Larry Kramer, Prophet and Pussycat
Larry Kramer, Prophet and Pussycat
On the same sweltering Dallas day that later found him screaming at a crowd of gay revelers, I saw Larry Kramer offer water to a horse.
That was at the start of the city’s 2009 Pride parade, in which Mr. Kramer, the honorary grand marshal, was drawn along the route in a flower-bedecked open carriage, looking like a blissed-out maharajah. “But won’t the horse be thirsty?” he worried. “Let’s see if he’ll drink something.
The horse was confused, and so was I. Mr. Kramer, who died on Wednesday at 84, was far better known as an apostle of anger than a pussycat. In his many careers — activist, journalist, playwright, novelist, curmudgeon — he had served as a kind of reverse lightning rod, drawing out homophobia from American society to light up the sky with danger.
But to really understand plays like “The Normal Heart” and “The Destiny of Me,” and novels like “Faggots” and “The American People,” you needed to know, or sense between the lines of their barely redacted ire, his other side. This was a man who, lonely and self-hating, tried to commit suicide as an undergraduate at Yale; who, obsessed but patient, waited decades to snag the man he loved; who, after alienating many of his friends and allies, cried and cajoled until most of them once again succumbed to his sweetness. To be on his A-list you had first to be in his doghouse.
That combination of mush and belligerence made Mr. Kramer especially difficult to categorize as a playwright. “The Normal Heart,” first performed at the Public Theater in 1985, is a fairly accurate and nearly contemporaneous retelling of his own experience at the beginning of AIDS. It sets forth in plain scenes the story of how he helped create the service and advocacy organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis only to be kicked out when his tactics no longer seemed respectable. For its unblinking portrait of a city bureaucracy and a besieged community unable or unwilling to act, some decried it as a screed; for its story of human love and loss — the Kramer character marries his boyfriend as the boyfriend languishes on his deathbed — others dismissed it as sentimental.
It was neither, or perhaps it was what happens when something is exceedingly both. Mr. Kramer hated attempts to dismiss his work as “merely” political, and yet he sniffed at the pretentiousness of those who would call it art. He wanted to erase the arbitrary line between agitprop and aesthetics, since neither of them alone addressed the apparently bottomless drives pushing him in opposite directions, toward engagement and denunciation. He was happy with the word “reportage.”
Yet “The Normal Heart” (and I’d argue as well for “The Destiny of Me” and “Faggots”) is more art than he was willing to allow. That a play actually changed lives in real time, as the 1985 production did, can hardly be held against it. But the real test of “The Normal Heart” came when it made its Broadway debut a quarter of a century later.
Somewhat removed from the heat of the crisis — though Mr. Kramer characteristically stood outside the John Golden Theater handing out fliers reminding playgoers that AIDS wasn’t over — it had to stand on its own internal merits and blazingly did. Time allowed it to be seen as part of a lineage of drama that derives from the classic Greek plays of fate and hubris. Such plays don’t observe distinctions between politics and poetry; they get to the catharsis of pure shared grief not with needles but with hammers.
Hammer wielders don’t win Nobel Prizes, as Mr. Kramer probably should have, if not for literature then for implacability. His reputation is based not only on “The Normal Heart” and its 1992 follow-up “The Destiny of Me,” both real-time news tickers, but also on “Faggots,” published in 1978. That novel foresaw the way promiscuity, fueled by alcohol, drugs and self-hatred, was destroying the greatest part of gayness and would soon devastate gay men themselves. Though it reads as satire (the Kramer stand-in is called Fred Lemish) and was roundly despised by the community it depicted, in hindsight it is nothing less than a Book of Jeremiah, if Jeremiah were on the prowl in the Fire Island Pines.
The surprise when you get to under the hood of Mr. Kramer’s work is that fury is not the engine. Looking for love — “Not universal love/But to be loved alone,” as Auden put in the poem that gave “The Normal Heart” its name — is what makes the plays go, though part of the drama is the effort they make to hide or contradict that. Even “The American People,” his monumental and nearly insane two-part, 1,700-page novel reframing of the history of the United States as a tale of gay vs. evil, is ultimately a work of romance. It comes to life most successfully when it considers (or fantasizes) Abraham Lincoln in bed with Joshua Speed or “major gay” George Washington and the “love of his life,” Alexander Hamilton. The rest is a carapace, a refuge.
Anger, then, was Larry Kramer’s closet — what he showed the world first. Back in Dallas, at the end of the parade route, his message to the barely listening crowd was a classic harangue in that vein: You are hated, you are passive, you need to be screaming like banshees. But even then, as in his plays, his motive was that of a man who would offer a horse a drink. He knew what thirst was.