(Reprise) Best of PositiveLite.com: Bob Leahy talks to Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart

Published 10, Nov, 2012
Author // Bob Leahy - Publisher

Sometimes you just have to ask. Bob Leahy asked Larry Kramer for an interview. “Send me the questions” he said. So we did.

(Reprise) Best of PositiveLite.com: Bob Leahy talks to Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer (born June 25, 1935) is an American playwright, author, public health advocate, and LGBT rights activist. He began his career rewriting scripts while working for Columbia Pictures, which led him to London where he worked with United Artists. There he wrote the screenplay for Women in Love in 1969, earning an Academy Award nomination for his efforts.

In New York, Kramer witnessed the first spread of the disease that became known as AIDS among his friends in 1980, and he co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which has become the largest private organization to assist people living with HIV in the world. Not content with the social services GMHC provided, Kramer expressed his frustration with bureaucratic paralysis and the apathy of gay men to the AIDS crisis by writing a play The Normal Heart which was first produced at The Public Theatre in New York City in 1985. His political activism extended to the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, a direct action protest organization widely credited with changing public health policy and widespread perception of people living with HIV and awareness of HIV and AIDS-related diseases. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Destiny of Me (1992), and has been a two-time recipient of the Obie Award.

Larry Kramer was diganozed HIV-positive in 1988.

The Normal Heart enjoyed a highly successful Broadway revival in 2011, winning three Tony Awards. It is currently playing in a Studio 180 Theatre production at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto until November 18.


Bob Leahy: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to PositiveLite.com. We’ve been covering the Toronto production of The Normal Heart in some depth, so this couldn’t have come at a better time for us. But first of all, how are you? Are you keeping well?

Larry Kramer: All well, thanks. Have terrible tinnitus of all things.

I said in my review that I regard The Normal Heart as a remarkable play, capable of bringing out remarkable emotions in people who see it. But talking of emotions, you were clearly very angry when you wrote The Normal Heart. Are you still as angry? And is that a good or a bad thing?

Anger is a very healthy emotion. I hope I am always angry.

I think everybody I’ve talked to who has seen the show has been profoundly moved. Most people cry. That last scene is devastating, of course, but there are many other moments where it’s hard not to get emotional long before that. I want to ask you - does seeing the show make you cry, after all this time?

There are certain things that always make me cry, mostly having to do with the scenes with my brother, and the scene where Felix comes to him to make a will.

And secondly, does it restore your faith in people - I’m thinking of gay men in particular - that yes, men really are able to connect with the kind of hurt the show depicts.

No, I am never satisfied in this regard. I think the gay population, much as I love them and love being gay, has a long way to go in learning how to fight for our rights.


You’ve made it clear this play is autobiographical. Now in it, Ned comes across as entirely lovable, even though we are shocked at his behaviour. Did you make any attempt to soften your own character as portrayed in Ned. I guess I’m asking - were you as lovable then as Ned seems to be?

I tried to make him angry. Never thought of him as lovable! That actor in Toronto must be doing one hell of a job!

The relationship you describe that Ned has with his brother is fascinatingly complex. It strikes me as the “other” love story in the play. How closely does that mirror the relationship you had with your own brother, Arthur.

The whole play I hope mirrors what happened but the scenes with Arthur were composed with great care for what we did say and argued about.

When Mickey Marcus breaks down lamenting that the sexual liberation of the 70s caused the epidemic - I think he says “I don’t know what is right, I don’t know what is wrong” it strikes me as a key moment in the play. (Ryan Kelly plays the role amazingly in Toronto, by the way.) Was that scene hard to write? Did it mirror how you yourself felt at the time?

Mickey never says that the sexual liberation caused the epidemic. He is fighting against saying this. This is what Ned thinks. But yes, again, the character is a real person, still alive, and these mirror his words. When he says he doesn’t know what’s right or what’s wrong, he’s referring to the information he is haunted about giving or not giving out. You’re not going to believe this, but this play wrote itself, once I got the hang of it!

