Secrets of "The Normal Heart": Behind the scenes as Larry Kramer's historic AIDS play made it to the stage

As the groundbreaking play becomes an HBO film this weekend, a look back at its long journey to the Public Theater

Published May 23, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch in "The Normal Heart"      (HBO/Jojo Whilden)
Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch in "The Normal Heart" (HBO/Jojo Whilden)

From the book "Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told" 

The blood that is coursing through "The Normal Heart," the new play by Larry Kramer at the Public Theater, is boiling hot. In this fiercely polemical drama about the private and public fallout of the AIDS epidemic, the playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage. Although Mr. Kramer’s theatrical talents are not always as highly developed as his conscience, there can be little doubt that "The Normal Heart" is the most outspoken play around — or that it speaks up about a subject that justifies its author’s unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency.

What gets Mr. Kramer mad is his conviction that neither the hetero- nor homosexual community has fully met the ever-expanding crisis posed by acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He accuses the governmental, medical and press establishments of foot-dragging in combating the disease — especially in the early days of the 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. “There’s not a good word to be said about anyone’s behavior in this whole mess,” claims one character — and certainly Mr. Kramer has few good words to say about Mayor Koch, various prominent medical organizations, The New York Times or, for that matter, most of the leadership of an unnamed organization apparently patterned after the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
-- Frank Rich, New York Times, April 22, 1985

* * *

It concerns, first, the troubled involvement of Ned Weeks, a writer, with an AIDS-crisis organization that he helped found but that eschews his confrontational tactics and eventually dumps him. It concerns, second, Ned’s love affair with Felix, a New York Times fashion reporter, who comes out of the closet for Ned even as Ned comes out of emotional lethargy for him. There is, third, Ned’s tricky relationship with his heterosexual lawyer brother, made trickier by their Jewishness. Fourth, there are the efforts of Dr. Emma Brookner — a smart, tough, tireless doctor confined to a wheelchair by polio — to combat AIDS, succor the victims, and mobilize the purblind or adversary medical powers that be. Lastly, there is the complex interaction — or inaction — of city and federal governments; the vagaries of the heterosexual and homosexual press; public opinion or apathy or hostility; and violently conflicting views and plans of action in the crisis center.

The play’s most original contribution is its examination of the relationship between promiscuity and AIDS, a certain swinging homosexual life-style and the spread of the disease. Although the author’s preference is for loving monogamy, persuasive spokesmen for a whole spectrum from abstinent celibacy to extreme indulgence as a supposed homosexual hallmark are given hearing. As a result, 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. Despite some awesome self-importance, there is also a leaven of humor and self-criticism, and language that can rouse itself out of a tendency to creak into moving arias and duets of passion.
-- John Simon, New York magazine, May 6, 1985

LARRY KRAMER  In July 1981, there was an article in the New York Times that said, “Rare Cancer Found in 41 Homosexuals.” A friend who wrote about medical stuff for The Native, the gay newspaper, suggested I go and speak to Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kein of NYU, the doctor who had reported this. While I was there, I ran into two people I knew, one who’d just been diagnosed and one who had been diagnosed earlier. That sort of hit home, brought a personal immediacy to bear much more than just reading about it in the newspaper had.

Over the next six months, there were various attempts to get an organization going to deal with this, none of them terribly successful, and in January of 1982 six of us decided to regroup and refocus and we gave ourselves the name Gay Men’s Health Crisis. We grew and grew, but in 1983, there was a fight that led to my expulsion. I went abroad, sort of bummed around a bit, and in July or August of 1983, I went to Cape Cod and started writing what became the play, which is, to an extraordinary degree, autobiographical.

During the two years I was involved with AIDS and GMHC, I was very much aware that I was a witness to an extraordinary time in history, and that very few writers had been given this opportunity. So I knew I had to write about  it eventually. My closest friend, Rodger McFarlane, GMHC’s executive director, has the theory that I unconsciously promoted my expulsion in order to free myself to write about it. I don’t think that was the case, but one doesn’t know what one’s unconscious is capable of.

