Monday, November 08, 2004

We're Not Gonna Pay

If you haven't read/seen either RENT or ANGELS IN AMERICA, and care if aspects of the endings are revealed, don't read this post.

Lately and suddenly, I have been listening to RENT with a vengeance I have not had since ninth grade, when I had to be obsessed with it because my friends were. It's an amazing phenomenon, really, that everyone of my generation who has any interest in musical theater can sing the entire first track of that musical verbatim. It's leaving me very conflicted, especially because I'm thinking of the polarity surrounding Bush's reelection as similar to that surrounding Reagan's, and, though it was not produced during that time, RENT is one of the two theater pieces that stand as the most prominent works coming out of the late-Reagan, fairly-early-AIDS years. The other is Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA, which I may or may not get to in this post. Yes, the TV movie was recent, but Kushner's play was written in the early '90s about the mid-'80s.

RENT was written by Jonathan Larson (that's got its own controversy attached to it, but I may get to that later), first workshopped at New York Theatre Workshop (an East Village stronghold) in the late '80s and coming to "full fruition" in the early '90s. At NYTW, it was tapped to go to Broadway. It did, and would go on to become a huge hit and cultural phenomenon, but Larson unfortunately died of an aneurysm (sp?) during the first preview. (Controversy: after his death and RENT's success, his dramaturg, whom I've known, sued to get partial authorship credit that she claimed Larson was planning to give her, and it caused a huge and interesting split in the NY artistic community. She eventually lost, but it's still interesting.) By the time RENT made it to Broadway, the marginalized, alternative lifestyles it lauded were barely marginalized and alternative any longer; the East Village was trendy and getting trendier, and while the show would say differently, it was attracting a resident population much like the "good" characters in RENT (not Benny), but richer. I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with all this, but I think RENT and the AIDS epidemic are what I wanted to talk about.

Generally, what I feel about RENT is, to paraphrase my mother, that I wish I could hear the next thing Larson would have written. That is, I think Larson's clearly an incredibly talented composer, but RENT, basis on LA BOHEME nonwithstanding, is incredibly trite, both lyrically and message-ly, and that its ending is a serious cop-out. But that takes me to ANGELS IN AMERICA, overall a much better piece, but with the same issues of ending: implausible life-savings, last-minute pull-throughs for no reason except that the authors couldn't bear to let their characters (or in the case of RENT, their characters' lovers; Mimi, in my view, qualifies as little besides an abstraction of love for Roger) die. Instinctively I turn from that as an artist, but at the same time, Kushner and Larson were writing in and/or about the height of the early AIDS epidemic, in a time when particularly artistic circles and circles of homosexual men (a disproportionate number of whom, always, are in the arts) were decimated, leaving particularly gay men but everyone in such circles feeling their lives were both literally and figuratively at risk. (Sometimes I really wish I had been of an age of reason then; it seems awful, but I am so deeply curious about what it was like. G says this is the biggest marker of the five-year age difference between the two of us--I remember when I was just learning to read well, seeing the early signs about AIDS on the subways and figuring out what every word meant, reading the "Decision" comics--the New Yorkers will know what I'm talking about--while G remembers her first complex encounter with it being an HIV+ speaker coming to her high school, and being the only person to talk to the speaker afterwards.) And at that level, I want to be like, so what's wrong with a little wish-fulfillment? You're watching tons of people in your life die, and you can't bear to let too many people in your theatrical work do so. Can I fault authors for that?

It's dishonest, though, and what I value most in art is honesty. The endings are illogical in the worlds they have created, RENT much more so than ANGELS IN AMERICA (my biggest dramaturgical problem in the latter piece is not with the ending per se, but with Prior's encounter with the Angel--the answer he comes up with seems way too simplistic), and therefore betray both their writings and their audience. RENT's got plenty of other problems on that front too, and if you really care, I think you should read, or borrow from me, Sarah Schulman's book STAGESTRUCK. While she can be kind of a pain in the ass, she's got a lot of interesting things to say about RENT. Basically, she wrote a novel with a very similar storyline--including many of the non-LA-BOHEME-oriented plot details--except that a lesbian, one of the Maureen/Joanne couple (I've yet to read her novel, so I'm not clear which) was the protagonist and the novel placed the gay experience as the central, protagonistic viewpoint, whereas in RENT, whatever marginalized groups we are exposed to, our protagonists, the people who lead us into and through the plot, are the two white straight men in its entire world, Roger and Mark. This is true even if you believe, as I do, that Collins and Angel are the only compelling romantic couple in the piece (even as "Today 4 U" is one o the biggest pain-in-the-ass songs ever). And the truth is that RENT probably could not be the hit it is if not for that. We can hear and sympathize with the straight white guy's gay friends (I recall TM, when I was a freshman in high school and he a junior, saying of Joanne and Maureen, "But it was dumb! I mean, I know some lesbians, and they're mad cool, yo! Those lesbians [i.e. M & J] spend all their time just being lesbians!"), but we, the audience, cannot be asked to *be* the homosexuals/minorities ourselves. The straight white guy has the universal experience that can lead us into this world, and the straight white author (Larson) is the one who can see all the viewpoints within it. So Schulman claims, and while I think she has a lot of minor points that can be successfully challenged, for me that part kind of stands. Also, it allows SWG to avoid feeling his automatic complicit-ness with the establishment, if this is the world he gets to lead us into.