By the end of the show Ned seems to have absolutely no allies. Nobody is on his side. Was that really the case in real life? I mean did you have any support at all from either within GMHC or outside of it?

No, I was very much a pariah for many years. GMHC refused to take me back like three or four times when I actually begged. The only person who stayed my friend was the character of Tommy, who was named Rodger Mcfarlane, who went on to run GMHC, then Broadway Cares.


You mentioned in your notes you handed out after the NYC show that Paul Popham, the GMHC head portrayed in the show as straight-acting Bruce, called you on his deathbed after years of silence. That must have been an incredibly charged conversation. Can you share how it went?

Well Paul was literally on his death bed and his caregiver, a mutual friend and therapist named Dixie Beckham arranged the call when he was willing to do it.  It was very short. We both apologized to each other, or rather said something like, “I’m sorry things happened between us like they did”. Then he said, "you must not stop fighting”.   And we both said goodbye. Yes, very moving.

You say also that “all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure”.  Can you expand on where we went wrong, and what kind of messaging we need to turn things around?

There are certain things that just went wrong and have stayed wrong and I don’t think anyone has figured out a way to educate the world and deal with prevention adequately. I do think it should be much more in your face. Calling it as it is. We have in our sexual acts the ability to murder people. Stop thinking with your cock. That’s in the play. But no one has ever been willing to be this strong and honest.

You’ve said in the past that your reputation is “completely that of a crazy man”. Do you think that your reputation has been at all repatriated by the renewed success of the show?

No comment.

Everybody wants to know about the movie version. It’s had a bit of a rocky history, but now it looks like it’s moving ahead, with Brad Pitt’s company producing, right? Will you be involved much in that adaption? And how do you feel about the prospect of a huge new audience getting to hear your story?

It seems to be moving along. I have written the screenplay and Ryan Murphy has signed a contract that he has to follow it. He is directing, Mark Ruffalo is to play Ned. That’s all that’s set. I am assuming that shooting will begin next summer but Ryan has not told me so definitely. I know he wants Julia Roberts for Emma. I believe we both want Jim Parsons to repeat his great performance as Tommy. Someday I will write the whole story of ten years with Streisand. Or I won’t! (1)

A personal question. What are you most proud of in your life, Larry?

I am most proud of starting ACT UP and the fact that every AIDS med. out there is out there because of ACT UP and other activists. We got the drugs to save our own lives. It was an incredible organization and moving experience. And I wish it were still going strong, because we still need it so. But once we had the drugs, the main impetus for such activism sadly evaporated very quickly.

Thank you so much for talking to us. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.

Thank you!

(1) See Barbra Streisand and Larry Karmer Debate The Normal Heart, Entertainment Weeekly May 2011.

 Read our reviews of the Studio 180 Theatre production of The Normal Heart here and here.

THE NORMAL HEART (re) runs until November 18, 2012 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto. Box Office -- 416-975-8555.

 More info: www.studio180theatre.com


About the Author

Bob Leahy - Publisher

Bob Leahy - Publisher

Award-winning blogger Bob Leahy first made his social media mark a decade ago on LiveJournal.com where there are still to this day almost 3,000 entries of his available to be read. He was a featured blogger on Ontario’s HIVStigma.com campaign, along with PositiveLite.com founder Brian Finch. He joined PositiveLite.com at its inception in 2009 and became it's Editor a year later.

Born in the UK, Bob’s background is in corporate banking, which he gladly left in 1994, after being diagnosed with HIV the previous year.  He has chaired the board of PARN (Peterborough AIDS Resource Network) and has been an executive board member of both the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN) and the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS).  He was inducted in to the Ontario AIDS Network’s Honour Roll in 2005.  Bob is currently a member of Ontario’s GMSH (Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance). He also writes for TheBody.com.

In 2012, Bob was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal for his work and commitment to HIV/AIDS in Canada.

Bob continues to write for this site while in the Positivelite.Com editor’s seat, with a particular interest  in HIV prevention, theatre and the arts in general. He is accredited media for a number of Toronto theatres. He lives in Warkworth, Ontario with his partner of thirty-two years and three dogs.