Kramer, Larry 1935-
KRAMER, Larry 1935-
Born June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, CT; son of George L. (an attorney) and Rea W. (a social worker; maiden name, Wishengrad) Kramer. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1957.
Home and office—New York, NY. Agent—Casarotto Ramsay & Associates Ltd., 60-66 Wardour St., London W1V 3HP, England.
Screenwriter, playwright, novelist, and AIDS activist. Associated with training programs for William Morris Agency, New York, NY, 1958, and for Columbia Pictures, 1958-59; Columbia Pictures, assistant story editor in New York, NY, 1960-61, and production executive in London, 1961-65; United Artists, assistant to the president, 1965; associate producer of motion picture Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1967; producer of motion picture Women in Love, 1969. Cofounder of Gay Men's Health Crisis, New York, NY, 1981; founder of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), 1988. Military service: U.S. Army, 1957.
Academy Award nomination for best screenplay, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and British Academy of Film and Television Arts nomination for best screenplay, both 1970, both for Women in Love; Dramatists Guild Marton Award, City Lights Award for best play of the year, Sarah Siddons Award for best play of the year, and nomination for Olivier Award for best play, all 1986, all for TheNormal Heart; named Man of the Year, Aid for AIDS, Los Angeles, 1986; Arts and Communication Award from the Human Rights Campaign Fund, 1987.
(And producer) Women in Love (screenplay; adapted from the novel by D. H. Lawrence), United Artists, 1969.
Faggots (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1978.
The Normal Heart (two-act play; first produced Off-Broadway at Public Theater, 1985), introduction by Andrew Holleran and foreword by Joseph Papp, New American Library (Chicago, IL), 1985.
Just Say No (play), first produced Off-Broadway at WPA Theater, 1988.
Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (nonfiction), St. Martin's Press (New York NY), 1989, updated and expanded edition, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.
The Destiny of Me (play), Plume (New York, NY), 1993.
Reforming the Civil Justice System, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Brilliant Windows: Poems, Miami University Press (Oxford, OH), 1998.
Also author of Off-Off-Broadway play Sissies' Scrapbook and two-act play The Furniture of Home, 1989. Contributor of political writings to various periodicals, including the New York Times and Village Voice.
Larry Kramer is largely known for his controversial works dealing with the difficulties homosexual males face in their everyday lives. Containing subject matter derived from his own experiences, his writings address such topics as the lifestyle of New York City's gay community and the tragic epidemic of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) among homosexuals. Kramer's screenplay Women in Love, his novel Faggots, and his stage plays such as The Normal Heart have stirred strong reactions from audiences and critics whose adjectives describing Kramer's works range from "sensitive" and "intelligent," "seedy" and "grotesque," to "angry," "gripping," and "forceful."
Kramer's first work to confront the complexities of homosexuality is the 1969 Women in Love, a film based on D. H. Lawrence's 1921 novel of the same title. Some forty years after a film adaptation of the book was proposed but never fulfilled, Kramer obtained the rights to the novel and was urged by United Artists to enlist Ken Russell as the film's director. Critiquing the film for the New York Times, one reviewer observed that much of the film was taken directly from Lawrence's work: "Ken Russell, the director, and Larry Kramer, the screenwriter, seem almost to have used the novel as a screenplay." The critic praised this tactic, concluding that it "results in a very 'literary' movie." Timothy M. Johnson, in Magill's Survey of Cinema, agreed, remarking that Russell and Kramer's "sensitive interpretation" is a "splendid cinematic equivalent of Lawrence's writing, and the necessary condensation of the book is well done. The result is a dense but not overburdened example of film art on many levels."
Like the novel, the film depicts "an intensely romantic love story about four people and their curiously desperate struggles for sexual power," wrote Vincent Canby of the New York Times. In England around the time of World War I, two sisters, Ursula and Gudren Brangwen, develop relationships with Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich, respectively. Rupert, noted Canby, "seeks 'pure' relationships both with woman and man." He thus directs his conventional love towards Ursula while advocating the virtues and importance of spiritual intimacy between males to Gerald. Accordingly, the film reproduces a scene in the novel where Rupert and Gerald engage in a nude wrestling match, physically demonstrating their male compatibility. Rupert and Ursula eventually marry, and the film's focus switches to the tumultuous relationship of Gudren and Gerald. The two couples decide to take a ski vacation in the Alps, where Gudren proceeds to deride Gerald for his possessive—hence destructive—nature in love. She then purposely irritates him by sparking an affair with Loerke, a bisexual German artist. Tormented, angry, and jealous, Gerald attempts to strangle Gudren before he wanders off into the mountains and dies. "The film ends," Johnson related "with Ursula and Rupert in their cottage in England discussing love: 'You can't have two kinds of love. Why should you?' Ursula says. 'It seems as if I can't,' Rupert responds. 'Yet I wanted it.'"
