Here’s a story:
Our characters are a diverse bunch (although the leads are likely white men, but also we’ve got some variety in sexual orientation and race and gender) who don’t like paying for their living situation. They’re kind of artsy and liberal across the board, maybe some of them do drugs, though certainly not everyone, and there’s a reasonable percentage of them who’ve come from a solidly middle class background, but who go around telling everyone how poor they are, and overall, you could say they’re pretty content.
But wait! Here’s a kink in our plot! Some authority figure who our characters thought they could trust wants to disrupt things and to build a bougie creative space it’s unclear if anyone actually wants, but goddamnit, they’re gonna do it. Cue creative if ineffective protests, grumbling, name calling and displacement.
Now here’s the question: is this the plot of RENT, or is it about the “entrepreneur space” being built on the second floor of my college library?
Ha! Trick question! The answer is both!
You’re thinking, “Amber, where are you going with this?” And let me tell you, just stick with me, it’s going to be great.
My school loves the hell out of a good controversy. Our most recent and most vehement issue on campus is the creation of an entrepreneurship space, not just any old place, but on the second floor of the library, where, you know, people study and find books and stuff. The administration seemingly dropped it out of the sky and put the wheels in motion before anyone had to much chance to protest. When it did come to light, it became clear that at least 50% of the study body wasn’t pleased.
Because ‘liberal arts’ and ‘well-rounded education’ are not quite the buzzwords they once were, it’s become something of a trend here to emphasize the less ‘arty’ parts of ‘liberal arts’. The STEM, economics, and comp sci departments have boomed over the past four years – more funding, more focus in recruiting, etc., etc. When I arrived way back in 2013, internationalism was the name of the game. But the selling points have changed.
The entrepreneurship space has been advertised as a ‘creative space’ for… well, we don’t really know. Rumor has it there will be a sewing machine and maybe some Legos, and perhaps some fun shaped tables to be inspiring, I guess. They’re taking suggestions, so I hear. Part of the problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on. The humanities side of the college, however, is feeling pretty PO’d because this project represents the growing privileging of business on campus and the diminishing support by the admin of the humanities. And they’ve plopped it in the library, the spiritual home of the humanities. Where are all the books currently occupying that part of the floor going to go? What’s going to make up for the loss in storage and study space? I’ve personally been to the dumpster where they’re chucking backlogs of journals and unused books, and can only speculate that they’re probably connected.
And now to return to where we began: RENT.
The similarities between the entrepreneurship center and the crux of RENT’s first act struck me one day when a group of friends and I were walking home from getting drinks. We were complaining about all of the above, when I stopped in my tracks and said to myself, “Isn’t this the plot of RENT?” I asked my friends this and they laughed and shrugged.
But one of them said, “No, RENT is about a bunch of people who have the unrealistic expectation that they don’t have to work to pay rent.”
I mean… fair point, honestly.
(Note: I swear this is the one and only time I’m going to pull a “well, technically….”: Mark and Roger (and presumably everybody else in that building) had been paying rent until Benny bought the building and promised them they didn’t have to. It’s not like they just started refusing to pay out of the blue. Then Benny shows up and demands a full year’s rent by Christmas! Christmas, I tell you! Nobody is going to be able to come up with a year’s worth of rent out of nowhere, especially when you were promised you didn’t have to think about it. I’m just saying.)
It’s RENT’s 20th anniversary this year, and I’ve seen a lot of mixed feelings about it. People argue that the music/the story/the characters are dated, or that it’s a ridiculous plot because of course you have to pay rent, duh (which is, again, true. See note above). People criticize primarily Mark (and to a lesser extent, Roger) for being a white middle class, heterosexual, all around pretty privileged man, who chooses to be poor and disadvantaged, who we know has a supportive and stable family situation, but who play acts at poverty for his art. And you know what? That’s also completely accurate.
But I find a kind of irony in the criticism my friend pointed at RENT, because no small percentage of us at this school are in a similar boat. Majority white, majority well-enough-off, protesting a change to our holistic liberal arts, while professing the truth that I kid you not every college student has said at least once, “I’m poor, I’m a college student.” It’s easy for us to say, because we don’t really mean it, forgetting that there are some who do.
RENT is not problem-free. Not at all. But I think it’s useless to get caught up on the “we’re not going to pay rent” thing (and as for Mark… we’ll get back to him), because the show was and continues to be revolutionary in so many other ways. So let’s make a list!
- We have depictions of drug use that do not come with immediate moral condemnations. Roger is a former user (and we can still see how it’s affecting him) and Mimi uses throughout the play, but neither are portrayed as evil or morally debauched.
- Speaking of Mimi, guess who’s super sex-positive and works at a strip club but isn’t shamed for it or denied happiness or inclusion?
- Not to mention Mimi is traditionally a Latina character.
