Louisa Hann reviews the 2021 National Theatre revival of Larry Kramer’s HIV/AIDS play The Normal Heart (1985)
Larry Kramer’s polemical play The Normal Heart is among the most frequently revived HIV/AIDS play within a vast and growing genre. First staged in 1985 at the Public Theatre in New York City, it tells a semi-autobiographical narrative about the genesis of advocacy group Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and its members’ attempts to call attention to the medico-political establishment’s neglect of the HIV-positive. By Kramer’s own admission, it is not an artful play, resembling a form of agitprop in its fact-filled dialogue, clunky didacticism, and sentimental narrative of love and inevitable loss. These arguable shortcomings have not prevented the play from drawing a wide audience, however. Since its premiere, The Normal Heart has continued to grace stages across the US and Europe, even undergoing the Hollywood treatment in a made-for-TV film starring Mark Ruffalo in 2014. Most recently, acclaimed film and theatre director Dominic Cooke took on the challenge of reviving Kramer’s decades-old work at London’s National Theatre, staging a faithful reproduction towards the end of 2021.
There was, of course, an undeniable timeliness to this revival. Staged across October and November last year, Cooke’s production was one of the first shows to open at full capacity since the NT’s temporary closure in response to COVID-19. In pandemic times, auditoria continue to thrum with nervy anticipation as patrons wrestle with the guilty sense that gathering for art’s sake remains somehow antisocial or illicit. Upon entering the Olivier Theatre to watch The Normal Heart, this feeling was palpable. As theatregoers scanned the room to assess the ratio of mask-wearers to non-mask-wearers or gave polite smile-nods to those in breathing distance, it was impossible to overlook the poignancy of the play’s subject matter. By thrusting the play into such an atmosphere, the NT’s artistic director and executives were surely aware of the comparisons that would be drawn by members of the public and critics alike. Following many months of a pandemic frequently cast as “unprecedented”, Kramer’s play of loss and hope surely offered a kind of cathartic renewal to London’s theatregoing public.
While this comparative impulse may satisfy an affective desire for community and shared experience, however, it generates critical limitations that may frustrate our ability to read the play as a product of its time – or tease out its flaws as a didactic cultural work. While taking stock of the production’s many reviews recently, I noticed an obvious and troubling through line. Mainstream outlets from the Guardian to the Evening Standard were quick to label Cooke’s revival “timely and essential”, while failing to furnish their reviews with the historical context necessary to assess how reproducing the play for a twentieth-century audience produces new meanings surrounding HIV/AIDS. In focusing on the play’s supposed relevancy and ignoring its ideological underpinnings, these reviewers fell into the common trap of “AIDS nostalgia”.
Increasingly identified as a political and social problem within humanities scholarship, AIDS nostalgia represents a crisis of knowledge production best exemplified by cultural products that portray HIV/AIDS as “over” (at least in the Global North). While a play or film may not explicitly propagate this fiction, the cultural dominance of narratives centred on the lives of white, gay, middle-class men in New York or San Francisco serves to obscure the scale of the crisis, as well as the extent to which racialised and classed constituencies continue to bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Today, products such as the Normal Heart contribute to this whitewashing. Detached from the context in which it first emerged, the play’s political exhortations spawn problematic connotations. Take, for example, an extract from one of the play’s best-known speeches, in which protagonist Ned censures what he views as the immoral promiscuity of his fellow activists. Asserting that he belongs to a culture with a noble history of artists and thinkers from Proust to Socrates, he states:
The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there – all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do that, and until we organize ourselves block by neighborhood by city by state into a united visible community that fights back, we’re doomed. That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. (The Normal Heart 2011, 70-71)
This sentimental and teleological appeal to a genealogy of gay men essentialises his gayness as fixed, rather than a category shaped by hegemonic standards. At the same time, it measures the value of his contemporaries’ lives against their capacity to pursue creative endeavours, thereby eschewing a more egalitarian framework that accepts all lives as inherently valuable. In so doing, Ned’s speech tacitly perpetuates the fiction that cultured gay men with social capital were the key force involved in altering the course of the pandemic, while eliding both the extent to which minoritized constituencies were impacted by HIV/AIDS and how they were able to navigate their queerness – key indicators of AIDS nostalgia. That the NT chose to spotlight this speech in video teasers for their marketing campaign demonstrates some degree of buy-in to this cultural phenomenon and an unwillingness, perhaps, to interrogate the implications of reviving the play for a modern audience.
