Theatre Review: The Normal Heart

In a discussion on another blog, View From the Hill, I recently made a comment about history reading.  The blogger had suggested several texts about recent politic issues.  I responded, tongue-in-cheek, that Shakespeare’s history plays provided me with ample themes that could be applied to any time period.  When we attended Arena Stage’s production of The Normal Heart, this thought about Shakespeare’s history plays kept creeping into my consciousness.  So, what do Elizabethan era plays about English royalty and Roman leaders have to do with the development of leadership in the gay community in response to AIDS in the early 1980’s, the topic of The Normal Heart?

I will posit as my premises that prior works of art inform current productions, and that historical patterns repeats themselves.  As to the history behind the play, Larry Kramer writes autobiographically from the position of being a cofounder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in NYC, about which the play focuses.  Later, he founded ACT UP, which is eluded to at the end of the play.  The Normal Heart has the possibility of historical credibility, in as much as it is “based on true stories” from the years in which the trend of gay men dying mysteriously and rapidly before HIV was defined.  Regarding literary references, Mr. Kramer’s credits as a film writer and playwright, fiction and non-fiction writer, suggest that he is familiar with literature.  At one point, one of the characters, out of frustration of non-recognition, recites a couple of dozen famous writers, artist, philosophers, and politicians whose sexual orientation and behavior was homosexual.  One of the most hilarious lines of the play is a reference to the character, Blanche, from Tennessee William’s play, Street Car Named Desire (this references Blanche’s broken heart over a man who committed suicide because he was gay).

Shakespeare’s history plays* are memorable because Shakespeare outline key character types, who rule nations.  Coriolanus tries to hold a democratic society together against the apathy of most and tyranny of the minority.  Timon of Athens is a charismatic leader, whose followers fall away when he cannot provide the lavish lifestyle they expect from him.  Caesar is the dictator for life, whom his confidents assassinate lest he retain his power.  Anthony and Cleopatra are the scheming rulers who forge an alliance only to destroy each other.  Macbeth and Claudius (from Hamlet) usurp the thrown to their own demise.  McDuff and Hamlet will restore the right of rule by unveiling Macbeth’s and Claudius’ betrayal, in their respective plays.  King Lear avoids the decision about who would best rule his land, dividing it foolishly. King John usurps the crown from his brother, Richard the Lionhearted, to have his powers reigned in by the Magna Carta.  Richard II falls to Bolingbroke, who sets up Henry IV, who will bear Henry V, who will befriend Falstaff in his wanton youth, then reject him in his royal position. And, this is only a quick list of some of Shakespeare’s leaders.  (*I recognize that several of the plays that I cite are usually classified as tragedies, but each of these focuses on power & politics, thus I use the term “history” generally here).

Kramer’s script and the cast at Arena Stage bring out the events and themes of this history through the creation of archetypal gay characters.  The play opens with Dr. Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig) examining gay men who are suddenly dying of “diseases that shouldn’t hurt a baby”.  In this play of fiery speeches, she carries the stage in one diatribe against the funding board of the National Institutes of Health, “You give 20 million to study the death of 7 people from Tylenol, but I come with a 1000 cases of gay me dying and I can’t get half a million to find out why because no one has a theory!” (my paraphrase).  Dr. Brookner links up early with Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), the other fiery tongue, who is a writer, researching these deaths for an article that he wants to write, but no newspaper will publish, because of Ned’s frank discussion of homosexual culture.   Together they confront the issue that at that time the gay community had many factions, but no organization and no leadership.  The sexual revolution did not have leaders and certainly did not want anyone tell them, “You’re fucking each other to death” (pretty much a quote).

