Last Updated November 3, 2023.
On June 5th, 1981, health officials reported the first case of what would eventually be known as the AIDS epidemic. Over the course of the year, one death spiraled into hundreds; by the next, the casualties numbered thousands, as gay men across the country succumbed to a violent, intrusive, and previously unknown disease. The disease, now recognized as AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), attacked the immune system, removing sufferers' abilities to protect themselves from something as simple as the flu. As time passed, it became apparent that the disease did not affect gay men alone. However, the stigma of “the gay disease” prevented crucial government action until 1985, when President Reagan, after four years of cruel, homophobic jokes and intentional ignorance, finally acknowledged the AIDS epidemic.
In 1985, Larry Kramer, an activist who founded (and, due to his radical politics and abrasive manner, was later expelled from) the Gay Men’s Health Clinic in 1981, published The Normal Heart. The two-act play spans the years of 1981 to 1984, as Kramer tells the story of the public condescension and governmental intransigence that grassroots organizers faced while attempting to bring awareness of and promote funding for the rapidly-exacerbating AIDS crisis.
The play begins in 1981 in the sparsely-furnished office of Dr. Emma Brookner, a wheelchair user, polio survivor, and no-nonsense New York City doctor. Craig, Mickey, and Ned sit in the waiting room and anxiously discuss the strange disease suddenly affecting gay men, which Craig believes he has contracted. Craig’s suspicions prove correct, and he dies within the week. This first, unexpected death establishes the urgency of the play, allowing Kramer to focus on his protagonist, Ned, as he meets with a New York Times journalist, Felix. Ned begs Felix, himself/ a gay man, to write about the deaths occurring in the city, but he refuses. The encounter ends with a romantic proposition.
The following scenes detail Ned’s attempts to leverage other connections. He asks for help from his brother, Ben, a prominent lawyer who co-founded his firm, and attempts to coerce Felix into writing an article when they meet up for a date. His efforts prove pointless, although Ned does find several allies with whom he moves to found an activist organization. Bruce, Craig’s lover, is elected president; he and Ned rarely see eye to eye, arguing over whether or not the organization should act with diplomacy or aggression. Their fights focus on major issues of self-definition in the gay community during the 1980s. Ned advocates for abstinence on the advice of Emma, with whom he has formed a close professional relationship. Bruce, who views the sexual liberation of gay men as the ultimate victory wrought by the queer advocacy of the 1960s and 1970s, disagrees wholeheartedly.
As time passes, their fights intensify. Loved ones die, and numbers grow, yet nothing is done. The organization struggles to contact New York City officials, facing closed doors and busy phone lines at every turn. Emma, like many other doctors, fails to receive research funding, and Ned’s rage at his unfair circumstances leads to his expulsion from the group he founded. Throughout, Ned’s relationship with Felix blossoms; to Ned’s surprise, the pair grow close, moving in together and beginning to build the life he thought impossible.
At the end of the first act, Felix reveals a purple lump on his foot: a classic early symptom of AIDS. The second act follows Ned’s struggle to cope with his partner’s rapidly-worsening illness and continue to advocate for AIDS education and funding. While the first act is a story of frustration and romance, the second is a...
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familiar tale of illness and love. Ned stands by Felix through depressive episodes, chemotherapy sessions, and the awful physical symptoms accompanying the disease. A discussion with his brother summarizes the message of the second act; when Ned tells Ben of Felix’s illness, his brother’s reaction jars him. Despite regularly espousing his love for Ned, Ben feels that homosexuality is abnormal and does not view homosexual love as the same as heterosexual love. This conversation crystallizes the deep-seated prejudice toward homosexuality that has pervaded Ned’s years-long effort to advocate for the AIDS crisis. Ben’s rejection stuns Ned, and the two do not speak for nearly two years.
With Emma’s help, Felix receives the best end-of-life care possible in the early years of the epidemic, but ultimately, he succumbs to his illness in 1984. Before his death, Felix meets with Ben, asking him to help him draft a will and leave his possessions to Ned. Touched by this encounter, Ben reconciles with his brother. Shortly after, Felix worsens. Lying in a hospital bed, Ned and Felix are married, with Emma officiating and Ben acting as a witness. Felix passes on, leaving Ned alone with his brother; Ned blames himself for Felix’s death, feeling as if he could have done more, while Ben apologizes, finally seeing the truth of Ned’s words two years prior.
Although the play begins as a tale of activism and anger, it ends as a human story of romance and grief. Felix’s tragic, untimely death and Ned’s sorrow provide a central locus for the experiences of thousands of gay men in the 1980s, forced to live in constant fear that they or a loved one might succumb unexpectedly. The couple’s struggle to cope with adversity, their loyalty through illness, and their deep, abiding love indicate the legitimacy of homosexual love. In short, Kramer advocates not only for public and governmental support during the epidemic but also for genuine acceptance and equality for gay men living and loving each other in the US.