I began to cast around for ways to write about it. I’d had one earlier experience in the theater, a play called Sissies’ Scrapbook, that was a success at Playwrights Horizons but a huge flop as a commercial venture. We closed on opening night, which was exceedingly painful to me, needless to say, so my experience with the theater had not been one that I wanted to repeat. I tried to write this as a novel, called City of Death, but it didn’t seem to have the kind of immediacy I needed—it didn’t, what I call, yield.

But when I was abroad I saw David Hare’s A Map of the World, which fused theater and politics, and I said, “Wow, let me think about this as a play again.” So I rented this little sea shack on Cape Cod and it just poured out. The first draft for me is always what I call the vomit-out. Then a friend lent me what she calls her Jewish log cabin, a place in the Virginia wilderness but with all the conveniences, and I wrote the second draft.

While I was there I remembered a line from an Auden poem, “We must love one another or die,” and I called my friend Richard Howard, who is a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, and he identified the poem and read it to me. And as soon as he got to the phrase “the normal heart,” I said, “That’s it.”

I submitted that draft to the Public, where I knew no one but which always seemed to be the logical place. I gave it to a guy named Emmett Foster who was a volunteer at GMHC. Emmett, who was Joe’s assistant, said it had to go through the process at the Public, and I started sending it to agents, and every agent turned it down. I’m talking about every agent—I mean, you name ’em. But if you believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got to fight very tenaciously for it, try every possible avenue, and you don’t take no for an answer.

I sent the script to Tommy Tune, because he had been generous to GMHC and I thought he would be a good director. I dropped it off on a Wednesday and literally that weekend his associate called me, and then Tommy called me two days later, and they were both in tears. But Tommy said he couldn’t direct it; it was too moving for him, he didn’t know how to handle all of that. He was going to send it to Mike Nichols, but I already had, and a week later Mike Nichols called and said, “I think Tommy should direct it,” and I said, “Well, Tom said he thinks you should direct it.” And they both hemmed and hawed.

Meanwhile, I kept writing these letters to Joe, who I didn’t know at all, saying, “Mike Nichols said my script is good, and Tommy Tune said my script is good, where are you? Why am I not hearing from you?” I still didn’t hear, and at one point I wrote a very nasty letter, saying, “How dare you not pay more attention to all of this?” But Emmett didn’t put the letter through; he saved me on that one. Then, in April of 1984, I got a call to come over and meet Gail.

GAIL MERRIFIELD PAPP  When very long first drafts of plays come into the office, I say, “Get out the scales! How much does it weigh? Is it a four-pounder or an eight-pounder?” And what came into the office from Larry, though I didn’t know this at first, was something in the vicinity of a seven-pounder. It looked like it could have been a novel, it was that thick, it was perhaps a seven-hour experience in the theater.

Larry, who was in a combative mood because of his recent experiences, had written a covering letter to Joe with his submission of the manuscript that was considered, to use a mild word, inappropriate, actually offensive in tone. For some reason, he assumed that the play was not going to be read, and he overcompensated, shall we say, in this letter, trying to crash through the barriers that he foresaw. Someone who knew Larry read the letter and decided not to show it to Joe or me. We never saw the damn letter; we just heard reports of it. Probably just as well.

After I heard about the submission, I said, “Well, who has the script?” I’m head of the play department and it’s one of the questions I ask when something comes in. And, to my astonishment, I heard that four people in the office had already read the play and just loathed it. This was before my assigning the script or even knowing its goddamn title.

Everybody was kind of hot to read it because of Larry’s reputation, which was that he can get hysterically angry to the point where he does in the very cause he’s trying to put forth, that he makes outrageous claims and is untrustworthy in his reportage, and that his propensity to deliver insults to a person’s face in order to get their blood boiling in the proper way is counterproductive and out of line. Now all of this is true and not true, and that’s all I’m going to say on that subject.

