Larry Kramer 1935-
Kramer is best known for his controversial 1985 drama, The Normal Heart, which garnered acclaim for its realistic, socially conscious approach to the subject of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The play is fueled by the anger of the protagonist, Ned Weeks, toward the media and public officials who are seemingly ignoring the importance of informing the American public about the AIDS epidemic. The Destiny of Me, Kramer's acclaimed 1992 sequel to The Normal Heart, continues the story of Weeks, who is now HIV positive and undergoing experimental treatment.
Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of George L. Kramer, an attorney, and Rea Wishengrad Kramer, a social worker. Kramer earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University in 1957 and then served in the army for a year. In 1958 he obtained a position with the William Morris Agency but soon moved on to Columbia Pictures. He worked in the film industry for the next decade, at Columbia and United Artists. He was the associate producer of the 1967 movie Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and produced Women in Love in 1969. Kramer wrote the screenplay for the latter film, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Kramer's first commercially staged play, Four Friends, open and closed on the same night in 1974. Five years later his novel Faggots appeared to mixed reviews; it was often attacked in the gay community for its satirical depiction of gay promiscuity. In 1981 Kramer co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in response to the burgeoning AIDS crisis, but his tenure with the group was marked by continual conflict with the other members, and he was forced out in 1983. His controversial and polemical play, The Normal Heart was staged in 1985. Two years later Kramer founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which was committed to ending the AIDS crisis. Kramer himself tested positive for HIV in 1988. His many essays about the AIDS epidemic were published in numerous periodicals before being collected in Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989, the same year his play Just Say No was staged. This work received poor reviews, but The Destiny of Me met with a favorable response and was nominated for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize. Kramer continues his involvement with writing and political activism.
Kramer's best-known work is The Normal Heart. the author's experiences as founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis inform his approach to the play, which tells the story of Ned Weeks, a character based on Kramer himself, who establishes an AIDS organization, experiences conflicts with the other members, and is eventually kicked out. The play is propelled by Weeks's anger toward the media, such as the New York Times, and public officials, including President Ronald Regan and New York City Mayor Ed Koch, for their apparent indifference to the AIDS epidemic. Often contrasted to William M. Hoffman's play As Is, which stresses the personal and emotional effects of AIDS, The Normal Heart instead emphasizes politics and rhetoric. In The Destiny of Me, Kramer's sequel to The Normal Heart, Weeks himself has tested HIV positive and pursues experimental treatment. This plot is interwoven with flashbacks of Weeks's childhood and adolescence, revealing his struggles in coming to terms with his homosexuality.
Most reviewers of The Normal Heart expressed reservations about the play's strident, polemical tone; many, however, felt that it overcame its "aesthetic weaknesses," in Gerald Weales's words, with its passion and its sense of outrage. Frank Rich, for instance, observed: "Some of the author's specific accusations are questionable, and, needless to say, we often hear only one side of inflammatory debates. But there are also occasions when the stage seethes with the conflict of impassioned, literally life-and-death argument." Similarly, John Simon maintained that The Normal Heart transcends its political argument to become "a fleshed-out, generously dramatized struggle, in which warring ideologies do not fail to breathe, sweat, weep, bleed—be human." Critics expressed similar opinions about The Destiny of Me. In a review of the sequel, David Klinghoffer stated that "as an artist, Kramer can be crude," but he added: "The power of his conviction, though, makes up for [his] lack of artfulness." Benedict Nightingale judged The Destiny of Me to be less effective and moving than The Normal Heart, while John Simon praised the dual plot structure of the play, stating, "we get, in ingenious double exposure, a coming-of-age and a coming-of-AIDS play."
*Sissies' Scrapbook 1973
The Normal Heart 1985
Just Say No 1988
The Furniture of Home 1989
Indecent Materials 1990
The Destiny of Me 1992
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Women in Love [adaptor; from the novel by D. H. Lawrence] (screenplay) 1969
Faggots (novel) 1978
Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (nonfiction) 1989
*This work was produced in 1974 as Four Friends.
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Interview with Kramer (1986)
SOURCE: "Drama of Rage and Despair," by Sheridan Morley, in The Times, London, 25 March 1986, p. 8.
[In the following conversation between Kramer and the Times critic Sheridan Morley, the playwright discusses the genesis and development of The Normal Heart.]
