Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart – Art and Activism

Larry Kramer will be remembered for many things, and by many people in the Queer community. As an activist, journalist, and community leader. For his many friendships, and his many disagreements with the community. For mobilizing and uniting, for taking on the political establishment. Nobody channelled rage into action quite like Larry Kramer he was a true activist. It was in everything he did. And he weaponised the theatre for activism in a way that took an artform that has always been political and used it in a way that was as unapologetic as he was. Kramer’s was not the first play on AIDS, but its combination of searing political rage and a heart-wrenching emotional core ensured its impact was felt.

The Normal Heart was a watershed moment of theatre. Although theatre was used almost immediately as response to AIDS, its immediacy as an artform, and the proximity of the theatre community to the epidemic meant it was an efficient tool for mourning and activism. Kramer also knew the power of theatre in protest, something integrated into ACT UP’s work from the very start. But The Normal Heart was important for taking that protest, that mourning – and that story – out of the smaller theatres, out of the immediate community and confronting wider audiences with it. In 1985, long before film and TV – or even the American President – were talking openly about AIDS, New York’s Public Theater staged Larry Kramer’s play and forced audiences beyond the initial niche of the Queer community to confront what was happening.

Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey in the Tony-winning 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Photographer: Joan Marcus.

And Kramer being Kramer, the politics went beyond what was on stage. Inside the theatre, the walls were covered in the names of those who had died. Audiences were invited to add to it, and so the theatre became a living memorial. At a time when public acknowledgment was limited, when there was no hope of a permeant memorial to the dead, this became a vital touchstone for the New York Community, and beyond, as names were added on behalf of others. Theatre as a response to AIDS had two primary functions: memorial, and activism, and Kramer’s play was opening the theatre to them both. The names memorialised, and the play mobilized. Even when it was revived in 2004, Kramer was there handing out leaflets to the audience afterwards ensuring that activism went beyond the stage. That is the purpose of political theatre – all theatre – distilled to its essence. Capture the audience on stage, compel them on the way out.

Brad Davis and Phillip Richard Allen in The Normal Heart at The Public Theater in 1985. Martha Swope/NYPL for the Performing Arts.

It is a direct, uncompromising piece of work. Tony Kushner called it ‘shockingly, uncomfortably, almost embarrassingly direct’ and that was precisely the point of what Kramer was doing with his play. Kushner, in the introduction he wrote for the play, also says:

‘You don’t need permission; don’t even knock, just enter. You will know immediately that you have been awaited impatiently; you will know immediately where you are and how to proceed’.

Urgent, and often impatient – much like the writer himself – there’s no gatekeeping to entrance, but there is a demand placed on everyone who sees it, and that demand is action. It is political theatre in raw form – in a story, and format that is accessible to all, spoken in plain English, without layers of theatrical convention to muddy the waters of what Kramer wants the audience to hear. In return it demands the audience step back out into the world with the play and take action. To call it accessible, is not to diminish the power, and the eloquence of the writing. Or indeed the cleverness, for want of a better description. Nor, more importantly, the emotional impact.

Luke Macfarlane, Jim Parsons and Patrick Breen in the Tony-winning 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Photographer: Joan Marcus.

Kramer was a master at political speech-making on paper in his columns in The Native, in speaking at rallies. He gives Ned some of that, but what the play does beyond political speeches and rallies is align all that with the humanity of that shared experience. It is powerful because the two work together. Kramer knew the emotional power of what he wrote for theatre was important – perhaps more so – than the direct politics. And that’s what enables the politics – the humanity, especially as part of the play’s enduring legacy. People may not remember, people might not fully understand the direct political references – Ed Koch, Reagan even – when the play is revived some 30 years later. But they will remember the spilled milk in the play. And in remembering how it made them feel, they’ll remember also its call to action.

Hopefully those who encounter it now, and in the future, will come to understand the history in the play, and indeed the play’s place in history as well. Because that is what The Normal Heart has moved into – a chapter in our history, and one that begs not to be forgotten. And as younger people discover some of those years through series like Pose perhaps, hopefully they are moved to find out more about that era, from the voices, like Kramer’s who were writing then. Reflecting the moment they lived through. And that’s what The Normal Heart does, capture that moment, of grief and anger. And those emotions bottled, in the form of a play, feel more vital than ever in this present moment.