“Give the script to me and I’ll read it,” I said. The play indeed was sprawling all over the place, but here and there, there were parts of it that I found quite remarkably written. And when I finished, something happened that has almost never happened to me, perhaps once or twice in my whole memory: I just broke down and cried. I was so damn moved, despite the fact that it was just one hell of a mess of a play. And I thought, “Jesus, this is something to work on.”

Meantime, what had happened was that there had been horrendous yelling matches going on between Larry and various people on the staff. People were saying, “I won’t talk to that man again; I won’t talk to that man.” I wasn’t there when all this happened, but then I saw huge bowers of flowers arriving for my secretary and other people with notes of apology from Larry. “What the hell’s going on?” I said. I was quite astonished, and I said, “Okay, get him on the phone.” I called him up and said, “Listen, I liked your play very much. I was extraordinarily moved by it. It needs some work. Let’s get together.”

His play began as a play about himself and his brother, who is straight and a lawyer. The first draft was very, very long, with a great deal of flashback scenes having to do with him and his brother and their upbringing. When Larry came in, I started talking with him, asking him a lot of questions, first just to find out what he was trying to do with the play. Anything I didn’t understand, I’d ask him, a process that went on for about eight or nine months. He’d come in every week, and we’d spend a few hours sitting around the office talking.

I asked him about a speech in the play which equates the burying of the news of this kind of public health crisis with what went on in Hitler’s Germany. And he told me of a trip he’d made to the concentration camp at Dachau, and what he’d read about the role of American Jews during the war. He’d made a very deep connection in his soul about what it’s possible for people to ignore, to do nothing about. And the more we talked about it, we were getting less and less into the whole brother relationship, and I said, “Why do you have the childhood flashback here? What do you want that to accomplish?” He was very, very tied to the whole story, he was adamant about having that in the play, but I saw it as two plays vying for the same space.

Larry’s a marvelous rewriter, fast and smart. And he had a tremendous sense of urgency and passion and commitment to write this play and get it on as fast as possible. Not just because of wanting to have his own creative expression out there in the open; he felt the news had to get out. So he would start explaining certain things to me, and in the process of his own explanations, Larry would clarify certain things for himself. He worked and worked and worked on that play, and finally, he did the most terribly hard, painful thing a writer can do: he took out the stuff he loved best, which was almost all the brother stuff.

I was also very concerned that all of the statements of supposed fact, with respect to the city administration and with respect to the New York Times, were completely supported and true. I told Larry I needed to have documentation for each and every thing. He brought in a sheaf this thick, and it all checked out. There was not one misstatement of fact in the whole play, so I respected him a lot. And in the course of all these months, he was so nice. Maybe because he got shouted down a lot, he was grateful that somebody was willing to listen to him.

LARRY KRAMER   Working with that woman was for me one of the most moving, creative, fertile, productive, challenging, positive experiences of my entire life. As I look back on it, knowing my temperament, I’m amazed at my patience. I’m not in any way that malleable; if I don’t agree with you, I will fight you tenaciously. But something inside me must have just said, “This woman can teach you.” Because I had no commitment from the Public, no contract, no promises, nothing. And to do all this work on spec was very unlike me. I don’t know that I will ever be able to really put it in any kind of words, but we had something very special.

A good editor doesn’t tell you what to do; he or she has the ability to bring out of you, pull out of you, your very best. And Gail never, ever told me what to do, but somehow, in our interaction in our meetings, she made me so aware of yet further possibilities within the script that I couldn’t wait to get home to dramatize them. At the end of a meeting, she would say goodbye to me, not expecting to see me for a month, and I would literally be back there in a week or ten days with the new stuff. She had known all along that she wanted to do the play; it was just a question of how hard I was willing to work. It was an awesome experience.

