The Normal Heart

Kramer, Larry

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Oct-06-2015
  • Last revised: Oct-06-2015


New York, 1981.  As the play opens, Ned Weeks sits outside a doctor’s office with a friend who has developed worrisome symptoms of a mysterious “plague” that strikes homosexuals.  The doctor, Emma Brookner, complains that she cannot make headway in getting the gay community to take the threat seriously.  This encounter inspires Ned, a writer, to dedicate himself to becoming the spokesman for the growing ranks of disenfranchised patients. He attempts to convert others to his cause, including his heterosexual brother, a closeted bank executive, and a reporter for the New York Times (whom he begins to date).  When it becomes clear that the City is not interested in assisting, he co-founds a grassroots activist organization.  As the epidemic veers out of control, the man he loves falls ill as well.  Over time, Ned’s abrasive, confrontational approach, as well as his focus on abstinence, makes him many enemies within the gay community.  Ultimately, he is forced out of his own organization.  At the same time, there are hints that, as a result of his work, the disease is beginning to be taken seriously.  At the end of the play, Ned’s lover Felix becomes the latest gay man to succumb to the epidemic. 


“The Normal Heart,” which first opened off-Broadway in 1985 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, ran for a year, stirring up controversy.  With the 2011 Broadway revival, Kramer made revisions to the text, included in the present edition.  A recent HBO adaptation deviates significantly from the text of the play and though well cast, is considerably less powerful.   At eighty, Kramer is considered a far less polarizing figure than he was when the play was written, and it is perhaps easier now to appreciate the play as a work of art.   One might be tempted to dismiss it as a polemic.  However, the author makes it clear in his choice of title (taken from an Auden poem) that what the piece is really about is a man and his search for love - his quest for a “normal heart.” The epidemic is merely the background for his personal transformation.  Indeed, Kramer has created in Ned Weeks a character of real dimension, in the tradition of Greek tragedy.  Other characters are less convincingly drawn, at times sounding more like mouthpieces for Kramer’s ideas than flesh-and-blood people.   In all, this is an excellent example of literature as medical advocacy.  It’s an enduring play that will outlive the rants of its author to serve as a reminder of those apocalyptic early years of the AIDS epidemic. 


This edition has an introduction by Tony Kushner, as well an afterword, a characteristically provocative letter written by Kramer and distributed to the audience at the Broadway revival.  Another play, the less well-known sequel, is included.

Primary Source

The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me


Grove Press

Place Published

New York



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