomatic basis, since there is often an associated syphilophobia.”
Herpes (simplex) is not so easily disposed of. The word "herpes" means a sore made up of clusters of tiny blisters or vesicles. When used alone, the word usually refers to herpes simplex as distinguished from herpes zoster a quite different disease popularly known as "shingles."