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Making the Radical Palatable

The Normal Heart and the AIDS Crisis

As a playwright and theatre scholar, I've been writing and thinking about theatre's relationship with politics for over a decade—ever since I brashly told my dissertation advisor I wanted to demonstrate mainstream theatre’s political efficacy. And so I read Jules Odendahl-James’s recent post “Playing Politics” with great interest. She did a wonderful job categorizing the standard modes of politics and performance, from docudrama, to agit prop, to Michael Rohd’s example of civic practice. But Jules leaves out the importance of mainstream theatre and its place in the political performance ecosystem. Mainstream theatre has the power to take a radical ideology, refashion it, and incorporate progressive ideas in mainstream culture. Ultimately, mainstream theatre can make the radical palatable and effect change in the dominant culture’s ideology.

I understand mainstream theatre as theatre with wide reaching advertising that has a heterogeneous audience, a high public profile, a gala press night, and a well-known venue. All of this contributes to mainstream theatre’s social visibility and works to get it reviewed in high-subscription periodicals, like the New York Times. This type of commercial theatre has, according to my findings, as much potential to support progressive politics as Odendahl-James’s examples do.

The Public Theater’s 1985 premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart stands as one of mainstream theatre’s most potent cases. By acting as a negotiating force between progressive and mainstream worldviews, The Normal Heart affected change in HIV/AIDS awareness and policy. It did so by making palatable the then-radical view that gay men and others affected by HIV/AIDS were deserving of help. While commonplace now, that view was radical in the U.S. of 1985. By locating The Normal Heart’s place in AIDS history and by examining the reviews of the 1985 production, the play’s political effects can be teased out.

It did so by making palatable the then-radical view that gay men and others affected by HIV/AIDS were deserving of help.

The Normal Heart was born into a moment of shameful national silence about AIDS. In 1981 the CDC declared the new disease an epidemic, but by the fall of 1983, the federal government had done little to halt the spread of the pathogen. Even less had been done in New York City, one of the prime sites of transmission. President Ronald Reagan refused to mention the disease in public and only did so in 1987 after 36,058 U.S. citizens had been diagnosed with the disease and after 20,849 had already died. Far from inevitable, these tens of thousands of deaths from HIV/AIDS were, as many posit, avoidable.

A hand holding a red ribbon.
The red ribbon, a symbol for the AIDS crisis. Photo by Twitter.

In 2012, no one questions that US government institutions, the media, and even activists failed to safeguard the public from the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In the words of one of The Normal Heart’s characters, “There’s not a good word to be said for anybody’s behavior.” Taken for granted now, in 1985 Kramer’s statement still stung, with no state or civic institutions willing to admit the facts of the epidemic, let alone accept responsibility for the resultant deaths. The San Francisco Chronicle, led by staff reporter Randy Shilts, was the only newspaper to give the disease major and consistent coverage. New York City, for its part, allotted only $24,500 to fighting the spread of the illness, despite 1,042 AIDS deaths in the city. Yet these thousand New York deaths in 1983 did nothing to convince the city or country to fight AIDS. To combat New York’s apathy, Kramer began writing a play that took the country to task. Its 1985 reviews created a vital awareness of the epidemic.

A review does not simply communicate information; it also supports an ideology. For instance, an article in The Nation not only transmits data, but also confirms a leftist ideology. However, there are rare moments when facts no longer fit society’s dominant narrative, when reality needs repairing. In those instances, a periodical’s writing can alter its readers’ beliefs. Examining the reviews of The Normal Heart shows how they transmitted information about the production and, more importantly, popularized the belief that HIV/AIDS was a pressing epidemic and that gay men were humans worthy of society’s assistance.

The Normal Heart was not the first play to take on the topic of AIDS—Robert Chesley, Jeff Hagedorn, Rebecca Ranson, and San Francisco’s A.I.D.S. Show collaborators, produced work about the epidemic as early as 1983. However, The Normal Heart was the first to receive major press coverage and, thereby, challenge the mainstream’s blindness to AIDS.

Journalists, by and large, rehearsed the view first espoused by the Public Theater’s advertising that The Normal Heart was educational, not artistic. A week before opening the Public took out a quarter-page advertisement in the New York Times theatre section. In it, white print blazed against a black background, reading, “At least 300,000 Americans have already been infected by the AIDS virus, according to Dr. James Curran who heads the AIDS program at the Centers for Disease Control.” Below was the play’s tag-line: “A play about the most serious public health crisis of the 20th century.” Making no reference to the play’s written or aesthetic value, this advertisement frames the production more as a serious discussion about the AIDS epidemic than as a piece of art. The production’s twenty-one reviews mainly took their lead from the Public’s initial framing of the play and describe The Normal Heart as a bad play whose redemption is found in its necessary social message.

