Larry Kramer created seminal works of gay rights and AIDS epidemic history in his deeply personal plays, The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me. Both plays revolve around Ned Weeks, a gay man living and working in New York City in the 1980s. They are heartbreaking and still quite timely in their politics.
These plays are important to the HIV/AIDS canon of literature, nonfiction, and documentary films. The emotions and truths that Kramer infuses his scenes with are alternately gut-wrenching and intense. While most of the characters are fictional, they draw from a heavy dose of epidemic reality and Kramer’s own experiences.
It’s impossible not to care for these men and the doctor who begins to address their health crises, Dr. Brookner. In the midst of the massive health concerns, plus the death and mourning of close friends, they start advocating for themselves. The growing pains of their organization coincide with the demise of characters and offstage friends.
Alternately, The Destiny of Me focuses on Weeks as a younger person and a grown-up, wrestling with his sexual identity. It delves into family relationships and the issues around coming out in a less than welcoming family. The book I read puts this play second, but it covers time periods before The Normal Heart. I recommend reading it first.
These plays are vital to understanding what life was like in the 1960s-1980s for gay men. Of course, many of these issues remain unsettled today. Kramer makes Weeks both prickly and recognizable. He lays out the difficulties around being gay at that time, starting with when and how to come out and to whom. He discusses the burgeoning sexual freedom of gay culture in New York City and the mythic Fire Island. And then the abject horror of HIV/AIDS and the depth of its impact on the community.
Moments in the plays are heartbreaking. Some made me mad at parents and doctors who belittled these wonderful humans. I connected to their pain. Kramer creates every emotion you expect in play with these themes.
I haven’t watched HBO’s dramatization of The Normal Heart, but I will give it a try soon. Seeing the characters onscreen seems important.
Pair this book with the detailed and excellent nonfiction chronicle of the early days of the epidemic, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts.