April 5, 2021
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.