GAIL MERRIFIELD PAPP Now you have to realize that everybody around the office hated this play. They were astounded that I was spending so much time with Larry. God knows what they thought I was doing. Joe knew I was meeting with this guy, but he didn’t know what it was all about, either. He would pass by the desk and say, “Whatever it is, it better be good.”

We put in months and months of very hard, good work, and though it wasn’t completed yet, I felt the play was incredibly moving and important. There was a sense of urgency about getting it on, and since getting a play on or not is Joe’s decision, not mine, I decided it was time he read the script.

I brought it home one night, and it turned out to be one of life’s most inopportune moments. It was after supper, when one gets sleepy, and Joe had many important and urgent programs and plans on his mind that he wanted to discuss with me. He was lying on the sofa, and in the midst of all this, I interjected the thought that I had a play with me that I’d like him to read that very night. It was the last thing in the world he wanted to hear.

“Why should I read this play tonight of all nights?” he said.

“Because I think it is a potentially very powerful play, and I need your advice about how we should go about it. I’ve had no support on it, and perhaps I’m mad, perhaps I’ve lost all judgment and all my faculties have gone out the window. I need you to tell me if I’m just plain crazy.”

So Joe magnanimously said, “I don’t want to.” “Oh, please, please,” I said. “Just start.”

“Can I read just a few pages?”

“No, you can’t read just a few pages of this one. It’s not that kind of play. You must read it from start to finish. You’re going to like some parts more than other parts, but just keep going, have faith, and then tell me if I’m crazy.”

So he started reading, read the first few pages, and put it down. “I don’t like this at all,” he said. “It’s terrible. Why are you having me read this play?” “Yes, I know you’re not going to like the first ten pages, but please read on. You’ve got to read on.”

He was good enough to do that, and then he was silent for an hour, he never put it down. And when he finished it, he had the same reaction I did: he was in tears. He was so goddamned moved he could hardly talk. “No,” he said, “you’re not crazy. Let’s work on it. Let’s try to do it.”

JOSEPH PAPP  Gail told me she’d found an interesting play about AIDS. “It’s a monster, it’s huge,” she said, “but I think it has great possibilities.”

“I don’t want to do a play about AIDS,” I said. “I hate to do plays about cancer, I hate to do plays about illness, I just don’t want to do the play—and I have no time to read it.”

She let it go for a few days and then came back and said, “Would you just try to read it?”

“I don’t want to read it,” I said. “First of all, it’s too fat, I can’t get through the damn thing, and secondly it’ll just depress me.”

After about a week, she said, “Just begin it.”

“All right,” I said. “But I’m not going to like it. I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to like it.”

I read the first twenty pages, put it down, and said, “Gail, there’s so much junk in this thing, I can’t get through it. It’s overwritten, overblown, and who cares about this guy’s brother?”

She didn’t say a word, and a day or so later I picked it up again and began to plow my way and plow my way through it. At several points I put it down and said, “I can’t get any further with this,” but I finally plowed my way through the whole thing. I put the damn thing down, I said, “This is one of the worst things I’ve ever read,” and I was crying. Can you believe that? I was crying. There was so much feeling in the play, I was moved. It was cluttered with all this junk, but the heart of "The Normal Heart" was beating. And that’s the way it began.

GAIL MERRIFIELD PAPP  Joe and I were going away, and I didn’t want Larry to lose any kind of continuity in his work on it. So I asked Larry if while we were away Bill Hart, our dramaturge, could be his man. And Bill did some excellent work with Larry, really excellent. The scene  near the end, where Ned and Felix have a terrible argument and Ned breaks a carton of milk when he throws it to the floor, that really came out of his work with Bill Hart.

LARRY KRAMER    Gail and I worked on the overall, mammoth, granite-like structure, and Bill and I worked on the nose and the eyes and the detailing. We used to sit around playing the parts back and forth to each other. I learned a lot from him: how to shape a scene, what was extraneous, where a beat was needed. And I would keep rewriting things; I must have easily done a dozen drafts.