Ned begins to gather friends who agree to start a group that wants to follow the trends, organize the gay community, and provide education on what this health crisis is about.  Mickey Marcus (Micheal Berresse) works for the NYC Health Department, and recognizes that the city government does not want to acknowledge or address issues that appear to be only related to the gay community.  Bruce Niles (Nick Mennell) is the lover of one of the first characters to die on stage.  Mr. Niles is a VP at a large bank, and fears that if he were “outted” his career would be in jeopardy.   Yet, he quickly forms another monogamous relationship with Alfred, and at risk of exposure, takes him back to his home and mother in Arizona before Alfred dies. He describes the indignity of the local hospital refusing to accept Alfred, and then having to shop around funeral homes with his body until they find an undertaker who will take the risk of cremating him without a death certificate. Though they all agree that the Gay Men’s Health Crisis needs to be formed, they have different agendas.  Ned represents the militant leader; Bruce the negotiating leader; Mickey the insider and peacekeeper, who wants to push the issue, but recognizes that the formal authorities will only accept so much pressure.

Several other characters join the organization in different degrees.  Ned’s brother, Ben Weeks (John Procaccino), becomes a silent legal advisor and financial supporter.  He does not support the gay lifestyle, but he attempts to reach out to his brother, frustrated that any effort does not seem sufficient.  Tommy Boatwright (Christopher J. Hanke) joins the GMHC as a front line worker, answering phones and working as a nurse at a local hospital that serves many gay men.  He breaks the tension of the group and play, tossing out some of the best lines to turn our tears to laughs if only for a moment.  Without Mr. Boatwright, this play, and this crisis would be unbearable.  Felix Turner (Luke Macfarlane) is the fashion editor for the New York Times.  He makes no attempt to hide his homosexual orientation, but defies Ned’s request to use his influence to get articles printed about gay men dying.  “I print articles about gay artists, musicians, playwrights, designers all the time.  I just can say they are gay.”  He and Ned become partners, which brings into view the other tension within the play: was the sexual revolution about being promiscuous or about being allowed to develop loving, committed gay relationships?

The conflicts in the play progress from developing the GMHC, to the expulsion of Ned from the leadership, to Felix developing symptoms of AIDS and then struggling through experimental chemotherapy, to Dr. Brookner “marrying” Felix and Ned as he lies dying in the hospital bed.  History plays are limited by the playwright’s attempt to develop and conclude events, which will continue on.  While the GMHC progressed into an organization to provide care for people with AIDS/HIV, Ned would start a more activist group providing education about AIDS/HIV and sexual behavior.  Companies would begin providing domestic partner benefits.  The military would go with Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, then repeal this.  States now debate civil unions and gay marriage.   History plays are suspect for skewing facts of history to press some agenda.  Were Shakespeare’s Roman histories really relating events or supporting the idealization of the Roman Republic era?  Were his English histories mostly propaganda boosting the Tudor right to the thrown?

Panels of the AIDS Quilt

Why would I prefer Shakespeare’s histories to more current dramas?  In some ways, the distance of several centuries separates me from the events.  A contemporary play brings events of my life sometimes into too close of a focus.  Walking into Arena Stage, several of the panels of the AIDS Quilt (assembled from the Names Project in the late 1980’s) were on display as well as information on AIDS prevention.  Linda recalls going to the Mall at that time and seeing the AIDS Quilt spread out around the Washington Monument.  I recall moving to NYC in 1987, and experience the devastation of AIDS with friends and patients.

When I prepared to leave for NYC, my sister-in-law’s sister pulled me aside and gave me the name of a friend of hers who had moved to NYC. She informed me that he had AIDS and asked that I check in on him.  In the summer of that year, I gave him a call and invited myself over.  I recall entering a hot walk-up apartment, with a window fan circulating hot city air.  Her friend called out to let myself in.  He sat on a sofa, too weak to get up.  His hair was gone from the chemotherapy.  His muscles wasted.  But, he had a gracious smile and warm welcome to a young man whom a friend had sent from across the country.  We visited for a while.

I called him the next week, but no one answered, and I left a message.  A few days later, I received a call from one of his friends, whom I never met, to let me know that he was in St. Vincent’s Hospital.  I took the subway down to the hospital after work.  I was directed to the ICU.  Her friend lay silent, in a coma.  I sat with him, the hospital staff busying themselves with their duties.  I returned for a second visit on the weekend.  He was on a ventilator.  A nurse asked if I knew his family or friends.  I admitted that I was only a new acquaintance.  A few days later, I received another voicemail message to inform me that he had died.  The next year I joined the AIDS Walk, organized by ACT UP.  I wore the black T-shirt with the pink triangle and SILENCE = DEATH logo for years.