Kramer's Women in Love was well received by critics. Judging the film "a loving, faithful, intelligent, visual representation" of the novel, Canby observed that "the movie … capture[s] a feeling of nature and of physical contact between people, and between people and nature, that is about as sensuous as anything you've probably ever seen in a film." He further praised the film for picking up on Lawrence's underlying theme of homosexual love: "Also faithful … is the feeling that the relationship between the two men, though unfulfilled, is somehow cleaner, less messy, than the relationships of the men with their women." Canby proclaimed the wrestling scene between Gerald and Rupert "the movie's loveliest sequence—there is a sense of positive grace in the eroticism."
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his review of Women in Love for Vogue, disagreed on the mastery with which Kramer and Russell handled Lawrence's intentions. "This sharper homosexual emphasis … seems an obvious response to the preoccupations of our own time," claimed the critic. He further noted that the film "cannot be claimed as a success" but conceded that "it is a fascinating and intelligent try." Johnson was more enthusiastic about the film, affirming that it "is not only a masterpiece of visual stylization but also a fully realized dramatic narrative."
Less subtle in its portrayal of homosexuality is Kramer's first novel, Faggots. Set in the 1970s, the book delineates the lifestyle of the male gay community on New York's Fire Island, often labeled as a haven for promiscuous sex and frequent drug use among its members. Specifically, the book follows the escapades of forty-year-old homosexual Fred Lemish. He regularly visits discotheques and bathhouses, witnessing much hedonistic behavior, while at the same time searching for some kind of love and stability in his life. Barbara G. Harrison in the Washington Post Book World explained that Lemish considers himself part of a privileged elite but is also looking for someone to blame for his "condition"; he, like the other "faggots" in the novel, is both narcissistic and self-loathing.
Deeming Faggots an "extraordinary new novel," Samuel McCracken of Commentary interpreted the work as a satire, "written like all good ones, from the inside." Many critics, however, were less favorable in their assessment of Kramer's novel. Martin Duberman in the New Republic reported that although the book was "announced as a searing indictment of the giddy Fire Island set" and is supposedly chiding gays for confusing promiscuity with liberation, Faggots is "foolish, even stupid" in that it merely exemplifies the lifestyle. He concluded that the book is a "plastic, trashy artifact of the worst aspects of [the] scene." Harrison found the book "revolting," noting that its graphic descriptions leave "nothing to the imagination." She voiced the opinion of a number of reviewers who believed the book to be "the work of a cynic who has done the homosexual community an enormous disservice." Kramer, the critic added, "is in fact writing about a peculiarly ugly … subculture in which love does not exist—a culture that homosexuals have been at pains to say is not representative of homosexual life."
Despite its poor reception initially, Faggots remained in print over the next decade, eventually becoming a best-seller. Upon its republication in 1987, the book was hailed as a work of historical importance, significant for its unsparingly honest portrayal of gay life. This candid depiction was, as Kramer explained to Richard Christiansen in the Chicago Tribune, the purpose behind writing the novel: "I never read a book that reflected homosexuality as I was living it. The novel became a personal odyssey for me." "I purposely made the chief characters in my book intelligent, educated, and affluent men who should be role-models for the rest of us," explained Kramer. "Instead they're cowardly and self-pitying persons who retreat into their own ghetto because they feel the world doesn't want them.… Most of these men have everything to live for, yet they spend much of their life saying, 'Poor me! Nobody loves me! The world hates me!' It just seems that we should be angry at our own cowardice instead of the world's cruelty. We should be examining what we're doing and why we're doing women."
In his next work, the 1985 drama The Normal Heart, Kramer not only expresses anger about gays' inability to deal with their sexuality, but, as Frank Rich of the New York Times conveyed, "The playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious, and then skyrockets into sheer rage." Through his work concerning the presently incurable disease AIDS, the author directs his rage at several sources. "What gets Mr. Kramer mad," stated Rich, "is his conviction that neither the hetero-nor homosexual community has fully met the ever-expanding crisis posed by [AIDS].…He accuses the governmental, medical and press establishments of foot-dragging in combating the disease—especially in the early days of its outbreak, when much of the play is set—and he is even tougher on homosexual leaders who, in his view, were either too cowardly or too mesmerized by the ideology of sexual liberation to get the story out."
