The bitter irony of the death last week of playwright and activist Larry Kramer as a pandemic rages, most particularly in his city of New York, eluded no one who was around at the point he became famous.
That was spring 1985, some 20 months before UK health minister Norman Fowler persuaded the less-than-enthusiastic prime minister Margaret Thatcher to back a now-notorious government health campaign.
It was led by a legendarily scary TV ad campaign – directed by Nicolas ‘Don’t Look Now’ Roeg and voiced by John Hurt at his most gravelly – in which an erupting volcano and a looming, doom-laden iceberg warned everyone in the UK about what was then called the approaching AIDS epidemic.
Meanwhile, back in November 1985 and having just arrived in Manhattan, I was having dinner with my ex and a couple of his friends and was keen to know about what was happening vis-a-vis this disease I’d been anxiously hearing about.
“Tell me,” I asked, “about AIDS in this city.” “Put it this way,” replied his pal Judy. “I’ve not been to dinner in the last six months when the subject hasn’t come up in the first 20 minutes.”
Which is one reason why my friend Ellen and I found ourselves at the Public Theater a week later at a matinee of the much-talked about play that fiercely questioned the politics of the city, its healthcare and its people as (predominantly) gay men were dying by the score.
My first impression was instant disappointment since a programme slip informed us that Brad Davis, star of Midnight Express and Fassbinder’s cult gay film Querelle, was no longer playing the central role of firebrand Ned Weeks, Larry Kramer’s alter ego.
The play was quite literally transfixing – I sat there stunned, tears pouring down my cheeks, unable to leave
But the play itself was quite literally transfixing. After the passion-filled fireworks of its life-and-death debates and intensely emotional closing scenes, Ellen and I simply sat there, stunned, tears pouring down our cheeks, unable to leave. I remember the rest of the auditorium slowly emptying around us before we made our way shakily into the inappropriately sunny winter afternoon. The play, of course, was Kramer’s The Normal Heart.
The surprise for me was that much of the impact was not because the groundbreaking play spoke specifically to me as a gay man. I’d already seen, among others, Martin Sherman’s gay classic Bent and had only just finished a UK tour of Noël Greig’s Poppies with the UK’s national lesbian and gay theatre company Gay Sweatshop, so gay material was not new to me. And Ellen, a straight woman, shared my response, so the play’s power certainly cannot have resided in, to use a term I loathe, preaching to the converted.
It was about timing. And you didn’t have to be a theatre expert to spot it. In the New York Daily News, Liz Smith, undisputed queen of gossip columnists, declared it: “An astounding drama… a damning indictment of a nation in the middle of an epidemic with its head in the sand.”
An intensely personal piece of polemic springing from Kramer’s own scalding experience as a founder and ex-member of New York’s groundbreaking lobbying organisation Gay Men’s Health Crisis, it was a history play but one, vitally, about the slap-bang here and now. People were dying and, to manhandle Arthur Miller, attention was not being paid.
The Normal Heart was a history play but one, vitally, about the slap-bang here and now
Kramer’s writing career had courted controversy ever since his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Ken Russell’s partially successful, wholly arresting Women in Love in 1969 with its still-surprisingly extensive scenes of male (Alan Bates and Oliver Reed) and female (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) full-frontal nudity.
And he’d written Faggots, a much-argued-over, pre-AIDS novel satirising what he saw as the wholesale irresponsibility of loveless gay men pursuing multiple partners and using drugs to dangerous excess.
Yet by the time the play arrived at London’s Royal Court in April 1986, the controversy was dampened. Gay visibility, power and infection levels in London at that point were nowhere near those in New York. More crucially, the idea of ‘safe sex’ had arrived and swiftly taken hold, rendering the central argument about gay men’s behaviour out of date.
The play still spoke to many, but the run and curtailed transfer underlined the sad notion that nothing dates so fast as the recent past.
It wasn’t until the 2011 Broadway revival that the history angle moved back into sharp focus: no longer an indictment of what was happening, it was a thrillingly caustic broadside about what had happened.
Kramer’s dedication to polemic makes it a stronger piece of theatre than it is a finessed piece of writing, but its priceless anger makes it a wholly fitting epitaph.