Larry Kramer Essay - Kramer, Larry

Kramer, Larry

Introduction

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.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

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.

MAJOR WORKS

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.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

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."

Principal Works

PLAYS

*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.

Author Commentary

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 New York: it has already had 10 regional productions in America, another half-dozen are planned abroad, Barbra Streisand has bought the movie rights (and intends not only to produce and direct but also play the doctor with hopes of Dustin Hoffman in the central role) while tonight Larry Kramer's drama opens at the Royal Court with the American film star Martin Sheen making his London stage début.

Taking its title from a poem by W. H. Auden which also includes the line "all I have is a voice to undo the folded lie", The Normal Heart is at least in part autobiographical: Kramer himself is a fiftyish screenwriter and novelist who co-founded an organization called Gay Men's Health Crisis and, like his hero, was eventually forced out of it for shouting too loudly in its political and social rage against what he still sees as a deeply anti-gay establishment in the United States. Talking to him in his book-stacked apartment high above Washington Square, I wondered how the play had started, and when?

"In July 1981 I suddenly became aware of friends getting mysteriously ill on Fire Island, a gay beach community which seems now, like Fitzgerald's French Riviera, to belong to an altogether lost world. People I knew were suddenly dying and nobody knew how or why; what's more, nobody seemed to want to find out. They were almost literally burying their heads in the sand. I guess that was when gay politics began taking up more of my time than writing."

Born in Connecticut and educated in Washington, Kramer got his first job as a story editor with Columbia Pictures and came over to London with them for the whole of the 1960s:

"My father and brother were lawyers, but from the time I went to Yale I knew I wanted to write, so I went as a messenger boy to the William Morris agency at 20 dollars a week and from there Mike Frankovich took me over to London with Columbia. I spent most of my time setting up the film of Women in Love, and when eventually the Columbia deal on that fell apart I left them and spent all my own money buying back the option and commissioning David Mercer to do the screenplay.

"What he delivered was altogether more Marxist than anything D. H. Lawrence ever considered, so at this point I had no screenplay, no director and all of my own money locked up in the option. I couldn't afford to get another writer so I then wrote the script myself, and after it had been turned down by Peter Brook and Jack Clayton and Stanley Kramer I took it to Ken Russell and the rest I guess you know."

Determined now to become a writer rather than a producer, Larry Kramer returned to New York in the early 1970s and wrote six or seven other screenplays that somehow never got in front of the cameras, as well as a best-selling gay novel called Faggots. It was at this point that he first became conscious of the deaths on Fire Island:

"And here we are, almost five years on, with everything still getting worse. When my play first opened in New York the Times there ran a disclaimer under the review, denying that they had ever tried to ignore the AIDS issue, and certainly they are now doing some major reporting of it. But there is still a feeling here in America that senior politicians want the whole issue played as far down as possible. President Reagan has still not uttered the word AIDS in any public statement, and work on the vaccine is still desperately under-funded. There's a conspiracy of silence, and when we were in rehearsal they had lawyers from the New York Times and the Mayor's office checking us out for libel. They say that Koch goes green whenever my play is mentioned, and in retaliation, when it first opened and he was asked about what he thought of it, he would simply tell everyone to go see As Is instead."

What makes Kramer's play so much more dangerous than As Is is the fact that he sees AIDS as a political rather than a medical or social issue: where Arthur Miller, when he wished to attack McCarthyism in The Crucible, went back three hundred years to find an historical parallel in the witch-hunts of Salem, Kramer stays firmly in the present and indeed paints across the back walls of his set the names and numbers of those who have died. He also draws uneasy and debatable comparisons between the treatment of gays in 1980s America and that of Jews in 1930s Europe:

"I want to make people cry. It's as simple as that. AIDS is the saddest thing I shall ever have to know in my life-time, and this is a play about the need for us to stand up and be counted. It's a play about a whole community threatened by prejudice, by fear, by intolerance and by an increasing conservatism."

