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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER Larry Kramer (1935-2020), polemicist and playwright
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Theater Editor
2020-05-30

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Larry Kramer was an angry man and he made sure people knew it. The language of his public discourse—the hundreds of articles he wrote and speeches he made, his novels and plays—drips with venom, insult, sarcasm, accusation, curse, self-righteousness, exaggeration, provocation and plea.

It's remarkable, then, that in private he could be exceptionally soft-spoken and self-effacing without any of the ringing rhetoric one associates with him. That's the way he was some years ago when I interviewed him in his hotel room—just the two of us talking and drinking tea without a publicist or handler. His intelligence and commitment were obvious, as were his passion and dissatisfaction with so much he saw around him. Yes, his anger was apparent, too, but it had a much more gracious face in our one-on-one setting and even came with kindness, smiles and generosity. You see, Larry Kramer was a professional polemicist and provocateur, and words were his skill set, his toolkit, his weapons—but they were not all of who he was.

AIDS made Kramer an activist, an organizer, a political figure, and a lightning rod for dissent, opposition and suasion. He gained the experience to do these things as a multitasking film writer and movie producer, which was his work in the 1960s and 1970s, and which made him financially secure. In part, his financial independence allowed him to dedicate his very considerable energy, drive and focus to the cause of AIDS activism. One facet of that activism was playwriting.

The critical reception for Kramer's early plays was checkered, and at one point in the 1970s he vowed he'd never write for theater again. However, the AIDS crisis changed his mind in 1984 and he remained devoted to the art form. He did not write the first play about AIDS ( that honor belongs to the late Chicago/Milwaukee playwright Jeff Hagedorn and his play, One ) but he wrote one of the first successful plays about AIDS, The Normal Heart, which opened at the Public Theatre in New York in May 1985, just weeks after William M. Hoffman's As Is also opened successfully off-Broadway.

These two works became the first widely produced dramas about the AIDS pandemic. They are successful because both Hoffman and Kramer wisely chose to frame their passionate political arguments ( especially Kramer ) in human terms. Both plays are structured around enduring gay relationships, and the loss and devastation wrought by AIDS.

The Normal Heart first was seen in Chicago in a brilliant 1986 production at the Next Theatre Company, in Evanston. The production won four Joseph Jefferson Awards, among them the Jeff for Outstanding Production. Eric Simonson—long before he won an Oscar and became a Steppenwolf ensemble member—was the director.

Kramer wrote three more plays revolving around the AIDS crisis in various ways, of which The Destiny of Me ( 1992 ) was the most widely produced and successful. He was working on a new play at the time of his death, An Army of Lovers Must Not Die, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If the work was far enough along, one hopes the text might be published, so we can see if Kramer's approach to a different pandemic is equally as political and personal as his AIDS-related plays.

Here's the thing: Every social or political movement needs—no, requires—polemics and at least one incredibly skilled polemicist, because the political needle never moves without pushing, shoving, shouting and influencing. Think of how Tom Paine's Common Sense seeded the American Revolution, or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin supported the Abolitionist Movement. Larry Kramer held everyone's fingers to the fire—even his own—and justifiably so. He greatly inspired a generation of younger writers who followed, with Tony Kushner ( Angels in America ) perhaps chief among them.

Larry Kramer wrote only six plays, one of which never has been produced. We can only speculate and wonder how many more plays, novels and films this gifted wordsmith might have spun if writing fiction had been all he had on his mind. In the end, though, writing was not his purpose but only a means; his art was subsumed by his mission. We are richer for that, and the world has changed because of his loud, constant, often shrill voice. Sometimes that's how you have to be, and what you have to do in order to move the needle. The LGBTQ world as it exists today would not be the same without Larry Kramer, who took upon himself the task of being Our Voice for 40 years. No, we didn't appoint him to the job, but it doesn't matter. He spoke Truth to Power, which we always must cherish, especially now when it's becoming a rare commodity.

Jonathan Abarbanel is Windy City Times' theater editor and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.


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