Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
In the early 1980s, HIV/AIDS was not well understood. Its causes, symptoms, means of transmission, means of prevention, and treatment options were all enigmas. The dominant climate surrounding the AIDS crisis was one of fear, and for many, even speaking of the subject was taboo. But countless people were dying—in...
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In the early 1980s, HIV/AIDS was not well understood. Its causes, symptoms, means of transmission, means of prevention, and treatment options were all enigmas. The dominant climate surrounding the AIDS crisis was one of fear, and for many, even speaking of the subject was taboo. But countless people were dying—in New York alone, thousands. This play by Larry Kramer, first performed in 1985, showcases one man’s story to call attention to a multitude of problems and a lack of solutions.
Kramer’s own, sometimes frustrating experiences an activist partly inspired him to write the play. Kramer also saw that the play could allow him to reach a wider audience, including people who believed themselves unaffected because they were not gay. By spotlighting an individual love story, Kramer also could make the issues more relatable, as compared to a set of statistics.
The play takes a bold stance in several regards. Ned Weeks, the main character, can be seen as an anti-hero. Although his cause is clearly worthy and the solutions he promotes would have a positive effect, his personality is off-putting to many people he meets (and possibly to the audience as well). The fact of Ned’s anger, however, is part of the play’s message. Politeness and diplomacy, Kramer indicates, had not achieved the needed results. In this respect, with Ned often seeming the lone voice crying in a wilderness of misunderstanding, the play owes a debt to Henrik Ibsen’s classic whistleblower play An Enemy of the People.
During the early 1980s, evidence increased that AIDS was transmitted by sexual intercourse. At first, the information was anecdotal, as it was primarily gay men who realized that their sexual partners were becoming infected. The place of AIDS as an almost always fatal disease within the larger complex of HIV-related illness was not yet known. Kramer’s play was among the first works of art to discuss sex as related to this disease. In that day, once the role of sexual transmission was established, abstinence was often promoted as a means of prevention. The Normal Heart takes that position, which has become one of its more controversial aspects. It can be seen as placing blame onto those affected and promoting a stereotype of gay promiscuity, thus deflecting attention from medical and government agencies’ responsibility to find solutions and a cure.
The Normal Heart was a milestone both for urging AIDS research and policy action and for presenting a gay protagonist and a love story between two gay men. In many respects, it paved the way for more expansive dramatic treatments, notably Angels in America, and is credited to increasing public attention to the AIDS crisis outside the arts.