But, although it is in that sense a very American play, Kramer could not in fact have written it had he not found himself three summers ago at the National Theatre in London:

"I went one night to see David Hare's A Map of the World and it was only then that I realized how to write The Normal Heart. You have to remember that we have no tradition in America of contemporary political plays. Nobody ever mentions Reagan on Broadway, or the state of the nation; but here in David Hare's work I found actors on a stage actually talking about Mrs Thatcher, about the current state of government in England, and I realized how to do it.

"That doesn't mean Normal Heart has made things any better: the gay community in New York is still hopelessly divided politically, and they still can't get themselves towards any kind of coherent attitude to the outside and still hostile world. Mayor Koch meanwhile goes on as if the problem doesn't exist, and money for research is still far too slow and limited. Not that things seem any better in England: I once marched in a Gay Pride rally there and it was pathetic. About three thousand people at most, and in the rain at that. Every summer here in New York we at least manage to get a hundred and fifty thousand people on the march for gay rights.

"The Normal Heart was written out of rage and resentment and despair, both at the way the non-gay world was treating AIDS as if it didn't really affect it, and at the way gays were refusing all the militant options. And the rage and resentment and despair are still there, if anything more deeply felt now than ever."

The Farce in Just Saying No (1989)

SOURCE: "The Farce in Just Saying No," in Just Say No: A Play About a Farce, by Larry Kramer, St. Martin's Press, 1989, pp. ix-xxiv.

[In the following introduction to the published script of Just Say No, Kramer discusses the difficulty gay writers face in getting their work published or performed, the indifference or hostility of the media toward gay issues, and the current state of American theater. "The theater now is the most boring place in the world," Kramer insists.]

You've got to have rocks in your head to write a play.

You must be a masochist to work in the theater and a sadist to succeed on its stages.

And you must be retarded to believe you can support yourself.

These tenets apply to any and all playwrights. But particularly to those who have anything important to say.

Playwrights, of course, are nuts anyway. I think it's ten times harder to write a play that works than a novel, and a hundred times harder to write a play than a screenplay. Screenwriting is craft, not art (and group craft at that), and novelists have all the time and pages in the world through which to leisurely maneuver their investigations.

Playwrights have two or three acts, two and a little more hours, and about a hundred pages, to create an entire world containing a certain kind of truth, to peel away the pain within the pain within the pain and hit the jugular.

What makes a good play? Oh, there are lots of theories. A strong clothesline that keeps pulling an audience along while it unconsciously asks, and the writer quite consciously answers: "What next?" "Now what?" Tension. What goes on between the lines. The tension in relationships between characters. The tension between characters and events. The tension between the characters and their actions, and the audience. The tension between what the playwright tells you and what s/he doesn't tell you. The tension between what you are told and what you are thinking. The tension between ideas and actuality. The tension between right and wrong.

Conflict. All of drama is fights. Fights between conflicting needs, desires, ideas.

I don't think there's any playwright who sits down and consciously applies all these pretentious formulas I've just listed. Though that's what possibly comes out, we sit down and write because we simply want to say something.

That's much easier to deal with, isn't it? I want to say something. I want to tell you about my mother and father. I want to tell you about my childhood. I want to tell you this story I heard. I want to tell you about this unusual character. I want to tell you the world is awful—or wonderful—or funny—or sad. I want to tell you what I think about something. I want to tell you what it's like to be gay. (Did you want to hear that one?)

And I believe the resolution of all this must be moral. Very unfashionable, morals. Very out of season, morality.

Most of what today's critics acclaim as good plays bores me greatly. These plays are thin, trendy, banal, plain, pointless. They bear little relevance to the life I am living or have lived. I don't respond to the tensions and the conflicts and the "what next"s. I find few characters challenged—at least in the way I understand challenge. I don't leave the theater enlightened. Or angry because I've been forced to confront something I don't want to think about but should. These plays are about people I don't want to know. These characters and the world they inhabit not only bear little relation to my life or my dreams, they don't even arouse my curiosity. And I am a pretty curious guy.

And the writers of these plays rarely present a point of view or a resolution—or a moral—that isn't banal. These plays add nothing important to life and to the world. Why should I waste my time attending them?

