In the face of such prejudice, one artwork fired back above all others: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. The play, which premiered off-Broadway in May 1985, viscerally chronicles the earliest struggles faced by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first Aids support clinic in the US, co-founded by Kramer in New York in 1982. Having begun his career as a Hollywood screenwriter before moving into writing for the stage, Kramer, who died in May aged 84, had never conceived of himself as a gay activist – in fact his 1978 novel, Faggots, a scathing critique of the then norms of queer promiscuity, had made him persona non grata in New York’s gay community in the early 1980s. But the world needed a call-to-action, Kramer believed – and he could provide it.
A portrait of a warzone
In his foreword for a 2000 collection of two of Kramer’s plays, The Normal Heart and 1992’s The Destiny of Me, the Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner writes: “Here are two plays that, taken together, offer a persuasive account of a critical, terrible era when an emergent community, laboring to set itself free from centuries of persecution and oppression, was blindsided just at the moment of a political and cultural attainment of some of its most important goals by a biological horror miserably allied to the world’s murderous indifference, its masked and its naked hatred.”
It’s powerful commentary from the writer of what is largely considered to be the other pinnacle of the now canonised literary works of the Aids crisis – for to read Kushner’s analysis is to understand, fully enough, not only the legacy of The Normal Heart but its searing intent. It was politics-as-art born in the scalding hot embers of a brewing crisis that would go on to claim the lives of 700,000 Americans, predominantly of queer and black communities, and has, to date, killed 33 million people globally. Kramer wrote The Normal Heart to “catalyse his society”, as Kushner continues, “which we all know theatre can’t do anymore, except on the rare occasions when it does, as when Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart.”