- Maureen is canonically bisexual,
- And in an interracial relationship (albeit not the most healthy of relationships).
- But look at Joanne – a gay, black, female lawyer who rocks at her job and is powerful and smart.
- Collins is a black intellectual.
- And Angel, the darling of all our hearts – there is some disagreement as to whether s/he is transgender or a drag queen. But I think of how much trans rights have entered the media since twenty years ago, and in any case, she is the radical beacon of love and hope and acceptance at the center of the play. S/he and Collins have the most functional and powerful relationship of all.
This all goes without mentioning the running undercurrent of AIDS, which not only killed millions in the 80s and 90s when RENT came out, including the creator of RENT, Johnathan Larson, but was also horribly and tremendously stigmatized, leaving many to die in fear and shame. They were kicked out of hospitals, denied treatment, and people quite literally were afraid to even touch them.
Mimi, Collins, Roger, and Angel all have AIDS. But Johnathan Larson tells us they are all deserving of love, redemption, forgiveness, family, no matter their identity or their contraction point.
And yet somehow, despite the argument that the play makes for the validity of diverse identities, we’re still talking about how it’s stupid to teach theater goers that rent should be free. I feel like somebody missed a point somewhere.
If you want to talk about rent, talk about how the play employs it as a metaphor for our limited time on Earth together, our inability to ever completely control the circumstances of our own lives :
I think they meant it
When they said you can’t buy love
Now I know you can rent it
A new lease you are my love
On life, oh my life…
— “I’ll Cover You”
Or how about the sense that the modern age does not provide us the means to ever truly own ourselves, how we must make meaning by fumbling through the actions, and expending ourselves for those little moments:
So I own not a notion
I escape and ape content
I don’t own emotion, I rent
— “What You Own”
Maybe Mark and the gang don’t pay literal rent, but they make up for it in emotional tolls.
(Get it? Clever, right?)
And – oh yeah – there’s Mark, again, our problem child. What do we do with Mark?
It’s true Mark comes from a lot of privilege. He has the option to decide at any moment his suffering is too uncomfortable and then pick up and leave, which is something the other characters can’t do. His mom calls – she gets him a hotplate – and it’s clear from the beginning that his ‘starving artist’ is more like a ‘dieting filmmaker’ kind of deal. Mark thinks he can do this with impunity, that he can use poverty as an exotic inspiration for his art. I don’t want to excuse this or diminish its problematic-ness in any way.
At the same time, I wonder how many people going to see this on Broadway had much, if any, firsthand experience with poverty and AIDS. I could see Mark, particularly when the play first came out, as a sort of audience surrogate. He is the entryway into the play, literally, from the first scene, and his camera work is a method of showing the audience a different world. I don’t have any statistics on Broadway audiences, but I’m willing to bet that like Mark, it’s majority white, stable financially, and artistically minded. My theory is that maybe his problematic-ness is intentional in some way. (Whether or not this makes it acceptable is up to you.)
And it’s not as if RENT is blind of Mark’s privilege. Several characters call him out on it, most notably, when he is attempting to film the police harassing a homeless woman. Once the police leave she turns to Mark:
Who the fuck do you think you are?
I don’t need any goddamn help
From some bleeding heart cameraman
My life’s not for you to
Make a name for yourself on!
Just trying to use me to kill his guilt
It’s not that kind of movie, honey
Let’s go – This lot is full of
You gotta dollar?
I thought not.
— “On the Street”
Much more so in the play than in the movie, RENT addresses poverty and recognizes the hypocrisy of its own characters’ beliefs. Many of the short songs in between the well known hits are sung by a chorus of people on the street, often suggesting people who are homeless or sick or struggling to get by. It isn’t one of the main points of the musical, but RENT is aware that Mark and the chorus inhabit different worlds and that there is conflict and condescension inherent in their interactions. Perhaps by the end Mark is supposed to have learned something about this, or perhaps he continues in his ignorance. It’s an ambiguous point. But if we can say anything about it, comparing his first awkward-as-heck visit to the life support meeting and his deepening embrace of Angel and her identity (such as his pronoun correction in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”, or the featuring of Angel at the center of his film that ends the play), we can at least guess Mark might be getting somewhere. And hopefully, so has the audience.
Another thing to add: Mark is canonically Jewish, which in case we’ve forgotten, is a group also traditionally subject to intense and violent prejudice.
All in all, my point being, despite the fact that RENT gets shit from the exact same kind of person that they’re giving it shit about featuring, it’s a fantastic musical. It’s beautiful and emotional, features acceptance and diversity, and negotiates the subtleties of class and status to a 90s rock and roll soundtrack while looking a lot like a couple of love stories. It’s not perfect, but that’s the point. We’re meant to accept it, like its characters, flaws and all.