On a sunny Saturday in May, Joe Mantello visited the West Village home of Larry Kramer to interview the iconic firebrand about his career. Mantello, a celebrated director, made a brief return to his former profession — acting — to play Kramer's alter ego Ned Weeks in the 2011 Broadway revival of Kramer's watershed drama The Normal Heart. The two have remained close ever since.
Photo Special: Celebrating The Normal Heart Playwright Larry Kramer on His Birthday!
Playbill followed Mantello's journey to Kramer's apartment — the same apartment where he helped found the Gay Men's Health Crisis. The building's other famous residents have included Bella Abzug, Edith Windsor, and, oddly enough, Mayor Ed Koch (the antihero of The Normal Heart).
Kramer's life as a writer and activist is the subject of a new documentary, "Larry Kramer In Love & Anger," airing June 29 on HBO. Kramer's most recent book, the semi-autobiographical "The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart" was released earlier this year. What follows is an edited version of Mantello's conversation with Kramer.
JM: You must be doing so many of these interviews for the book?
LK: I guess. But they're never with people that you know or who would know what to ask. You get the feeling they're not going to run whatever it is that I'm saying. What we're involved in is a complicated issue, for me anyway. My politics are all through my art. People say it's too political — people say it's not political enough. It's so interesting that in this country, people rarely write political stuff for the theatre. I got my inspiration originally to write a play by reading David Hare's play A Map of the World.... I saw how you can use real people dealing with real issues and make a play out of it.
JM: It's part of the discourse in the United Kingdom, political plays, but when you write one here it's labeled agitprop.
LK: I'm tired of that word.
JM: What was interesting about the revival of The Normal Heart was that I thought that, finally, you were getting your due as a playwright and not just a political playwright.
LK: It was turned down by everybody, originally... Joe [Papp] was the only one to have the guts to do it.
JM: Why do you think it was turned down?
LK: Too political. Too gay. Two guys didn't kiss each other on the stage [back then].
JM: Did you experience [the play] differently when it was revived as opposed to the original?
LK: It's hard to say. Every Ned has been slightly different. And yet, it always seems to work. I've had such bad luck with critics. Everything I ever wrote before Normal Heart got terrible reviews, and Normal Heart got terrible reviews.
JM: Do you think that sometimes [with] a piece of art... the world has to catch up to it? Your life has been nothing but being ahead of the curve, Larry.
LK: I do feel like a reporter who's been dropped behind enemy lines and discovers he has a great story. I don't know what I would have written about if AIDS hadn't come along. I wouldn't have been politicized in the same way.
JM: Are there other playwrights who have been influential to you?
LK: We have Tony [Kushner] and Terrence [McNally] and Harvey [Fierstein] and me and Lisa [Kron] who are fighting the good fight. How much we're going to change history or how long the play will last for all of us, only time will tell.
JM: Do you feel that gay writers have a responsibility?
LK: We have a responsibility not only to our talent, but we have a responsibility to our people, and unfortunately we're not very good at that.
JM: But what if that's not your subject? What if it's just part of who you are — plays don't have a sexuality, writers have a sexuality.
LK: That sounds suspiciously like assimilation.
JM: I don't know that you can dictate to a writer to write about the gay experience...
LK: Not the gay experience, gay history.
JM: I just want people to write good plays.
LK: What's your definition of a good play?
JM: A play that makes me look at the world in a new way. A play that sends me out into the night having to talk about it. A play that haunts my sleep. A play that I'm still thinking about a week later.
LK: I don't know. I just want us to be a people with an identity.
JM: I think younger gay writers are writing gay stories, but in some way that reflects the world that they live in — you're going to say assimilation but I would say integration.
LK: Well, I keep hearing about how everyone is out of the closet, et cetera, and I say not enough of us are really out of the closet. We think they're out of the closet because they'll tell their boss or they'll tell their mother. But are you out of the closet in your soul? Not necessarily the same thing. Why are we such bad fighters? For a long time I would get mad at people when they would thank me for what I was doing, my first response was "Why aren't you doing it, too? You're open for dying, too."
JM: How would you define yourself?
LK: I just call myself a writer. I've written everything. I write all forms. I love writing and I'm challenged by the form. That's why I wanted to write a long book, I wanted to see what it was like to write a long book. I didn't know it would take so long and that I'd get sick. [Laughs] Now I wish it were shorter. I'm happy to call myself a gay writer. Just like I call myself a gay man.
JM: It seems to me there is sort of a reevaluation of Larry Kramer with The Normal Heart [and with the] documentary about your life. You have been an outsider for your entire adult life now everybody is saying, "Come on in, the door is open. You're a great playwright, you're a great activist."
LK: I don't hear any of that.
JM: Come on. I know you better than that.
LK: I don't think I'm a great playwright because I haven't written enough of them, and I don't think I'm a great novelist because... I don't know. I haven't had this novel out there long enough. I don't think that way, anyway. There's an unreality about all of that for me. I find that watching the documentary is, number one peculiar. In a way painful. And in a way it's about somebody else. I think somehow my talent lies in being that outsider, that that's what fuels what I write about — from that point of view.