“Plague! We’re in the middle of a fucking plague! And you behave like this!” – Larry Kramer
The action in Larry Kramer‘s play The Normal Heart (1985) begins in July 1981, when there were 41 recognized cases of what would later become known as AIDS. These cases were enough to warrant a single column article on an inner page of the New York Times. By the time the play’s action ends in May 1984, the Centers for Disease Control was reporting 10,000 AIDS cases in the US and 4,942 deaths. Kramer ensured that no one who watched his play could avoid acknowledging the acceleration of cases and accumulation of deaths. It was literally the writing on the walls.
The play’s 1985 production had sparse sets surrounded by whitewashed plywood, upon which facts and numbers were painted in black lettering. Kramer writes in the play’s production notes, “Principal place was given to the latest total number of AIDS cases nationally: _________ AND COUNTING. (For example, on 1 August 1985, the figure read 12,062.) As the Centers for Disease Control revise all figures regularly, so did we, crossing out old numbers and placing the new figure just beneath it” (15). The theatre walls also bore the counts of cases in various states and major cities.
When the play was revived for Broadway in 2011, rather than painting the walls, slides were used to project images on them. Kramer notes, “At various times in the action lists of names of actual people are projected up on the walls, the list short at first, and gradually growing in length until by the final moment the stage and all adjoining walls are covered with names” (18). In this production, rather than having the actors leave the stage whenever they weren’t part of the action, they merely stepped to the edges of the stage and continued to observe the scene. For this reason, as a photograph from the 2011 production that is included in a recent New York Times article depicts, the names of some of the dead are projected across the bodies of the living, the gay characters’ bodies inscribed like tombstones, an apparition of what will come.
The Normal Heart is, most of all, dramatic action in the midst of disease and death, staged at a time when the United States was in the midst of an AIDS epidemic. However, there was very little federal action being taken to address let alone acknowledge such. When the play opened on 21 April 1985, then-President Ronald Reagan had still not yet publicly uttered the word AIDS. He would not do so until September of that year, even though questions about AIDS had been asked at the White House press briefings in each of the three preceding years.
When reporter Lester Kingsolving asked the first question in 1982, he referred to AIDS as a “gay plague“, only to have Press Secretary Larry Speakes mock him for admitting any interest in a disease that was primarily impacting gay men. Other reporters laughed along, despite Kingsolving pointing out that a third of the men who contracted the disease had already died. Kingsolving was not an advocate for gays; he was instead an Episcopal priest and religion columnist eager to have President Reagan blame the disease on gay men’s promiscuity. In 1983, he asked, “Does the President think it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their cruising?” Again, the exchange dissolved in laughter from the press pool.
The archival audio can be heard in a seven-minute documentary by filmmaker Scott Calonic, titled When AIDS Was Funny, which juxtaposes the jocularity at these press conferences with photos of patients on the brink of death and the exponential acceleration of yearly mortalities due to AIDS. This is the woeful federal response that playwright Larry Kramer was tackling when he wrote The Normal Heart, which chronicles his own early development as an AIDS activist, as portrayed by the play’s central character, Ned Weeks.
Although no cure exists for AIDS even today, and there were still questions at the time of the action in the play about whether behaviors like kissing could transmit the virus, the two means of stopping the epidemic from spreading in the United States are clearly identified in the play’s opening scene. There, Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician who diagnoses and treats more gay patients with AIDS than any other doctor in New York City, gives her prescription for ending the epidemic. Ned, a writer for a gay newsletter must tell gay men to stop having sex, and he must get the New York Times to publish a story about AIDS on the first page (28, 30). These two necessities—behavioral change among those most at risk and prominent publicity that will pressure political leaders to invest money in AIDS research—are all that will keep gay men from dying. She places the responsibility for accomplishing both of these tasks on Ned because, she says, she has heard he has a big mouth, and having a big mouth may be the epidemic’s only cure (26).
This exchange is the first reference to what will be a recurring theme throughout the play. To what extent is AIDS a health issue, needing response from physicians, and to what extent is it a political issue, needing response from political leaders? And what can be done when neither physicians nor politicians are effective in fulfilling their responsibilities? Dr. Emma Brookner tells Ned that “this disease is the most insidious killer I’ve ever seen or studied or heard about”, then moments later says, “Doctors are extremely conservative; they try to stay out of anything that smells political, and this smells. Bad. As soon as you start screaming you get treated like a nutcase. Maybe you know that. And then you’re ostracized and rendered worthless, just when you need cooperation most” (27).
screen capture from “Reagan Administration’s Chilling Response to the AIDS Crisis” (Vanity Fair via YouTube / stylized)
So as a physician, Emma essentially challenges Ned to become the chief publicist of the AIDS epidemic. She laments, “I can’t find any gay leaders. I tried calling several gay organizations. No one ever calls me back. Is anyone out there?” (29). Ned tells her that the gay organizations that exist at that time won’t be useful, so he invites friends to his apartment to form the first AIDS-focused organization. Of the six men who begin this organization together, it is Ned who is most public about his sexual orientation at a time when living “out of the closet” often meant job loss; Ned who is so insistent on the urgent need to save the lives of gay men—before the end of Act I, he says 40 of his friends have already died—that he refuses to speak and act with decorum.
Much of the play’s dramatic tension is caused by the contrast between Ned’s blunt, forceful approach to activism and the far more cautious, polite approach of the other men who serve with him on the Board of the AIDS organization. Bruce is chosen to be the organization’s president because he’s attractive and therefore may be more successful in recruiting volunteers, but he’s wary of being too political because he doesn’t want to lose his lucrative job as a Vice President of Citibank. The others on the Board are either scared for similar reasons or, they claim, disagree with Ned’s approach philosophically.
