When Sarah Schulman discovered that deceased librettist Jonathan Larson had lifted the bisexual love triangle from her 1990 novel People in Trouble for the subplot of his hit musical Rent, she considered the "real slap in the face" to be his replacing the original lesbian point of view with a straight male perspective, turning her expose of homophobia into an example of what she calls the "Theatre of Resentment." The story of her frustrating attempts to interest either lawyers or the press in her case makes up the first third of her newly published book Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America(Duke University Press, $14.95). Schulman devotes the rest of the book to countering what she sees as the trend that underlies such disinterest: The public's willingness to accept "fake" images of African Americans, gays and lesbians, and people with AIDS, she says, serves to supplant "real" art created from these groups' own viewpoints.
In the second third of Stagestruck, she rewrites the history of the 1996 New York theatrical season by reporting on over a dozen new plays and revivals that ran simultaneously with Rent, all of them representing the realities of racism and homophobia glossed over by the "Benetton-like sheen" of Larson's musical. In the final chapters, she throws down the gauntlet to the queer community, charging us with capitulating to niche marketing that represents us as being just like privileged straight people, except maybe we drink a different brand of vodka. From this capitulation it's only a short step to convincing ourselves that Rent is a great musical about the AIDS crisis.
Schulman wants to be part of the mainstream, all right, but only in her proper guise as a powerful American lesbian writer and intellectual. With any luck, Stagestruckwill generate the kind of discussion in American letters that Schulman's ideas deserve.