Frank Rich, perhaps the most important critic then at the New York Times, penned a review that included more information about the AIDS crisis than the New York Times had published in the previous four years. Rich claimed that The Normal Heart is “the most outspoken play around” and that its subject “justifies its author’s unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency.” The justification for the “urgency” is the “foot-dragging” of “the Governmental, medical and press establishments… [New York] Mayor Koch, various prominent medical organizations, The New York Times… [and] most of the leadership of an unnamed organization apparently patterned after the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.” Given the absence of information about the epidemic in the media, including the New York Times, Rich’s review was a mainstream injection of information about the malady. More significant, Rich’s review gave legitimacy to a worldview that saw AIDS as a threat requiring government action.

Even reviewers, like Clive Barnes of the New York Post, who described The Normal Heart as “more of a tract than a play” admitted its political import. In his review, Barnes asked, “How many people of the thousands who will see the play, and be stirred by its sheer intensity and passionate concern, would have read the tract?” Further, would Barnes address a treatise in the New York Post? Would an AIDS manifesto receive twenty-one newspaper reviews and an advertising campaign? John Simon, writing for New York, argued that “what could have been a mere staged tract—and, in its lesser moments, is just that—transcends often enough into a fleshed-out, generously dramatized struggle, in which warring ideologies do not fail to breathe, sweat, weep, bleed—be human.” In 1985, arguing for gay men’s humanity was quite remarkable, especially for a mainstream magazine like New York. This position would have challenged the ideologies of many readers.

Negative reviews often unwittingly spread the play’s message. The Christian Science Monitor’s response, for example, demonstrates this potential political efficacy. The short, disapproving review of The Normal Heart by John Beaufort in the mainstream and national Christian Science Monitor did more to inform its readers about AIDS than any prior article in its pages. Beaufort argued that “Mr. Kramer attempts unsuccessfully to combine a plea for responsible official awareness and treatment of a tragic health disaster with a propaganda pitch for society’s unreserved acceptance of homosexual lifestyles.” Given the magazine’s Christian affiliation, it is no surprise that it was not in favor of “acceptance of homosexual lifestyles,” especially in 1985. Still, Beaufort declares AIDS “a tragic health disaster,” and, far more importantly, he defined AIDS in his first paragraph, suggesting his readers were not familiar with the epidemic. In fact, this is the first use of the term “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” in the Christian Science Monitor, making the review of The Normal Heart the publication’s first AIDS coverage. Thus Beaufort, as much as he disliked the play, added to readers’ knowledge of the world, explaining this new and deadly disease. By calling it a “tragic health disaster,” he also implicitly argued for fighting its spread, adding this perspective to conservative discourse. Only a mainstream play that demanded a review could prompt this significant outcome: national education and the corresponding ideological shift in a conservative journal’s readership.

Only a mainstream play that demanded a review could prompt this significant outcome: national education and the corresponding ideological shift in a conservative journal’s readership.

Beyond reviews, within twenty-four hours of opening, the mainstream play could already boast two, concrete political effects. First, since the play attacks the New York Times by name, the paper responded following Rich’s review with a statement asserting that the periodical was a champion of AIDS reporting. Regardless of the veracity of this claim, which is highly debatable, The Normal Heart forced the New York Times into defending its policies and, at the very least, the newspaper now admitted in print the importance of AIDS.

The second tangible political effect concerned a surprise announcement by then New York City Mayor Ed Koch. As Randy Shilts tells it in his magisterial book on AIDS and the 1980s And the Band Played On:

Just hours before the first preview performance, as photocopied scripts of The Normal Heart circulated among the city’s news organizations, Mayor Ed Koch hurriedly called a press conference to announce “a comprehensive expansion of city services” for local AIDS patients. Koch shifted responsibility for AIDS from Health Commissioner Sencer to Deputy Mayor Victor Botnick and instituted the plans for coordinated care and long-term facilities that had been proposed years before by AIDS clinicians. Included in the new $6 million program were pledges of expanded home and hospice care, day-care programs for children with AIDS, and funds for ten interdisciplinary patient care teams at hospitals with large AIDS caseloads. (556)

The mayor’s actions were reported in the media on the same day as the first reviews of The Normal Heart. That means on April 25, 1985, the New York Times included Rich’s review, the paper’s defense of its AIDS reporting, and an account of the mayor’s newfound interest in the disease. Such direct political effects from mainstream theatre are admittedly rare, but their scarcity in no way diminishes the fact that this mainstream play had the potential to unleash them.

By disseminating information through reviews, performances, and pamphlets in the theatre lobby, The Normal Heart informed U.S. citizens about the AIDS crisis and spread a newfound mainstream worldview about the epidemic’s importance and a desire to check its spread. Though this emergent ideology had been expressed in the alternative, “gay theatre,” when it was presented by The Normal Heart in a mainstream theatre setting, it was amplified by the national media, and led directly to political actions from the New York mayor. Though only one example, this demonstrates the central role mainstream theatre retains in the U.S. political process. Mainstream theatre is often left out of the conversation about politics and performance, but we cannot simply give it a pass as “entertainment.” We must acknowledge the political power mainstream theatre wields and its potential to shape mainstream discourse.

