In April 1985, at New York’s Public Theatre, a new play opened. It had a simple set, just a few items of furniture and an old hospital gurney. On the plywood walls at the back of the stage and on the walls of the theatre itself facts, figures, and names were written in simple black letters. Your eye would most likely be drawn to one figure, the total number of AIDS cases at that time (which, for example, on the 1st August 1985, read 12,062). Other numbers and facts displayed included the date the government officially declared an epidemic (June 5th 1981), the total number of articles written about the epidemic in major news papers, the fact Government research at the National Health Institute did not begin until 1983 – three years after the Government declared it an epidemic – and, the majority of the space was covered with the names of those who had died, like you mind find on a war memorial.
By the time The Normal Heart premiered off-Broadway Larry Kramer was already a well known and polarizing figure in the gay community. His first novel, Faggots, had been published seven years earlier to a swell of controversy. He was banned from his local grocery store and New York’s only gay bookstore refused to stock it due to the way it portrayed sex and drug use. Of the books reception Kramer said, ‘The straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor.’
It was on an extended tip to Europe that Kramer visited the Dachau concentration camp that Kramer decided to write the play. He learnt that the camp had opened as early as 1933, nine years before the breakout of World War II, and no one, not the Germans or any other nation, did anything to stop it. He could see a parallel there, between this and the way the American government were ignoring the deaths of thousands of gay men. The play, which takes its name from the W.B. Auden poem September 1st 1939, followed shortly. It is set between 1981 and 1984 in New York City and tells the autobiographical story of a group of gay men who come together during the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic.
Ned Weeks, based on Kramer himself, gets information from Dr Emma Brookner, based on real-life AIDS researcher Dr Linda Laubenstein, that she believes the new ‘cancer’ amongst gay men is spread via sexual intercourse. Though, of course due to a lack of funding, she cannot categorically prove it. This leads to a divide in ideas, and one of the central premises of The Normal Heart; the idea of activism in all it’s different forms. Ned suggests that gay men have made promiscuity their political agenda and asking them to stop would fruitless. Yet, Ned, with the help of Bruce Niles and Tommy Boatwright, manages to form an organization to offer support and guidance to the men effected. Meanwhile, Ned’s boyfriend, New York Times journalist Felix, becomes ill.
The Normal Heart is angry. It is activism. It is shouting from the rooftops, screaming down the house, and it is giving a voice to a period of time that is too often ignored. It is about love, brotherhood, fighting, rage, aggression, grief, love, and understanding. It is an essential record of an epidemic, integral to LGBT history, that stood, alone for too long.
Due to the original production appearing off-Broadway, the run wasn’t eligible for the Tony’s in the eighties. However, it’s revival in 2011 (and technically its Broadway debut) was and it took home three of the five awards it was nominated for, including Best Revival.
For around 10 years, Barbra Streisand held the film rights to the play but she was unable to find the financing to make it. She had a passion for the project and in 1993 she organised a staged reading of the play with a cast that included Kevin Bacon, John Turturro, and Stockard Channing. Yet, still failed to secure funding for a feature film.
In August 2011, Ryan Murphy, the man behind Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and many more, said he had optioned the rights to the play. In 2014, after years of trying, The Normal Heart was finally brought to the screen. The adaption debuted on HBO on the 25th May and starred Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch, Jonathan Groff, Joe Mantello, and Alfred Molina. It gained critical praise and was widely considered by audiences to be heart-wrenching, well told, and well acted. Despite nine Emmy nominations, spread across the cast and crew, the film only walked away with one even though it was considered by many to be one of the strongest contenders that year. It also cannot be ignored that thirty years after the play premiered, the film couldn’t find funding as a cinematic release and it took two name stars, Ruffalo and Roberts, to sign on to get the project made for TV.
The film is true to the play yet expands on its source material. The film allows what the stage does not. It allows space, and distance, it can manipulate time more, it takes the story to different places, and allows the characters to be added to. Kramer wrote the screenplay so the validity and the truthfulness still remains but the scope feels bigger, and the performances display the hurt and the anger of so many people at the time.
Young gay men are often unaware of the severity of the AIDS epidemic during the eighties, which is not entirely their fault. There is no curriculum on which LGBT history is taught, and there is next to no acknowledgement of crisis as a whole. That’s why things like The Normal Heart are important. Kramer considers his play to be the antidote to this lack of education. ‘The Normal Heart is our history,’ he said. ‘It could not have been written had not so many of us needlessly died. Learn from it and carry on the fight. Let them know that we are a very special people, an exceptional people. And that our day will come.’
After each performance of the 2011 revival a letter written by Kramer was handed to every audience member as they left the theatre. It stated the events of the play are entirely true and Kramer did his best to portray them accurately. He says the real life inspiration for Bruce, Paul Popham, died of AIDS since the plays premiere. The inspiration for Tommy, Rodger McFarlene, had also passed away after he killed himself from despair (but not before setting up three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up). He says that cast members who starred in the original production in 1985 have died. He states that at the beginning of the action of the play (1981) the death toll was 41 but by the time of the revival 35 million people had died from AIDS and 75 million, across the globe, have been infected. He says that, since Reagan, no sitting president has said anything or done anything for the cause. In fact, funding towards AIDS research is continually cut. Kramer, at around 75 years old, would often hand out the letters to the audience himself. He still continues to fight to this day.
In the acknowledgements of the 2011 edition of the play’s script, Kramer thanks Joel Grey, who championed the revival and directed it. ‘What has been especially moving to me is that you have enabled so many of my people to come and learn our history,’ he said. ‘We have been a people singularly denied the right to know our history, and it continues to be my mission to bring this history to my people and the world.’ It’s important that we converse with our history. That we acknowledge the shoulders on which we stand and the people that fought tirelessly to save lives and for equality. The Normal Heart is the story of these people.