The Normal Heart

The internet has been alight the past few months with anticipation for Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play 'The Normal Heart' (which airs May 25th on HBO). JustJared headlined the trailer as “Watch Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer kiss” and The Huffington Post commands viewers to “Get your tissues ready.” Many writers on this blog have been pretty excited for it too. Fresh off critically and commercially popular revivals of the AIDS-era drama in New York and Chicago, the HBO adaptation offers a solid ensemble cast led by Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, and proudly bears the insignia of Murphy, one of the most visible gay artists working today. The internet, and one would assume the gay community, anticipates this May premiere with great aplomb. As a gay man who is reasonably knowledgeable about queer theatre, a number of people have asked me if I’m excited for the film. I’m not. I’m not excited about it, and in all honesty, I’m not OK with it. I’m not OK with 'The Normal Heart.' And it troubles me to my core that many are.

Written in 1985, 'The Normal Heart' is a quasi-autobiographical play about Kramer’s experiences as a gay man working to make his voice heard in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York. Raging as hard as he can against the establishment, Ned (the Kramer character), fights indifference from the press, the government, and the gay community, accusing all three bodies of denial in the face of the destruction. No one will ever accuse 'The Normal Heart' of being a great play, as Kramer is certainly activist first and artist second, and my point is not to belittle the writing of the play (though the writing itself is poor– at one point a doctor literally says, “What is going on inside your bodies!”). The quality of the art is not what I question. What infuriates me about this play is its brazen sex negativity and singular drive to belittle a queer community that Kramer clearly could not stand, and the shameless emotional manipulation of its audience.

The Normal Heart 4

The politics of 'The Normal Heart' are, in a word, irresponsible. Simply put, Kramer cannot abide by those whose views differ from his. Ned, the driving force of the play, is as fiercely opinionated as his author, and points the accusing finger squarely at the newly liberated gay men of New York as responsible for spreading HIV.  At the time of the play’s publication, Kramer’s distain for casual sex was well-known, and Kramer was largely unpopular with the gay community (see the controversy surrounding his 1978 novel 'Faggots'). When we see the play today, with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the scope of AIDS, it is easy for us as an audience to side with Ned’s accusations of the gay community as being overly sexual to a fault, but in 1985, this was not a popular opinion, and such overwhelming sex negativity coming from such a prominent voice was damaging to a community that was dealing with an incredible blow to its fledgling sense of self-worth. Is this attitude of sex-shaming how we want to view the early years of queer liberation?

Accordingly, he also accuses the press and the government, on both city and federal levels, of indifference and neglect. Here, I completely agree with Kramer. The fight for recognition of the disease has been one of the best-recorded issues in modern queer history – with works from across the spectrum of gay literature, from Randy Shilts to Harvey Fierstein. However, his accusations are impulsive and sloppy. The play takes a series of cheap shots at New York Mayer Ed Koch, who was long-suspected of being a closeted gay man who avoided the topic of AIDS to distance himself from the gay cause. “Who would want him?” Jokes Ned when Emma, a doctor, asks if Koch is gay. Not only is this crude, it is simplistic. Though the true damage will likely never be known, the silence of those in power (like Koch and Reagan) had untold consequences on the rapid-fire spread of HIV. This is not a matter to laugh off with a jab at Koch’s sexual desirability. Thousands of people died wretched deaths because our government avoided this issue and did not provide the support, financial or institutional, that our citizens needed. This is our shame.