'Howling anger': How Angels in America and The Normal Heart confronted the Aids crisis

The pandemic inspired many works of art but two furious, turbulent plays written at its onset still tower over the rest. As both return, we explore their enduring power

On 3 July 1981, a single-column item appeared on page 20 of the New York Times under the headline: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” In the four decades since, the cultural response to Aids has spanned every art form. It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s Channel 4 series, is only the most recent entry on a very long list. But even now, after all those works, the conversation about Aids is still dominated by two American plays that arrived in the early days of that pandemic.

In The Normal Heart, which opened off-Broadway in April 1985, playwright and activist Larry Kramer dramatised his own struggle to force politicians, doctors and the gay community to confront a disease many were treating with scepticism or indifference. In front of a set on which the rising fatalities and the names of the dead were scrawled and updated with each performance, Kramer’s crusading onstage alter-ego Ned Weeks ranted, raged and fell desperately in love. He was played by Brad Davis, the star of Midnight Express and Querelle, who died of Aids six years later.

Fantastical … Nancy Crane and Stephen Dillane in Angels In America at the NT in 1993.
Fantastical … Nancy Crane and Stephen Dillane in Angels In America at the NT in 1993. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Angels in America adopts a more expansive, fantastical approach. Tony Kushner’s two-part, seven-hour epic, which was commissioned in the late 1980s and opened in its entirety on Broadway in 1993, mixes fictional characters with real-life figures such as Roy Cohn, the ruthless lawyer who died of Aids, and Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he sent to the electric chair for spying. The play’s settings range from Central Park cruising grounds to Antarctica and the afterlife. In place of Kramer’s rawness and austerity is spectacle: Marianne Elliott’s 2017 revival at the National Theatre in London featured neon, puppetry, roaring flames, and Andrew Garfield as the dying New Yorker visited by an angel crashing through his ceiling.

Neither play looks likely to fall from favour. Angels in America is currently streaming on NT at Home, while The Normal Heart – which reached Broadway in 2011 and was adapted for TV in 2014 with Mark Ruffalo – is to be staged at the National, directed by Dominic Cooke.

Back in 1985, however, when the actor DW Moffett was cast as Ned’s lover, the material was seen by some as taboo. “A gay friend told me, ‘Don’t you fucking go near Larry Kramer, that guy is toxic!’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘But it’s all about Aids.’ He said, ‘I know what it’s about! How we can’t fuck one another any more, and all that puritan bullshit.’ Even in New York, people were not ready to digest either the rage or the amount of doomsday information Larry was downloading on to American society.”

Kramer had decried gay promiscuity in the 1970s on moral grounds. Although his argument acquired, with Aids, an existential imperative, those who were enjoying hard-won freedoms were in no mood to curb their desires. “It’s Cassandra, isn’t it?” says Dominic Cooke. “He knows what’s coming and he’s not being listened to. Larry was saying that promiscuity is a choice, but it shouldn’t be the destination. The destination is that we should feel worthy of love.”

Overly moral? … Mark Ruffalo, right, with Joe Mantello in the 2014 TV adaptation of The Normal Heart.
Overly moral? … Mark Ruffalo, right, with Joe Mantello in the 2014 TV adaptation of The Normal Heart. Photograph: HBO Films/Allstar

There was no hiding the damage being wreaked by the disease. “During the curtain call,” says Moffett, “you would see grown men in the audience weeping, with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions all over their faces. You can’t look at that every night, then come in to the theatre the next day and be like, ‘I’m gonna phone it in.’ I’m not saying it was herculean, but it was a steady commitment that over time began to cost.”

In the audience one evening was an actor fresh out of drama school: Joe Mantello, who went on to become a successful Broadway director (Wicked, The Boys in the Band), and earned a Tony nomination for playing Ned in the 2011 revival. “It felt like a dispatch from the frontlines of a war,” he says. “It had this immediacy, this howling anger, that I connected to. The writing is unadorned because Larry didn’t have the luxury of being able to do anything but say, ‘Please wake up and look at what’s happening!’”

Cooke first encountered The Normal Heart when it transferred to London in 1986, with Martin Sheen as Ned. “The actress Sophie Okonedo, who’s a friend of mine, saw it before me,” he says. “She called from a phone box outside the Royal Court and said, ‘I’ve just given my bus fare to the Terrence Higgins Trust!’ People were coming out of the show absolutely wrung dry. It was extraordinary to have a history play written by someone who was actually there.”

