Writer and activist whose play The Normal Heart brought the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to wider attention
When Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1986, it caused a sensation. A passionate call to attention about the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it was also an angry tirade against institutional indifference to its mounting death toll.
Himself diagnosed HIV-positive the same year, Kramer’s play was the first to reveal the plight of New York’s gay community as AIDS took devastating hold in the early years of the decade, and the first to reach a broader audience.
The Stage described it as a “strikingly effective… unashamed agit-prop play”. It brought Hollywood star Martin Sheen to London’s Royal Court and earned Kramer an Olivier nomination. After transferring to London’s Albery Theatre – where Sheen was replaced by Tom Hulce in the central role of Ned – it quickly made its way around regional theatres.
Belated debuts on Broadway, directed by Joel Gray, and television followed in 2011 and 2014, by which time Kramer had already returned to the character of Ned in 1992’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Destiny of Me. Its UK premiere, starring and directed by Simon Callow, came the following year to the Leicester Haymarket Theatre.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kramer resisted his father’s pressure to marry while struggling with his own sexuality. It led, during his studies at Yale University, to an attempted suicide, the experience of which transformed his view of himself, while later experiences with the student glee club altered the direction of his career.
After serving in the US Army Reserve, he began working at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles, quickly earning a reputation for rewriting scripts. His first full-length screenplay, for Ken Russell’s Women in Love in 1969, attracted Oscar and BAFTA nominations, although its follow-up, a musical remake of Lost Horizon in 1973, was a commercial and critical flop.
Kramer wrote his first stage plays, Sissies’ Scrapbook (later reworked as Four Friends) and the unproduced A Minor Dark Age, the same year. Both introduced what became core themes of Kramer’s writing: explorations of gay experience and sexual practice in a homophobic society and the inertia of the political and social response to AIDS.
His controversial 1978 novel Faggots drew scorn from both the gay and mainstream press for its candid depiction of homosexual hedonism and sexual promiscuity but has since achieved the status of a classic of gay literature.
Kramer’s polemical stance on page and stage was matched by political activism. In 1982 he formed the Gay Men’s Health Crisis pressure group and five years later the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which upped the ante in gay advocacy with displays of civil disobedience.
Though he later split from Act Up, Kramer remained a potent presence in gay politics and profile, publishing the first volume of his novel-cum-history of gay life in the US, The American People, in 2015, and the second volume earlier this year.
Laurence David Kramer was born on June 25, 1935 and died on May 27, aged 84. He is survived by his husband, David Webster.