Tim Miller lived only a few blocks from the The Public Theater in New York City when it debuted “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s monumental play about the AIDS crisis, in 1985. He vividly remembers seeing it.
“I don’t think there’s any performance I’ve seen of any play, opera, dance, whatever, as intense as those performances at The Public Theater,” says Miller, a gay performance artist. “People were afraid to go to ‘The Normal Heart’ at the Public because they might get AIDS at the theater.”
The play, set between 1981 and 1984, was nearly contemporaneous to the place the New York gay community found itself in when it premiered: only beginning to understand the AIDS epidemic. It follows a reluctant gay activist named Ned Weeks, who served as a stand-in for the work and proselytizing Kramer was doing, which included founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group. The audience witnesses Weeks confront skeptics, not only in the political and medical communities but in the gay community as well, about what's necessary to curb a disease killing gay men in New York by the hundreds.
“Literally, the feeling of people being fearful of being in the audience and sharing air is testament to why the piece was so important,” Miller says.
His experience likely will be very different from that of a new audience soon to be introduced to “The Normal Heart” – perhaps from their couches during a long weekend – when HBO premieres its adaptation Sunday evening. The film is directed by Ryan Murphy of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” fame, who had Kramer's participation in writing the screenplay. Early reviews have praised the film for emulating the emotional power – much of it brute anger – of the stage original. But that hasn’t stopped some from asking, "Why now?"
It's taken 30 years for “The Normal Heart” to make it to the screen in part due to the legal wrangling over the play’s rights and the funding of the project, which included a notorious falling out between Barbra Streisand and Kramer. Murphy eventually bought the rights which, in his words, cost "a pretty penny."
“There's no part of this film that doesn't feel absolutely relevant to now,” says Plan B Entertainment president Dede Gardner, one of the film's executive producers. “Whether it has to do with the particularities of this disease, which I think remains relevant today as it was then, to discussion of complacency on our watch and what we do about that, to its examination of what protests really look like.”
When it opened onstage in 1985, “The Normal Heart” electrified New York audiences and became The Public Theater's longest-running production.
“It was an opportunity not only to educate the people at risk about what was going on – and we knew very, very little – but also it became an opportunity to educate audiences who were themselves afraid of the people most impacted by this terrible epidemic: gay men,” says Therese Jones, director of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program at the University of Colorado's Center for Bioethics and Humanities. She also teaches a course on AIDS and American culture. “It really in many ways accelerated what we saw was a cultural trend towards humanizing these early individuals and groups most affected by this terrible disease.”
Within 10 years, Tom Hanks had earned an Academy Award for playing a gay lawyer with HIV in the 1993 film “Philadelphia.”
But while “The Normal Heart” and “As Is” – the AIDS play that shortly preceded it – opened the door for a discussion of the epidemic in theater and the arts world at large, that discussion was not without its backlash, much of it coming from places as high as the federal government. For instance, a group of artists known as the NEA Four – of which Miller was a member – saw their National Endowment for the Arts grants pulled because the George H.W. Bush administration and other lawmakers objected to the way it dealt with AIDS and gay themes. A Supreme Court case eventually sided with the artists.
“Tom Hanks won an Oscar 20 years ago. It didn’t mean we weren’t in the absolute peak of arts censorship in this country coming from the Bush White House,” Miller says. “The culture war is really a war on AIDS culture."
Likewise, the play itself was not always warmly received in other areas of the country. A 1989 production of “The Normal Heart” by Southwest Missouri State University drew the condemnation of state legislators, and the home of the president of the student group advocating for its production was burned down during a candlelight vigil for AIDS victims held on the play’s opening night.
Despite the anti-gay backlash, examinations of the lives of HIV/AIDS sufferers became more prevalent in mainstream pop culture – but even those weren't without their flaws.
“Hollywood did what Hollywood does, and that is overly romanticize [the crisis], or to display people with AIDS as tragic victims in the most insulting way,” says Mark S. King, an activist who blogs about having HIV, which he was diagnosed with in 1985, at My Fabulous Disease. “Why that may have been well-intentioned – I am thinking of ‘Philadelphia’ – it didn’t necessarily reflect the actual lives of those of us living with HIV. It either made us pathetic victims or spiritual martyrs of some sort."