When Mickie, a Board member who is a city employee, receives thinly veiled threats from the mayor’s assistant that he may lose his job over his involvement in the organization, he confronts Ned, saying “You keep trying to make us say things that we don’t want to say! And I don’t think we can afford to make so many enemies before we have enough friends” (97).
The Board members even begin to question Ned’s motives, accusing him of acting as boldly as he does just to boost his celebrity. They deny him the chance to meet with the mayor but when that opportunity finally happens late in the play, he was ousted from the organization in a hand-delivered letter Bruce reads aloud to Ned on stage. The letter states, among other accusations, that Ned is “on a colossal ego trip”, that he manipulates fear in his “‘merchandising’ of the epidemic” in ways that are barbaric, and that he exploits the deaths of gay men in his writings (111-112). It continues, “We are more angry at you than ever in our lives toward anyone. …We beg that you leave us quietly and not destroy us and what good work we manage despite your disapproval” (112).
A Normal Heart is intensely autobiographical. The character of Ned Weeks is based on Larry Kramer himself, and as audiences left the theatre of the play’s Broadway revival in 2011, they were given a letter written by Kramer, identifying by name the real-life people upon which he based the characters of the other Board members in the play’s AIDS organization. “Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened”, the letter to theatre goers explains. “These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could” (122). As happens to Ned in the play, Kramer was removed from his position on the Board of Directors of the AIDS organization he founded in his apartment in 1981, Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Even upon his death quite recently, Kramer remains a controversial figure among the LGBTQ+ population.
Was the Board members’ ultimate characterization of Ned’s motivations in The Normal Heart fair? Did Kramer deserve the critiques of his approach to activism? One way of evaluating the effectiveness of Ned’s bold approach to provoking social change is to recognize all that he helped to accomplish in bringing needed attention to the AIDS epidemic. References to his successes are scattered throughout the play.
In Scene 6, Ned tells his brother that when he made a speech appealing for volunteers for the organization, over 100 people signed up. In Scene 7, he tells his lover, “I’m organizing this really well. I know I am. We have over six hundred volunteers now. I’ve got us mentioned in Time, Newsweek, the evening news on all three networks, both local and national, English and French and Canadian and Australian TV, all the New York area papers except the Times and the Voice …” (68).
In Scene 13, the mayor agrees to meet with two Board members and eight other representatives about AIDS precisely because the picketing Ned organized against the mayor was televised, and a letter was sent to the mayor threatening that if he didn’t contact the AIDS organization by the end of the day, the civil disobedience would escalate to include major traffic disruptions. All of these successes in bringing needed attention to AIDS take place off stage and are merely referenced in the characters’ dialogue, whereas the criticisms launched at Ned are featured prominently on stage, quite the opposite of the staging decisions one would expect from a playwright whose activism is motivated by egomania.
Perhaps the clearest indication of Ned’s motives, and Kramer’s as well, is the references in The Normal Heart to other pandemics. Dr. Emma Brookner, the physician, uses a wheelchair because she had polio as a child, which is true of the person this character is based on as well, Dr. Linda Laubenstein of New York University Medical Center. Kramer notes in the letter he wrote to give audience members upon their departure from the 2011 Broadway revival of the play that Dr. Laubenstein “died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung” (122).
In Scene 11, one of the Board members speculating about the origin of AIDS asks, “What if it’s something out of the blue? The Great Plague of London was caused by polluted drinking water from a pump nobody noticed” (99). Kramer was unique in referring to AIDS as a plague. In his letter to the 2011 Broadway revival, he writes, “Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague. Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or dealt with it as a plague” (123). Kramer has been screaming this message for decades. In an impromptu speech Kramer gave at an AIDS conference in 1991, he yelled, “Plague! We are in the middle of a fucking plague!”
But the comparison Kramer makes most often between AIDS and other historic annihilations is his comparison of AIDS to the Holocaust. As a Jew himself, the parallels he sees between the two tragedies are not solely the multitude of deaths of a minority population, but also the culpability of those who did not do enough to stop the deaths of their brethren. In the notes for the 1985 production of The Normal Heart, when describing what was painted on the walls of the set, Kramer writes that an entire wall was reserved for a lengthy quote from a 1984 scholarly text prepared by the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust. The quote faults the American Jewish Committee for choosing and remaining committed to a lengthy, diplomatic strategy to assist European Jews at great risk of death, rather than “pressuring the government into initiating rescue by using embarrassing public attention and rallying public opinion to that end” (17).
In Scene 4 of the play, Ned discusses the Holocaust with his soon-to-be-lover Felix on their first date. “What causes silence like that? Why didn’t the American Jews help the German Jews out? Their very own people!” Four years after writing The Normal Heart, Kramer published a book about his own AIDS activism, titling it Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (1989). Having studied the failings of American Jews to save the lives of Jews exterminated in Europe during the Holocaust, Kramer adamantly refused with every fiber of his being to remain polite as scores of gay men died from AIDS.
The lessons of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart are as pertinent now, while the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic and an indifferent presidential administration, at best, as they were during the early years of the AIDS crisis in the United States. The play begins with a doctor telling a soon-to-be activist that “Health is a political issue” (29), while later in Scene 11 that now-activist tells his fellow community organizers, “This is not a civil-rights issue, this is a contagion issue” (98). But when national leadership isn’t addressing a pandemic as it should, Kramer, as playwright and activist, ascribes to Dr. Emma Brookner the only viable response: “Everyone’s entitled to good medical care. If you’re not getting it, you’ve got to fight for it” (29).
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