The Normal Heart

by Larry Kramer
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668

The Normal Heart was one of the first stage productions to deal with AIDS. After publishing the novel Faggots (1978), which many critics considered an offensive account of the promiscuous sex lives of gay men, Larry Kramer’s timely and angry play The Normal Heart, which urged gay men to stop having sex, earned critical approval and a number of awards. As much a period piece documenting the rampant spread of AIDS in the early 1980’s as it is a dramatic work of high artistic merit, The Normal Heart is partially autobiographical. In 1981, Kramer, like his character Ned Weeks, cofounded an organization to raise money and care for men with AIDS, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. In 1983, Kramer, like his character, was ousted after a meeting with New York City’s mayor, Ed Koch. Although critics take umbrage with what they have described as the play’s banal script, melodramatic action, and overuse of facts and statistics, The Normal Heart is important as an educational tool capable of spurring people to action.

Besides candidly presenting the early outbreak of AIDS and the slow response of the government, media, and the medical establishment, the play also depicts the gay community, and it does so without relying on stereotypes. Although Kramer acknowledges that some gays do frequent bath houses some of the time and that some gays behave as flamboyantly and sexually as does the character Tommy Boatwright, he also depicts relationships between gay men that are based on commitment and caring. “The only way we’ll have real pride,” Ned says, “is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual.” One of the themes of the play, in fact, focuses on love, not just sex, between gay men. As the play’s epigraph, stanzas from a poem by W. H. Auden, suggests, everyone wants “Not universal love/ But to be loved alone.” This is a normal desire felt by those bearers of “the normal heart,” heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

The Normal Heart is not a subtle play. Kramer’s frustration and anger about the disease killing off a whole community comes through loud and clear. His characters are angry, especially Ned, who screams, literally, at almost everyone with whom he comes in contact. Ned is rude and overbearing. The play is also notable for its graphic depiction of AIDS symptoms—the purple lesions on one character’s face and another’s foot, the convulsions experienced by another patient—and for its descriptions of incontinence, cancers, and general weakness. Kramer was interested in publicizing the epidemic that had been hidden for too long.

This is Ned’s play, written from his point of view. He dominates all of the scenes except the three in which he does not appear. Of these, two focus on Felix, Ned’s lover. The first portrays Felix when he is told by a doctor that he has AIDS; in this scene, Emma is unable to answer his questions about contagion and possible treatments. In the second scene, Felix puts his legal affairs in order before his death. Both scenes are matter-of-fact and unemotional, brief sketches of the medical and legal details thousands of persons with AIDS must negotiate each day.

The third scene in which Ned does not appear portrays Emma and the Examining Doctor, a character who personifies the medical establishment. Like Ned, Emma not only understands the horror of AIDS but also knows that to fight the epidemic she must get angry at those who have power, even if it means losing her temper, as she does in this scene. Her hurling of folders and papers into space is echoed two scenes later by Ned when he throws food on the floor.

The play ends with Ben Weeks embracing his brother, Ned. Ned and Ben finally reconcile their differences after Felix’s death. Not only does this embrace unite feuding family members and suggest that Ben now accepts Ned as a healthy equal; it also depicts heterosexuals embracing gays.

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