On Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart, and Playwriting As Screed

Kramer in 2011 at opening night of the revival of The Normal Heart. Photo: Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images

The day that Larry Kramer died of pneumonia, the powers that be took one last swipe at him. The AIDS activist, author, and playwright had never pulled punches: He saw cowardice and brutality and called them by their names — sometimes screaming, often through a megaphone. In plays, in interviews, in street demonstrations, he named and shamed politicians and media (particularly the New York Times), and the sting of those accusations clearly still lingers. The abstract for his obituary in the Times on May 27 read: “He worked hard to shock the country into dealing with AIDS as a public-health emergency. But his often abusive approach could overshadow his achievements.” If you watched the article over the course of the day, you’d see the word “abusive” change — editors adjusted it first to “aggressive,” then to “confrontational.” Finally, in a tide of righteous fury from social media, all the negativity in the subheading was washed away. Kramer was the most effective American political dramatist of the last 50 years, and the white heat of his activism saved lives. “And look what happened,” said Sarah Schulman, the author and fellow activist. “They slapped him back even on the day of his death.”

No one would argue that Kramer was easy to work with. In a 2009 New York profile, Jesse Green asked, “Why has this man not been awarded a Nobel Prize?” One reason is our historical amnesia about queer achievements, Green said. Another is: “They don’t have a category for pains in the ass.” Even before he embarked on his anti-AIDS crusade in the ’80s, Kramer was gifted at driving wedges — sometimes, as with his sex-negative satire Faggots, right through the gay community. He was a shouter, a railer, a perpetual emotion machine. But every war gets its defining weapon, and in 1981, Kramer’s jet blast of rage found its true targets: the “gay plague” and straight society’s homicidal apathy.

When it comes to his mark on social history, Kramer should be remembered for co-founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 (though he left or was pushed out) and for summoning the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) into existence in 1987 via a fire-and-brimstone speech. Standing in front of a 400-person crowd, he made it clear that the choice had become fight or die. The organization formed out of hundreds who were there that night — and ACT UP changed the world. The group carried the fight directly to the FDA, to the Stock Exchange, to the NIH, and to the White House, where grieving lovers and family members strewed the ashes of the dead on the lawn.

According to Schulman, who joined the group early and is now writing a book about it, “ACT UP got pharmaceutical companies to rearrange the research agenda; they got needle exchange made legal in New York City; they changed the CDC definition of AIDS to include women’s symptoms; they started Housing Works, which right now is running a clinic for homeless people with COVID in Queens.” Her list goes on. And “although he was very frustrating,” says Schulman, many activists are “still very emotionally connected to him. I think it’s because my generation of gay people had a lot of familial homophobia — and to have an older man who’s your father’s age in there with you, there’s that emotional tie.” That connection could weather even his Sturm und Drang, Schulman says. “He came to my 50th birthday party, and he was so wonderful; the next day, he called me up to tell me how terrible I was. That’s Larry!” she says, laughing — I think.

Kramer lost and remade friends and left organizations, but the temper was always a key part of his power. And there was also, deep in the root, an understanding of performance. He wasn’t gifted as a leader: He quit, many times, the organizations he was most associated with. Yet Kramer knew that there was a theatrical function to his flashpoint explosiveness. He was a screenwriter — famously of Women in Love, notoriously of the awful Lost Horizon — and a playwright, most importantly of The Normal Heart. So he knew how to make a scene, but he also knew how to set it. “People need to talk about what you did if you want to make an impact,” he said to The New Yorker. “Otherwise, why bother having a fit in the first place?”

The Normal Heart is one of the century’s great plays, a teaching drama that actually changed minds. In it, Kramer broke many of the rules of modern playwriting, explaining himself rather than shading in subtext, advocating directly instead of balancing competing ideas. In the play, a prickly activist named Ned Weeks falls in love with Felix, a reporter for the New York Times, just as his community is being ravaged by what will turn out to be AIDS. A doctor begs the men to get organized; Ned’s bull-in-a-medical-ward tactics eventually get him evicted from his own group. All writing may secretly be autobiography, and Felix may or may not have been the fashion writer John Duka, but The Normal Heart doesn’t bother to keep Ned’s identity a secret. Everyone watching it at the Public Theater in 1985 knew he was a stand-in for Larry; everyone watching the Broadway revival in 2011 knew that they were seeing history.

When I encountered The Normal Heart in a class in the late ’90s, it was presented in contrast with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America — Kramer was propaganda; Kushner was art. And it’s true that The Normal Heart reads like a medieval morality play, the double Passion of Ned Weeks. The play shouts its arguments: Dr. Emma yells at men who are refusing to give her funding, “How does it always happen that all the idiots are always on your team?” There are long exchanges about mailing lists and what to write in a return address; the material reality of making change — stamps, fights, envelopes — suffuses every scene. And after a few years of studying theater, I had internalized that meat-ax political drama was a synonym for ‘clumsy.’ But The Normal Heart works, as a play and as a screed. In a few hours in the theater, it dismantled all my craft preconceptions. Screw subtext, I thought, as I staggered from my seat. Give me plays that leave a contrail.

On the day of Kramer’s death, in the middle of a health crisis mismanaged and bungled at the highest levels, the play could have been brand-new. You should read The Normal Heart for a thousand reasons, the first of which is to honor Kramer. But you will want to read it for yourself as well. “Of all the AIDS plays,” says Schulman, “it’s the one that really accuses straight people and shows a gay community of people trying to do something together.” The play assures us that collective action works; it calls out callous bigots who think that public health is somehow some “other” public’s problem; it shatters complacency; it even demonstrates the value of letter-writing — useful for a time when mass gathering isn’t possible. Kramer certainly never thought the play’s work was done. In 2005, he stood outside the Golden Theatre, handing out leaflets. “Please know,” each leaflet said, “that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play you have just seen begins, there were 41.” Reading that, I thought — God, even on the day he died, his voice still carries. He’s shouting at us right now. Fight or die.

On Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart, and Playwriting As Screed