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"Everything extraneous has burned away": An Interview about Love Alone--A Solo Play for World AIDS Day
A conversation with the director and actor from Love Alone, a new staging of Paul Monette's 1988 poetry collection grieving the loss of his partner, Roger, to AIDS.
In this special edition newsletter, I’m thrilled to bring you this interview with Floyd Rumohr and Jonah Scott Mendelsohn about their upcoming production of Love Alone: Elegies for Rog, which will be performed in NYC and on livestream December 3-5 in honor of World AIDS Day. Tickets available here.
It’s no secret that I love the work of Paul Monette, gay novelist, essayist, and poet who gave voice to love, grief, and rage during the worst years of the AIDS crisis. Monette may be best known for his National Book Award-winning memoir, Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, or Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, about losing his partner, Roger, to AIDS. I personally love Monette’s essay collection, Last Watch of the Night, published shortly before his death, when he chose to work in essay form so as not to leave behind an unfinished manuscript.
And then there’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, poetry of grief and love and rage like nothing else I’ve ever read, much of it written within the first few months of Roger’s death, some of it written while sitting at Roger’s grave.
When I learned that Floyd and Jonah were staging these poems as a solo play for World AIDS Day, I knew I had to talk to them about it.
What follows is a condensed transcript of our conversation—Floyd and Jonah discuss their experience with Monette’s poetry, the legacy of the AIDS crisis, the need for ritual and memory, and so much more.
Finn: Can you tell me about the first time that you encountered Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog?
Jonah: I first read Paul Monette in college, in the Fall of 1990, my second year. I was nineteen. I had just come out when I got to college, and of course at that time I would say, “I think I might be gay.” And the first thing out of people’s mouth was, “Don’t get AIDS.” So I’m a little twerp just figuring out if I might want to kiss a boy, and let’s throw all of mortality and illness and discrimination at me. Not traumatic at all!
Paul Monette’s writing, both his writing about AIDS, and Becoming a Man, his memoir about his own pathway to coming out, gave me language to grapple with my own experience and confusion. He’s just one of those writers where I read him and thought, “Oh, he gets it. He’s expressing things I didn’t know how to express, but I know.”
Finn: How about you, Floyd? Do you remember when you first encountered Love Alone?
Floyd: Yeah. When Jonah called me. Because back in 1994, when we met, I was busy forming a theater company, building that, and I was focusing on that because I had seroconverted to HIV/AIDS in 1991. And I thought, “Why not do something interesting?” So I did, I founded the company and I thought I would be dead soon thereafter. But that’s not what happened. I lived and the company became successful. None of this was planned. So flash forward, Jonah calls me twenty-five some odd years later and says, “I have an idea. Would you be interested in this?”
He asked me about Paul Monette. I didn’t know who he was. I can’t believe I didn’t know anything about him, especially from the historical perspective, because now that I’m approaching sixty, I understand his words profoundly. I lived them.
And I’ll just say that he has given men a voice, perhaps more important now than it has been in quite some time because many of us are fading like old soldiers into history, and many of the younger folks today don’t realize that a road had been paved for many of the rights and privileges that we have had and are slowly being pecked at by politics. But there was a whole generation of Paul Monettes that made it possible.
Jonah: Paul became a different writer from this horror. Not everyone did. I mean, going through that time, a lot of people got sick and were hurting and suffered.
Paul and Roger certainly did that, but somehow Paul came out of it a better person and became an activist. And his writing leapt to a new level. He’d always had that potential. But the work he did afterwards, both his fiction as well as his nonfiction and his poetry, reached a new level of clarity.
Floyd: There’s nothing like death to do that.
Finn: Reflecting on this, not just as AIDS poetry, but also as grief poetry more broadly, can you comment on how someone might relate to it who is experiencing other types of grief?
Jonah: When we did the first workshop in 2020, our sound and projection designer had just lost family members to Covid. When I described the set for him—we haven’t gone there in this staging, but I’ve always had this image that the play is taking place in a house that’s covered with grass. The grass is growing in the house, like the cemetery and the house have merged. That’s central to the experience of grief: you come home to a house that’s completely empty of the person, yet completely full of them, it’s inescapable. As soon as I said that, he said, “I’m living that.”
