By Charles O’Malley | /Bent May 7, 2014 at 1:50PM
Furthermore, the play simplifies the scope of the epidemic. Though at the time of the play’s publication the magnitude of AIDS was not as clear as it is today, the play restricts the discussion of AIDS to gay upper-middle class white cisgender men. This is ludicrous. There is no mention of women with HIV. There are no characters of color. Only men with healthcare are shown receiving treatment. There is no mention of the trans* community. Kramer is not only alienating these factions of society, he is outright excluding them. Certainly, he is under no obligation to write about every person affected by HIV, nor does his play claim to be encyclopedic, but he falls prey to the same type of tunnel-vision and exclusionary thinking of which he accuses so many. Not only does this distance these other groups from the epidemic (and from our historical view of the epidemic) but from the queer history in general.
What is most infuriating to me, however, is Kramer’s sentimentality. Despite the play’s rages and tantrums, accusations and realizations, the play survives on the emotional manipulation of its audience. The author specifies a desire for a set with facts about AIDS displayed on its walls, we hear tearful admissions of losing loved ones, and the play ends with the marriage of Ned and his boyfriend Felix, seconds before Felix dies. This is brazen manipulation of the audience for emotional release. Living with AIDS, especially in the early years, was physical and mental torture. It was not dropping cartons of milk on your apartment floor and dying one scene later. It was blood, shit, tears, hatred, disgust, brimstone, alienation and being very alone. It is not something that can be summarized or understood. It is not a history representable by numbers painted on an upstage wall. It cannot be compartmentalized as such. The wretchedness of this condition was captured with stunning force by a generation of artists: look at the work of David Wojnarowicz, Robert Chesley, Félix González-Torres. Look at Karen Finley’s 'A Constant State of Denial.'
And what is possibly worse than Kramer’s sentimentality is our society’s willingness to accept it. It is convenient for us to see a production of 'The Normal Heart,' cry, and return to our scheduled lives. We can see 'The Normal Heart,' feel as if we’ve done our duty to queer history, and then go about our lives feeling like better people. And to absorb and file away this part of our history is to insult it. To post a Facebook status about running mascara or to Tweet about the slice of history you have seen is NOT to experience of a time. Am I being too simplistic? No; I have seen these posts. And I am so, so afraid for my generation – we who think that validation of an event through social media represents an understanding of a historical process. To be clear, I am not faulting Kramer for this. I am faulting the lazy way that we understand history. Surely, we cannot understand all of the struggles that our kind has seen throughout history. But we can endeavor to bear witness to the generations of those who have passed.
But who knows? Perhaps the HBO adaptation of 'The Normal Heart' will surprise (at least this prejudiced viewer) with historical accuracy and a lack of sentimentality. Ryan Murphy is a creative force with artistic and commercial savvy and his work is always singular. I can’t help but fear not only for the film, but for those who will treat it as a history text. As I write this, I am reminded of the hubbub surrounding the 2008 Stephen Daldry film, 'The Reader,' which takes the Holocaust as its subject (though I am loathe to draw connections between this 'The Normal Heart' and the Holocaust, which Kramer does flagrantly, but that is for a later rant). Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis notes: “…the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.” How many white-washed AIDS testaments can we hear before it becomes a paragraph in a textbook? And what, if anything, will shock us out of our seats and remind us that this is real, and this is still happening?
I’m not saying that Larry Kramer’s activism is not important. I’m not saying that staying quiet (what Kramer advocated against) was or is remotely acceptable behavior. I’m saying that we cannot summarize an entire social group’s response to a major world change in a single play, and to do so is lazy history. Kramer’s play and its characters do not speak for all queer people, or all people with AIDS. To simplify this (or any) major social event is to belittle it, and to ignore the vast and varied response that we had to this event. If you see this film or this play, please do not forget that this is one voice in a huge plurality, and that AIDS is not historical, it is universal.