Remembering Larry Kramer and How He Harnessed Anger to Propel Creativity and Action

By Alex Teplitzky, Senior Communications Manager, Library for the Performing Arts Communications
June 24, 2022
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Playwright Larry Kramer with pet dog on the set of his play Just Say No, photo by Martha Swope, 1988.

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: swope_1316761

Today we remember Larry Kramer, playwright, AIDS and gay rights activist, and dog-lover—born on June 25 in 1935. Throughout his life, in the face of injustice, lack of rights, and oppression, Kramer harnessed his anger to propel creativity and action: both in his efforts to organize and activate his community, and through his art. As injustice, lack of access to healthcare, and discrimination persists today, Kramer continues to be a source of inspiration.

Among other things, Kramer was known as the founder of Act Up, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, whose collective organizing pushed for more AIDS drugs research and an end to discrimination against the gay community. When he founded the organization in 1987, the AIDS epidemic was devastating the gay community. The US government had been slow to even acknowledge the disease—in 1985, President Regan finally mentioned the word AIDS, calling it a top priority, and allocated research funding to find a cure. Two years later, drugs like AZT existed, but they were expensive and difficult to access.

Brad Davis, D. W. Moffett, Concetta Tomei, and Phillip Richard Allen in the stage production The Normal Heart, 1985.

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5027147

“How long does it take before you get angry and fight back,” Kramer wondered in a famous speech at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center? That anger and need to act likewise made its way into his artwork.

Kramer wrote The Normal Heart after visiting the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and learning more about the silence and inaction of Germans and other European nations to stop the Holocaust. Kramer felt that the same thing was happening with the AIDS crisis—people weren’t mad enough to say anything and act. In the play Ned Weeks’s plight reflects Kramer’s own, whose loved one was dying from disease that doctors are clueless about, while the activist group fighting apathy in the country forces him out because his activism was considered too strong. The play opened in 1985 at the Public Theater and ran for nine weeks, and it had a revival in 2011.

Actors (L-R) Joseph Ragno & Keith Reddin in a scene fr. the WPA Theatre's production of the play Just Say No, 1988

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: swope_631729

His play, Just Say No, was likewise modeled after current events, but experienced a more negative reaction from critics. The play told the story of a First Lady, her gay son, and the closeted gay mayor of a large city, inspired by Ronald Regan, Ed Koch, and their failure to tackle the AIDS crisis while many died. While it only ran for one month, Susan Sontag wrote of it, “I hope he never lowers his voice."

Kramer today is rightly remembered for his loud voice in the face of oppression, lack of accessible healthcare, and inertia by elected officials. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases then and now, had a contentious relationship with Kramer due to the government’s failure to address the AIDS crisis, ended up becoming more friendly toward the end of Kramer’s life. “In American medicine there are two eras,” said Dr. Fauci in 2002, “Before Larry and after Larry.”

Playwright Larry Kramer, his dog, Molly and Brad Davis in publicity still for The Normal Heart, 1985

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1696721

But the forcefulness of his plays too have rippled out into contemporary theater, with artists like Tony Kushner and Taylor Mac making work for which Kramer paved the way. Taylor Mac, speaking about Gary in 2019 in the New York Times, reflected the legacy of Kramer’s activist artwork. It wasn’t subtlety Mac wanted in performances, but in-your-face maximalism: “You go to the theater to see a part of yourself you haven’t seen before.”