Battlefield Art: In Defense of “The Normal Heart”

By Anne E. Johnson

Today I heard from an intelligent, usually sensitive person with a great deal of experience watching theater. While his email was in praise of a local production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, I was distressed by his contrasting of that play with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which he called “a ham-handed political rant…which I hope never to see again in my life.”

This was my response:

“The Normal Heart and Mothers and Sons are, to my mind, not in the same genre, so I would not compare them. Kramer’s play is an accurately excruciating portrayal, not only of the time and society it represents, but of the playwright himself. It is autobiographical, and Larry Kramer has a shrieking, damaging personality. As much as anything, the play is a confession of that fact. And there was nothing subtle about the political Auschwitz that New York gays found themselves in during the 1980s. This does not mean you should like the play. It’s supposed to be almost impossible to watch, just as the period was almost impossible to live through. It’s an entirely different perspective from that of well-off 21st-century gays with the right to marry, or from a mother’s sorrowful memory.”

In other words, when a play is written in the middle of a real battlefield, the pages will likely be splattered with blood and skull fragments from the corpses tumbling by. But as gruesome and uncomfortable as that paper is to look at, the writing on it is still art.