That’s something that Paul Monette was able to do. He invites us to bring our human center instead of keeping our walls up.
—Jonah Scott Mendelsohn
Floyd: That theme of keeping the walls up definitely is true of me. When I seroconverted, around 1990, 1991, I remember outliving two support groups at the Actors Fund. And I said, I’m never going to another support group because I had lost everyone in two. And I kept myself busy and distracted because I didn’t want to talk about it.
And I think people don’t want to enter into it. It doesn’t feel good. But my view of it now is that if you don’t enter into it, unpack it, then it will forever be in your suitcase. And you have to carry it. You have to carry it. And I think what these poems do, what the expression of grief does, is it gives permission to unlock the pain and then from there you can grow.
This piece is very important—not just from the grief perspective but also from the historical perspective. Helping young people understand that the rights and privileges we have today were paved by people who are now gone and will not be remembered. Most of them will be forgotten. Many of them were never on anyone’s radar to begin with.
This was a period of great suffering. You look at someone like me now, you see the privilege. I get it. But back then I had practically none. I had no money. Poor as a churchmouse. When I was coming to New York, trying to survive, HIV-positive, not a strong familial base or relationships there, poor, this close to being on the streets and trying to survive without health insurance. So you take all of that and you put it into a kid who’s 19, 20, 21, 22, those are the kids who are dying. And this piece brings this up for me. In fact, I almost said no to Jonah because it’s just too close, stuff that I thought I had forgotten. This piece is just, it’s a tidal wave of memory.
Jonah: I think that’s why I’ve been so driven to bring this to the stage, where we can share it in real time. It’s a lot to take on. Ninety minutes of poetry. Let’s sell tickets to this beautiful, funny, angry grief piece. That’s not the easiest ticket to sell.
Floyd: I had a friend who said, Floyd, I love you, but I can’t come to this because it’s just too depressing. Especially if you had lived through it.
Jonah: Yes. Although I’m going to stick to this: That’s not the experience of the piece when you see it.
Floyd: That’s right.
Jonah: It contains it. It touches it. But it’s much more than that.
Floyd: I completely agree. It’s much more complicated than that. But for some it will be a trigger.
Jonah: I think we’re going through something where we need to revisit the AIDS crisis. For a long time, if you made it through, you were just living your life coping as best you could, you didn’t want to talk about it. Now people are aging and we’re realizing that the people who were carrying that story have to pass it on. We need to find ways to have a gay history. I mean, we’ve only been able to be out and talking about ourselves publicly very recently, a hundred years.
Floyd: And gay marriage has only been around for less than a decade.
Jonah: That’s right. And it’s not a given that it will continue.
Floyd: That’s right.
Jonah: So we need to find touch points, things that crystallize pieces of the story so that we can remember them and learn from them, and carry on the fight. My fondest dream in performing this is that it invites other people to share their stories. That this becomes a container that makes it safe to experience or process things that you haven't processed. But then also to invite people to tell their stories.
As Paul says in the Foreword to Love Alone, this is the story of one man burying another man. It's a solitary story, and yet it invites and holds the place for so many, and such diversity of story.
—Jonah Scott Mendelsohn
Floyd: There are allusions in this poetry to the Greeks and burying their dead lovers. And there's a sense of the pieces having thousands of years of history embedded in them. Even though it's about their relationship, there's this sense that it’s their epic.
Jonah: I think that there's this strain of romanticization of Greek history and giving it a gay gloss, which may not be historically accurate. And yet it speaks to our need for myths and holidays and images that help us experience our human dignity, that I am whole and that I have as much value as anyone else. Our experience of our own dignity is rooted in our myths and our rights of passages and our rituals—
Floyd: —Which we don't have.
Jonah: —Right. As gay people, we’re cut off from them.
