The Normalizing Heart

How AIDS plays have changed since Larry Kramer raged

European literature is rife with great works about epidemics, from The Magic Mountain to The Decameron—and don't forget La Bohème. But though America has had its share of plagues, we haven't dwelled on the subject in art or entertainment. It's too fatalistic to suit the Yankee spirit of reckless optimism. Maybe that's why, aside from a few potboilers and a story by Edgar Allan Poe, there wasn't much American fiction about epidemics, until AIDS.

This plague broke all the rules. Because its first victims in the U.S. were gay men, it immediately assumed Levitical proportions. AIDS raised the specter of sinful sex in a horrifically literal way. It was a powerful metaphor for the culture wars, despite Susan Sontag's counsel to the contrary. And to gay artists, it was a moment when the personal became profoundly political. As a result, there's a vast archive of films, dances, performances, and even symphonic pieces about living with HIV. But when it comes to addressing the epidemic as a collective trauma, no medium has been more effective than theater. What we remember most, among the scores of works about AIDS, are plays.

This week is a good time to consider how the genre has evolved. The Worth Street Theater is reviving Larry Kramer's formative AIDS drama The Normal Heart at the Public Theater, and the Public is presenting Biro, a new monologue written and performed by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, a Ugandan American. Though most people with AIDS today are black or brown, its theatrical face is still white. Biro is one of the first times a black man's story of HIV has been seen on the American stage.

Nineteen years and counting: Larry Kramer (left) and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Nineteen years and counting: Larry Kramer (left) and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine

Seeing both plays back to back is remarkably revealing. In Biro, there are drugs for HIV but no way for most Africans to afford them. In The Normal Heart, no one knows why gay men are dying and nothing can be done to save them. Now, these same men would probably be holding their own, unlike the African in Mwine's piece. He's in immigration jail, having entered America illegally to be treated. Kramer's characters rage at negligence and lost entitlement. Mwine's subject has no such recourse; his only weapon is determination to survive. Kramer demands attention; Mwine can only plead, "Help me."

But for all its particularity, Biro is also typical of recent AIDS plays. It's not just an HIV story; it's a black man's odyssey from Africa to Cuba to the U.S. The epidemic must now be embedded in a larger framework if it is to resonate. Both Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home and Craig Lucas's Small Tragedy are about the tribulations of a social unit, either a family or a group of friends. When AIDS appears, it's just another bombshell—a thematic layer that alerts the audience to something profound. Seen against these latter-day dramas, The Normal Heart has the singular virtue of being an AIDS play about AIDS.

When Ned Weeks, Kramer's protagonist, burst upon the stage in 1985, I thought he was a monster from the superego. I hated his indifference to the complexity of gay sexuality, and his scorn for those who reacted with denial to a catastrophe no one could imagine. I suspected that the play's success had something do with homophobia. Its demand that gay men "stop defining ourselves by our cocks"—and stop having sex entirely—seemed awfully like the traditional liberal response to homosexuality: Love the homo, hate the sex.

But I've made my peace with Weeks, and watching him thunder again last week I found myself thinking he'd made peace with me. He seemed less self-righteous and more willing to acknowledge his neurosis. I was so sure new speeches had been added to the play that I watched an earlier version at the Lincoln Center Library, but the text is pretty much intact. What has changed? It could be that the current production makes the secondary characters fuller and their conflicting points of view more potent. But my perceptions have evolved as well. I'm not so worried about the fate of homosex—it's been privatized but not pulverized. And liberal society seems more willing to accept the fact that gay men fuck. With that issue off the table, I can see the play in a less defensive light. It prefigures many issues in gay politics today, from marriage to the valuation of queer culture. It reminds us that tolerance is not the same as acceptance. It captures the early days of AIDS with unflinching clarity. And it still holds its audience rapt. Ibsen Kramer isn't, but that ain't bad for a play about a world that has changed.

There was another important AIDS play in 1985. William Hoffman's As Is had no stomach for hectoring, and no politics as such. Instead, it focused on a male couple coping with the ordeal, camp humor and all. This was a more nuanced rendition of a gay relationship than Kramer's—and one that didn't require reform. As Is never became a cause célèbre, but it had a greater impact than The Normal Heart on the next wave of AIDS plays. Their theme was the nurturance that had always existed in gay society (unbeknownst to many straights). You could see this agenda in Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), which hewed to the boys-in-the-E.R. model Craig Lucas had devised four years earlier in his film Longtime Companion. These domestic dramas tugged at America's heartstrings without being untruthful about gay life. They were every bit as effective as ACT UP.

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