Essay: A Normal Heart' By Larry Kramer,' Bent' By Martin Sherman And 'Millennium Approaches'by Tony Kushner

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  • Published on: 6th June 2012
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A Normal Heart' By Larry Kramer,' Bent' By Martin Sherman And 'Millennium Approaches'by Tony Kushner

After the second World War people all around the world said that treating Jews as inferior people should never happen again. Nobody has ever spoken about how homosexuals have been and at times still are treated. At first sight the gay community and the Jewish community do not have a lot in common but if you look at the way gays and Jews have been treated, parallels can be drawn between the gay and the Jewish community and the way they have been treated as inferior from the 1930s until the 1980s. This inferior treatment of both Jews and gays happened in real life but can also be seen in the plays 'A Normal Heart' by Larry Kramer,' Bent' by Martin Sherman and 'Millennium Approaches' by Tony Kushner.
During the 1930s, the view on sexuality in the United States of America changed. By labeling men who engage in sexual activities with other men as homosexual, an opposite category was created for those who engage in sexual relations with women. This labeling was done by doctors and psychologists; they stigmatized homosexuals as mentally ill and as unnatural. In reaction to that professional response, society outlawed and discriminated homosexuals. (Nguyen, 1999) These negative labels remained throughout the 20th century. Homosexuals were seen as second-class citizens: after World War 2 homosexuals were dishonourable discharged from the army for being gay, in the 1950s American homosexuals were not allowed to work for the federal government anymore as they were seen as a threat to family values and to national security, police violence against gays (Nguyen, 1999), AIDS was ignored by the Reagan administration (White, 2004). From the 1930s until the 1980s homosexuals have been denied the same rights as heterosexuals on the basis of their sexual preference.
Due to the economic challenges of the Great Depression and rising anti-Semitism abroad and in America Jews in the 1930s and 40s were treated as inferior. Private schools, colleges but also work places imposed restrictions on the number of Jews, leading American figures publicly attacked the Jews' character. This all lead to it being normal to attack Jews. (Sarna & Golden, 2000) During World War 2 there were mixed feelings and ideas among Jews in America. The Holocaust in Europe resulted in Jews being frightened they would be treated the same. Because of their treatment the previous years Jews in America were politically and socially not strong enough to put more pressure on their own government to rescue more European Jews. (Grubin, 2010) After World War 2 the number of Jews in America grew, anti-Semitism declined and religious freedom was more accepted. Due to these changes and the will to succeed, the number of Jews in higher positions and consequently the average income of the Jewish community rose spectacularly. (Grubin, 2010)
Martin Sherman's play 'Bent', published in 1979, is set between 1934 and 1936. It deals with how the gay community in Germany was treated. Max, openly gay, is the only one who survives the horrendous journey to Dachau to start his life as a prisoner. Max pretends to be a Jew instead of a gay because he believes he will receive better treatment as a Jew. But who is treated worst, the Jews or the gays? Hitler and Nazi Germany very soon made clear that the Jews were to blame for everything that went wrong socially and economically. As a result of the Nuremburg laws Jews were not seen as German citizens anymore, Jews were not allowed to marry Aryans , Jewish doctors were not allowed to practice medicine anymore and many Jews were arrested and sent off to concentration camps. (Brasher, 2010) The horrendous treatment of homosexuals however was because of a totally different reason, a coincidental one. Hitler's purge of the SA, 'Night of the Long Knives', lead to the persecution of homosexuals because the head of the SA was a homosexual. (The Nazi Party) This provided Hitler an excuse to go after homosexuals. Max and his boyfriend Rudy tried to flee to Berlin after the SS stormed into their house and killed the SA officer Max had slept with: 'the lieutenant takes out a knife and slits his throat'( page 17). This was Max' and the readers' first sign of the upcoming treatment of homosexuals in German daily life and in the concentration camps. Max needs Greta (a transvestite from a dance club) to tell him it is not safe anymore to stay in Berlin. On page 19 Greta says to Max and Rudy 'You fucking queers, don't you have any brains at all? No, it's not safe'. Max and Rudy get it now, the SS is after homosexuals as well and try to escape to Holland but are arrested and sent to Dachau. Max realizes that homosexuals are as badly treated as the Jews. The most striking example of this in the play is when Max decides it is best to wear a yellow Jew star (sign for the Jews) instead of a pink triangle (sign for the homosexuals). Horst told him: 'Except for a queer, no one is treated worse than a Jew' (page 41) Max tries to survive and is willing to live the life of a Jew in this concentration camp stating how much he feared his life as a homosexual. In the 1930s and 40s homosexuals feared their life because of the Nazi regime but years later for medical reasons.