This is not to say, of course, that The Normal Heart did not play an important role in broadening awareness of the crisis and encouraging righteous anger. As activist and musician Kevin Robert Frost once recalled in an interview about ACT UP and its legacy, Kramer made clear his motivations for penning the play after meeting Frost in the record shop where the latter worked:
He was looking for an opera, some obscure opera recording, and I told him I’d help him if we had it. After a few minutes, I finally said to him, Listen, I just want to tell you that I saw your play, The Normal Heart, and it really, really moved me. And Larry being Larry, looked at me and said, Oh, that’s great. So what the fuck you doin’ about it? (qtd. in Schulman 2021, 596)
Clearly, Kramer wanted his play to do something in a material sense. It is worth noting that some of his most impactful and controversial work appeared in the form of op-eds published in mainstream news outlets, which focused on pushing HIV/AIDS up politicians’ agendas. The Normal Heart represented an extension of this work. As Sarah Schulman notes in her recent and impressively comprehensive history of ACT UP, the production of cultural products such as Kramer’s meant the “new queer/PWA [person with AIDS] stood publicly with power and grace, and the defiant determination had long-range influence on how people with HIV and queer people saw themselves and were in turn understood by others” (Schulman 2021, 9). To some extent, Cooke’s production was careful to pay heed to this history. Past productions of The Normal Heart – most notably Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation – have attracted critiques for their slick aesthetic and emphasis on the more sentimental aspects of the play. In Cooke’s theatrical production, the spare stage (containing nothing but a suspended brazier encircled by plain benches) helped to temper the play’s often-hectoring tone and allow its more brutal moments to adequately reflect the corporeal realities of AIDS.
At the same time, the relatively diverse casting decisions addressed (to some extent, at least) the play’s often-cited homogeneity. In a promotional interview for the NT’s marketing campaign, young actor Elander Moore (who played Craig Donner) notes his motivation to work on a production that allows “young, queer people of all kinds and colours” to see themselves onstage and feel empowered to take action in their communities. He also describes his appreciation of the play as an elucidatory polemic capable of teaching young people about the queer histories that remain undiscussed in schools. In some respects, then, Cooke’s production was clearly sensitive to the political exigencies of our current moment. However, Moore’s point about pedagogy also draws into question the role of institutions like the National Theatre in educating a broad citizenry about issues like HIV/AIDS, activism, and social justice. After all, it receives significantly more public funds than other theatres in the UK and is well-known for its educational programmes. Having read, watched, and studied a wide array of HIV/AIDS plays over the past few years, I was unable to watch the latest revival of The Normal Heart without thinking of the many contemporary playwrights whose relatively underpromoted work may better educate the public about the political valences of the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, while resisting the problem of AIDS nostalgia. While such work may be deemed “riskier” for institutions necessarily beholden to profit and reputational imperatives, their inclusion would undoubtedly enrich public discourse and cultural engagement surrounding HIV/AIDS theatre.
About the author
Dr Louisa Hann is an early career researcher, educator, and freelance writer with a PhD from the University of Manchester. She is currently working on her first monograph, which addresses the effects of neoliberalism on HIV/AIDS theatre and activism. Her primary interests revolve around queer theatre and performance art, the political economy of theatre, cultural materialism, and Marxist theory. She has also published a range of work related to the medical humanities and held an ECR fellowship with the NNMHR in 2021.
Kramer, Larry. 2011. The Normal Heart. London: Nick Hern Books.
Schulman, Sarah. 2021. Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993. New York: Picador.