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Appreciation: Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist whose playwriting saved lives too

Larry Kramer in "Love & Anger"
Larry Kramer speaking at a Boston Gay Town Meeting in June 1987. 
(Ellen Shub / HBO)

Larry Kramer was many things — a firebrand activist, a political gadfly, the loudest voice in any room. He was a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Act Up, two organizations that changed the course of the AIDS epidemic in America.

But what he wanted to be seen as first and foremost was a writer — the way he understood himself. Writer-activist, in that order, as he told me in a 2015 interview.

To his heroic credit, when history called, he didn’t let his literary ambitions thwart his service, as others who feared being pegged as that kind of author had done. For Kramer, who died at age 84 in Manhattan on Wednesday, not speaking up was a signal of a dishonorable combination — of cowardice, willful blindness and greed. He was constitutionally incapable of self-serving apathy, but that’s not to say that he didn’t recognize the cost of his conscience to that quieter corner of his identity as an artist.

Before the AIDS epidemic, Kramer was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (“Women in Love”) and the author of “Faggots,” a novel whose mission-rattling title, he feared, kept critics from noticing how hard he worked on the book’s style. Boisterously breaking ground for gay writing while living comfortably off the smartly invested proceeds of his screenplay for the notorious Hollywood musical flop “Lost Horizon,” he found himself embattled on two fronts: ghettoized by a dismissive mainstream and criticized by the gay community for giving voice to his ambivalence about pre-AIDS party culture.

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That no one seemed to notice just how hard he worked on the book’s sentences still bothered him years later. When I spoke to him at his Greenwich Village home around the time of the HBO documentary “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” he wasn’t bursting with pride at being lionized as a public hero for a new generation. He was recovering from some devastating reviews of his book “The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart,” an epic account of history through a lavender lens, and mournfully confided that he felt snubbed by (of all outlets) the Paris Review for its lack of interest in him as a writer.

Activism, for Kramer, was an unfinishable task. How could he bask in the pride of having built up LGBTQinstitutional and political muscle when all he could see was the refusal of rich and famous gay men to use their power against the homophobic forces that were forever looking for opportunities to turn back the clock?

Matt Bomer, Hillary Clinton, Elton John and Lin-Manuel Miranda pay tribute to Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist and playwright who died Wednesday at 84.

Yes, he named names. His voice was faint and his body frail, but his moral outrage was intact. A long-term HIV survivor who was rescued from death by a liver transplant in 2001, he lived the history that a new generation seemed to him all too happy to renounce.

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Hectoring came naturally to Kramer, whose wrath was in direct proportion to his capacity to care. Great writers like Shakespeare are often held up for not inserting their political views into their work. Art that’s deployed as a soapbox may be of value for a moment, but the longevity of this kind of work tends to be tied to the circumstance that gave rise to it.

How much of Kramer’s artistic output will endure is a question that might seem impolite in an appreciation of a legacy that is so much larger than literary merit. But I raise the matter to assert that in his most important work, “The Normal Heart,” the writer and the activist sides of Kramer’s identity were brought into intelligent harmony. The play stands with Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” as an indelible achievement in this heavyhearted period of American drama.

Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks in "The Normal Heart" on Broadway.
(Joan Marcus)

This appraisal, reached long before Kramer’s death, surprised me, as I had assumed the play, to reverse Ben Jonson’s words about Shakespeare, was not for all time but for an age. When I first encountered the work at the Public Theater in 1985, huddled in the traumatic silence with my fellow grief-stricken theatergoers, the agitprop nature of the drama is what stood out. This was art as activism. Its value to me was in carving out communal space for contemplation and collective action.

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When in 2011 the revival directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe arrived on Broadway, I knew the play would be of historical interest. But I worried that Kramer’s editorializing would seem dated and that the weaknesses in his playwriting would be more conspicuous at a time when AIDS was no longer a death sentence but a manageable condition.

It wasn’t really a shock that Kramer’s fierce politics still resonated. Indeed, if “The Normal Heart” were to be revived today in the midst of a different pandemic, the work would have us once again at the tearful curtain call raising our fists at the murderous incompetence of our leaders.

Writing for The Times in 1994, playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who died Wednesday, called Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” “heartbreakingly mediocre.”

Some things never change, but it was Joe Mantello’s portrayal of Ned Weeks, Kramer’s surrogate, that brought forth the work’s most enduring truth. Kramer saw himself in all his volatile complexity as a man both impossible and necessary, a brawler whose insides are bruised, a revolutionary whose militancy is born out of mourning.

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In dramatizing his crusade to call public attention to a disease that was ravaging the gay community, Mantello didn’t just honor this character — he revealed the contradictory human lineaments that Kramer took pains not to gloss over. There have been less successful productions than this Tony-winning revival, but Ryan Murphy’s moving TV film, which starred Mark Ruffalo (and featured Mantello in a different role), proved this was no fluke.

When I met with Kramer, what struck me was his sadness, the sadness of someone whose anger is rooted in love. Dr. Anthony Fauci told the New York Times, “Once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

In my experience, once you got past the ferocity and fury of his usually righteous indignation, you found that Larry Kramer was an artist who never stopped fighting for us.


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