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Kramer, Larry

KRAMER, Larry

KRAMER, Larry (b. 25 June 1935), activist, screenwriter, dramatist.

Larry Kramer was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of George Leon Kramer and Rea Sara Wishengrad. When he was eight years old, Kramer went to the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., to see a puppet play, an experience that transformed him into an instant theater buff. Kramer's mother supported his love of the theater, but his father dismissed Kramer as a "sissy" because of his interest in the arts.

College and Early Work

In September 1953 Kramer began his undergraduate education at Yale University, where he struggled to fit in. After his brother, Arthur, married in November 1953, Kramer tried to kill himself. He was put in the care of a psychiatrist, as a condition for remaining at Yale. The following April, Kramer's male German professor seduced him. When he confessed the affair to his family, Arthur convinced their parents that Kramer should continue analysis. Meanwhile, at Yale—from which Kramer graduated in 1957—he found singing and dramatic performances a welcome release from the pressures of dealing with his sexuality and psychoanalysis.

In 1961 Kramer moved to London to work for Columbia Pictures before branching out as producer and screenwriter for an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's sexually explicit novel Women in Love (1920). The 1969 film garnered four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Screenplay for Kramer.

Kramer's first play, Sissies' Scrapbook, was produced in 1973 by New York City's Playwrights Horizons. Drawn from Kramer's personal experiences as a homosexual, it involved the friendship of a gay man with three straight men who have known each other since college days. Encouraged by positive response, Kramer revised the play under the title Four Friends for production at the Theatre de Lys in 1974. In this new form it had little success either critically or commercially.

After his therapist suggested that he write a novel, Kramer spent three years working on Faggots (1978), a satire revolving around four days in the life of New York City's gay community. With its pointed admonitions against promiscuity among homosexuals, the book anticipated the controversial nature of Kramer's AIDS activism over the next two decades. Fred Lemish, the novel's central character, cannot fulfill his longing for a permanent relationship in a gay culture focused on fleeting sexual encounters. Faggots received positive critical response, but some reviewers were offended by its frank depiction of gay sex.

The AIDS Epidemic

With the outbreak of AIDS, Kramer was among the first to campaign for research and treatment, stridently demanding immediate action from public officials and institutions. He was a founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the first organization to confront the epidemic, in 1982. Disenchanted, however, with what he considered the organization's slow progress, he withdrew to start, in 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an organization aimed at generating a more vigorous response to the ravages of AIDS.

Kramer was an outspoken political catalyst from the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Accused of being an "anti-erotic" alarmist (with Faggots frequently cited as "evidence"), Kramer used confrontational tactics that focused sharply on assaulting the conscience of American society and the unresponsive Reagan administration. Despite growing media attention and highly publicized AIDS-related deaths, including that of movie star Rock Hudson, response to AIDS continued to be slow. Kramer, however, was undaunted and kept on agitating.

As his relationship with Gay Men's Health Crisis deteriorated, Kramer turned the experience into a play. On 21 April 1985 The Normal Heart made its debut at New York City's Public Theatre to much acclaim and controversy. Set between 1981 and 1984, the play leavens the bleakness of the accumulating horror of the epidemic with sarcasm and humor, despite its unmistakable indictment of a whole society's apathy in the face of the specter of AIDS.

The Normal Heart deals with the experiences of several gay men, but the connecting thread of this episodic

work is the central character, Ned Weeks. When he begins to understand the mounting crisis, Ned is stunned to learn from Dr. Emma Brookner that the mysterious illness may be transmitted sexually. Ned's outbursts, directed at various officials and even those close to him, alienate Ned from the world around him. He has an uneasy relationship with his distant older brother, Ben, a father figure representing society's disapproval of the "gay lifestyle." Ultimately, Ben grows past his prejudices to accept Ned, an outcome Kramer clearly wants straight America to emulate. Audiences were drawn to the play's dramatic intensity, but its content made it the most controversial and pivotal gay-themed drama to emerge in the late twentieth century.

Kramer's next theatrical work, Just Say No: A Play about a Farce (1988), was not well received by critics. Dealing with the ways sexual hypocrisy in high places (during the height of the Reagan presidency) allowed AIDS to develop into a plague, it features a First Lady, her flamboyantly gay son, and the closeted gay mayor of Appleburg. The Reagans and Ed Koch, the mayor of New York City, were the thinly veiled targets, but Kramer weaves in many satiric references to contemporary American life. Critics found the blending of farce with the tragedies of the AIDS crisis an uneasy combination.

Later Work and Life

The Destiny of Me, the sequel to The Normal Heart, premiered at New York City's Circle Repertory Company on 20 October 1992. The Destiny of Me is a significantly more personal work, in the style of the family-oriented dramas of the American lyric realism tradition. It deals with the Kramer-Weeks family and social history, using AIDS as the catalyst for a searing exploration of the main character's life, sexual orientation, and sense of purpose. Various times in Weeks' life overlap as different characters, used to present key situations, float in and out of the action. The ability to view his experiences from the dual perspectives of his youthful and present-day selves permits Weeks to arrive at significant revelations about his life. His past is set against a present in which he vehemently argues with his doctor about his health and about the complex relationship between AIDS and activism. Critical response to this melancholy work was mixed, but critics respectfully acknowledged Kramer's historic significance in the fight against AIDS.

Kramer, who is HIV-positive, has at times been dangerously ill: in 2001 he received a liver transplant. With his longtime lover, architect David Webster, he divides his time between homes in New York City and Connecticut. He is currently at work on "The American People," a monumental novel he has been writing for over twenty years, which deals with the AIDS epidemic and continues where his early novel, Faggots, leaves off. In 1998 Lawrence D. Mass, who along with Kramer founded Gay Men's Health Crisis, edited a massive volume of essays in tribute to Kramer's influence, featuring contributions from a diverse group of writers and activists, some of whom had had serious and acrimonious differences with Kramer in the past. It is a tribute to the far-reaching impact Kramer has had on gay life in America that even Kramer's adversaries admire his activism.

Bibliography

Kramer, Larry. Faggots. New York: Random House, 1978.

——. Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist. Updated and expanded edition. New York: Cassell, 1995.

——. The Normal Heart and the Destiny of Me. New York: Grove, 2000.

——. Women in Love and Other Dramatic Writings: Women in Love, Sissies' Scrapbook, A Minor Dark Age, Just Say No, The Farce in Just Saying No. New York: Grove, 2003.

Mass, Lawrence, ed. We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. London: Cassell, 1997.

James Fisher

see alsoaids and people with aids; aids coalition to unleash power (act up); aids service organizations; literature; russo, vito; theater and performance.

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