It is just about the only way you can understand Kramer on his own terms.
Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. – Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer, the man who started ACT UP and New York’s first AIDS-related social service agency, is dead. After spending his lifetime trying to ensure that queer people would survive a deadly pandemic, he died during another one.
I am trying to understand what has happened – and I am failing.
The New York Times wrote an article about Kramer’s death. You can read it, if you want. It has been controversial, because when it was first published, it called Kramer’s tactic’s “abusive.” That was quickly changed to “confrontational,” after outcry from people who valued the way that Kramer told the truth: loudly, angrily, and unrelentingly.
Larry Kramer was, indeed, the sort of guy who would shout “plague” during a public meeting. He was a bane to his enemies, and sometimes to his friends. His is a life that invites us to think deeply about anger: what is its power and what is its cost?
You can get that from the article in the New York Times, more or less, but Larry Kramer was a writer and a playwright. I want you to watch his work.
Larry Kramer wrote a lot, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic, which makes his work hard to get. His first major work was a novel called Faggots, which pissed off a lot of queer men. He followed that up with countless speeches and articles about AIDS, which pissed off other people. I haven’t been able to get copies of those books yet. That’s okay, though, because Larry Kramer wrote a play called The Normal Heart and you can watch it on HBO right now.
I wrote it to make people cry: AIDS is the saddest thing I’ll ever have to know. I also wrote it to be a love story, in honor of a man I loved who died. I wanted people to see on a stage two men who loved each other. I wanted people to see them kiss. I wanted people to see that gay men in love and gay men suffering and gay men dying are just like everyone else.
The Normal Heart is a re-telling of Kramer’s fight against AIDS. Like all of Kramer’s work, including his rants, it is romantic. It’s also a remarkably fair portrayal of Kramer himself – the yelling, the pissing other people off, the love, the mistakes and the successes.
Kramer won a Tony for The Normal Heart and in 2014 he worked with Ryan Murphy to create an movie adaptation. I will be blunt: I don’t know what to think of it. It’s heavy-handed, but so is the AIDS epidemic itself. What I know is that The Normal Heart is honest and it’s just about the only way you can understand Kramer on his own terms right now.
When Kramer first mounted The Normal Heart, he wrote this in the press materials that accompanied its opening:
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 acknowledged it as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.
Please know that there is no cure.
Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still minuscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated.
Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the world, like Russia and India and Southeast Asia and in Africa, the numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high that they are rarely acknowledged.
Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure.
Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?
Please know that every single president beginning with Ronald Reagan (who would not say the word “AIDS” publicly for seven years) said nothing and did nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn’t do them.
Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.
Please know that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What “research” they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, god forbid, cured.
Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.
Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have attended tonight begins, there were 41. I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents and continues to say about us all.
Please know that this is a plague that need not have happened.
Please know that this is a plague that has been allowed to happen.
It reads like a poem. Larry Kramer’s anger was poetry.
The play doesn’t seem to make people into fighters. I want them to go out there and throw bombs. It doesn’t make people want to stop the wrong; it seems to make them want to manage the wrong. I’m not sure that’s healthy. That’s what the Jews did to help the Germans in World War II. But people don’t like to make waves. That’s why they drown.
Larry Kramer was writing a play about coronavirus when he died. I would give anything to read it. I’d give anything to know what Larry Kramer thought we should do in this moment, when our president is mishandling this crisis in every possible way, when his party won’t stand up to him, when we were asked to risk our lives to vote in the primary and we worry we will not be able to vote at all in the fall, when the infection rate is disproportionately high among Black people and they are still being murdered by police, as well. What would Larry say? What would he have us do?
Watch his work to find out. It’s the only way you can understand him.