“What mad Nijinsky wrote/About Diaghilev/Is true of the normal heart/… We must love one another or die,” queer poet W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “September 1, 1939.”
These words burned with a lacerating irony when playwright and gay activist Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart,” whose title came from Auden’s poem, opened at the Public Theater in New York in 1985. Auden’s words retain their force today where “The Normal Heart,” which has received five Tony nominations, is playing on Broadway at the Golden Theater through July 10.
Four years into the AIDS epidemic when “The Normal Heart” premiered, gay men who had only recently achieved the freedom to have sex or relationships whenever or with whomever they desired, were dying. If they didn’t love one another enough to fight the transmission of and battle for a cure for AIDS, the plague would kill them.
It’s almost impossible to convey the hysteria, fear, anger, silence and ignorance then surrounding AIDS. A colleague where I worked, a nice woman, thought that you could get AIDS by using a phone that someone with HIV had used. One of my friends, originally from Arkansas, cried for his mother to visit him, as he lay dying from AIDS in a New York hospital. His mother, believing that God was punishing him for being gay, refused to visit him.
Ronald Reagan couldn’t bring himself to utter the word AIDS. Much of the mainstream media (and even some gay publications) didn’t cover AIDS, and coverage of people with HIV was often sensationalized. Scientists who wanted funding for AIDS research couldn’t get it. Politicians in New York and other cities ignored AIDS, and though Gay Men’s Health Crisis was founded in 1981, the silence enveloping AIDS extended to sectors in the queer community.
Twenty-six years ago when it premiered, “The Normal Heart” was figuratively a lifeline – a voice — for people with AIDS and their allies. Largely autobiographical (and drawing from real people and organizations of the time), the play is the story of Ned Weeks (an alter ego for Kramer) and his life during the AIDS crisis from 1981 to 1984. Using vivid, conversational language, “The Normal Heart” shows Weeks falling in love with Felix, a (fictional) closeted “New York Times” reporter, working to start an AIDS advocacy group, and fighting with friends and colleagues over what strategies to use (“insider,” conventional behind-the-scenes lobbying or in-your-face confrontations) to make the queer community, medical establishment, government and the media pay attention to AIDS.
Seeing “The Normal Heart” at the Public Theater then was a shot of (emotional) adrenalin. At a time when few works of art or theater (other than William M. Hoffman’s play “As Is”) portrayed people with AIDS, Kramer through his art vented our outrage and frustration. The play did more than voice anger. “The Normal Heart” grabbed you by the lapels and demanded that you do something about AIDS. My (late) gay male friend Jonathon, who had HIV, said to me, “Finally, somebody’s cutting through the bullshit!”
Often, plays addressing social issues are viewed as being overly “political” — too polemical — until a work like “The Normal Heart” comes along that knocks the wind out of such assumptions.
“Kramer … wrote a play that had an effect,” playwright Tony Kushner wrote in a forward to “The Normal Heart,” published by the Grove Press, “… to catalyze his society, which we all know theater can’t do anymore, except on the rare occasions when it does.”
Today, “The Normal Heart” is still relevant. As Kramer writes in a letter given to people when they leave the Golden Theater, “there is no cure … most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and … government funding for the poor to obtain them is often unavailable.”
“The Normal Heart” truly deserves the Tony nod.