Reviving The Normal Heart With Love and Rage

A tremendous event is happening at the Public with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart , and you must hurry to experience it at all cost. Put simply, in its blistering conviction and courage, the landmark play ought to be seen by everyone. It’s a matter of great joy to me that Mr. Kramer’s 1985 tragedy of America still speaks to us with such force and relevance and heart.

We’re now approaching 20 years since The Normal Heart was first produced at the Public, and for those of us who were there the first time round, it’s impossible to speak about it unemotionally. It would be difficult to keep cool about such a moving piece at the best of times. The famous play is raw and unashamed, and Mr. Kramer has always demanded an emotional response from us. The generous, unforgiving heart of the play is full and brimming with inconsolable tears, and our hearts are broken along with it.

The Normal Heart was, of course, the first AIDS play to be written in blood and outrage (and it became the Public Theater’s longest-running play). William Hoffman’s highly regarded As Is pipped it to the post by a few weeks at the Circle Rep in March 1985, but that sweeter drama had no political agenda. Mr. Kramer’s magnum opus has all the flaws and rough edges of defiant agitprop theater howling in humane protest at a murderously indifferent world, and the miracle is that the world listened.

There might be superior plays, but none has been so magnificently effective. Mr. Kramer’s historic achievement is that The Normal Heart remains the only protest play to have a political outcome. I can think of no other to equal it. No play, no Guernica , ever stopped a war. No works of art ever change the world. (They change the way we perceive the world.) But in those early, fearful days of the AIDS epidemic, The Normal Heart actually changed the way we thought and felt. It woke us up.

Arthur Miller once said about the influence on him of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire : “Tennessee had printed a license to speak at full throat, and it helped strengthen me as I turned to Willy Loman.”

Mr. Kramer’s alter ego in The Normal Heart , the furious, unstoppable writer Ned Weeks, has strengthened others to speak at full throat, too, most notably Prior and the angels of Tony Kushner’s America . How pathetic our political theater has otherwise become. Look at the juvenile smugness of the “protest” against the war in Iraq going on in Embedded next-door to The Normal Heart at the Public-and thank God for the real, triumphant thing.

Mr. Kramer was never an easy fellow to get along with, apparently. Taillard’s calming advice to the overzealous priest-” Trop de zele, mon frère “-doesn’t apply to him. Mr. Kramer, the raging Jewish prophet in the wilderness, didn’t have time to play the civilized, well-bred game of being acceptably, tactfully, respectably nice in order to receive a little pat on the back for good behavior. For him, the issues gave him and the gay community one choice: life or death. There wasn’t time to be nice and polite.

The play, which takes place from 1981 to 1984, tells the fantastic story of how Mr. Kramer and a group of gay men fought for help and survival at the bewildering start of the AIDS era. It’s fantastic because, to this day, we can scarcely believe how slow a callous world was to respond to the crisis.

Mr. Kramer had the courage to name names-indicting the hypocritical Mayor Ed Koch (who refused to meet with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis until 21 months after the first cases were known); President Ronald Reagan (who took four years even to acknowledge the existence of AIDS); the entire medical establishment, which didn’t seem competent to acknowledge any crisis at all, let alone find a possible cure; and The New York Times , which shamefully buried all reports of AIDS cases until two years after the first cases were first reported.

Time has passed, and one’s blood still boils. It’s almost laughable: The play lists 40 AIDS deaths. Globally, 30 million have since died. And yet that first mention of the toll took our breath away.

I see The Normal Heart from a different perspective today. Fear was palpable back then and outrage our response in the whirlwind of the times. Its inner drama of love between men and vindication of its cause strike me more forcibly now. That, and fury turned into tragedy. The friend who took me see the original production-ordered me to see it!-has since died of AIDS. And so many others we all once knew and loved.

How could it have happened? The heart cries out: How could they let it happen? At the same time, I feel enormous gratitude for this play that touches us so deeply. The entire ensemble, led by the very fine and riveting Raúl Esparza and directed by David Esbjornson, has done it proud. Special mention also of Richard Bekins’ patrician Ben, tormented brother of Ned; Joanna Gleason’s brilliant performance as the campaigning Dr. Emma Brookner; Fred Berman’s blistering howl of disbelief as Mickey-but I see I’m en route to naming them all.

It would be a blessing if the memorable production could reach a wider audience on Broadway. After all, I have lately seen plays on the Great White Way about a marital fight over an aging gorilla who sort of understands sign language, and another saga about a self-hating Jewish baker who befriends a quite pleasant Palestinian terrorist. The Normal Heart , on the other hand, is one of the most remarkable plays of the 20th century. May it be seen by everyone.

Its eternal message, like its title, comes from Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (“What mad Nijinsky wrote / About Diaghilev / Is true of the normal heart”):

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

Reviving The Normal Heart With Love and Rage