Skip to comments.Desensitized Beyond Belief [Mark Steyn theatrical review from 1999]
Posted on 06/16/2004 8:26:17 PM PDT by NovemberCharlie
I see that English nurses are protesting against the movie The Snake Pit, because it represents nurses as hard and unsympathetic. The curse of today is the Pressure Group, especially in America. You can't take a step without getting picketed by someone. One odd aspect of it is that you can no longer put a negro on the stage unless you make him very dignified. Owing to the activities of the negro pressure group, comic negro characters are absolutely taboo. The result is that all the negro actors are out of work, because the playwrights won't write parts for them.
Thus, P. G. Wodehouse writing to Bill Townend, on March 30, 1949 and foreshadowing by almost half-a-century the recent revival of Show Boat (a work in which he had a hand, or anyway a finger), a production picketed during its Toronto tryout by black community groups who denounced it as racist. They were right: the black characters were the only ones treated with dignity and respect; the whites were reduced to musical comedy cut-outs.
That's one reason why I'm relatively relaxed about any forthcoming Federal hate crimes legislation. To anyone who's dropped by the theater on a semi-regular basis in the last twenty years, Washington is merely a belated convert to the formal codification that already prevails in much of our cultural life. The dignity categories have expanded a tad since 1949-not just blacks, but also women, gays, immigrants, the disabled, the transgendered ... On the other side of the scale sit the increasingly put-upon category of straight white males, gamely bearing the burden of the full range of humanity's darker emotions all by themselves. Whatever one might feel about the justice of this dispensation, it must surely be a little tedious, from the dramatist's point of view, to have all the roles pre-assigned.
But apparently not. For here is Neil LaBute with the summer's hottest ticket, Bash: Latter-Day Plays - actually, monologues-at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre. LaBute is an admired independent filmmaker on the cutting edge of the zeitgeist, etc., and also a practising Mormon-a combination which if not mutually exclusive would seem at least a little impractical in today's world. But his 1997 film debut impressed all Robert Redford's chums at Sundance, and since then he's never looked back. In the Company of Men was about men in a company: two junior execs flying off for a lousy six-week stint in some nowheresville branch office. Bummer. So, while they're still at the airport, beefing about work and the way they've been screwed over by their sad-ass women at home, they concoct a scheme to get them through their month and a half in cowtown: they'll select at random some "corn-fed bitch" whom they will flatter, seduce, and dump. The one they eventually choose has the added bonus of being stone deaf. LaBute has a great ear for dialogue- not the ersatz naturalism and attitudinal posturing of Hollywood, but the casual cruelties you overhear at bars and bus stations. And he's able to ratchet up this dialogue unobtrusively to the point where the chilling, decisive line of In the Company of Men-"Let's do it! Let's hurt someone!"- seems utterly plausible and in character.
One assumes LaBute wouldn't be a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints if he didn't believe in it: choosing to be a Mormon is not like, say, swinging by the Episcopalian church once every few weeks. So one assumes his interest in his two protagonists stems from the moral vacuum in which they operate, the vacuum in which evil arises. Happily, for his bank account at least, the film took off with the Sundance set for cruder reasons: it confirms their view of the general crappiness of white businessmen. It is, apparently, the ruthless world of the white-collar corporate life that inevitably turns men into savage beasts. No matter that the need to concoct an elaborate conspiracy undermines the film's premise: If the male psyche is such an icy wasteland, surely this sort of thing comes instinctively to them? No matter that there's a strong case to be made that a tedious office job is one of the few things that tame a man's natural bestiality and smooth him out into a house-trained suburban bore: On the whole, pre-Rolodex societies tend to be far more feral. No matter that in the supposedly more enlightened precincts of Hollywood the menfolk are crummier than any place in the civilized world and, in pursuit of the temporary gratification thereof, the town's women submit to the most pathetic sexual degradation and humiliate themselves in silicone reconstruction that reduces them to concrete caricatures of real women. Forget all that. According to admirers of In the Company of Men, the real shocker is what white-collar junior managers get up to when they're shooting the breeze around the executive percolator. As a result, LaBute now finds himself the only Mormon art-house darling on the planet.
He is, in that sense, all too typical of the "challenging" artist in our time: Instead of "challenging" our received opinions, the artist panders to them in extreme ways. No one who goes to the theater has to worry that he'll be presented with a "challenging" case that the promiscuous gay leads an empty and self-destructive existence which has wrought devastation on his "community," or that the welfare policies of the past thirty years have managed to destroy the black family and ensure that the average African American baby born in our cities comes into the world with the dice loaded against him. Millions of Americans believe these things but the smaller sub-group of American theatergoers do not, and have no desire to be "challenged" on the subject. One of LaBute's strongest cards, simply in terms of construction, is his understanding of feeling: the protagonists of In the Company of Men aren't just out to hurt someone but to feel what it's like to do so, and LaBute communicates that so well that we feel what they feel like, too. What we mostly feel, however, is how much better we are than they are. And, in a community ritual such as theater, the ability to imbue an audience with a sense of its own superiority is not to be disdained. In the cramped confines of the Fairbanks Theatre, LaBute does that superbly: the air is thick with self-congratulation.
