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Why I’m Not Excited For ‘The Normal Heart,’ and It Troubles Me To The Core That Many Are

Why I'm Not Excited For 'The Normal Heart,' and It Troubles Me To The Core That Many Are

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
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.

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.

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