Wide Angle

Making an Art of Artlessness

Larry Kramer’s fiery, confrontational righteousness—both in life and writing—earned him a reputation for being “difficult.” But it gave his work an urgency that’s timeless.

Larry Kramer seated in front of a Tribeca festival backdrop.
Larry Kramer attends Tribeca Celebrates Pride Day at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studio on May 4, 2019 in New York City. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

It seemed like Larry Kramer might live forever and yet here we are, mourning his death by pneumonia at the age of 84. Kramer—a writer and activist, although both of those terms seem somehow too small for him—survived AIDS, survived the death of so many he knew, survived the heartlessness of president after president, and never lost the white hot rage that felt like it could fuel not only him but perhaps a small sun or two. He alienated many with his uncompromising, confrontational style, but he saved the lives of countless more with his fearless, never-ending advocacy for people with AIDS.

Not even becoming a respected elder statesman could calm his drive, or his rage. Kramer was the kind of man who stood outside his own Broadway show in 2011, handing out leaflets to audience members about how the AIDS crisis wasn’t over. Earlier this year, during a New York Times photo shoot commemorating ACT UP, an organization he co-founded in 1987, he helped lead his fellow activists in a rousing chant of, “Fuck the New York Times!”

I only interacted with Larry Kramer once, briefly, via email. Back when Dan Kois and I worked on the oral history of Angels in America for Slate that would become our book The World Only Spins Forward, I reached out to him for an interview. Surely, we thought, the author of The Normal Heart, one of the first and most important plays about the AIDS crisis, would have brilliant and incisive things to say about Angels in America, a play his own work made possible.

In classic Kramer fashion, he turned us down—but in an email so perceptive and opinionated and cranky and funny and self-promoting that we wound up using all 113 words of it in the book anyway:

what can i say that hasn’t been said by many others? it’s a very important play and it’s wonderful that it’s still being performed all over the world. that the two major aids plays, angels and my normal heart, are still being performed so extensively is quite remarkable and a testimony to the power of the theater to deal with gay history. i wish that tony would write more about gay history, as i have tried to do with my own recent book, the american people. but he has a much wider sphere of important interests than I do and we should be grateful for whatever he writes. he is a great writer.

“What can I say that hasn’t been said by many others?” is a question one could ask about Larry Kramer, a man who was never at a loss for words himself. One clear way that we could honor him this week is to spend some time looking at the words he wrote. In particular, two of his masterpieces, 1112 and Counting and The Normal Heart are easy to find, and complement and enrich each other. They also give a sense of their author in all his impossible, irascible, searing, funny, difficult, loving, furious complexity.

1112 and Counting is Kramer’s 1983 essay in the New York Native warning the gay community about the worsening AIDS crisis. Seldom has a work of argumentative writing drawn such intense power through simple, direct, almost artless prose. In it he wants, in his own words, to “scare the shit out of you,” by telling you the truth, and refusing to dress it up. It’s a remarkable historical document whose rage and pain and fear and urgent drive to wake its audience the fuck up rhymes in a deep, profound way with our current global pandemic. You can’t help, while reading of the lack of ICU beds, of the abandonment of the sick by their government, of the necessity of the CDC, to realize that, had we built the society Kramer argued for in 1983, we wouldn’t be in the predicament we’re in today.

“I don’t want to die,” he writes, “I can only assume you don’t want to die. Can we fight together?” That question hides within it another. What does “fighting together” mean? At the time he wrote 1112 and Counting, he was in the middle of a very difficult struggle over that question with the fellow members of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the very first HIV/AIDS care and advocacy organization in the world. Kramer co-founded GMHC, but, shortly after writing 1112 and Counting, he was pushed out of the organization due to disagreements over its mission and Kramer’s combative, often alienating, methods. The story of his 18 months with GMHC form the basis of his other masterpiece, The Normal Heart, an autobiographical play originally staged at the Public Theatre in 1985.

According to Kenneth Turan and Joe Papp’s Free for All, Kramer knew from the start of his involvement with GMHC that he would one day write about it. Shortly after leaving the organization, he began work on what would become The Normal Heart, but the play almost came to nothing. The story of how it wound up at the Public reads in many ways like a miniature encapsulation of the power and difficulties of Kramer’s activism in general. He met with fierce institutional resistance. Agent after agent turned the play down.