This time, he's offering classical allusions, which is all you need: the first play is "Medea Redux," and you couldn't put it any better than that. In this monologue, Calista Flockhart speaks into a police station tape recorder and recounts how, at the age of thirteen, she was impregnated and abandoned by her English teacher. Miss Flockhart is famed as TV's Ally McBeal. I've never seen the show and, statistically, there's a strong chance you won't have, either. But I've seen a zillion articles discussing her as an icon of the new feminism, or post-feminism, or whatever: Time put Ally McBeal on the cover with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, even though Ally does not actually exist, whereas apparently Ms. Steinem does. The livelier tabloids are more preoccupied with Miss Flockhart's emaciated form and hardly a week goes by without some headline promising us "The Skinny On Ally McBeal." Mr LaBute and his director, Joe Mantello, say they wanted Miss Flockhart because she would draw a mainstream TV audience that would be discomforted by the play's message. I can't see it myself: Bash serves up various hicksville Mormons-a Salt Lake City businessman, a clunky young couple of goofy lovers on vacation in New York; "Ally McBeal" is a glib, superficially hip TV series with cool characters whose office has a unisex bathroom. The idea that fans of the latter would identify with the former is utterly preposterous, though it does perhaps shed an interesting light on off-Broadway's understanding of the vast, grunting American hinterland. It's been claimed that some "Ally" fans have been so affronted by Miss Flockhart's raw, unsettling performance that they've walked out. But none were in evidence on the night I went. And, in truth, the birdlike adolescent with the trailer-park twang leaning into the interrogation light on the small stage instantly dispels any associations with her TV character. This is a terrific performance.
Miss Flockhart is using off-Broadway strictly as a summer vacation, and by the time this issue appears "Ally McBeal" will have re-commenced its celluloid semester on the west coast. So it's acceptable, I think, to discuss more of the plot than one would normally disclose. In "Medea Redux," the young girl is abandoned by her teacher-lover the moment she gives birth. Years later, when the child reaches the age of her mother's seduction, mom kills the kid. The symmetry is an especially literal illustration of what is actuarially true: that damaged children become damaged adults. It reiterates the theme of LaBute's second film, Your Friends and Neighbors, in which a sextet couple and uncouple in various permutations. Marketed as a sort of Manhattan sex comedy for the Nineties, it was, at core, about the carelessness of the sexually liberated-the way men and women casually destroy each other and refuse to accept responsibility. I gotta be me and, if that damages you, it's not my fault. LaBute believes in the concept of sin-not just as a concept, not just as some sicko religious guilt-trip our less enlightened predecessors insisted on dumping on us, but in sin itself. "Medea Redux" is a very moral monologue: an extreme illustration of a dramatic truth.
Next comes "Iphigenia in Orem," in which Ron Eldard, as a Mormon traveling man, sits in his hotel room and tells us about what prove to be the interrelated catastrophes of his corporate downsizing and the death of his infant daughter. In straitened economic circumstances, having another mouth to feed would be unfair on the rest of his family. So he dispatches her. This too is a savagely moral work, in tune with the age. A few years ago, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a very much pro-abortion body, released a survey of the reasons why one in three pregnancies is terminated:
Woman is concerned about how having a baby could change her life: 76 percent
Woman can't afford baby now: 68 percent
And way down at the bottom:
Woman has health problems: 7 percent
Woman was victim of rape or incest: 1 percent
So we abort babies for reasons of personal or economic convenience, a right that extends up to the moment of delivery and even, in some cases of partial-birth abortion (or, as The New York Times puts it, "a procedure some opponents call 'partial-birth abortion'"), a few crucial seconds beyond. Why should this "right to choose" cease after birth? Why should you be entitled to be rid of your inconvenient child two days before delivery but not two days after? The extremism of which LaBute is often accused is, in fact, the merest logical extension of prevailing cultural trends.