BILL HART "The Normal Heart" came in. It seemed to have such a courageous and powerful core, but it was overdone, excessive, Larry was putting everything into it. Gail worked at removing a lot of the excess, but it still didn’t kick through all the way, and that’s when I came in. Because Larry was so concerned with information about this phenomenon, he felt he had to put a great deal of it into the play, and I kept thinking that it was interfering with the flow of the drama. You deaden people’s heads with all this data, so we had to work out how much to put in.

Larry would often just throw all my ideas right out the window, but every once in a while something would catch fire. If I thought he wasn’t giving one character a fair shake, I would try to show how this guy could be more interesting. Also, Larry needed to get even wilder.

Late in the play there is a very loving scene between Ned Weeks and his dying lover, and I felt it was too sweet. Larry might have been afraid there was no love in the play, but I said, “You’ve got to make this thing more gutsy. Stop being so nice.” So we turned it into this slam-bang, milk-throwing, “If you want to die, die!” scene. Mostly, it was just finding what was already there, encouraging Larry to put himself even more on the spot.

LARRY KRAMER   I had always been terrified of Joe. He was this big eminence, and since I knew he had a bad temper, and I knew I had a bad temper, I said to Gail, “Please keep us apart. I don’t want to have a fight.” But he agreed to do the play, even though it attacked two of his meal tickets: the New York Times, which reviews all his plays, and the mayor, who’s his landlord. For him to take on a play of this nature was enormously courageous. So from being frightened of him, it slowly grew into what I can only call a love affair.

Joe became like Daddy. We would always go to Daddy when we wanted things. And he gave in, it became his pet project. Joe is out of the thirties, he’s out of political anger and fury and passion. He loves it when people get up and scream at each other, make noise and confront an audience. Theater should be angry, theater should be dangerous, and he loved all of that, that’s basically what he responded to.

JOSEPH PAPP    Everybody told me about Larry. They said, “He’s an impossible man. He’ll threaten, cajole, wheedle, he’ll do anything to get to you.” He’s a fighter, he goes after things, and I wouldn’t want to have him for an enemy. But I never found him to be troublesome.

I told Larry, “Listen, I don’t want anything here that you cannot actually prove, because you’ve not only written a play, you’re making very clear statements about people.” He gave me all this data and I corroborated everything.

I was determined to do the play, so I called Mayor Koch. I said, “Mr. Mayor, I have a play here about AIDS that I’m going to put on. The playwright criticizes you and your administration. I’m not going to be a censor. I just wanted to let you know.” And he said, “Fine, thank you for telling me.” Then I called Arthur Gelb, and I said, “Artie, listen, I’m doing a play here and it’s critical of the Times.”

“What do you mean?” he said. “We were the first ones to put  that thing in the paper. How can you say that?”

“Mind you, Artie, I didn’t write the play. I’m putting it on because it’s an important theme. If you think the guy who wrote it is wrong, sue him.”

LARRY KRAMER   It was really hard finding a director. I tried to find a guy called Michael Lindsay-Hogg whom I had known briefly when I lived in London. He was in New York, I sent him the script, and he called back that night and said, “I like it very much. Where do we stand?”

He had never worked at the Public, and Joe doesn’t like taking on new directors. I had everything going against me. The only plus was that his mother was Geraldine Fitzgerald, whom Joe adores.  So I sat down and wrote Joe this note. I said we had this chance with Michael who was so excited about it, and would he meet with him. Joe met with him, and everything was fine.

MICHAEL LINDSAY-HOGG  Larry said he’d written this play about AIDS and could I read it. I read it, and I thought it was sort of a mess in standard play terms, but it had the potential of being extremely powerful, sort of like An Enemy of the People. It was unwieldy, but unwieldy like a heavyweight boxer who misses sometimes, but if he connected, it would really snap your head back.

We started trying to cast it, and it proved endless. The whole thing was difficult because it was a period when if you drank water out of the same glass as someone who had AIDS, or if you ate something off a fork that hadn’t been properly washed, you were frightened.

