AIDS, Art, and the ’80s

This summer the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., revived Larry Kramer’s jeremiad against the AIDS plague, The Normal Heart. The 1985 play is a roman à clef about Kramer’s co-founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group in 1982. 

It chronicles the beginnings of a mysterious outbreak of the cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma as it began scything down gay men in their youth. Superbly produced and acted though it was, the play’s angry didacticism has not aged well. Kramer minions gave the audience leaflets claiming that “all efforts at education and prevention continue their unending record of abject failure.” 

Not so. Smashing through the complacency of health authorities and the gay community, Kramer’s drama helped spur the research and regulatory and behavioral changes that have cut the AIDS death rate in the United States by 80 percent since 1995. Even as the Arena production was closing, researchers across town at the 19th International AIDS Conference were describing progress on vaccines and new treatments.

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