The Normal Heart is one of the first stage productions to deal with AIDS. It relates the struggle of activist Ned Weeks, a homosexual who embarks on a campaign to arouse public concern for AIDS sufferers and to curb further spread of the disease. He reprimands his fellow gays for being unnecessarily promiscuous, and he develops an organization designed to help the victims of AIDS as well as to promote safe sex among gays. Abrasive and fanatical in his preaching, though, Weeks is expelled from the group. Soon thereafter, his lover dies from the disease. Emotionally motivated to investigate the causes of the harmful spread of AIDS, Weeks verbally lashes out at the New York Times for not taking advantage of their media power to alert the public of the disease when it was first documented; he accuses New York Mayor Ed Koch of being indifferent to the suffering of AIDS patients; and he scolds the gay community for not coming to terms with the disease—or their sexuality—and organizing politically to make the government accountable.
The actions of the fictional Ned Weeks closely parallel those of Kramer, who in addition to ardently campaigning to control the spread of AIDS, was a founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Writing The Normal Heart as an autobiographical account, Kramer, moreover, wrote the drama as a message play. Samuel G. Freedman quoted the author in his Chicago Tribune critique: "I got involved in the AIDS mess early on—I lost two friends and someone I was in love with—and I knew it was the saddest thing I'd ever know. And it was obscenely difficult to get anyone to pay attention to AIDS. There's a line in the play in which the young man who's dying says, 'There's not a good word to be said for anybody in this entire mess.' It seems to me that was what had to be said."
Considered Kramer's most successful work, The Normal Heart has been staged worldwide and is generally considered a forceful and deeply felt political document. Upon its release, Rich deemed it "the most outspoken play around." But "is it a good [play]?" asked Dan Sullivan in the Los Angeles Times. "No. It almost doesn't have time to be one, so intent is it on imparting its rage at the Establishment and in inspiring gays in the audience to stop playing victim—and to stop killing themselves." Because of the extensive scientific, political, and sociological information included in the drama, some reviewers found it exhausting and repetitive. Furthermore, "some of the author's specific accusations are questionable, and, needless to say, we often hear only one side of inflammatory debates," noted Rich. But "there are also occasions," he continued, "when the stage seethes with the conflict of impassioned, literally life-and-death argument." In his review of the play for the Chicago Tribune, Christiansen added: "The anger … produces eloquence; the confrontations are truly dramatic; the battles produce light as well as heat.… There are many stirring moments in this play." Kramer's work was hailed not only for its intensity but for its timeliness in confronting a presently fast-spreading disease. Mel Gussow in the New York Times called the play a "rarity" for its "immediate and responsive stand on issues of great … consequence." Sullivan concluded: "As an AIDS documentary, [The Normal Heart] is … already something of a period piece, thank God: The causes of the disease have been more clearly pinpointed now."
In The Destiny of Me, a sequel to The Normal Heart, Kramer takes his autobiographical protagonist, Ned Weeks, back to his childhood and teen years to explore Ned's difficult early years and his complex, troublesome relationship with his parents and siblings. The story is told in flashbacks from Ned's hospital room—Ned having developed full-blown AIDS and seeking experimental treatment to stay alive. While not as critically acclaimed or as popular as The Normal Heart, the play once again reflects Kramer's preoccupation with the tragedy of AIDS and the difficulty of growing up gay.
In addition to his fictional works, Kramer is well known for his essays and columns devoted to the topic of AIDS. Many of these are collected in Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist. The work contains pieces previously published in periodicals such as the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the New York Native as well as letters and newly written essays "dealing with Kramer's own sexual odyssey, his feelings about the gay male community and the epidemic that he sees as a gay holocaust," explained Nation reviewer Gregory Kolovakos.
Kramer once told CA: "All of my concerns and writings now are devoted to fighting the AIDS epidemic, which has taken so many of my friends and acquaintances from me. Starting with The Normal Heart and continuing with Reports from the Holocaust—a collection of all my political writings that have appeared over the past ten years, mostly in the gay press around the world but also in the New York Times and the Village Voice—all of my energies are focused here. My new play, The Furniture of Home, is a companion play to The Normal Heart. I have already begun work on a very long novel that starts where Faggots left off. The interesting thing about Faggots has been that, although it was excoriated in some quarters, it was also a bestseller and has remained in print continuously since its first publication in 1978; it is now considered an important book and still continues to sell well. This has, of course, been gratifying to me. It's not often in a writer's lifetime that the pendulum swings so markedly.
"But with Faggots, my political journalism, and my writing about gay issues, I've discovered it's difficult not to say things that aren't considered controversial by someone. Even harder has been to learn to somehow find the tenacity to carry on saying what I want to say in the face of criticism and opposition. That's why the lesson I learned from the reception of Faggots was so important to me: the original anger turned into supportive acceptance. It's a good lesson for writers to learn: say what you must say and hope that the world will eventually come around to your way of thinking, but try not to be defeated while waiting for it to do so.