Early last year two very different AIDS memoirs opened in New York, both dealing with what had already become the plague-panic of homosexual communities there and elsewhere. The one that opened on Broadway to generally more respectable and respectful reviews was William Hoffman's As Is, a 90-minute closet drama of extreme good taste which managed to pussy-foot around its awful subject so successfully that even the uptown Manhattan matrons remained unappalled.
Downtown at Joe Papp's Public Theatre, and in stark contrast, was Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, a great cry of dramatic and journalistic rage at the way the AIDS catastrophe has been handled by and in New York City. Where As Is names no names, The Normal Heart indicts Mayor Koch, President Reagan, the New York Times and sundry other public monuments for coming too little and too late to the rescue of a gay community that had already been decimated.
And intriguingly, it is The Normal Heart that seems to have captured audiences outside...
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The Normal Heart
Frank Rich (review date 22 April 1985)
SOURCE: A review of The Normal Heart, in The New York Times, 22 April 1985, Section 2, p. 5.
[The Normal Heart debuted 21 April 1985 in a production by Joe Papp at the Public Theater in New York. In the following assessment of that production, Rich observes that, despite the play's theatrical shortcomings, there are "occasions when the stage seethes with the conflict of impassioned, literally life-and-death argument. "]
The blood that's coursing through The Normal Heart, the new play by Larry Kramer at the Public Theater, is boiling hot. In this fiercely polemical drama about the private and public fallout of the AIDS epidemic, the playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage. Although Mr. Kramer's theatrical talents are not always as highly developed as his conscience, there can be little doubt that The Normal Heart is the most outspoken play around—or that it speaks up about a subject that justifies its author's unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency.
What gets Mr. Kramer mad is his conviction that neither the hetero- nor homosexual community has fully met the ever-expanding crisis posed by acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He accuses the Governmental, medical and press establishments...
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The Destiny Of Me
John Simon (review date 2 November 1992)
SOURCE: "The Best So Far," in New York Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 43, 2 November 1992, pp. 101-02.
[In the laudatory review below, Simon praises the dual focus on Ned and Alexander in The Destiny of Me. "As Ned and Alexander interact, flow into each other across the years, and separate again, " Simon states, "we get, in ingenious double exposure, a coming-of-age and a coming-of-AIDS play. "]
In The Destiny of Me, Larry Kramer written a worthy sequel to The Normal Heart, his autobiography as Ned Weeks, writer and gay activist. In this long but absorbing play, Kramer superimposes Ned's battle with AIDS at the National Institute, under a scarcely disguised doctor figure, on his own growing up as Alexander, a precious adolescent in a middle-class, Depression-and-Holocaust-era Jewish family. The heterosexual older brother, Ben, and the somewhat flighty mother, Rena, are tolerant enough of Alexander's incipient homosexuality; but the father, Richard—a Yale graduate, minor bureaucrat, and professional failure—brutalizes the boy for his addiction to musical comedy, dressing up in his mother's clothes, and "sissy" personality. As Ned and Alexander interact, flow into each other across the years, and separate again, we get, in ingenious double exposure, a coming-of-age...
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THE NORMAL HEART
Bemrose, John. "Casualties of Love." Maclean's 101, No. 12 (14 March 1988): 65.
Favorable review of the first Canadian production of The Normal Heart at the Bathurst Street Theatre in Toronto.
Clum, John M. "A Culture That Isn't Just Sexual': Dramatizing Gay Male History." Theatre Journal 41, No. 2 (May 1989): 169-89.
Places The Normal Heart in the context of plays attempting to construct a gay history.
Henry, William A. IH. "A Common Bond of Suffering." Time, Vol. 125, No. 19 (13 May 1985): 85.
Joint review of The Normal Heart and William Hoffman's As Is. Both plays, Henry observes, "portray anguish and doom in individual human terms and enable audiences of every sexual inclination to grasp a common bond of suffering and mortality."
Levin, Bernard. "Why Gays Must Not Create a Ghetto." The Times, London (28 April 1986): 12.
Takes issues with Kramer's demand in The Normal Heart for, as Levin puts it, "a recognition of a special, separate role, function and position for homosexuals in a hetero-sexual world."
"Politicized Performances: A Symposium." Text and Performance Quarterly 12, No. 4 (October 1992): 362-94.
Includes several essays discussing a production of The Normal Heart...
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