The question is whether what the playwright calls his "unforgiving and Old Testament" morality registers with even a tenth of his off-Broadway audience. LaBute writes about what he knows-Mormons. But most New York theatergoers don't know any Mormons, so, presented with an evening of damaged Mormons in contemporary society, they attribute the damage not to the contemporary society but to the fact that they're Mormons. This is triumphantly confirmed by the final play of the trilogy, in which a pretty young Utah couple spend a weekend in New York culminating with the fresh-faced young man bashing an elderly gay to death in Central Park. In what Frank Rich calls "the summer of Matthew Shepard," the vulnerable gay set upon in the dark is the very acme of martyrdom. When you send a Mormon in to do the deed, quoting scripture and laughing off the incident, what do you expect audiences to take home with them? Especially when the Mormon doesn't even have the decency to stay in Utah and waste people but instead comes to Central Park? Thus, the final "bash" of the evening is not just an isolated act but a very dagger at the heart of modern civilization. Paul Rudd, who plays the young killer, ends the evening lit from below like a Satanic pretty boy.
"The Face Of Evil, All Peaches And Cream" ran the New York Times headline. "Evil wears an all-American glow," began Ben Brantley underneath. Beware "that sheen of idealized, corn-country wholesomeness," especially from Mormons: "The clean-cut look associated with that religion is used in gleaming contrast to the darkness within." LaBute may believe he's giving us good old-fashioned Mormon values, but his New York audience adores him because he so brilliantly justifies their contempt for flyover country.
In his adoring notice, Ben Brantley mentioned, en passant, Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock's film about the elegant, murderous uncle who moves in with a small-town family. The picture hinges on the relationship between the two Charlies -Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) and his virginal niece (Teresa Wright)-two sides of the same coin. You don't have to be a Jungian to subscribe to the notion of the "shadow" that we all have; Robert Louis Stevenson put it more playfully:
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
Do you know the world is a foul sty?," Uncle Charlie asks his niece. "Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you'd find swine?" But the point is that, in those days, the house still had fronts. The idea of the shadow-the dark side, wriggling free of our moral constraints-doesn't work in an age when moral constraints themselves are frowned upon and married men go on daytime talk-shows to "confess" to their wives their fondness for transsexual hookers-not because they're planning to cut it out henceforth, but just to demand their spouses "come to terms" with it. The shadow has jumped so far ahead that the most striking change since Shadow of a Doubt is the basic switch of roles: in Hitchcock's small-town America, the psychopath is charmingly amoral; when today's dramatists wander down Main Street, the psychopaths are, au contraire, charmlessly moral-they kill out of a clear moral logic. As the fresh-faced young gay-basher says in Bash, "I know Scripture." If you go to a play or a movie or watch a TV show these days, the fellow who turns out to be the killer or the spousal abuser or the child molester will be the one who "knows Scripture." Nothing puts your moral compass out of whack more than... traditional morality.
As part of my own summer in New Hampshire, I was called upon to organize some of my small town's "Old Home Day" festivities, in the course of which I was obliged to dust off for the evening entertainment some old poems and songs written by schoolteachers and selectmen and farmers for town reunions of the nineteenth century. A lot of the writing was much better than I expected, but, as part of the necessary compression, I found myself keeping the evocative stuff about maple sugaring and rusty plows and almost instinctively slashing what strikes our generation as a gloomy preoccupation with the hereafter:
But let us in all patience wait
God's summon in the pearly gate
Beyond which may we meet again
And with our elder Brother reign.
In 1885, these lines were the hit of the show. One-hundred-and-fourteen years later, any man offering such thoughts at a public, secular entertainment would be regarded as a nutcake at best. It's tempting in rural America, where the landscape looks much the same, and even the new houses are built with the same clapboards and shakes our great-grandfathers would recognize, and the tumbledown stone walls and cellar holes and old orchards keep the past visibly part of the present... it's tempting to assume we are not so very different from our forebears. But the most casual glance at the way our great-grandparents talked about life leads one to the inescapable conclusion that, in less than a century, we have become fundamentally separated from our past.
There is room for an honest difference of opinion on this matter: if you're gay or a Southern black, the past is understandably less attractive. But it seems almost bewilderingly obtuse to attribute America's woes to an excess of religious sensibility, an accusation that's made routinely in the coastal broadsheets and seems unlikely to be covered by even the most exhaustive "hate crimes" legislation. Frank Rich, for example, angrily attacks those irresponsible types peddling the Internet rumors that the Columbine killers were gay. But he's happy to link the Shepard killing with the "gruesome homophobic violence" in Bash and the Mormon murderer "citing Scripture to justify his hatred", even though Matthew Shepard's killers aren't religious in any recognizable sense of that word.
The evidence in all these front-page firestorms is of groups of people desensitized beyond belief, so to speak. That's what LaBute writes about-pushing deep inside the unimaginable depths of parents who kill their children, and the other stock figures from the news-show horror stories. But that's not why he's a hit in New York: instead, they lap him up because it's yet another savage indictment of homophobic religious bigotry. One of contemporary pop culture's few moral writers has fallen among sinners and libertines. What a fate.
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