Will we get the kind of art out of Bush's second term that many got out of Reagan's second term and its aftermath? Will the Iraq War/the War on Terrorism take on the artistic magnitude of either the early AIDS epidemic or, earlier, the Vietnam War? Will we be able to find that kind of resonance in it? What does it mean to find that kind of resonance in it? I think I'm going to stop here, because this is going to be a much much much longer post if I try to go into all of that now. What are other people's thoughts on this front? I'm not talking about Artistic Revolution here--though I do want to go into that further, talk about RENT versus HAIR as embodiments of a generation, bla bla bla etcetera--but more about what an artistic community does in response to disaster, not just Bread-and-Puppet-esque direct-action political theater but what politics infuses, and what's the cause of our doing art; at what point, especially in this country, politics infuses our daily lives enough to be in all our important theater . . .


At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cassie Here. I really want to read that book you speak of here, or atleast skim through it read the meaty bits. I have a place in my heart for Rent because when I saw it, it was just so new and great and I LOVED the themes and messages. And yes, looking at it now after theatre work and the like, I see that it is all a bit shallow and unrealistic. But I still have a bit of the first memory. Hair is going totally the other way and is slowly growing on me. Maybe thats a judge of the depth of the musicals, that Hair you have to think about and analyze and make up your own mind about each character and part and Rent you just go with and like and try not to think about else you like it less.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

well... full circle, ain't it? this is lawrence reporting on the morning of July 21st 2008, having rather completely accidentally passed by, last weekend, the very site at which Rent takes place (taking a menu from the Life Cafe in the process), and then coming home to read an article about Rent itself as regards the famous changing, or, maybe, *changed*, Alphabet City. not sure if it'd be quite the best to bring up these issues entirely in, or rather, *as*, personal discourse, and i'm really responding both to this post and the other one about Rent, but this still seems fitting. what can i say? i'm wondering if this third post of your blog ever didn't actually set me off on a wave of looking at it with suspicion all these years, until finally in the last year or so i think we're actually seeing eye to eye, of all things. but the thing is of course that i *do* think Rent is great, much as i did four years ago, and with no apologies.

only maybe what i actually mean isn't Rent as a whole but, in fact, the first act of Rent. my least favorite thing about it probably is that the first act takes a day -- in real time, even -- and the second act takes a year. because in the second act i feel like time's been ripped from me, that after all the intimate detail of the first act i need to know just as much about later on, because otherwise it never gives me the sense of reality, it just makes me feel like the second act is just one of many possible futures for this merry band. and by using "feel" in the present tense i suppose i'm talking about the soundtrack. so maybe the solution is simple after all: just treat the first act of Rent as if it were the entire musical....

another thing is that i suppose Rent never meant to me the positively grittiest of bohemian values, as i think the list of passions in the first-act finale has always implied (how much money does it take exactly to worship "every passing fad"?). it's important here to state that i got into it in 2001, and this thing you wrote here back in 2004, with "the marginalized, alternative lifestyles it lauded were barely marginalized and alternative any longer" in 1996 (do i have that right?), is pretty much exactly what the New York Times is saying in 2008, only the report in 2008 is that alternativity's lifeblood is now completely gone, of course. what was it like in 2001? i do have the sense of it being different... even if i never ventured into the official Rent zone itself, there were still, as far as i could tell, plenty of New York neighborhoods of... shall we say... bohemian intrigue? was it new york that changed, or was it me?