One of the theatrical tactics that Arena Stage used to illuminate the spread of AIDS was lighting that occurred between scenes.  When the stage lights dimmed for actors to leave the stage and the props to be repositioned, on the back wall were projected the names of those who had died of AIDS. With each scene change the list grew.  At the end of the last scene, Ned stands, spotlighted, while the set and all the other actors are covered in the names, then more names begin to appear on all the walls of the theatre.  The list grows from those on stage to those of us in the audience.  After the final curtain call, after the houselights are up and we begin to file out, I glance back to see the statistic, “Worldwide, 35 million have died from AIDS”.

Thirty years on, AIDS is an epidemic of gay men, IV drug users, men and women in sex trafficking and their customers, African-American men and women from their 20’s to 40’s, and the white suburbs.  Yet, I hear about young gay men neglecting the lessons of safe sex and monogamy.  I hear about law enforcement and prison procedures that expose addicts to infection, rather than acknowledge behavior does not fit policy statements about drugs and sex in prisons.  I hear that European health advocates’ concern at the recent EuroCup soccer tournament, held in the Ukraine, was that 30% of the prostitutes in Kiev are HIV positive.  I hear about the African-American culture in which secrets and silence prohibits acknowledging the infection rates in that community.  I hear about men and women using dating services to “hook up” with the expectation that one date is sufficient to warrant sex.  Thirty-years on, will we lose another generation?

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”  Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2.




About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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4 Responses to Theatre Review: The Normal Heart

  1. The Vicar says:

    Spoiler Alert! I’m reading a four volume series this summer on the life of Julius Caesar. It’s historical fiction and I’ve only finished the second book, which finishes with Julius being sent to command legions in Spain in an effort to keep him away from Rome. Now you’re telling me he gets assassinated! I can’t believe his boyhood friend Brutus would let an assassin get that close to Caesar!

    Thanks for your thoughtful sharing of your experiences while the AIDS epidemic unfolded. It’s easier to keep a crisis at arms length when there aren’t names and stories associated with it. Reports and statistics insulate us from the human suffering that is taking place, and news reports make it sound like everything is happening “over there”, or at least to others. Randy Shilts book “And the Band Played On” chronicled the indifference of many to the growing AIDS epidemic in America.

    Working in the restaurant industry in the early 80’s I was fortunate to have many friends that would identify themselves as gay. It was nice to get to know them beyond their sexual orientation. They were people with hopes and dreams, as well as pasts, just like me.

  2. Barneysday says:

    Great piece. You really have two issues here, the AIDS/HIV epidemic, and todays political shenanigans. I so agree that Shakespeare, 500 years ago, talks of the same issues facing us today. Are we not attempting a coup, to overthrow a leader because the “Haves” still don’t have enough, and want more than the leader can provide?

    Living in the Bay Area at the beginning of the AIDS awareness times, I still recall the politics of medical and media companies turning a blind eye to the alarming death rates, and the terribly emaciated bodies of the victims about to die. I also recall the vehement, albeit initial, denials by the gay community, and the arguments against closing the bath houses and sex clubs. In your field, you are acutely aware that we have a long way to go, but I do know we’ve certainly come a long way on all fronts, from treatments, to acceptance, to awareness. Thirty years ago, none of this was even on the scope of possibility.

    Again, great message and thanks for sharing your understanding and insight.


    • hermitsdoor says:

      Your observations about the gay community resisting closing the bath houses and sex clubs was front and center in this play. I thought that Mr. Kramer handled the division within the gay community frankly and honestly. Odd how we can punctuate our lives when a famous person dies, a big earthquake occurs, etc, but thousands can vanish, slowly and quietly, and no one takes notice.

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