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A study that was published in the February 2012 edition of the journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, titled "Do You Hear the People Sing? Musical Theatre and Attitude Change," concluded that "musical theatre may be a promising method for promoting attitudinal change."


I appreciate your invocation of my post as you examine this extremely important topic of how mainstream theater affects politics through emotion, information, and outreach. Another example of the kind of the 'radical to palatable' move you describe is The Laramie Project. I was put in mind of this recently at news of the conclusion of the first hate crime case to be prosecuted since the Matthew Shepard and James R. Byrd Hate Crimes legislation was signed into law in 2009. That case ended in an acquittal

http://www.huffingtonpost.c... which underscores the limits of palatability. (I have much, much more to say about the way The Laramie Project shapes mainstream attitudes towards LGBTQ citizens in my production blog http://sites.duke.edu/dukei...

I never meant to deny the important role mainstream theater plays in introducing difficult and complex lives and issues to its patrons, but I remain concerned that experimental voices and approaches are too-often cordoned off from audiences precisely because they push and press the boundaries of palatability and not just regarding subject matter. I just finished teaching Erik Ehn's Maria Kizito to students in my play analysis/theater history course. I chose it as an unconventional, some might say “radical”, example of a documentary play because of the way Ehn resists the palatable conventions of that genre, especially when telling war stories. He insists that in order to come close to knowing the what, how, let alone the why of events in Rwanda in 1994 our entire sense of reality must be upended. This approach to storytelling comes with risk, particularly in whether theaters will produce work that challenges conventions beyond just subject matter (that’s hard enough as it is). I believe that the upcoming festival of Ehn plays called Soulougraphie: Our Genocides http://www.soulographie.org, will mark only the second time Maria Kizito has had a full production in the US.

If Ehn's work was the only or primary play about genocide performed that would be a missed political opportunity. There would be little context to scaffold his dramaturgy. And here I want to note his off-stage activism regarding genocide stories cannot and should not be ignored or separated from his playwriting. The place where artistic political action meets audience influence might start but does not end with the play experience alone. Larry Kramer’s own AIDS activism outside the specific writing and staging of The Normal Heart attests to this truism. But we are in no danger of losing our "palatable" structures or content in American theater.

The history you chart of political action regarding the AIDS crisis spurred by productions of The Normal Heart is impressive and valuable. As artists we are wise to take such moments of success and consider the voices they silence as well as those they make heard. I asked my students as they grappled with Ehn's play and wondered whether his choices squandered opportunities to "inform" American audiences about genocide: what if we considered his play as a challenge to the very idea that certain momentous events or calamities are meant to be understandable in any typical way? As Laura Edmondson, writing about Ehn’s work, considers:

"[Ehn] cultivates […] an "aesthetics of discomfort," a phrase that helps to capture the way that the sublimity of the play's language and imagery intertwine with the graphic realities of atrocity. In contrast, [Claudia] Bernardi speaks of a

militant pursuit of joy, a phrase that invokes the radical, even aggressive act

of seeking joy in the context of a global order that facilitates and sustains

crimes against humanity. For those of "us" who are observers of this

quest but who also wish to "exercise solidarity," perhaps the pursuit

of discomfort rather than joy is a more productive-even ethical-path." ("Genocide Unbound" *Theater Journal* 2009)

While we might lose the immediate impact and collective political action made possible by a more palatable, more “mainstream” dramaturgy, what might we gain artistically, ethically, and discursively if we make more room for discomfort in the theater? We talk about the need and desire to reach new audiences. Perhaps they are waiting for us not to meet them where they are but offer them ways to move into yet unknown and uncomfortable territories of experience, knowledge, and ways of making political change.

Thanks, Jules, for this carefully thought out response. I absolutely agree, particularly about the importance of "discomfort." I don't think new ideas enter the world through the comfortable, plush seats of Broadway/Off-Broadway--for instance, The Normal Heart would have never existed without the earlier AIDS performances I cite. It seems to me that "discomfort" is needed to birth radical, new ideas and then acceptance of a, potentially less radical, version of those ideas comes through more and more citizens finding "comfort" with them.

It's interesting that you bring up The Laramie Project as its NYC premiere is the subject of the final chapter of my book-project which takes The Normal Heart as its first chapter's subject. I'll look at your website with great interest as I work on that.

Finally, I love what you write about Ehn's work, especially how "we are in no danger of losing our palatable structures and content in American theatre." I wholeheartedly agree, and think the work of Ehn, and others who may be less "palatable" to the mainstream, is vital to the discovery of new ways of seeing and understanding the world.