Until recently, good plays were also about language. They weren't composed in words of one syllable. Or in dialogue so aching to be street-smart accurate (or Jewish suburban or minority ghetto—though black play writing of late often has been more interesting than white playwriting) that a heritage that includes Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Williams might never have existed. Once upon a time, heightened language reached for the same stars as big themes and noble conflicts. Until Beckett and Pinter and their bastard offspring came along and diminished what was said. Why do we now settle for so little? Beckett didn't destroy the theater of language; that was done by the critics who so slavered over his work that it became unfashionable to pursue other possibilities. That is, if you wanted a good review and desired to be included in college curricula. Critics like to be trendy, like everyone else. And God knows Americans—and particularly New Yorkers—like to be trendies.

It seems to me that the more a play is about something—an opinion, a philosophy, a specific point of view—the more the critic feels bound to attack it. The modern play, to be "artistically correct," must not take sides, ruffle feathers, churn up waters, make you think. It must also not be about "others," because that makes the trendies uncomfortable, unless it is about the poor or downtrodden, which allows trendies to condescend. It definitely must not be critical of the status quo—i.e., the trendies themselves; we are not a nation good at either criticizing or laughing at ourselves. Once upon a time, Gustave Flaubert (with Joyce, the altar trendy critics worship at in the world of Novelty, as they kiss poor Beckett's ass in the world of Play) maintained that a writer must be careful not to intrude too personally into his characters' lives, action, and thoughts. "Ne pas conclure" ("Draw no conclusions") was his motto and "You should write more coldly" was his advice. These somehow became the definitions, the highest goals, the boundaries of modern writing. Distance. Objectivity. Observation without authorial intrusion. Well, if you read Flaubert, you will find that he is just as intrusive and opinionated and selective and manipulative and emotional an author as the many great ones who preceded him. But because critics have said "Ne pas conclure" and "You should write more coldly," It Must Be So, and writers have been pulverizing their brains and their talent ever since, as, with determination, they actually extract their juices from their work. Imagine writers trying to make their writing less interesting! But that is exactly what is considered good writing today. The word and deed flattened, lest they be too orotund.

It is no different in the theater. Thirty-five years ago, Walter Kerr wrote a book, How Not to Write a Play, which pleaded (obviously to no avail) for a return to heightened and poetic theater—language and ideas and challenge. Shaw, Ibsen, Chekov, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare: remember them? They would probably be out of work if writing today. TV and tabloid critics would bemoan "wordiness" and "length" and "author's message" and "too complicated plot" or "lack of action." Meanwhile raving about plays where characters have no opinions, take no sides, give and/or lose nothing of import. Where there is no conflict, only petty obstructions. Where nothing of life and death is at stake. Where there is no drama.

Might as well stay home, thee and me. Which most audiences now do. And watch TV.

Theater should astonish, amaze, frighten, shock, purge, touch, and move. (Here I go again.) Make you angry. Make you cry. Make you laugh. Help you learn. Inspire. All of the above. That's what it used to do. That's what it started out to do. Intentionally.

Once upon a time the theater was the home of opinion and anger. (Not only drama, but tragedy, farce, and comedy can be very angry.) It was actually meant—can you believe it?—to rouse the public and create discussion and change the world. Sophocles and Shakespeare and Marlowe and Pirandello and Racine even dared to criticize rulers and kings. Aeschylus actually dared to question the gods. What's the last American play where our "rulers" were taken to task? Or a religion challenged? Congreve and Wycherly and Goldsmith and Sheridan and Marivaux and Wilde dared to satirize the ruling classes. What's the last American play you saw that dared to do that?

American theater reflects an inordinate inability to laugh at ourselves, to criticize any powers-that-be. How exceptionally boring. And polite.

Theater today is polite and boring. Compared with what's available everywhere else—movies, television, fiction, non-fiction, rock videos, magazines, street corners, Central Park, even journalism and daily newspapers—theater is terribly polite and boring. No wonder audiences stay away in droves....

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The Normal Heart

PRODUCTION REVIEWS

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...

(The entire section is 16968 words.)

The Destiny Of Me

PRODUCTION REVIEWS

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...

(The entire section is 5850 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 386 words.)