The play 'The Normal Heart' by Larry Kramer is about Ned Weeks ' fight and struggle to raise awareness for an unidentified disease. This unidentified disease, for us known as AIDS, is killing more and more of his homosexual friends. Although there is an increasing death toll the press stays silent and the government refuses to fund any research on the outbreak of this disease. (White, 2004) In the 1930s but also during and after the war many Germans said they did not know anything about the atrocities in the concentration camps. After the war many Germans used the famous words: 'Ich habe ess nicht gewusst' The rest of Europe and the United States just could not believe that the German people had not seen or heard what had been going on in their own country, under their own nose, not knowing something awful like that was happening. But then look at Ned Weeks' fight to get everybody to know about this killing disease. He is literally shouting at people to listen to him. People do not take him seriously anymore. As a response to a warning letter Ned wrote to the newspaper, someone wrote back: 'Oh there goes Ned Weeks again; he wants us all to die so he can say 'I told you so'.(page56) or even worse the mayor of New York does not want to face reality concerning this disease. On page 60 Ned states 'It is no secret that I consider the mayor to be, along with the Times, the biggest enemy gay men and women must contend with in New York. Until the day I die I will never forgive this newspaper and this mayor for ignoring this epidemic that is killing so many of my friends'. In real life, the author of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer was one of the first to write a powerful front page piece called '1,112 and counting' in 1983. (Kramer, 1,112 and Counting, 1983) In this piece Kramer accused almost everybody connected with health care in America of refusing to acknowledge the implications of the AIDS epidemic. Ned Weeks is for a large part an autobiographical character. Larry Kramer fought as hard Ned Weeks did in The Normal Heart. Kramer even defined AIDS as a holocaust because he believed the US' government failed to respond quickly so AIDS/HIV could be examined and maybe be cured. (Kramer, The Big Interview: Larry Kramer, inside his normal heart) He used the word holocaust because he believed this was because AIDS initially infected gay men. Kramer, a Jew himself, is probably one of the few who can use the word holocaust in this setting because everybody knows we all think about the treatment of the Jews in the concentration camps in World War 2. Tony Kushner writes about the way Kramer describes the treatment of homosexuals: 'Where else in dramatic literature is there such a treatment of the life-and-death cycle of people and political change? ' and 'the homophobia behind the wide world's response to the AIDS epidemic is a great crime against humanity', 'a program of the political right' Whether Ned Weeks', Larry Kramer's or Tony Kushner's view on the political system is correct or not, fact is that in the 1980s the Republicans were in power with Reagan as president. Reagan who first addressed AIDS in the year 1987, 6 years after the disease was detected. Reagan's communications director argued that AIDS was 'nature's revenge on gay men'. (White, 2004) The study 'HIV/AIDS: 25 years of press coverage' describes that in the first years of the 1980s the disease was often described but often in a negative way because there was a lack of understanding and the stories were sensational and insensitive and written by non-trained staff who knew little about this disease. (Cullen, 2006) Knowing these true-life facts Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart had enough reason to raise his voice against the press and the political system. Larry Kramer was not the only one speaking out against the Reagan administration and the press. Tony Kushner spoke out in a very different way.
In his play 'Millennium Approaches' Kushner also shows us the silence of the Reagan administration. Whereas Kramer uses the character Ned to express his own thoughts on the political system, Kushner describes characters with different political views to show us the narrow-mindedness of many people in the 1980s. Millennium Approaches, published in 1993, focuses on two troubled couples. Louis and his lover Prior, a gay couple, of whom Prior announces to Louis that he has AIDS and Joe and Harper, a 'heterosexual' couple. Joe, still in the closet as a gay man and Harper, addicted to valium and suffering from anxiety and hallucinations. The fate of the couples are gradually intertwined in the play. In this play Kushner portrays several characters with AIDS. Ken Nielsen writes in his guide on Angels in America that 'Kushner's characters have been radicalized by AIDS'(Nielsen, 2009). We must remember that this play is set in the 80s, during Reagan's presidency. Like Kramer, Kushner wrote this play to show people/society how homosexuals were treated, how they were looked upon and to show that people could not be themselves. But also to show how AIDS radicalized society's behaviour towards homosexuals and within the homosexual community. Joe, for example, a true Republican, says: 'The truth restored. Law restored. That's what President Reagan's done, Harper. He says "Truth exists and can be spoken proudly' (1.5.63). Joe himself lived his republican life with a big secret. The most interesting character in this play living with a secret is Roy. A Jew who is anti-Semitic himself: He calls the judge for Ethel Rosenberg's case a Yid, for example. He almost seems to take pleasure in Ethel's execution because she's Jewish. Is he not able to deal with his Jewish descent because of how Jews were treated? He seems to have more difficulty in admitting he is gay. He literally says: I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I'm screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. [...] Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is heterosexual man, Henry, who f--ks around with guys. (3.9.37) Roy Cohn, not accepting he is a Jew but not accepting being gay either. Even worse, he tells everybody he is suffering from liver cancer instead of AIDS. We can definitely say Roy is radicalized concerning homosexuality. The character of Louis most resembles the playwright Kushner himself. He is also a young, progressive Jew. Louis leaving Prior while he has been diagnosed with AIDS could be seen as an villainous act but the reader also has sympathy with him as being the optimistic democrat, bringing in new ideas. Ken Nielsen again on Louis: 'Louis combines the religious element of the play with the political sphere. Throughout the play we follow Louis as he struggles on through his own indecision, his tumultuous emotional life, and his confused politics. As the world breaks down around him, it seems that the only thing Louis has to cling to is his belief in his own radical politics' (Nielsen, 2006) Although Louis is a completely different person the fact that he holds on to his radical political ideas in a world breaking down could refer to Reagan's silence all those years. (White, 2004) None of the characters can really accept themselves as they are because of the fear of how they were looked upon and possibly treated.
In the three plays I have read the playwrights have tried to show the reader how society looked upon homosexuals. Sherman compares the treatment of Jews to homosexuals. Kramer fights against the silence of the government and the press concerning AIDS interest and research and Kushner portrays characters which can not be themselves because of the fear of being treated as an outcast. Many comparisons can be made with how Jews were treated in the 1930s and 1940s. Kramer even dares to compare the failure of the government to respond quickly to the AIDS epidemic to the holocaust. The Jewish and gay community have had to fight for equality throughout the 20th century. After World War 2 Jews in America gradually got more accepted and gained more and more political power and economic wealth. Homosexuals however still have to fight for their rights, to live their life as they want to with the same opportunities and rights.

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