I remember being introduced at a party by someone who said, “This is Michael, he’s doing a play about AIDS,” and coincidental with the word AIDS the person removed his hand from mine and just rubbed it down the side of his leg. A lot of people said, “I don’t want to see the play, because will I get AIDS by being in the room with people who have it?” There was a whole period of fear, and all of us felt it was an act of necessary courage that we did this play.

LARRY KRAMER  We had a hard time casting Ned. We waited a long time for Al Pacino, who said he was interested, and it really looked like a possibility that he was going to do it. Joe had it sent to Martin Sheen, who subsequently did it in London, but it turned out that Martin’s agent at the time, CAA, had never even passed the script on to him when they turned it down. An offer was made to Judd Hirsch, and the minute it was made to him, we regretted it, but in any event, he turned it down. If one were going after big stars, Dustin Hoffman was the one I certainly would have wanted the most. But he was not available to play the part on the stage, nor would he. He never tells you no; you just sort of get strung along.

MICHAEL  LINDSAY-HOGG  One night I was watching television, sort of out of half my eye, and I saw one of those TV miniseries about Bobby Kennedy. I had no particular interest in watching  yet another Kennedy piece, but I found my attention going more and more to the screen because I thought Brad Davis was sensational in it. So the next day I came in and said to Larry, “I think we might have it.”


“Brad Davis.”

Larry first of all said, “He’s too young,” and then laughed, because Brad had been in Larry’s first play. I kind of persisted, Brad came to New York to read for us, and we all thought he was right for it because  he was brave and he found the jokes.

LARRY KRAMER  I laughed because Brad was like my little protégé. I had really been instrumental in his career, giving him a kick in the ass and shaping him up early on, and the thought, somehow, that this little kid would come back, in essence playing me, made me laugh. I found it hard to make the leap or whatever, but I said, “Sure, why not?” Brad is very dear and very special and very personal, and I can’t be very objective about him.

BRAD DAVIS  Larry sent me the play not to be in it but because I’m an old friend of his. I read it and I was so moved I called him up when I finished it, which was like two thirty or three in the morning L.A. time, six o’clock his time. I was just going on and on about how impressed I was, how rich and moving and upsetting and angry the whole thing was.

I’d spoken with Larry every now and then and he’d told me he was trying to get stuff done about this disease, but it was so removed from me and far away, maybe that’s why I was so blown away when I read the play. It was like bc and ad, like there was no consciousness of AIDS before "The Normal Heart."

I was so effusive that he said, “Well, would you be interested in playing it?” At the time, a play was the last thing I wanted to do, the last thing I could really even afford to do. But the more I talked with him, the more the idea of my playing it appealed to him. And right in there, Michael Lindsay- Hogg saw Kennedy on TV and I flew to New York to read for him and Joe Papp. They were having trouble getting a really name actor to play Ned, because you read this play, and it could look like really big trouble. I didn’t see it that way. I only listened to my heart. I was just so moved.

Feeling somewhat quote/unquote “safe” coming into this, I freaked out in the middle of rehearsals. I mean, I got terrified. You start learning the facts about this virus and it was clear that it was no “This will never come into my life” kind of thing. The insidiousness of it was pretty overpowering when it really hit. So I cut off all my hair.

I used to do that all the time when I was younger, any time I was going through any kind of catharsis. If somebody looked cross-eyed at me at a stoplight, I’d go get the scissors and chop all my hair off. There have been some real Auschwitz looks, but I stopped short of that this time because something said, “Brad, you have to go to rehearsal tomorrow, and in three weeks you open in this play.” The next day, Larry saw me at the gym, called Michael, and said, “Our middle-aged leading man looks like a West Point prep boy.”