Crusading … playwright and rights activist Larry Kramer.
Crusading … playwright and rights activist Larry Kramer. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Although Mantello was in the audience for The Normal Heart, he was a working actor by the time Angels in America hit Broadway. In that production, he played Louis, the fretful Jewish clerk who dumps his HIV-positive boyfriend. “I remember coming out of the stage door and people would tell me, ‘I hated you!’”

The play, on the other hand, was loved. Meryl Streep, who starred in Mike Nichols’ 2003 HBO version, later called it “the Hamilton of its time”. Caryl Churchill remembered “how happy I was to find this playwright who wrote with politics, imagination and passion, and on a grand scale”. Mantello explains the difference between the two writers: “Larry had to get the facts down, whereas Tony all those years later could filter it through this theatricality, and that’s why I think it’s a great work of art.”

For all its scenes of suffering, Russell Tovey, who played a tormented gay Mormon in the 2017 revival, sees Angels in America as an optimistic work. “The characters are in hopeless situations,” he says. “And yet there is so much hopefulness there.” Mantello agrees: “The beauty of the writing allowed people to access sorrow but also hope, which was a potent combination. The Normal Heart felt more about terror – it was a horror story.”

Cooke, however, believes Kramer’s play has its share of hope, too: “For me, it’s not just about Aids but how you change the world. And there’s something weirdly hopeful about Ned sticking his head in the lion’s mouth by allowing himself to be loved.”

Theatricality … Tony Kushner backstage at the National Theatre, during the run of Angels in America.
Theatricality … Tony Kushner backstage at the National Theatre, during the run of Angels in America. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The long shadows cast by Kramer and Kushner have left other plays, such as William M Hoffman’s As Is and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, in the shade. Even The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s acclaimed 2018 drama, is indebted to Kushner’s work, with its two-part structure, its New York setting, a cast of characters not limited to the living (EM Forster puts in an appearance) and a tell-tale glimpse of angel wings. Tovey also notes a dearth of British stories. “The success of those two plays,” he says, “and the scale of them, may have affected what’s come out of Britain. Most of our references for stories about Aids have been American.”

There’s a case to be made, too, that The Normal Heart and Angels in America have perpetuated a white stranglehold on the portrayal of Aids in theatre. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a shocking prediction: that half of all gay and bisexual African-American men will at some point contract HIV. In this light, the white bias seems not only unjust but disproportionate.

Kushner’s characterisation of the African-American nurse Belize has been singled out for criticism by some US commentators. Hilton Als in the New Yorker called him “a dream of black strength, an Angela Bassett of the ward”. Steven Thrasher, a professor at Northwestern University and author of the forthcoming book The Viral Underclass, also takes issue with Belize. “It makes me angry,” he says, “that he is not given a life except in service of the white characters, while they have these rich lives.”

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, the British actor who played Belize in the 2017 production, has sympathy for that point. “I do understand what they’re saying and I don’t fully disagree,” he says. “But race is addressed in every encounter Belize has, so it becomes a discussion. If all he did was clean up other people’s emotional mess without a murmur, that would be a problem. It’s not like that, though. Like many people of colour, he is in a constant state of emergency, and hasn’t really got time to dwell. His agency comes out in the way he barters to get what he wants. He’s a huge voice in the play.”

Landing punches … A Strange Loop.
Landing punches … A Strange Loop. Photograph: AP

Thrasher believes the problem lies within the wider cultural landscape. “I don’t really like Angels in America any more,” he says. “But my issue is less with the play itself than with the space it took up and the lack of recognition for more honest work about Aids.”

He highlights two off-Broadway shows from 2019 that focus on the black queer experience: Donja R Love’s One in Two (the title refers to those CDC figures) and A Strange Loop, Michael R Jackson’s Pulitzer-winning musical. Jackson’s show lands some punches on the white theatrical establishment: in the song Aids Is God’s Punishment, a preacher sings of burying an “abnormal-hearted, un-Angel-in-American black queer in the ground”. Another number pledges “to fill this cis-het, all-white space” with “a portrait of a black queer face”. It can’t happen soon enough.

Angels in America is available to stream on NT at Home. Details about The Normal Heart at the National Theatre will be announced later this year.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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