According to Jones, the periods of AIDS art are often divided by the first generation – which was marked by terror, loss and a need to educate (and to which "The Normal Heart" belongs) – and the second generation, which was more political, in your face, and unapologetic about one’s sexuality. After the mid-1990s, treatment for HIV/AIDS improved significantly, and there was a notable decrease in major works produced about the epidemic.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the darkest days of the early crisis. “Dallas Buyers Club” – about a Texas man’s efforts to bring to fellow HIV sufferers drugs that were illegal in the U.S. – won Oscars this year for its lead and supporting actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. In 2013, the Academy nominated the film “How to Survive a Plague,” about AIDS advocacy groups in the early years of the crisis, for best documentary feature.
“It’s almost like we’re stripping away the AIDS narrative of its romanticism and replacing it with a more clear-eyed vision of what it was like for us,” King says.
The filmmakers behind HBO’s “The Normal Heart” believe the adaptation will introduce that narrative to a whole new generation unaware of the terror surrounding AIDS at the time. Gardner says she showed a cut of the film to some of her younger friends, who came away "genuinely stunned.”
Likewise, Jones says her young medical students are “flabbergasted” when they study the play and other works from the early years.
“They’re extremely curious about this period," says Miller, who has taken young people to recent stage productions of "The Normal Heart." "It’s mysterious to them.”
One thing about the storyline that's not so mysterious now as it was 30 years ago is Ned’s insistence that members of the gay community embrace monogamous, stable relationships like their heterosexual counterparts.
“The thing that really jumps out to me now is what a marriage play it is,” Miller says. The film version also plays up this aspect of the original work.
Kramer’s views that the gay community should curb its promiscuity drew criticism, even as within the play he included characters that disagreed with Ned's views on the matter. Some chastised "The Normal Heart" for promoting a message they said ran counter to the gay liberation movement.
Nevertheless, much of the activism surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s has since shifted its heat toward same-sex marriage, and Kramer eventually got to legally marry his partner in 2013. (In a life-imitating-art moment, it was a hospital bedside wedding, just like the one between Ned and his lover, Felix, in the play.) Just this week, Oregon and Pennsylvania became the latest states where gay marriage has been legalized, bringing the current total to 19 in addition to the District of Columbia.
Even outside the context of the gay community’s struggle, supporters of the film believe “The Normal Heart” has relevance, particularly as other recent attempts to study the period have been criticized for whitewashing the hurdles advocates like Kramer faced during those years.
“The great thing about ‘The Normal Heart’ is that it shows that at the time, even the people who cared about these issues were conflicted," says Hugh Ryan, founding director of the New York-based Pop-Up Museum of Queer History and a freelance writer.
While the decision to bring “The Normal Heart” to HBO and how well it was adapted have been widely praised, there is one troubling thing about what it represents in terms of the current interest in that period of the epidemic. Those who are currently most affected by the disease – particularly African-Americans, who per the CDC saw nearly double the AIDS diagnoses of their white counterparts in 2011 – are not having their stories told.
“For those of us most involved in that particular struggle of the time, we were talking white gay men and relatively speaking, yes, we were gay, but we were also relatively privileged,” King says, adding that activists eventually got many of the things they were asking for, like the Ryan White CARE Act and other forms of government response.
But the groups now being hit hardest by HIV have not been so lucky.
“One of my real worries is that by focusing on AIDS of the past versus AIDS of today, you sidestep a lot of issues of race and class,” Ryan says. "We don’t talk enough about AIDS in this country in communities that aren’t white gay men. And we don’t get enough stories from those perspectives. When we do talk about it, it’s statistics about black women. It’s not their lives.”
There are some arts projects – like the web documentary series “Dirty 30,” which focuses on how HIV/AIDS is now affecting black women – that attempt to correct that deficiency.
“As always in our beautiful, screwed up country, it’s these giant steps forward we make at the same time we are being dragged backwards,” Miller says. “And that's the tension that’s there in the play.”