The cast of the Tony-winning 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Photographer: Joan Marcus.

Globally we have been grieving losses from another pandemic. The feeling of a plague ravaging us, while political leaders look on, is once again upon us. For the people of New York, who find themselves once again an unwitting epicentre, the feeling of history repeating itself is clear. That feeling of collective loss combined with collective anger is once again clear. A scene from the play that immediately comes to mind is Tommy Boatwright’s Eulogy. Where he remarks that ‘Last year I had five cards, now I have fifty’ in reference to those he knows that have died. He talks of the ‘cardboard tombstones’ of his ever-shrinking Rolodex. We have to explain a Rolodex to younger people now. There was a time we had to explain what mass death, what losing more than a tragic ‘five cards’ from your personal Rolodex looked like. Tragically not anymore.

There are many of Kramer’s generation who remember such devastation well. But a whole new generation, will be experiencing something similar for the first time now. It’s right in the wider sense, particularly for those in New York perhaps, where many of these stories were told from, to look to that writing now, for guidance, and for comfort. For guidance in how to channel anger. Of this Kramer was an expert, and his writing is a blueprint. Nobody channelled his rage onto the page quite like Kramer. There are lines in The Normal Heart which feel hauntingly current:

‘I am so sick of statistics, and numbers and body counts and how-manys’ Ned shouts at Felix.

Or Dr Emma’s indignant rage: ‘I’m taking care of more victims of this epidemic than anyone in the world’.

Or Bruce’s fear, ‘I begged her: please test me somehow, please tell me if I’m giving this to people’.

Or when Ned says, with Kramer’s typical prescience:  ‘Why didn’t I fight harder! Why didn’t I picket the White House all by myself if nobody would come’. But of course, that was the power of Kramer’s writing – to mobilize that crowd to the White House.

Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello and Patrick Breen in the Tony-winning 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Photographer: Joan Marcus.

But Kramer gives us comfort as well as anger. The Normal Heart is a vital piece of theatre. It is one that at once manages to shout against inequality, rage against politics…but also be raw and open about love and humanity. And now, more than ever, it is a difficult, but also perhaps ultimately comforting read.

And for its place in Queer history, culture and legacy the play is vital. When we now read Ned Weeks’ rousing speech where he declares ‘I belong to a culture’ and add in ‘Larry Kramer’ to the list, because in it he asks the question ‘Why couldn’t you and I have been leaders in creating a new definition of what it means to be gay?’ And you know what? He did. Because he fought the fight that allows this new generation of Queer people to do that. Kramer the man, allows Ned the character to concede in that moment ‘I’m an asshole. But please, I beg you, don’t shut me out’. Kramer in life, as an activist wasn’t perfect. He, as with Ned upset many people along the way, but he also achieved so much. Likewise, his writing is sometimes as brash as his personality, messy and urgent and getting the job done. So much so that the torch might be passed. We all belong to a culture that includes Larry Kramer, and we should be proud.

Brad Davis and D.W. Moffett in The Normal Heart at The Public Theater in 1985. Martha Swope/NYPL for the Performing Arts.

It’s a tragedy we can’t honour his memory as it should be. In Tommy’s Eulogy scene he comments ‘I hate these memorials. That’s our social life now’ and that’s where we’re reminded of the greater tragedy, as we struggle with a memorial for Kramer – we cannot gather in activism and art, as Kramer and his contemporaries did. In an ideal world, Larry Kramer’s passing would be marked by a huge protest, and a sharing of his words on stage. Ryan Murphy who adapted The Normal Heart for screen, has already spoken about a revival of The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me in repertoire. And perhaps when the theatres are able to reopen, that will be the most fitting memorial to Kramer. The last major ‘performance’ of the lesser known The Destiny of Me was on Kramer’s birthday, in 2018. He was introduced by Tony Kushner – the two having called a truce on former differences some years earlier – and the reading of the play was followed by an audience singing Happy Birthday to Larry. At the time it felt like apt punctuation – the use of theatre to gather in mourning, transformed for an evening to gather in celebration. Perhaps whenever we can see his plays again, we might do both – mourn his loss and celebrate his life in the work he left.

Larry Kramer June 25th 1935 – May 27th 2020.

By Emily Garside. PhD.
Twitter: @EmiGarside

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