It's actually kind of amazing to think about Larry Kramer's play, "The Normal Heart," now being presented at a Broadway theater (The John Golden Theatre) and drawing full houses. I went last night, the house seemed very full for a Tuesday evening, and the experience was overwhelming.
This play has a special resonance for me, not only because I've had various contacts with Larry over the years but also because I came to know several of the people who were the basis for characters in this play. And, of course, I lived through those years and experienced some part of what the characters were experiencing.
When I arrived at New York Law School as a new faculty member in the summer of 1982, the phenomenon of AIDS was mainly something I was reading about in the newspaper (and not frequently enough, since my main source was The NY Times, which did not give nearly enough attention to AIDS during these early years – a major theme of the play), but then I confronted reality. It turned out that one of my faculty colleagues, Jim Kibbey, had AIDS, and went into the hospital with a bad case of pneumocystis pneumonia during the first week of the fall semester. I had only met him once, at a faculty committee meeting over the summer, but presumed on that acquaintance to visit him in the hospital, and became a regular visitor over the course of the semester, observing and bemoaning his rapid decline. I found a volunteer lawyer to make a will for him that December, and he passed away early in January 1983 – probably among the first 100 to die from "complications of AIDS" in New York City. That and my continuing relationship with Lambda Legal Defense as a member of their legal committee got me more involved. I ended up representing a young man, on behalf of Lambda, in the first AIDS-related discrimination case filed at the NY City Human Rights Commission, helped to set up the first AIDS pro bono legal panel in NY through the NY Law Group, a social organization of gay lawyers that I had started a few years earlier (which subsequently evolved into our local gay bar association), and helped to persuade Gay Men's Health Crisis to take our pro bono panel in-house and start a legal services department, headed at the beginning by Steve Gittleson, whose volunteer administration of our pro bono panel had practically taken over his solo law practice. I wrote a chapter on AIDS discrimination for the AIDS Legal Guide edited by Abby Rubenfeld and published by Lambda Legal in 1984, and turned that into the first law review article to be published on AIDS discrimination, in 1985. I started including items about AIDS law in the newsletter I published for the gay lawyers, and then joined a group that produced the first law school textbook on AIDS and the law, published in 1989. And I began to write on legal issues for the local gay press, including coverage of AIDS law developments. But most importantly was living through the personal connections and the losses, attending memorial services, and so forth, losing people with whom I was closely associated, at school, in the lawyers group, and at the gay synagogue.
In any event, going to Larry's play brings back all kinds of memories of those frustrating times in the 1980s when it seemed impossible to get serious government attention on AIDS – when it turned out that help came from unexpected places. In NY State, the elected official who turned out to be most receptive early on to the need to do something was a Republican state senator, Roy Goodman, a "moderate" who represented a Manhattan district and sponsored the bill establishing the state's AIDS Institute. This at a time when the governor, Mario Cuomo, and the mayor, Ed Koch, seemed tone-deaf to the problem, and the health department was constantly playing catch-up with new developments. Cuomo seemed to wake up much sooner than Koch, and eventually NY State and the City Health Department did become much more involved, but it was real slogging for an unconscionably long time.
So these thoughts keep getting evoked while watching Larry's play. I was not an insider to those events around the founding of GMHC, although I heard about various aspects second-hand and usually after the fact. Clearly, Larry and the small circle of acquaintances he got to start the organization had very differing views about why they were starting it and what it was intended to accomplish. He wanted an organization that would be on the front-lines of advocacy, but most of the board wanted an organization that would provide services to the people living with the disease. They pushed to a 501(c)(3) tax status, essentially to raising real money to pay for rented premises, a staff, and a major push on services, but that meant they would have to limit their visible political work, if any, to avoid endangering their tax status. The kind of organization Larry wanted would have been a 501(c)(4), tax exempt but not tax deductible, because of its overt political activity. Achieving (c)(3) status tends to induce caution and timidity about political advocacy – thus the frustrations and clashes, made more difficult by the closeted status of many of the board members, people of means in professional jobs where they feared discrimination if they became too open as AIDS policy advocates. They ultimately pushed Larry out, seeing his behavior as endangering the ability of their organization to establish a working relationship with the city government bureaucracy, and he ultimately started ACT-UP, an organization more suited to what he wanted to do, and an organization that produced enormous public policy changes – among other things, revolutionizing the way new medical treatments are developed and put into practice. In retrospect, it seems to me that the medications that were introduced in the mid-1990s that made HIV infection a manageable condition for those who could obtain access to the treatment would not have come nearly so soon without the prodding that ACT-UP gave to the pharmaceutical and medical establishments and the government bureaucracy.-
The problems with GMHC were a recipe for frustration, especially for Kramer, who quickly developed a clear vision of what needed to be done to stem the epidemic, but couldn't get public officials or the leaders of his organization to embrace it, and – given the clarity of his vision about the scope of the looming tragedy – was unwilling to be patient or polite. This produces plenty of conflict, and that makes for a gripping play.
I saw the original production at the Public Theater, and the revival there a few years ago. Each production had its own style, each very effective in its own way, and the new one, with its visually minimalist staging, directing all the focus on the actors and their interactions with no fancy sets or other visual distractions, may be the most powerful yet, not least because the message remains, unfortunately, very timely.
Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks, the character based on Kramer, is stunning. But so is the entire cast: Ellen Barkin, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke MacFarlane, Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Richard Topol, and Wayne Alan Wilcox. I have a special soft spot for Jim Parsons, who plays the character based on Rodger MacFarlane, an early executive director of GMHC and then a force behind Equity Fights AIDS, who won the heart of just about anyone who knew him – an unfortunate victim to this madness who ended his life prematurely (long after the events depicted in the play and after accomplishing an incredible amount). Joel Grey, who played the part of Ned Weeks for part of the run in the original production, and George C. Wolfe are credited as co-directors, and their work here is also stunning. Everybody involved has done a spectacular job.
It's a limited run…. and, as I said, last night's house was very full. So if you are at all interested, don't hesitate and don't delay. This must be seen. And Larry's personal message, delivered to theater-goers as they exit back onto West 45th Street, must be read and appreciated. The epidemic continues and we can't afford to let up, as millions continue to be infected and millions continue to encounter discrimination and to die.