Tony Kushner: Larry Kramer Spoke the Truths We Needed to Hear

Larry Kramer.
Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times
“He showed us that liberation from oppression was a matter of life and death.”

With the brevity and precision for which he is deservedly renowned, Tony Kushner makes an important point when sharing his thoughts about a remarkable man who recently died. Here is a brief excerpt. To read the complete article, featured in The New York Times, please click here.

* * *

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.

* * *

Tony Kushner is an American playwright, author and screenwriter. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play Angels in America, then adapted it for HBO in 2003.

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