But another problem he faced was his own gift for self-sabotage. When he submitted the play to the Public, he appended a highly accusatory letter about how he knew the Public would never read it. A friend at the theatre hid the letter from Joseph Papp, the Public’s founder and artistic director. But Kramer’s reputation for rough and tumble tenacity also helped create interest in the script. As Gail Merrifield Papp, then the head of the Public’s play department, described it in Free for All, “Everybody was kind of hot to read it because of Larry’s reputation, which was that he can get hysterically angry to the point where he does in the very cause he’s trying to put forth … and that his propensity to deliver insults to a person’s face in order to get their blood boiling in the proper way is counterproductive.” By then, Kramer was in the habit of calling staff members at the Public, berating them, and sending them apologetic bouquets of flowers.

When Merrifield Papp read the script—originally so sprawling and disorganized that it weighed seven pounds—she was shocked to find herself moved to tears. She knew there was an important work of art within the dense thicket of words, so she phoned Larry Kramer up, and the two quickly got to work on revising it. Over nine months, in response to an ongoing dialogue with Merrifeld Papp, Kramer honed The Normal Heart into its present shape, cutting a major plotline about his relationship with his brother, and focusing the work on the neophyte activists trying to figure out how to fight a disease no one understands.

On some level—the level of conventional taste, perhaps—The Normal Heart shouldn’t work. It’s a procedural about founding and running a nonprofit organization. Its arguments are often about the logistics of fundraising, or the text on a letterhead. It is, at times, openly self-serving, and the dialogue can be artless and blunt. But all of these so-called problems are actually the key to the play’s power. Within those arguments about procedure is a complicated back-and-forth about how confrontational, how direct, how, well, artless, an advocacy organization can be. The play also deftly dramatizes how differences in class shape the various characters perspectives. Ned Weeks, Larry Kramer’s autobiographical stand-in, burns with such rage and fear because, as a Jew, he sees echoes of the Holocaust in the world turning its back on gays. But he’s also so confrontational because he has a trust fund, and no job to lose were he to come out of the closet. He doesn’t enjoy promiscuity, or see it as a political project, so it’s easier for him to tell other gay men to be celibate. He has less to lose, except, of course, like the other characters in the play, he has everything to lose. Thus we get exchanges like this, where an argument over whether their newsletter should recommend celibacy becomes an argument over sex, politics, gay identity, and values over a few short lines:

Bruce: We can’t tell people how to live their lives! We can’t do that. And besides, the entire gay political platform is fucking. We’d get it from all sides.

Ned: You make it sound like that’s all being gay means.

Bruce: That’s all it does mean!

Mickey: It’s the only thing that makes us different.

Ned: I don’t want to be considered different.

Bruce: Neither do I, actually.

Mickey: Well, I do.

Bruce: Well, you are!

Perhaps due to Kramer’s merciless rewriting process, or that the characters were all thinly veiled stand-ins for real people, there’s a remarkable pressurization to the dialogue. Each line says something extremely direct on the surface, but the arguments all connect to one another. A discussion about tactics is a discussion about politics, of course, but the play knows it is also a discussion about identity, and class, and fucking.

The Normal Heart wasn’t written for posterity. It was written to address the specific needs of its community and its time, a time when mainstream media buried stories about AIDS, refused to print the names of the partners of the dead in obituaries, and treated homosexuality as either a pathology, a perversion, or both. It was a time when people with AIDS could not get access to medical care, when the political establishment would not mention the disease, when people were fired from their jobs for being gay, and when we still knew vanishingly little about the disease or how to fight it.

This immediacy made the play a hit—it ran for nine months and changed the lives of many people I know who saw it during its run—but it also, ironically, made The Normal Heart a timeless work of art. In its sense of throwing caution and good taste to the wind, its drive to speak directly to its own times, its rich complexity, neurotic Jewish humor, and ripped-open vulnerability, The Normal Heart is sui generis. By focusing on the struggle behind the struggle against injustice, by showing us the conflict between incrementalism and revolution, The Normal Heart’s arguments resonate across the years. So long as there are fights for equality, dignity, and freedom to be had, The Normal Heart will call to us, furiously, demanding in the words of the W.H. Auden poem from which it gets its name, that we “love one another or die.” But the love it envisions is not a sentimental one. It is a fierce love, a love that calls on us to fight for one another, together, so we do not die alone. “If you believe in what you’re doing,” Kramer told Kenneth Turan in Free For All, “you’ve got to fight very tenaciously for it, try every possible avenue, and you don’t take no for an answer.”

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Bryan Lowder, Christina Cauterucci, and Rumaan Alam host this month’s episode of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast.