In Defense of RENT

So, maybe once or twice a year I find myself getting into an argument about the musical RENT. For the uninitiated, RENT is an amazing musical loosely based of of La Boheme, about a bunch of bohemian artists squatting a building during the height of the AIDS epidemic. If you haven't seen it, fix that promptly, but please watch the broadway adaptation, not the movie, which is extremely problematic for other reasons I'll get into another time. 

The argument generally goes like this: someone posts, "wow RENT is such a great musical, but really wtf is with all these crazy kids thinking you don't need to pay rent? How about GET A JOB!! slackers!" and then I blow up with possibly more information than they ever wanted about late stage AIDS. In a previous life, I was a social worker specializing in medical case management for HIV/AIDS patients. I have watched patients die from opportunistic infections, and done so much talk therapy for people who lived through the most brutal parts of the AIDS crisis that I can't not . Lets break it down, complaint by complaint: 

"Why don't these people get jobs?"

Imagine, for a moment, that every day when you wake up, your body physically aches. You remember feeling healthy once upon a time, but now it feels like cold after cold. You're aware that you have a virus that is probably going to kill you in 2-3 years. You're hungry, but have been too weak to work for a while now, and the pantry is getting slim.

As you sit down for a small breakfast, you take your AZT- a drug that was developed in the 60's as a failed attempt at a cancer treatment, that some innovative scientists realized could be used to slow the progression of HIV in 1993. You're really hopeful that the meal you've chosen will be gentle enough on your stomach that the intense heartburn the AZT will cause won't be too bad, but you have low expectations. This medication is literally killing you (AZT has intense liver toxicity) but it's your only hope against a virus that will surely kill you faster. 

As you eat breakfast, you take a moment to mourn your friend who died yesterday. You still haven't really recovered from the other friend who died last week, or the week before, and you're worried about the health of your other two friends who both have gotten seriously more sick in the past couple of days. 

You try to do the crossword puzzle in the paper, a familiar and comforting old habit, but your memory isn't what it used to be. Your doctor explained to you recently that you have something called HIV-Associated Neurocognitive Disorder - your viral load became so high, your HIV is literally eating your brain. You've started losing names and memories and it scares you: one of your friends literally couldn't remember where they were towards the end, and you are afraid of dying without your dignity. 

You've let your savings account dwindle. What's the point, even? You feel helpless against a virus that is slowly killing you and the people you love, with no hope for a cure in sight, and endless stigma from judgemental community members who blame it on drugs, lifestyle, whatever. You're a little gaunt from wasting, and it's hard to hide that you're ill. You got fired from your last job for some made up reason, but you know it's because your boss found out you're positive and is afraid you'll sneeze on your coworkers and give them the virus, too (NOTE: HIV can only be passed through sharing of blood, semen, or breastmilk. It cannot be transmitted through sneezing. However, in the 80's, and even today, many people carry huge misconceptions and stigma around HIV transmission.) Hell, the last interview you had they didn't want to shake your hand, they could tell you were sick and were too afraid to touch you. 

Then your landlord shows up asking for rent. What would you do? 

"But everybody has so much energy!" 

Would you watch a musical that was mostly people shitting their brains out/slowly dying? Yeah I didn't think so. Also, late stage AIDS patients can get bursts of energy, but often need a lot of rest. Consider the times they're dancing around and singing their energy bursts. 

"What's the point of it, then, if it's not representative of their actual experiences?"

 Death scene from my favorite opera, La Traviata. I assure you dying of TB isn't this beautiful. 

Death scene from my favorite opera, La Traviata. I assure you dying of TB isn't this beautiful. 

It's representative of the emotional experiences one may have when living life with one foot in the coffin. For people who lived through it, it provided catharsis for the deep, confusing feelings of being young and in your prime and dying and watching all your friends die. In this case, art mimics the emotional reality more than the physical reality. That's not uncommon for musicals/operas in general. How many opera divas die beautiful deaths of consumption, singing arias on their way out?

"Yeah but Angel kills a dog that's fucked up." 

Have you experienced deep, aching hunger? Have you experienced desperate poverty at the time in your life when you are supposed to be at your prime, and yet are slowly dying and feel it coming closer and closer every day? No? Okay, don't judge what she did for $1000. That's a LOT of money when you're sick and starving and it's the 80's. 

"What about Mark?"

Yeah what about him? He's not HIV positive and just kind of mooching off the experiences of his sick and dying friends, it's true. If you want to point a judgemental finger of blame at someone, he's your guy. He does still offer the valuable service of being a witness and documentarian. When you're in the process of coping with the reality that you might not actually get to live a full life after all, there is some comfort in knowing you'll leave some legacy... even if it's just Mark's home video. At least, this is how it was explained to me by somebody who lived through it (and was literally on her deathbed when the first line of new HIV meds came on the market).