In seven novels and a collection of essays published since 1981, Sarah Schulman has methodically chronicled the history of her longtime neighborhood, Manhattan’s East Village. Her body of work surveys the creative vibrancy and embattled changes forced upon that community by AIDS and urban development.
Schulman’s books are rife with artists and activists–many are both–whose stories closely mirror the real-life toll on the social and artistic landscape that is her longtime creative base. She offers a visceral description of that culture and its devastation in Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America. “The East Village was a center for the production of global ideas,” Schulman writes. “It was filled with varied races of immigrants, homosexuals, working people, bohemians and artists working in both traditional and emerging forms, most of whom had no institutional training or support. It feels strange to say this…but that was a civilization that has disappeared. It was destroyed by AIDS, gentrification and marketing.”
These three things are inextricably linked for Schulman, particularly as they relate to cultural production and visual representations like theater and advertising. Schulman argues that representation of both gay and lesbian America and AIDS has been overtaken by the heterosexual mainstream, which she calls the “dominant culture.” The results of that takeover are not honest depictions of homosexual culture and the epidemic but outright falsehoods designed to make both subjects palatable enough to turn a profit.
This belief springs, at least in part, from several experiences Schulman had during the 1995-96 theatrical season, when she co-wrote a theater column with longtime critic Don Shewey, first for Lesbian and Gay New York and later for the New York Press. One of the plays they reviewed was the musical Rent, which, after the sudden death of its creator, Jonathan Larson, ballooned into a theatrical monster that is still stomping across the country and around the globe. Shewey and Schulman published the only significant negative reviews the play received in New York. After conversations with several friends, Schulman became convinced that Rent‘s characters, plot and milieu are remarkably similar to those of her 1990 novel People in Trouble. In Stagestruck‘s first section, “Rent: The Dirt,” Schulman describes her belief that Larson based his musical on her novel without permission: “The straight half was from Puccini, and the gay half was from me.” Schulman also recounts how her attempts to prove the charge and air her concerns publicly–both of which would eventually fail–often made her want to go over to “city hall and [change her] name to Franz Kafka.”
In the chapter “Simulacra, Authenticity, and the Theatrical Context of Rent,” Schulman seeks to position the birth (and the success) of the play in relationship to other works of theater actually created by the very people that musical had “profitably described.” She discusses plays about AIDS and those written by gay men, lesbians and black women, in marvelously lucid, observant prose. I have not read such outstanding commentary about them anywhere. Such criticism, with its intense immediacy and personal investment in the theatrical experience, is sadly rare today.