Floyd: And this is part of the ache of this piece for me. Paul’s aching for the ritual, aching for what straight people have taken for granted—the first kiss, the first date, the prom date, the dance, the graduation, the birth, the marriage, the moving in together, the fighting over the toilet, whatever, these seemingly mundane things we as LGBTQ+ people are experiencing now. And they're an expectation of younger people. It’s fascinating to me.
Finn: Speaking of ritual, this play is coming out around World AIDS Day. I’m curious if you could share a little bit about what World AIDS Day means for you and the importance of situating this around World AIDS Day.
Jonah: I’ve come to realize how important the calendar is for memory, largely because I’ve become active in Judaism later in life. I had a Bar Mitzvah in my forties. And the thing that’s astonishing about Judaism is that it’s all built around the calendar. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi and spiritual thinker, has this book called The Sabbath, where he describes Judaism as a cathedral in time. Since Jews were transient and didn’t have land and couldn’t build cathedrals, they built this calendar of holidays. There’s always something to look forward to, remembering different things. And that helps us feel anchored as a people, even when we are under attack, or forced to flee our homelands. Jews who fled to other countries because of pogroms, because of the Holocaust—is that so different from gay kids ending up on the street because their family rejected them? Or LGBTQ people who lost dozens of friends in the 80s and 90s?
Performing this piece, attaching it to World AIDS Day, lets me bring my gay tribe and my gay memory and my gay life into that kind of a pattern. As I think about doing this piece beyond this first production, my dream is that it could be a living memorial that’s done every year around World AIDS Day.
Finn: Do you want to add anything about World AIDS Day, Floyd?
Floyd: Well, I think Jonah said it all. The only thing that I would say is that for me, World AIDS Day is about remembering.
Finn: And I got to sit in a little bit on your rehearsal today, and I’m curious: What has been surprising to you as you’ve worked on adapting it for this performance?
Jonah: I was really struck when I was selecting the poems—you know, he wrote these as poems, and yet they add up as a play. He'll offer an image and I won't quite know what it means. And then it comes back later and it pays off. It’s dense, like Shakespeare—you have to surrender to the number of words—but they land and it adds up.
You really discover the story moment to moment. A lot of people ask, does it map to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief? It does, but it does it in the human way where they don't come in order.
And in fact, you discover: what do you live for after your reason for life is gone?
And we discover that with Paul, we discover that things we thought were gone aren't as gone as we thought. And discover that if we truly love and are loved, then, even in the worst of grief, life is there for you. My favorite line right now is the idea that grief is love persisting.
—Jonah Scott Mendelsohn
It actually comes from the Marvel show WandaVision. It feels like something from Plato or Aristotle or somebody that Paul and Roger would've read together, but from what I can tell they invented it for the TV show. But it captures the important thing: when you find love, give it your all and receive it, let it in. And that's what transforming the poetry into a play does: it teaches us, in real time what Paul was learning himself—how to offer love and receive it even after it's gone.
Floyd: I think there is an aspect of that very powerfully in this piece, this sense that the lessons of love that have come Paul's way have happened after Rog is gone. There is that sense that those lessons came post-Rog.
Jonah: The first line of the piece, the first poem is, “Everything extraneous has burned away.” And that's what working on this piece does. The work is there, he's done the work and I'm just letting it through. Everything extraneous has burned away, when you tune yourself into that, that love and the people around you, it's not weird. It's not mystical. It's really practical.
Floyd: It makes me think of the saying, if you don't need it, it's poison. And I think in some ways, we start the play with Paul in that realization that so much of what's in his life is being stripped away. And literally at the end of the piece, it's Paul pretty much alone on stage with everything stripped away.
Jonah: And what remains is love, is that humanity. It’s quite a ride.
Love Alone will be performed at The Tank in NYC (312 W 36th St, New York, NY) on Saturday, Dec. 3 (3pm), Sunday, Dec. 4 (7pm), and Monday, Dec. 5 (7pm). Tickets to the in-person performance are $35.
Livestream tickets are available for the performances on Sunday, Dec. 4 and Monday, Dec. 5. Livestream tickets are $10.