Ted Gideonse reviews 'Stagestruck: Theater, Aids and the Marketing of Gay America' by Sarah Schulman

Published December 22, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When Sarah Schulman went to review "Rent" in 1996, unlike almost every other theater critic in New York, she was decidedly underwhelmed. She thought that the rock opera about AIDS and New York's East Village was "a bit flat" and distorted the history of the AIDS crisis. Worse, for Schulman anyway, was the fact that half of the plot seemed ripped off from her own 1990 novel "People in Trouble." She didn't mention this in her review, though, and in hindsight probably regrets that decision: "Rent" went on to win four Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize, and has become the biggest theater success of the last decade. Schulman eventually tried to sue, but her quest to get anyone to listen to her was nearly fruitless. Instead, Schulman, a respected novelist ("Shimmer," "After Delores") and longtime AIDS activist, wrote "Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America," a book that combines her bizarre Kafka-esque tale and an utterly damning analysis of the popular cultural depictions of AIDS and homosexuality.

The book is not "My Case Against Rent." Broken into three parts, only the first and aptly titled section, "Rent: The Dirt," deals explicitly with Schulman's failed fight for copyright justice. It's the most engrossing section, though, especially if you follow New York theater. Was Frank Rich's wife really that nasty? Who is the literary agent code-named "Morticia"? You feel for the slightly paranoid and bitter Schulman, because she makes an excellent case and seems to have been victimized. Schulman didn't have the law on her side, however. It seems fairly clear that her plot, characters and setting were stolen, but alas, only words are copyrightable.

After dishing the gossip, Schulman loads her gun and fires. In Jonathan Larson's book for "Rent," the gay and lesbian characters of "People in Trouble" play a big part, but Schulman argues that a heterosexual couple with AIDS (taken from "La Bohhme") becomes the center of the dramatic arc. "'Rent' was about how straight people were the heroes of AIDS," she says. But for much of the epidemic, she rightly points out, gay men with AIDS were abandoned by straight people. To Schulman, one of the first members of ACT-UP, "Rent" was a lie.

Her second chapter describes shows that went up the same year as "Rent" that were truthful about AIDS, homosexuality, race and the plight of the urban poor -- however, she says, no one went to see them. Schulman leaves no one unaccused: In her third chapter, she argues that the gay community, in its search for economic and political acceptance, has been complicit in this deformation of the truth. Why? Popular and monetary success come with playing well in Peoria. "Vehicles like 'Rent,' 'Philadelphia' and other AIDS stories promoted by straight people portray a world in which heterosexuals have nothing to account for, to reflect on, or to regret in their behavior toward people with AIDS and gays and lesbians in general."

Schulman is right. But if "Rent's" central plot was about lesbians and gay men, the show probably would not have become the $1 billion industry it is; the much more brilliant and true "Angels in America" didn't even make a profit. Anger doesn't sell, and it doesn't permeate the walls of the dominant society. Whether Schulman would like to admit it or not, "Rent," with its straight-friendly narrative, has enabled thousands of people to see, and at least partially understand, the way the other side lives.

By Ted Gideonse

Ted Gideonse writes for Newsweek and the Advocate.

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