Critic's Appreciation: Larry Kramer, the Voice That Would Not Be Silenced

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Larry Kramer at opening night of 'The Normal Heart' on Broadway in 2011

A vital conduit of galvanizing rage through the early years of the AIDS pandemic, the Tony-winning playwright of 'The Normal Heart' never relinquished his impassioned anger.

On World AIDS Day in 2012, I moderated a volatile panel discussion at the Museum of Modern Art in New York following a screening of How to Survive a Plague.

The key speakers were David France, writer and director of that definitive documentary chronicle of the breakthrough that revolutionized HIV treatment, and Larry Kramer, the firebrand activist who was one of the founders of ACT UP and of the Gay Men's Health Crisis before it, the organizations formed to combat the callous indifference of Ronald Reagan in Washington and Mayor Ed Koch in New York City to the rising death toll.

At some point during the discussion, the talk turned, logically, to the massive advances in medical science that had gradually transformed the HIV virus from a death sentence to a more manageable illness. This caused Kramer to erupt like a volcano.

"Fucking tell that to the people still dying in Africa!" or words to that effect, he fumed, launching into a magnificent stream of invective about the dangers of complacency. Given that 770,000 people died from AIDS-related causes in 2018, the most recent year that complete statistics are available, and another 37.9 million were living with HIV, Kramer was right.

I was grateful for the mollifying presence on the panel of France, who was experienced at handling Kramer's explosive temper after years of working with him while researching both the film and his exhaustive written history of the pandemic, published in 2016 under the same title. As a journalist covering AIDS since the onset in the early '80s, France had navigated his share of classic Kramer tirades.

But even if it was a relief when calm was restored to the discussion, it was also inspiring to see this physically frail, bird-like man in his 70s, who at that time had been living with HIV for 24 years, still bristling with the rage of countless unnecessary deaths.

When the sad news broke Wednesday morning that Kramer had died at 84, the righteous fury of one of queer sociopolitical history's most uncompromising agitators was what I remembered first. The title of a celebratory 2015 tribute documentary, Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger, sums up precisely who he was.

For innumerable gay men around the world who came out in the 1970s and early '80s, there were a handful of essential texts, both fact and fiction, that served as the guidebooks to our cultural formation. For me, it was Edmund White's States of Desire, Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet, Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, John Rechy's City of Night, Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn and OK, I'll admit it, Patricia Nell Warren's pulpy gay love story, The Front Runner. Plus pretty much everything written by Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

But the book that most shocked, fascinated, scared and seduced me was Kramer's bluntly titled 1978 novel, Faggots.

Kramer was never shy about passing judgment or taking an unpopular position. Those were years in which most of the LGBTQ community was still celebrating the sexual and social freedoms of post-Stonewall gay rights. Pride had finally overcome shame and stigmatization, so a critical eye was unwelcome. Still, Kramer fearlessly cast himself as a man hopelessly searching for love in the hedonistic subculture of New York and Fire Island.

The suggestion of self-loathing at the root of that relentless merry-go-round of promiscuous sex, drugs and partying caused a hostile uproar within the gay community. But neither the accusations of being a traitor to the movement nor the bad reviews could stop the book from selling; it remains a queer milestone that has never been out of print.

It's worth remembering also that Kramer gave us one of the most indelible homoerotic images in movies of the 1970s with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Ken Russell's Women in Love, which featured an iconic nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed that left generations of gay audiences panting.

Kramer was above all a truth-teller, even when those truths made the gay men who were the primary focus of his writing and political activism uneasy. That was as much the case for his landmark 1985 autobiographical play The Normal Heart as it had been for Faggots. The chief difference was that in the stage work, Kramer's alter ego, Ned Weeks, was fighting for survival, not love.

Ned is the founder of an advocacy group based on the Gay Men's Health Crisis in this fiery account of the HIV/AIDS scourge in New York in the early '80s. Kramer portrays himself not as a heroic crusader but as a belligerent pain in the ass whose appetite for confrontation helped kick down doors while also steadily alienating many of his closest comrades in the movement.

I first encountered the play in 1986 at London's Royal Court Theatre, where Martin Sheen played Ned and Paul Jesson played his journalist lover Felix. I saw it again in a 2004 revival at New York's Public Theater, where it had premiered, this time with Raul Esparza as Ned and Billy Warlock as Felix. Each time, The Normal Heart was a visceral gut punch, a vital history lesson churning with the raw wounds of inconsolable grief and monumental anger.

But it wasn't until the play made its belated Broadway debut in an incandescent 2011 production that it found the ideal balance between the polemical and the personal, laced with the prickly humor that was as quintessential a part of Kramer as his bile.

Developed out of a benefit reading staged by the actor Joel Grey, who co-directed the Broadway incarnation with George C. Wolfe, the scorching, stripped-down production was fueled by a powerhouse ensemble. Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey led the cast, respectively as Ned and Felix, with Ellen Barkin as a tireless medical researcher, and Jim Parsons, Lee Pace, Patrick Breen and Luke Macfarlane as key members of the activist coalition that eventually splinters due to Ned's hard-charging obstinacy.

This was theater that changed you, opening hearts and minds to the anguish of history as well as to the urgency of political engagement. It was the deserving winner of Tony Awards for best revival and for featured actors Hickey and Barkin, the latter in an electrifying Broadway debut.

Ryan Murphy's film version for HBO in 2014, with Mark Ruffalo as Ned and Matt Bomer as Felix, was the culmination of a long and difficult gestation, with almost 30 years of stop-start development progress and long periods in which it seemed permanently shelved. It's a wrenchingly moving, beautifully acted adaptation, even if the stunning, dangerous immediacy of the stage work seemed somewhat safer onscreen.

There was something unique about the lingering emotional after-effects of filing out of the John Golden Theatre at the end of a performance of that Broadway production. Volunteers handed out copies of a letter by Kramer stressing the point that while the walking corpses of the 1980s were in the past, the crisis was ongoing.

The LGBTQ movement at that time was focused on advances in the fight to legalize gay marriage, but it was quintessential Kramer to remind us that some battles can never be entirely relegated to history.

"Serious writers are rarely considered serious writers when they are also serious activists, particularly serious gay activists," said Kramer in his Tony acceptance speech. Those achievements are inextricably intertwined, however, in the legacy of this indomitable force in literature and politics, who spent half a century raising hell on the queer front lines.