"My play Just Say No is a farce about sexual hypocrisy in high places—about people who make the rules that they insist the rest of us live by, and then don't live by these rules themselves. It takes place in the capital city, Georgetown, of the mythical country of New Columbia. The leading characters, among others, are Mrs. Potentate, the wife of the Potentate in Chief, their gay son, Junior, and the gay Mayor of Appleberg, which is New Columbia's largest northeastern city. The play is by far the most controversial thing I have ever written; I have no idea if the play will or will not be a success, but it is going to attract attention."
In December of 2001, Kramer underwent a liver transplant to treat his long-standing end-stage liver failure, caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus. The transplant was a success, and in 2003, Kramer donated funding to Yale University to support an academic position in gay and lesbian studies. Although the school had previously balked at Kramer's request for such a position, in 2003 it established a five-year program, called the Kramer Initiative, to bring in visiting faculty, host conferences and lectures, and coordinate academic endeavors in gay and lesbian studies. Kramer also donated his collected papers to Yale's Beinecke Library, and planned to donate some of his estate to the school after his death. Despite his years of poor health, Kramer told Yale Alumni Magazine writer Mark Alden Branch that he did not expect to be making such a bequest for some time: "My transplant surgeon told me in all seriousness that you are as old as your liver. And I have the liver of a forty-five-year-old man."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Adams, Barry D., The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement, 2nd edition, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1995.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 42, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 249: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001, pp. 195-208.
Magill's Survey of Cinema, Volume VI, Salem Press (Hackensack, NJ), 1981.
Mass, Lawrence D., editor, We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Advocate, November 2, 1993; March 22, 1994; June 14, 1994; May 2, 1995, p. 60; September 30, 1997, Erik Meers, "Gay to a Degree," pp. 39-41; March 30, 1999, "Larry Kramer: Trying to Pass the Torch," pp. 63-64; August 14, 2000, "Larry Kramer," p. 63.
Back Stage, February 6, 1998, Dan Isaac, review of The Normal Heart, p. 44.
Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1979; April 11, 1985; May 6, 1985.
Commentary, January, 1979.
Daily News, April 22, 1985.
Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, summer, 1995, Betsey Billard, "Life Is about Climbing Mountains," pp. 5-10; fall, 1997, Christopher Bram, "Faggots Today," pp. 18-21.
Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1985; December 13, 1985; January 7, 1990, p. 14.
Maclean's, March 14, 1988, John Bemrose, "Casualties of Love," p. 65.
Minnesota Review, spring/summer, 1993, Jack Ben-Levi, "Kramer's Proposals," pp. 126-132.
Nation, May 11, 1985, Paul Berman, review of The Normal Heart, pp. 569-570; May 1, 1989, p. 598.
New Republic, January 6, 1979.
New Statesman & Society, April 21, 1995, p. 39.
Newsweek, June 11, 2001, David France, "The Angry Prophet Is Dying," p. 42.
New Yorker, May 13, 2002, Michael Specter, interview with Kramer.
New York Post, May 4, 1985.
New York Theater Critics' Review, Volume XLVI, number 8.
New York Times, March 26, 1970; March 29, 1970; July 9, 1997, Karen W. Arenson, "The Normal Heart vs. Cooler Heads," p. A17; April 22, 1985; April 28, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1989, p. 29.
People, July 9, 1990, Ken Gross, "Larry Kramer," pp. 72, 75.
Poetry, March, 1999, review of Brilliant Windows, p. 357.
Rolling Stone, March 9, 1990.
Times (London, England), March 27, 1986; April 28, 1986, Bernard Levin, "Why Gays Must Not Create a Ghetto," p. 12; December 15, 1992, Kate Muir, "Look What Happened on the Way to My Date with Destiny," p. 13.
Village Voice, July 2, 1985, Richard Goldstein, "Kramer's Complaint," pp. 20, 22; September 11, 1990.
Vogue, March 1, 1970.
Washington Post Book World, December 17, 1978.
Act Up Web site,http://www.actupny.org/ (November 13, 1999), "Act Up Explained."
AIDS Info NYC,http://www.aidsinfonyc.org/ (November 14, 1999), "AIDS Treatment Data Network."
Common Cause Web site,http://www.commoncause.org/ (November 13, 1999), "Common Cause—Larry Kramer."
Gay Today Web site,http://www.gaytoday.badpuppy.com/ (November 13, 1999), "Larry Kramer Blasts the New Yorker magazine."
Yale Alumni Magazine Online,http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/ (April, 2003).*