Larry Kramer holds a singular place in LGBTQ history — he’s remembered equally for both his art and activism and the two are inextricably linked. Today we focus on the former and revisit what Hollywood and Washington and New York theater people have to say about the gay iconoclast who died May 27 at 84 of pneumonia in Manhattan.
Looming over his canon is, of course, his autobiographical 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” which depicts the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York from 1981-1984 through the eyes of writer/activist Ned Weeks, the gay founder of an advocacy group. It ran Off-Broadway in the ‘80s, but was revived on Broadway in 2011. Ryan Murphy directed a star-studded 2014 TV adaptation that aired on HBO.
Gay playwright Tony Kushner wrote in the May 30 New York Times that Kramer, a Washington native who left when he went to Yale at age 18, wanted to be known as an artist.
“Sometimes he’d say that nothing mattered more to him than being respected as an artist,” Kushner, who had an off-and-on friendship with Kramer, wrote. “I believe that he was an extraordinary writer and I also believe that he sacrificed for the sake of his unceasing activism some of what he might have accomplished artistically.”
Kushner also acknowledges “deep indebtedness” to Kramer “as a writer.”
“I was indebted to him as a gay man and as a citizen. As a person who tries to stay politically engaged, I was in awe of him,” Kushner writes.
Other artists who commented on Kramer include:
• Elton John who called Kramer’s passing the “saddest news.” “We have lost a giant of a man who stood up for gay rights like a warrior,” he tweeted and shared on Instagram. “His anger was needed at a time when gay men’s deaths to AIDS were being ignored by the American government … a tragedy that made the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP movements so vital. He never stopped shouting about the injustices against us. His voice was the loudest and the most effective.”
• “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda said he doesn’t “know a soul who saw or read ‘The Normal Heart’ and came away unmoved, unchanged. … What an extraordinary writer, what a life.”
• Chelsea Clinton tweeted that reading “The Normal Heart” “as a kid changed my life and I was completely overwhelmed when I first met its author during its 2011 Broadway run.”
• Actor Mark Ruffalo, who starred in the TV adaptation, tweeted, “Rest in power, king!”
• Julia Roberts, also in “The Normal Heart,” called Kramer “ferocious and tireless in his beliefs,” in a statement to Variety. “A true hero that so many people owe their lives to today. I was honored to spend time in his orbit.”
• Andy Cohen, who’s gay, tweeted “God bless you, Larry Kramer. Everyone in the LGBTQ community owes you a debt of gratitude.”
• Out actor Zachary Quinto tweeted that “every single out and proud gay man stands on the shoulders of Larry Kramer for his tireless advocacy, his searing intellect, his lifelong commitment to equality and his singular impact on the fight against HIV/AIDS. We would literally not be where we are without him and now without him we must carry on. His work is far from over … now it is all of our work. May he rest in peace.”
• Lesbian actress/comedian Rosie O’Donnell tweeted that he was “invincible” and that his death is “heartbreaking.”
• Out columnist/activist Dan Savage tweeted that Kramer “valued every gay life at a time when so many gay men had been rendered incapable of caluaing our own lives. He ordered us to love ourselves and each other and to fight for our lives. He was a hero.”
• Local gay author/newspaper editor (The Falls Church News Press) Nicholas Benton wrote in an op-ed that Kramer, with whom he was friends, was “a charming, funny and highly intellectual person who never stopped cautioning his fellow gay men about the risks and dangers of unprotected and uncautious sex, not because he was a prude or a hater, but because he was a passionate lover of his fellow human beings.”
• Actress Ellen Barkin, who won a Tony for her work in the 2011 Broadway production of “The Normal Heart,” tweeted that Kramer “changed me in the same way he changed the world with love, compassion and an indomitable spirit. He taught me the meaning of the word resist and how one person can change the world. I will keep fighting Larry, just like you taught us. SILENCE=DEATH.”
• Out actor Anthony Rapp tweeted that he met Kramer as a teen during a reading of his play “The Destiny of Me.” “Getting to converse with him and soak up some of his incredible energy was galvanizing and was one of the main reasons I then chose to live my life as a publicly out actor at a time when few did.”
• Trans writer/TV host Janet Mock tweeted, “Rest in power to an icon and true fighter until the very end. We thank you, Larry Kramer.”
• Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith called Kramer “a firebrand” and said “his loss is deeply felt and oh we need more Larry Kramers in our world right now,” in a comment to the Blade.
“When Arena produced ‘The Normal Heart’ in 2012, decades after it first played and made its impact, Larry had lost none of his fire. He was handing out pamphlets to people on the sidewalk. He was unstoppable. Sometimes that ruffled more than a few feathers, but he was determined to get his point across.”
Smith also said, “He changed the world and is proof of the incredible impact one person can make through their work and action.”
• Actor Matt Bomer who starred in the TV adaptation of “The Normal Heart” wrote on Instagram that Kramer’s writing was “bold, courageous and urgent. It educated, stirred people to action and saved lives.” He also called Kramer “a towering intellect and an amazing wit. My time with you is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
• Out screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tweeted that, “Larry Kramer’s rage helped lift us out of invisibility. It was an honor to know him. Today our movement has lost one of its greatest fighters.”
• Actress Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted that, “He was a warrior when there was nothing but fear. We all owe him a debt.”
Kramer, who lived with AIDS for more than 30 years, kept sharing his message throughout his life. In a letter he handed out himself to patrons attending the Broadway production and included in the press packet for the 2012 Arena Stage production, Kramer shared the following:
“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.”
A Blade review of the 2012 Arena Stage production of “The Normal Heart” said the play was “aging well, breathtakingly so,” long-time Blade theater critic Patrick Folliard wrote. He called Arena’s production “powerfully searing” and praised the “terrific cast.”
Joey DiGuglielmo is the Washington Blade’s features editor. He interviewed Larry Kramer at length in 2015 in a piece titled “Larry Kramer’s magnum opus.”