National Commentary

The Normal Heart: Its Core Message Lost

nfbentonpicThose who’ve seen or plan to see the film version of Larry Kramer’s gut-wrenching play, “The Normal Heart,” that premiered on HBO last Sunday and is now being frequently repeated, need to know how some subtle but critical modifications to the original script completely shifted its core meaning.

Kramer, a pioneering gay activist, wrote the play in 1984, just as the AIDS horror was beginning to take off in the gay communities of major urban centers of the U.S. and just as Kramer, himself, was being forced into a veritable exile by the board of the non-profit he founded to fight it.

Never one to pull punches or mince words, Kramer was more outraged at the lack of a government response to the emerging crisis than almost any of his colleagues wanted him to be. The government was only one focus of his anger, however. The other was the gay community, itself, as much as he always loved and fought for it.

His anger in this regard was directed at the contrast between what gay people historically and potentially mean to society and the hedonistic excesses they’d sunk into during the 1970s and persisted in resistance to measures needed to stop the spread of the HIV virus and AIDS.

In the climactic speech in “The Normal Heart,” just before two emotionally wrenching scenes at the end, Kramer’s autobiographical character, Ned Weeks, delivers the following, mangled and largely deleted in the movie version:

“I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leondardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Bryon, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarsskjold. … These are not invisible men.
“Poor Bruce. Poor frightened Bruce. Once upon a time you wanted to be a soldier. Bruce, did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who was as responsible as any man for winning the Second World War? His name was Alan Turing and he cracked the German Enigma code so the Allies knew in advance what the Nazis were going to do – and when the war was over he committed suicide he was so hounded for being gay.

“Why don’t they teach this in the schools? If they did, maybe he wouldn’t have committed suicide and maybe you wouldn’t be so terrified of who you are. The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there, but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do that, and until we organize ourselves block by neighborhood by city by state into a united visible community that fights back, we’re doomed. That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war.

“Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers? Why couldn’t you and I, Bruce Niles and Ned Weeks, have been leaders in creating a new definition of what it means to be gay? I blame myself as much as you. Bruce, I know I’m an asshole. But, please, I beg you, don’t shut me out.”

That speech, in its totality, embodied everything that Kramer was trying to get across in “The Normal Heart,” and by his activism.
“Leaders in creating a new definition of what it means to be gay,” by contrast to “being defined by our cocks.”

Attempting to respond to just this challenge, I wrote 100 weekly essays between October 2010 and October 2012 published in Washington, D.C’s Metro Weekly, now compiled in book form, entitled, Extraordinary Hearts, Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization.

We’re at a point today to finally be able to hear Larry Kramer’s message in a way that can profoundly redefine the identities of emerging generations of gay people. It’s downright tragic that such a message was snuffed out in the HBO film.

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