The Normal Heart depicts the early struggles of the Gay Men's Health Crisis to raise awareness about AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s.
What is it?
A play by Larry Kramer, originally staged and published in 1985. It was adapted into a film in 2014.
What’s it about?
It’s a dramatization of the early struggles (1981–84) to have the crisis of AIDS recognized as such in New York City. In a sense, it’s as much about activism and mobilization as it is about AIDS.
But that struggle was still going on in 1985 …
Yes, that’s one of the things I found fascinating about the play. It’s not so much a depiction of activism as a tool of activism. In other words, it’s showing the activism but was at the same time part of that activism—the play itself was designed to raise the alarm. So it’s all very visceral and immediate.
Does that mean it’s dated?
Certain aspects of the play are very much of their time, and it’s interesting to see how much things have changed in the intervening thirty years. For instance, there’s a preoccupation with secrecy: many, many gay men, including one of the leaders of the activist group, don’t want their sexual orientation to be made public. This still happens, of course, but in a big city like New York it’s no longer a major concern for most gay men, I dare say.
What hasn’t changed since 1985?
Well, one of the topics that the play addresses is, I think, as much a subject of discussion now as it was then, and that is the whole question of what it means to be gay. Is it just about sex? There is a struggle in the play between the main character (who is basically Larry Kramer himself), who wants to get the message out that gay men should refrain from promiscuous sexual activity until the medical community can figure out what’s causing AIDS; and the mainstream gay community, who take the view that they fought long and hard to be able to express their sexual orientation openly, and that it’s simply nonsensical to ask gay men not to have sex, because having sex is what being gay is all about.
What does the main character think being gay is about?
He talks about a gay culture “that isn’t just sexual”. At one point he lists famous homosexuals from history (Proust, Shakespeare, Auden, Whitman, etc.) and the implication is that men with this sexual orientation also have a unique sensibility that needs to be protected from the plague of AIDS, and if that means having less sex, then that’s the price to pay. (“Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us,” he says.) I think, in the era of Grindr, this is as much a question open to discussion now as it was then.
It’s still worth reading The Normal Heart, then.
Absolutely. I have to say, I didn’t find it to be great literature. The dialogue isn’t spectactular in any way, or particularly beautiful. But the ideas in the play are definitely worth revisiting and discussing, and the play obviously is invaluable as a historical document. I mean, it is literally part of the history of the gay movement. But it’s worth reading for more than that.
Where’s the title come from, by the way?
Ah, it’s from a poem by the (gay) poet W.H. Auden. Interestingly, it’s from a poem Auden later disowned, in part because of the famous last line “We must love one another or die”, which he decided was just poetical posturing, because of course we’re going to die anyway, whether we love one another or not.
Oh god, that’s a whole metaphysical discussion.
Yes, let’s not go there.
So I’m just getting that creepy feeling you’re going to give this one some stars (using the Michelin-guide 3-star system)?
2 stars. It’s essential reading in gay literature, for a number of reasons.