I’ve never had a rehearsal period like that. It was like we were all going on this journey into our own consciousnesses as people as well as creating a play as actors. The reality of the life that this play represented came into the play, and everybody just banded together so tightly. We had no guarantee that we weren’t going to get creamed, but everyone was so committed with their hearts that they dropped the ego that came with their particular station. The experience we had chosen to have was so powerful that it overshadowed everybody’s act. Everybody laid down their guns. Their sole purpose was just to take care of this child called "The Normal Heart."

LARRY KRAMER    As an actor, Brad is exceptionally good at telling you what you don’t need. And there were things we had tenacious fights over that I would not give in on. At one point Brad just exploded and said, “You know, he is not the Information, Please Almanac.” After we opened, when I continued to try and put stuff in, he did rebel and we had quite a bad fight over it.

Brad saw Geraldine Page having dinner with Michael in a restaurant, and he ran up to her and said, “Did Tennessee Williams rewrite plays after they opened? He didn’t do that, did he? Of course he didn’t.” And Geraldine said, “Are you crazy? He would send rewrites from the other side of the moon when we only had one week left to run.” And he just said, “Oh.”

JOSEPH PAPP Michael Lindsay-Hogg was a very positive force. I felt his greatest value as a director was that he created a very pleasant ambience for people to work in, but I was hoping that he’d have more control over the structure of the play. I felt there was not enough sense of organization, so the play rambled a lot, and I let him know that. And I did come in there a number of times to try to get some kind of form to this.

MICHAEL  LINDSAY-HOGG     Whatever the bad bits were, the play wouldn’t have been done without Joe. And because it was done at the Public under Joe’s aegis, it made the whole thing seem even more solid. Joe, in quotes, “legitimized” the project, helped you read the political nature of the play rather than just the gay nature  of the play. And that was a very good way to use the weight of a powerful theatrical institution. I don’t mean he’s the most lovable man of all time, but you do have a sense of moral commitment from Joe, his sense of right and wrong is very powerful, and that’s rare.

The downside of Joe is that to get where he’s got and to even get the theater working, it’s necessary to bully city institutions and financial people. That filters down to running a system where a lot of people are afraid of him. Joe is, by nature, confrontational. I don’t think it worries him that people are intimidated  by him. But the upside is that at least he bullies in the right causes. The Public’s the only place in New York you can do a play with bite, the only place to do something which has great risks.

And on opening night Joe was the one who got us all in a room and read the New York Times notice. It was kind of like your father, or for the younger members of the cast, your grandfather, reading this important thing. He said, “It’s okay. It’s not great, but I think we’ll be okay.” And then the play took on its own life.

LARRY KRAMER   Joe said to us on opening night, “I’m going to keep this play running. I don’t care if nobody comes. I’m going to keep it running.” And every time it came to close, Joe literally would say, “I can’t bring myself to close this play.” And then we’d have to run it for two more weeks with nobody in there, because  there was no advance, until word got out and it built up again. It ended up being the longest-running play that’s ever run there.

JOSEPH PAPP Just like David Rabe’s plays and all the plays about women and blacks and their struggles, here was a play that I felt was dealing with a major crisis, putting us in touch with the world again, and I was very proud to do it. I told the cast, “Once in every ten years or so, a play comes along that fulfills my original idea of what role theater must play in society,” and I meant it.

At the same time as "The Normal Heart," we were running a play about Vietnam called "Tracers," and it was, again, a very moving portrayal of young people dying. And I had the thought, “I could easily do both these plays with the same cast,” because the audience reactions at the end were so close. Every night after the curtain, ten, twelve, or fifteen young men would sit in their chairs and be unable to move, absolutely stunned. And several other people in the audience, mostly men, would go over and sit with that person, put an arm around him. The same after both plays.

Blacks, Latinos, women, Vietnam veterans, people in the AIDS situation—in a way these are all victims of society, victims of whatever is going on. And our theater has reflected the problems and needs, the dilemma of these people. I feel like they’re my people, as they should be everybody’s people.

From the book "Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told." Copyright © 2009 by The Estate of Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival. Published by arrangement with Anchor, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Random House

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