Bohemianism and Counter-Culture



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La Boheme
London 1900's
Beat Culture
Hippie Culture

Works Cited


"To being an us for once, instead of a them." - La Vie Boheme, Rent, Jonathan Larson


The hit rock musical Rent portrays the bohemia of the 90's. This modern bohemia, set in the seedy East Village of New York City, echoes the bohemia of Paris in the 19th century:

  • The Bohemia of Rent contains poor youth and struggling artists who defy convention and reject the mainstream culture. The characters in the musical aim to live life on their own terms, doing what they want from day to day and living for art.
  • The story and characters in the musical were inspired by Puccini's famous opera La Boheme which is based on Muger's Scenes de La Vie de Boheme. The plot and the characters of Rent parallel those in the opera and remain faithful to Murger's main ideas of Bohemia.


Image courtesy of Photo of original London cast of Rent.


Living for art: Rent centers around several diverse characters. The two main characters, Mark and Roger, are the archetypal bohemians. Roger is a young, struggling musician/songwriter trying to write one glorious song before AIDS claims his life. His roommate, Mark, is a film artist searching for opportunities to practice his art. Having no steady jobs and no idea how to obtain the next rent payment, they parallel the bohemians of Paris: they abandon the pursuit of comfort and financial security and focus fully on their art.

This photo shows Mark with his camera (left) and Roger (right) on his guitar lounging in their seedy apartment. Mark, having nothing better to do, enjoys watching objects, people, and events through his camera. The scene illustrates each man's devotion to his art form, their idleness and poverty, all characteristics of 19th century Bohemia in Paris.


Defiance of the Mainstream Culture: The other principle characters, like Mark and Roger, are young and live in the margins of society. They include Angel Shunard, a transvestite and street musician with AIDS, his lover Tom Collins, a computer genius also plagued by AIDS, Mimi, a drug addict and club dancer, Maureen, a performance artist, and her lover Joanne. These characters are caught in a web of stormy relationships as they try to eke out an existence.

None of these characters have a stable lifestyle or security. Some must do odd jobs for money. Angel, for example, is paid to play to a pesky dog until it barks itself to death. The characters are unconventional as well. They wear outlandish clothing, take drugs, and generally do what they wish. They live life on their own terms, with little concern for the future. To them there is "no day but today." (Jonathan Larson)


Parallels to Puccini's La Boheme: In Puccini's opera there are four companions living together: Shunard, a musician, Colline, a philosopher, Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet. The four companions in Rent are similar in name and "profession." Angel Shunard is a street musician, Collins is a computer genius, Mark is a film artist and Roger is a songwriter. La Boheme is mainly a love story between Rodolfo and a young grisette named Mimi. In Rent, there is a love story between Roger and Mimi, the club dancer. In La Boheme Mimi is dying of rheumatism, in Rent Mimi is dying of AIDS.

The most important parallel between the two shows is their faith to the age old bohemian ideals originally brought to life by Murger. Although Rent is romanticized and updated, it is basically the same as the Bohemia of 19th century Paris.