Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344
The Normal Heart, as the title suggests, explores what constitutes “normal” on many levels. Primary among these is the damaging effects of normative heterosexuality. From another perspective, it advocates for love as a universal for persons of every sexual orientation and gender.
The primary key themes are discrimination in US society, the individual’s responsibility for activism despite the personal cost, and the multiple and changing definitions of family.
Set in the HIV/AIDS crisis of the early 1980s, Larry Kramer’s play combines the individual story of Ned Weeks with the social context of New York journalism and government. Kramer presents the reluctance of newspapers such as The New York Times and of city government at all levels to address the issue as a public health crisis. The reason seems clear: because the victims are almost all gay men, publicizing the disease’s prevalence and supporting research are low priorities. The damaging effects of this discrimination are more deaths.
The play also chronicles one character’s search for answers and his move from observing and reporting to activism and personal involvement. As Ned, like so many others, had little understanding of how HIV/AIDS functions, he initially seeks medical information. His quest leads him to a reporter, Felix, who will ultimately become his lover and then his husband. (The latter occurs symbolically, as marriage between men was still illegal in New York.) The costs to Ned are high, as his role in the activist organization is misunderstood by other members and he is estranged from his brother, Ben.
Ned and Felix form a deep, romantic, and apparently monogamous relationship. A doctor marries them while Felix is in the hospital suffering from AIDS complications. These events unfold largely during the period when Ned’s brother has rejected him (or at least refused to support his cause). At the play’s end, these problems are not fully resolved: Felix dies, but Ned is reconciled with Ben. Both brothers have gained a larger understanding of family and of what constitutes normal when it comes to love.
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