Larry Kramer, the fiery activist whose play The Normal Heart woke many to the threat of AIDS in its early days, has died at 84. He died of complications from pneumonia, his husband David Webster confirmed to The New York Times. The artist had lived with and fought HIV for much of his adult life.
His two best-known plays, The Normal Heart and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Destiny of Me, were strongly autobiographical. Both chronicled the battles of a character named Ned Weeks, a barely disguised alter ego for Kramer himself. His offstage life was scarcely less dramatic. He co-founded the AIDS activist group New York City Gay Men's Health Crisis, but feuded with the board, which eventually revoked his membership. Kramer then inspired the creation of an even more strongly activist group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which plastered the slogan “Silence = Death” across New York starting in the 1980s. He eventually locked horns with ACT UP as well.
At a time in the 1980s when the gay community and AIDS sufferers at large were being told to be patient and quiet, Kramer insisted on shouting from the rooftops that the community had no time to waste, and demanding immediate action from political leaders including President Ronald Reagan and New York Mayor Edward Koch. He also demanded that people at risk of contracting and spreading AIDS modify their sexual behavior. In the process he alienated many, including in the power structure of the gay community and the organizations he helped found. Kramer then did an end-run around them all, turning his outrage into The Normal Heart.
He battled both opponents of the LGBTQ+ community and the community itself, the former for their hostility and criminal indifference to the growing crisis, and the latter for what he saw as their shortsightedness and fecklessness. However, his uncompromising attitude coupled with his plays helped alter the political and social reaction to AIDS and saved many lives—though nowhere near the number he had hoped.
Kramer was born June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and graduated from Yale University in 1957. He began writing films, including an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, which earned him a 1970 Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Despite the acclaim, Kramer had not enjoyed the experience of writing screenplays and longed to write about homosexuality, still a largely forbidden topic in the early 1970s. He tried writing an autobiographical film about his struggles being a gay man at Yale, which he called Sissies’ Scrapbook, but he could not get it financed. Instead, his agent submitted it to the recently formed Off-Broadway company Playwrights Horizons, which accepted it and produced it in 1973. It was later produced commercially at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) in Greenwich Village under the title Four Friends.
Kramer again used his own life as the basis for fiction in his 1978 novel Faggots, about the sex lives of a group of gay New Yorkers. It took fire from critics for its unstinting portrait of casual sex and drug use, but it also was criticized by members of the gay community for what they perceived as a harshly unflattering picture of their world.
As the AIDS epidemic began to gather force in the early 1980s, Kramer was one of a half dozen founders of a group called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to provide crisis counseling, legal aid, and social services for those suffering from a mysterious disease that seemed to be targeting gay men. Kramer was the most outspoken member of the group and constantly pushed it to become more political. When GMHC resisted, he helped found ACT UP.
These experiences fueled The Normal Heart, which opened at The Public Theater in 1985. It ruthlessly named the names of people and institutions, including The New York Times, that Kramer felt were not focusing attention and resources on the growing “plague” that was decimating its sufferers, mainly members of the gay community. It ran 294 performances and was widely seen and discussed, helping to move the subject into the national spotlight.
The success of the play prompted Kramer to follow it with Just Say No (1988), a full-bore ad-hominem attack on political leaders modeled on Reagan and Koch. The Times, which had lauded The Normal Heart, called the new play, “a churlish assault on just about everybody in the governmental line of fire, and others the author might accuse of being guilty by reason of relationship. Combine beanball pitching and below-the-belt in-fighting and one might begin to have an idea of the show’s aim.”
The play lasted out its one-month limited run at the WPA Playhouse, and did not continue. However, the stress of its failure sent Kramer into the hospital, where it was discovered that, in addition to liver damage, he himself was HIV positive. Kramer later had to fight to obtain a liver transplant, which were being routinely withheld from AIDS patients.
Kramer’s 1992 play The Destiny of Me was effectively a sequel-prequel to The Normal Heart, dealing with the continuing story of Ned Weeks as he is treated for AIDS at the National Institutes of Health and flashes back to scenes of his childhood. The Destiny of Me was cited as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 and won an OBIE Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. In 2013, Kramer was given the Isabelle Stevenson Award from the Tony Awards for his public service to the theatre community.
The Normal Heart attracted a wider audience in 2011 when it was revived on Broadway with Joe Mantello, Jim Parsons, John Benjamin Hickey, and Ellen Barkin. The show won three Tony Awards including Best Revival. That led to the 2014 TV version from Ryan Murphy, which featured Mantello and Parsons along with Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Groff, B.D. Wong, Denis O’Hare, and Julia Roberts.
Kramer produced a late-life novel, The American People: Volume 1, published in 2015; a Volume 2, subtitled The Brutality of Fact, was published earlier this year.
He was also the subject of a 2015 documentary film, Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, directed by Jean Carlomusto, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film showed the now-elderly Kramer as involved and outraged as ever, lashing out at the National Institutes of Health for having produced no cure for AIDS, at the critics of the film Stonewall, and continuing to insist that the gay community and other minority groups were still being subjected to “genocide.”