“You’re what you own…”

During the time I spent reading for my Honours degree in Drama a dramaturg came to work with the theatre-making students on campus. Although I was not directly involved with any of the projects she co-ordinated, I attended her seminar on dramaturgy during which she mentioned the case of Lynn Thompson, a dramaturg who had worked on RENT, as an example of how difficult it was to prove ownership of material when in this enabling role. Apparently, Thompson felt she deserved more credit (and royalties) for her contributions to the show.

I went to the library to scour through the RENT book that, until this point, had been one of my primary resources in my study of the show. On the shelf was a new book by Sarah Schulman entitled: Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.

Schulman’s book mentions the Thompson case and alleges that some of the show’s narrative points and character beats were plagiarised from her novel, People in Trouble. It’s an interesting read and Schulman makes a strong case. Both cases were failures in terms of legal challenges to the ownership of RENT but Shulman’s book is successful in bringing into focus some criticisms of RENT that seemed to be hovering in some kind of liminality. So while the accusations of plagiarism were shocking and disturbing, what did prove valuable to me was Schulman’s discussion of the identity politics in the show. Suddenly, I was seeing things in a new light.

In the book, Schulman says:

“The message of my novel is that personal homophobia becomes social neglect, that there is a direct relationship between the two. The message of RENT is quite the opposite, that straight people are the heroic centre of the AIDS crisis.”

What did this mean to me? On one level, I had to confront the uneasiness I felt regarding the final scene in the show, when Mimi seems to die but then miraculously recovers. Now I realise that Jonathan Larson wanted to communicate a message of hope, but the way that this is realised in the text and reinforced in the staging of the show never sat well with me. But why? That was something that had always eluded me. Shulman gave me the tools, the language, the vocabulary to articulate what I was feeling:

“RENT clearly depicts a world in which heterosexual love is true love. Homosexual love exists but is inherently secondary in that it is either doomed or shallow or both.”

Warning: I am about to go to a point in time when I became extremely “political” and anti-RENT. What was once such a satisfying whole for me fell into little bits when I began to re-examine the show with new eyes. I have reconstructed this partly by looking at fragments of discussions I had during 2005 on a forum known as musicals.net and partly by delving into the shaky territory of memory.

The first thing that became problematic for me was that the only time you get to see Angel and Collins interacting as a male-male couple is in the scene where they first meet and when Angel becomes sick and dies. This visually reinforces the male-female relationship paradigm that the show, according to Schulman, places above all others. The audience feels more comfortable because the man looks like he’s with a woman therefore it is easier to accept/approve of the relationship because Angel’s “not really a man” and the audience can go away feeling very pleased with themselves for how tolerant they are when in fact their perceptions may not have been challenged at all. Schulman refers to this as the creation of a “fake, public homosexuality”.

And when Angel is sick and obviously going to die and the fact that we seem them as a male-male couple validates one of the old prejudices against gay men who have sex: they get infected by HIV and die. And because the characters are such nice people individually, the audience can feel sorry for them and feel proud of how tolerant they are because – “look, we can empathise with the plight of the gay man in a contemporary world”.

And this is all exacerbated by the fact that Mimi, who seems to die, gets a song sung to her by Roger and comes back to life. Collins wasn’t able to do this: he wasn’t able to “cover” Angel when it really counted. On some level this narrative implies that straight love is more powerful than gay love – so much so that it can reverse the course of Death. This ending also contradicts the “No Day But Today” premise of the show. Why live as if there is “no day but today”, when even death isn’t a barrier? At least if you’re straight.

I guess ultimately it is about manipulation: Mimi’s survival creates a genuine feeling of upliftment in the audience at the end of the show.

Now I did warn you that I was going to get extreme. Even reading through this now, I pause to wonder if I wasn’t being swayed by Schulman’s opinions too much. But I guess – and now it is time for another quote – that RENT had to be rent so that I could put it back together again and get to grips with the way I ultimately feel about this show.

Derek Walcott says:

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of the original shape.”

This was to be the next step in the journey…

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