Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The first scene in The Normal Heart focuses on Craig, a young gay man. He is experiencing symptoms that indicate he has contracted the illness that is killing gay men in New York. He is rightfully anxious, speaking quickly and fearfully; Dr. Emma Brookner confirms his worst fears, diagnosing him with the as-yet-unknown illness. Craig succumbs quickly, carried back to the hospital days later by his boyfriend, Bruce Niles. His death is the first in the play, but it is not the last.
Mickey is one of Craig’s friends; he is at the hospital during his friend’s diagnosis and shares his fears. During the 1970s, Mickey was an advocate for gay rights, and he speaks of his struggle to earn acceptance for gay men in the US with pride. During the play, Mickey works at the New York City Health Department but fails to leverage his position to improve resources or campaigns for AIDS awareness. Early in the play, he joins the grassroots advocacy organization Ned founded and serves on the board of directors.
Later, the stress of maintaining his day job and his commitments to the organization get the best of him, and he has a mental breakdown. Mickey takes Ned’s advocacy for abstinence and belief that AIDS is a sexually-transmitted disease as a personal attack. Like many in the gay community, Mickey worked to earn gay men the right to live and love freely. He is immensely proud of his role in the sexual liberation of gay men and resents that Ned implies that his efforts, in part, led to the explosion of AIDS cases.
Kramer's protagonist, Ned, is an abrasive man whose aggressive nature and stubborn sensibilities alienate him from many of those around him. Despite his gruff demeanor, Ned cares deeply for his community and worries constantly about the effects of the media and the government’s unwillingness to address the AIDS epidemic. Ned struggles to connect with others and dislikes the stereotype of gay men’s promiscuity; as such, he feels somewhat estranged from the community he attempts to rally and, ultimately, is forced out of the grassroots organization he founded.
Ned’s profanity-laden vocabulary, harsh tone, and single-mindedness belie a romantic spirit. Although Ned dedicates himself to advocacy and organization, he wishes for nothing more than a life partner with whom he can retreat to the countryside. A lifelong loner, Ned’s struggle to connect with others ends when he meets Felix, a New York Times writer who is not put off by Ned’s unconventional personality.
Dr. Emma Brookner
Like Ned, Dr. Emma Brookner is stubborn and immovable. She is a wheelchair user who lost the use of her legs after surviving polio as a child. As a doctor working in New York City, Emma has encountered hundreds of AIDS cases and has watched too many previously-healthy men succumb to the illness. Her experience with AIDS has taught her that it is sexually transmitted, and she tells Ned as much. The pair develop an intense friendship, motivated by the shared desire to induce action and help sufferers.
However, she feels unable to help with the advocacy aspect, as she worries that, by vocally supporting the movement, she might be deemed crazy by the medical community and forced to stop helping patients. In 1981, after her first few encounters with the disease, she applied for a grant to fund her research. Several years later, her application is summarily rejected, as the grant organizers feel that her work is unnecessary. The verbal dressing-down she gives them indicates her compassionate drive to help those young...
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men who have no one else.
Ned’s brother, Ben, is a successful lawyer who co-owns a legal firm in New York City. He has excelled in his professional career, making enough money to build a two-million-dollar home. Despite numerous requests by his brother to support gay men dealing with AIDS, Ben refuses because he fears public humiliation for associating with the homosexual community. Ben loves his brother but does not support Ned’s homosexual lifestyle, feeling that homosexual love is different from and lesser than heterosexual love. His quiet derision of Ned’s love leads to a fracture in their relationship, and the brothers do not speak for nearly two years. They ultimately reconcile by the play’s end, brought together by tragedy and shared grief.
Before Craig's death, he and Bruce were lovers. The unexpected loss sparked a desire for advocacy, so he agreed to join Ned’s organization. At its inception, he is elected president, as the other members feel he is conventionally attractive, charismatic, and diplomatic enough for the position. As president, Bruce’s vision conflicts with Ned’s. He guides the organization toward shallow waters, seeing it as a resource for those afflicted rather than an educational outlet to deter infections.
Moreover, he disagrees with Ned’s abrasive and outspoken methods. Instead, Bruce takes a moderate approach, seeking resources in traditional channels and refusing to promote abstinence. Arguably, Bruce’s methods are harmful, as they are retroactive rather than proactive. Bruce’s hesitance to take decisive action is likely a projection of his internal anxieties; several of his past lovers have died of AIDS, and he fears that he might be infected as well.
Felix is a New York Times journalist who reports on fashion and culture. He is a charismatic man who dislikes the association of his sexuality with his work. When Ned approaches him to write about the epidemic, he argues that he writes about gay men all the time—he just does not say they are gay. Over time, the pair develop strong feelings for each other and, eventually, move in together. However, their domestic bliss is overshadowed by the epidemic and, ultimately, Felix’s diagnosis and death.
Tommy volunteers with Ned’s organization. He is younger than the other members, but his relative youth belies a hard-working, passionate spirit. Tommy runs crucial errands for the firm and approaches his tasks with energy and excitement. When tempers flare between Ned and Bruce, Tommy’s light-hearted and comical nature helps alleviate the tension.