For many years Larry Kramer and I were good friends.
And then we weren’t — that was Larry’s decision. It was also Larry’s decision that the time had come to reconcile, a few years after a rift that was and remains heartbreaking for me. I hadn’t spoken to Larry in five years; I was standing in the Greenwich Village bookstore Three Lives, reading something, when I heard a soft, sad whispered “Anthony,” and I turned to see him, looking older and frailer than he had the last time we were together, staring up at me through thick lenses.
He said, “I miss you.” I said, “I miss you too, Larry.”
I really had missed him, a lot. Larry was great fun to be with, to dish dirt with over the phone or at lunch. When he was in a good mood, as he often was, he was just a grand old New York queen. He seemed to have known practically everyone, and knew or claimed to know many of their spiciest, darkest secrets.
Larry also knew what made the wheels of the worlds of art and politics turn, who had called whom to make stuff happen. And he knew who failed to make the wheels turn, who failed tests of chutzpah or moral courage, by which Larry meant voluble outrage. He adored the just and brave and talented, and he adored denouncing those who had failed to act, those who had let us down.
By “us,” Larry meant the L.G.B.T. community. He was an unapologetic tribalist. I often told him that I felt this amounted to a willed limitation of empathy, fatal to the necessity of building solidarity with other communities fighting for justice, enfranchisement, emancipation. He told me that I was too easily distracted and insufficiently loyal to “our people.”
As Shaw, Brecht and others have observed, saints are, for the most part, unbearable company, exhausting, unnerving scourges. Larry wasn’t a saint, and he would have killed anyone who called him one. But I suspect that many official saints were as thorny as he was. His focus was so exclusive that it could sometimes feel exclusionary, but the specificity of his vision gave it an astonishing, unsettling, disruptive force. Through his singular devotion to L.G.B.T. liberation, he attained the expression of something like a visionary politics of universal value.
With the force of prophetic revelation, the AIDS epidemic laid bare for Larry a terrible, galvanizing truth: Liberation from oppression is, in the most concrete sense, a matter of life and death. Therefore, oppression is as impermissible and intolerable as murder. Oppression is, in fact, murder. To him, any attempt to dodge this truth, or to hide from its imperative for immediate action, was incomprehensible and unforgivable. Comfort with oppression wasn’t bad because it might lead to a holocaust; oppression was the holocaust, and comfort was complicity.
Larry had much in common with Susan Sontag, who, in “Illness as Metaphor” and later in “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” admonished us to strip disease of all meaning beyond its biology. To assign moral or literary rather than scientific meaning to illness, she argued, is to use the suffering of others, often for the purpose of stigmatizing them, making it easier to withhold aid, to selectively withdraw decency and humanity.
Sontag’s essays helped lay the groundwork for a new rights-based politics of health care in which Larry played a vital role. They admired each other, despite reservations. They shared a furious insistence on seeing, clearly and courageously, and then on speaking out, telling others what they’d seen. Both used language as a means of pushing consciousness past every trick of language that disguises reality.
I wasn’t fully out of the closet in 1983 when I read the New York Native essay “1,112 and Counting,” Larry’s primal scream/howitzer blast of a wake-up call to gay men who were struggling with the unassimilable scientific reality of a new, fatal, sexually transmitted disease. I hated the essay and I hated him for writing it; it felt abusive and violent. I wasn’t alone in feeling this. Many of us couldn’t absorb what Larry was telling us; we relegated him to the cave of our demons, the bullies and abusers with which we’d all had to contend.
But for some of us — certainly for me — Larry’s scorched-earth harangue provoked painful introspection. It’s unpleasant and scary to be yelled at, but you ignore the meaning of what’s being yelled at your own peril. Larry was howling demands at us, but the shattering words of his essay articulated a stark truth. He was demanding not that we submit but that we rise up and begin to take ourselves, our lives, our health and each other as seriously as he did.
And then came “The Normal Heart,” an excoriation of a play, unlike anything we’d seen before. A theatrical polemic that described the present moment with harrowing exactitude; an incredibly crafted, gorgeous, funny, devastating masterpiece of theatrical realism; and also — and this is very rare — a work of art that provably moved its audiences to political action. It’s a play about an insufferable person rising to a historical moment; it shows us horrible suffering in order to goad us to become insufferable ourselves, in the name of refusing suffering.
My deep indebtedness to Larry as a writer was the basis of our friendship. I was indebted to him as a gay man and as a citizen. As a person who tries to stay politically engaged, I was in awe of him. But I loved his words, and he loved that. Larry was an artist. Sometimes he’d say that nothing mattered more to him than being respected as an artist. I believe that he was an extraordinary writer, and I also believe that he sacrificed for the sake of his unceasing activism some of what he might have accomplished artistically.
I think he knew that, though he never complained about it — and Larry liked to complain. He wrote “Faggots,” “1,112 and Counting,” “The Normal Heart” and its sequel, “The Destiny of Me.” In terms of political engagement, few serious American artists have achieved more.
Larry was sometimes joyful but rarely happy, at least not so he’d let anyone know about it. He was constitutionally incapable of satisfaction; for him, satisfaction = death. He wanted to be included, he wanted his community to be let in on the franchise, to have a place amid structures that permit order, stability and prosperity. He was willing to raze those structures if we were denied access, but the access, not the razing, was the point.
He was relentless but not revolutionary. And yet, announcing failure and defeat and impending apocalypse, he fed a rage that formed the words that helped fuel a revolution. He was sometimes a misery and often an unmatchable mensch. He was a blisteringly magnificent solar flare of a human being. And I’ll miss him forever.
Tony Kushner is a playwright and screenwriter.
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