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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



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