Mr. Mezzo and I watched Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart this evening. I’d not seen the original play performed, although I had read it numerous times as part of my teaching and dissertation work. So I was really interested to see what differences there might be between Kramer’s play and Murphy’s film.*
The play debuted off-Broadway in 1985. And its initial impetus and power is summarized by Mary McNamara in the LA Times thusly:
In the early 1980s several things were obvious to writer Larry Kramer. Gay men were literally dropping dead and neither the government nor the medical establishment seemed to be doing much to stop it. Moreover, no one, outside of other — increasingly terrified — gay men, seemed to care.
So Kramer wrote “The Normal Heart,” a blunt instrument of a play debuting in 1985 in which his thinly disguised avatar, a New York writer called Ned Weeks, watches friends die, helps form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center and does a lot of yelling. About homophobia and the Holocaust, about the perils of the closet, about society’s unforgivable hypocrisy and gay men’s own self-destructiveness.
“The Normal Heart” was a howling call to action, designed to push people out of their ignorance, complacency and seats to demand justice, and funding, for all.
Almost 30 years have passed since the play’s debut, and more than 30 years since the CDC first reported mysterious cases of kaposi’s sarcoma. With the unfolding of so much time (and the waves of cultural change wrapped in these decades), I’ll admit I was among the many individuals wondering a little bit about whether the movie would be meaningful, or effective.
It was. In a different way, but yes: deeply effective. To quote Tim Goodman in The Hollywood Reporter:
The movie is a way to remember. It takes something revered in theater circles and give it a wide release with a cache of bright stars. It will get seen, and the message about the horrible history of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic won’t be forgotten. . . . For those people who didn’t see the play or, more importantly, weren’t there to witness or read about the onset of what was first described as “gay cancer,” The Normal Heart works best as modern history. Knowing what we do now, it’s hard to fathom that so many people looked the other way.
It’s a bit hard for me to judge the film’s effectiveness as “modern history” because of the peculiarity of my knowledge around the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I’ll unpack that story in full some other day.**
Suffice for the moment to say that much in my adolescence — socioeconomic privilege, suburban home, mainstream media diet — worked to keep the spread of HIV/AIDS completely off of my threshold of awareness. However, since I chose to write my (ultimately unfinished) dissertation about artistic responses to the AIDS epidemic, I made up for my early years of sheltered ignorance with a lot of research and study.
Still, it’s one thing to research a topic, and it’s quite another to bear witness. And it is in bearing witness to those first years where I am was most profoundly moved by Murphy’s film. To my ears, Kramer’s play had always functioned better as a piece of agitprop than anything else. A howl of outrage, a wake-up call — a piece that condemned inaction but perhaps not one that opened the heart to sympathy or empathy.
And don’t get me wrong: I don’t intend this observation to suggest I have any less respect for Kramer’s play. I am not a member of the tone police, and I know that yawps of outrage and agitprop are vitally necessary. I also believe that acts of witness and stories that inspire empathy are necessary, too. Which is why it’s such an amazing thing for the seed of Kramer’s work and activism to have offered me both of those gifts.
Back in the day, Kramer’s play was one of the things that woke me up to AIDS, to its early spread, and especially to the devastating effects of prejudice and homophobia. The play opened my eyes; it made me angry.
And tonight, Murphy’s film helped re-ignite my empathy for what it might have been like to live through the early years of HIV/AIDS. It bore witness to a time when a community felt such sorrow and loss and — because of cultural disdain and indifference — it faced those losses alone. The film opened my heart; it made me cry.
Both gifts of awareness. Both gifts to be grateful for.
* For lack of a better coinage, I’m going to talk about these two different adaptations as “Kramer’s play” and “Murphy’s film.” I haven’t yet done a textual comparison, but the screenplay sure senses different enough from the original script that I think there’s some validity to addressing these as distinct — though related — artworks, rather than talking about them as two interpretations of a core text.
** I wrote a damn novella last night, so I’m trying to be a bit less loquacious tonight. Especially since I have to get up early tomorrow for work.