As parallels are drawn between the coronavirus pandemic and the AIDS crisis, it feels particularly pertinent to return to the work of renowned American writer, Larry Kramer, whose play, The Normal Heart, was the first to explore the epidemic’s trauma in the 80s. Here, John Livesey writes about a queer legacy that should never be forgotten.
In March of this year, the American writer and activist, Larry Kramer told interviewers he had started work on a play about the Coronavirus pandemic. Two months later he died, lost to the disease he was attempting to chronicle. Kramer’s plays and novels are famously outspoken, featuring bold portrayals of queer life and activism. From his first novel Faggots to his last pulitzer-prize nominated play The Destiny of Me, he leaves behind a culturally significant body of work and a legacy that should inspire hope in queer artists across America.
Inevitably, Kramer’s death has been followed by a renewed interest in his work. Such returns are to be expected after the death of any author. Rarely however, does a post-mortem revisiting reveal historical resonances so apt and so uncanny. Any contemporary reader picking up Kramer’s most famous play The Normal Heart is sure to be impressed by its relevance. In the current moment particularly, this work warrants our attention.
The Normal Heart was one of the first plays to explore the trauma of the AIDS epidemic. Originally scheduled for a short off-Broadway run in 1985, it was an unexpected success and ran for a total of 294 performances. It would go on to premiere at The Royal Court in London just a year after its New York debut.
Kramer’s play depicts the horror of the gay community as they observe the spread of the AIDS virus and the decisive inaction of both state and federal government. We see writer-turned-activist, Ned Weeks struggle to make his voice heard in the face of mounting diagnoses. He clashes with moderate friends and wars with his homophobic brother, grasping for ever more radical forms of activism. His faith in the political system is slowly derailed, and his personal life devastated. The play is a parable of community and connection, love and loss, hope and grief. It is also a damning account of the ease with which the LGBTQ+ community was abandoned to the virus.
In the last few months, multiple parallels have been drawn between the AIDS crisis and the Coronavirus pandemic. Whilst many queer writers have noted the limits of this comparison, it’s certain that Kramer’s work makes for particularly informative reading during the quarantine. We cannot truly appreciate art outside of our own context and in many ways the current moment only serves to heighten the truths contained within The Normal Heart.
For instance, we feel acutely sympathetic with Ned’s fury against the misinformation, hypocrisy and outright denial of the Government. President Reagan and New York City Mayor Ed Koch both infamously dismissed the AIDS crisis. Reading the play today, they serve as disturbing foils to the man currently running the White House, as well as the countless other leaders who have failed to take Covid-19 seriously.
Likewise, Kramer’s ideas about human connection resonate particularly well in 2020. He shows that underpinning much of Ned’s anger is a simple yearning for love and belonging. As the play makes clear, these things are of particular importance during a crisis. The warmth of an embrace is a healing force; the capacity for love is a human right. In a world kept inside for the last three months, our bodies divorced from community and partnership, we know this to be true. Kramer’s point is self-evident.
The playwright’s belief in art as activism is also an important legacy. The script is polemical in the most profound sense, integrating shocking anecdotes, statistics and historical details within the dialogue and Kramer uses the presence of an audience for multiple ends. The Normal Heart is not just a play, it is also a history lesson, a how-to guide to advocacy, a Public Service Announcement, an invigorating call to arms.
Kramer himself was not only a writer but a campaigner. He co-founded ACT UP – an international grassroots organisation established to fight the AIDS pandemic. ACT UP changed the face of political activism forever and many of its tactics are currently in evidence on city-streets across North America. ‘Silence = Death’ was the slogan the campaign remains best known for. And the directive to speak out is still prescient, as has been made clear by the last month of protests.
Of course, Kramer should not be free of political scrutiny. He might be fairly criticised for the absence of black, trans or latinx characters in his plays – all communities who were and still are disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic. However, he was also an important advocate for the artist’s responsibility to speak truth to power. We should be galvanised by the radicalism of his work. If theatres and theatre-makers were to follow Kramer’s lead we would see a more inclusive, active and outspoken industry. In a Kramer-shaped industry, words would be reinforced with action and plays as bold as The Normal Heart would be commissioned without fear.
Whilst the openly-gay American playwright may have never finished his COVID-19 drama, The Normal Heart eerily channels the emotional and political experience of the current moment. Kramer’s writing expresses what many of us have felt watching governments across the world fumbling to keep a hold of this public health crisis: fury and fear, yes, but also grief, loneliness and a craving for connection. The swiftly dissolving borders between the person/political are as present in Kramer’s text as in our real lives. There could be no better time to return to it.