Under any circumstances saying the simple phrase “I love you” presents problems for an actor. But for Brad Davis, rehearsing Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart for the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, there are more than the usual set of problems.
To begin with, Davis addresses the line to another man, an actor named David Brooks. Nowadays that is less unusual than it once was, but the declaration of love does not follow a romantic scene. It is the climax of a confrontation in which Davis, playing a gay activist—hot-tempered, abrasive, obstreperous—is informed by an understated counterpart that the organization he helped to found, an organization trying to make both straight and gay communities aware of the deadly threat of AIDS—no longer wants him in a position of leadership.
In the scene, the understated (some might say “closeted”) activist reads a letter to his outspoken colleague making clear the group’s reasons for his ouster. After a heated exchange between the two men the ousted leader, humiliated, uncharacteristically quiet, turns to his adversary and says, “I love you,” a complex, difficult moment for both.
While Kramer’s play was in rehearsal, another play about the AIDS crisis opened, William M. Hoffman’s As Is, co-produced by Circle Rep and The Glines. As Is was written during the same period as The Normal Heart. Both Hoffman and Kramer are openly gay. By 1983 both had already experienced the horror of losing friends to a disease that until 1981 was barely known. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) attacks the body’s immune system, leaving the victim totally vulnerable to infection, which can be lethal in a few years or a few months.
Both writers are, coincidentally, Jewish and both were struck by the way the indifference of the community at large to AIDS paralleled that of the public to the plight of European Jews during the 1930’s.
Hoffman, who lost family in the Holocaust, does not equate the two events in magnitude but feels the AIDS epidemic is, for a large part of the public, “a catastrophe that doesn’t exist.”
Hoffman was an editor at Hill & Wang, a publishing house that specializes in books about the theatre. He has been part of the Off-Off-Broadway movement since the embryonic days at the Caffe Cino, where he worked with Marshall W. Mason (who directed As Is) on Robert Patrick’s first play, The Haunted Host. A poet and journalist as well as a playwright, Hoffman is working on the libretto for an opera by John Corigliano commissioned for the centennial of the Metropolitan Opera. (The work is based loosely on the third play Beaumarchais wrote about the characters treated in The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.)
Hoffman began As Is two-and-a-half years ago when he became aware that his friends were dying of AIDS. At the time he assumed “it was not ever to be done. It was not ‘commercial.’ I did it more for therapeutic purposes. Then my father died, and I began revamping the material. The lines got sharper. I started to write just to deal with my own feelings.”
He sent three scenes to Mason, who is the artistic director of Circle Repertory Company. Mason encouraged him to complete the work. It was performed in several Circle Rep development programs before reaching its present shape, a cross between the kind of lyric naturalism Circle Rep is known for and a classical play with a kind of “chorus” representing the gay and straight worlds.
For Hoffman the original, therapeutic intentions of his project have been fulfilled. “I still don’t feel ‘easy’ about AIDS. You can’t in the face of catastrophe. But I don’t feel guilty. At one time I felt in some way deserving of ‘divine retribution.’ I felt, ‘What can we do?’ I also felt angry. I was filled with a rage that this was happening. Some of the people I knew who died were wonderful people. I had a friend who was a marathon runner, who was in much better health than I. He had always seemed ascetic to me in his sexual habits. But two months after running the marathon he died.”
In As Is two lovers who have separated are reconciled when one decides to care for the other who has been abandoned by the man who gave him—and dies from—AIDS. Also the dying man’s straight brother makes an effort to heal old wounds.
For Mason, there is no question but that As Is is more than a parochial play. “AIDS is really a catalyst for what the play is about—which is facing our own mortality. It has the kind of wisdom that seems to come 10 years after a crisis. If, God willing, a cure is developed, the play will still be valid.”
Mason was pleased when a woman who had recently been widowed told him, after a preview performance, “I just want you to know it is about how difficult it is to accept death.”
As Is is co-produced by The Glines, an institution devoted to fostering gay work in all the arts, best known for having produced the Tony-winning Torch Song Trilogy. When The Glines was founded in 1976 there was some problem agreeing on a name. “We wanted something that was not politically oriented, not male or female oriented,” explains John Glines. “Nine years ago playwrights and actors didn’t use their own names—a gay play meant something pornographic. I thought by using my own name it would be a forerunner—it would force others to do the same.”
Since the beginning of the year Glines finds he has read three or four scripts a week on AIDS themes. He is also aware of such plays being done in other cities, one called Warren, written from the point of view of a woman friend of an AIDS victim, having been done in Atlanta and about to be produced in Hawaii. In San Francisco there is a revue currently playing called The AIDS Show.
When he read The Normal Heart, Joseph Papp, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival, was also reading Tracers, a play about Vietnam which received critical acclaim when Papp produced it in December 1984. “This play, too, is about men at war,” Papp told Kramer.
Nothing could have pleased Kramer more. The Normal Heart grows out of Kramer’s own battles with the gay community over the posture they should present on the AIDS epidemic. Kramer was one of the six founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The organization was established in 1981 after AIDS was officially declared an epidemic. For two years GMHC tried to arrange a meeting with Mayor Ed Koch, whose response to the crisis, Kramer feels, has been cavalier. Koch, he points out, has allocated $40,000 in city funds to the AIDS problem. By contrast, San Francisco mayor Diane Feinstein has allocated millions of dollars.
Kramer, who wrote the screenplay for Ken Russell’s 1970 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and who wrote a controversial novel about the gay community, Faggots, which Random House published in 1978, feels the play reflects his concern that “as a community we are totally, 100 percent disorganized.
“Gays have not demanded that Koch be answerable to them. The Health Department hasn’t even put out pamphlets listing the symptoms. And so the epidemic gets worse. Even within the gay community there’s no organization, no leader prepared to say, ‘OK, guys, cool it.’ This is an illness that flies in the face of the principal tenet of the community—promiscuity. And there’s no one with any authority to say this is not a civil rights issue. It’s a contagion.”
When, in 1983, a meeting was finally arranged between GMHC and Mayor Koch, Kramer was informed—by a letter similar to the one Brooks’s character reads to Davis—that his presence was no longer desired by the GMHC leadership.
At the rehearsal, Brooks, a quiet spoken actor with a diffidence a playwright likes to see, feels obliged to talk to Kramer after the scene. “Larry, I’ll just say this. Every time I read that letter it jolts me—it’s so vivid, so intense. It hurts my feelings to read it.”
“In actuality the letter was circulated in the community before I saw it,” Kramer tells him.
It is after Brooks reads him the letter that Davis, who has shed the lithe, catlike manner he developed for the film Midnight Express for a defensive posture and a neurotic, nasal voice not unlike Kramer’s, has to say to him, “I love you.”
Brooks tells the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Kramer, “That’s one thing that doesn’t work for me, especially after that long pause—do you think it could be misconstrued that he means it sexually?”
Davis grins and asserts, “That’s the way I meant it.”
Everyone agrees that his is a valid reading. But Kramer is concerned that it might limit the play’s impact. “The word AIDS is not mentioned in the play once - I wanted to make it universal.”
After a pause he suggests another line for Davis or at least another way to interpret the original line: “You were my family, and I loved you.”