i'm not even sure if "bohemian" is the right word, though, because i probably don't even know how to use the word properly, or what kind of genuineness it implies. i think i barely even care, though, how destitute or disadvantaged these characters are (in relation to each other as well as to outside society). it seems like what they're *really* struggling against is actually the disorganized, random nature of human existence. to enhance their lives to the point where it's comprehensible, directed like an arrow... they create art, and social intensity as the grandest example. and all the more reason to do so, i'd say, while the physical circumstances of their bodies are pulling them down. sometimes i feel accused, maybe even just by proxy, as someone belonging to no particular oppressed minority it's worth speaking of, of having to force myself to live life in a maze of ironic mirrors, never being allowed to truly know myself, or ever i'd impinge on those others who lay claim to being "real". so what'd be a better word than bohemianism, for the claiming of as much of the whole personal truth as one can muster into one's life without stint or apology? there's mystery in it, because you have to delve into the unknown reaches of your unconscious thought process. there's a sort of hedonism in it too, as the engine to keep it going. and it's something everybody has a right to... i suppose bohemianism is too loaded a word for it after all. but whatever it is, that's what i would say (the first act of) Rent is *about*, and so what if the characters are making mistakes of ideological dogmatism.

so does that mean i identify with Marc? (i suppose his name is actually Mark, but i also think Larson missed out on a golden opportunity.) i don't really identify with marc or, especially, Roger -- i guess i identify most readily with Collins, for reasons you can probably guess -- but i actually, as far as i can tell, feel identified with the seven characters sort of as a unit.

i looked at the book they made of "Stuff White People Like" a little while ago, and i was pretty horrified. it was exactly the kind of thing to put me into a panic for hours. my primary reaction (once reading internet articles about the phenomenon at least was able to calm me down) was to say, yes, i have cultural limitations as a part of white culture, and it's now, of course, my duty to transcend them. i suppose that part of the argument of that book is that trying to transcend cultural limitations is *itself* a very white thing to do, but, fuck it, it's damned if you do, damned if you don't, because it's clearly even worse to just do Stuff White People Like all the time, as far as i can tell. so, you've gotta let Jonathan Larson try to see all the viewpoints in the world, and also of course let everyone else do it, too, because it's after all just *part* of the task of being a playwright to be able to image others to the point where the audience suspends their disbelief. i refuse to believe that cultural relativism (*including* cultural outreach, that is) is in fact a tool of the white devil, you know, of course....

so do Marc and Roger have to be straight white guys in order to carry the burden of the plot? i don't think so, and i can maybe even point to the example of Passing Strange, another rock musical, this time with a black protagonist against fields of white Europeans. actually, too, i find Mimi more of a convincing character than Roger, who may be somewhat realistic as far as straight white guys go but really sort of seems to mostly be boring. Still Roger and Marc are at the heart of the play -- but ultimately i really can't find it within myself to say that that's really a problem, even if it does make it rather a show for white people. i think of it as such a revolutionary show though -- the lyrics and music both seem so much more culturally enmeshed and *therefore*, due to the whole excitement of the culture they're enmeshed in, so much more complex, than any other musical i know of before it (and this alone to me makes it far superior to La Boheme, cuts through to what the actual heart of Larson's compositional genius is, and maybe also gets to the *real essence* of why i like this show so much) -- that the social groupings to which the main characters belong almost seems like an afterthought, like it could have been pulled out of a hat. it really seems like it *could not have been* that Rent was going over old ground already trodden by others, only "Caucasized" as it were... can you give me any examples?

there's also something i find troubling... how is a straight white guy ultimately going to *divest* himself of his automatic complicitness with the establishment? it's not like non-dominant groups actually tend to *want* to make it their goal to integrate completely into dominant society (anymore), so the challenge of facing up to the mysterious Other, that is, in implication, the other culture, is always going to be out in front of us. so that way too, i think Rent's doing a valuable service.

well, so some of the Stuff White People Like stuff really does seem silly to me (irony, "indie rock") -- stuff to like just in order to say you like *something*. but that's a way of being detached from the world, you don't want that. but on the other hand, i can't imagine what my life would be like if i tried to reject absolutely everything i saw in that book. there's so much i don't like about the culture i've been thrown into anyway, and i feel like that book is sometimes just trying to make sure i don't escape it. if i can brag about my super- and possibly even quite well-thought-out alienation, does that give me the gold badge to finally be *real*?

i think i'm probably just sad to be seeing your journal go... i've been thinking of it as a dose of sanity for quite some time now. how would i look at it differently in the future if i know it's just an artifact? maybe i just want my reputation here to be wiped clean... don't want anything to pass into crystallized misunderstanding between us, now. maybe i got over-fireblooded about this all over again right here, i don't know. but if we're not going to be building a consensus, at least it might be time to start the purge.


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