News & Articles

Letter from Artistic Director on Sex with Strangers

2010-2011, Volume 5
by Martha Lavey

Steppenwolf produced Laura Eason's Sex with Strangers in 2009 as a part of our First Look Repertory of New Work. First Look is our annual repertory of three new plays that go through a development process at Steppenwolf and culminate in three weeks of performance in our Garage Theatre. In the first five years of First Look, nine of the fifteen plays have gone on to future lives at theaters throughout the country. Sex with Strangers is the first play that Steppenwolf has chosen to produce on our subscription series.

Sex with Strangers provoked a vigorous response from our First Look audiences and we wanted to share the conversation the play incited with a larger audience. The play speaks acutely to the contemporary landscape of technological communication and how those new platforms impact both interpersonal relationships and the construction of authorial identity. The play captures many of the complexities of our public/private self, humanizing those abstractions by telling the story of a man and woman who are trying both to further their public selves as writers and to engage their private selves as lovers.

Laura has pressurized the relationship between Ethan and Olivia by providing an age difference between them: Olivia is nearing 40; Ethan is 24. Their age difference represents a crucial interval in the larger cultural landscape and a generational divide: those who learned the technology (if they did) and those, like Ethan, born into it.

Ethan's métier is the blog: a form that makes the personal instantly public. Olivia is a novelist, a writer of the long form. The novel is a contract with its readership that assumes the fictive nature of the narrative. It is written in private and delivered to its audience through the apparatus of a publishing industry that separates the writer, in time, from the reception of her work. The published novel is a negotiated remnant of the author; the blog provides an immediate and interactive access to the writer.

The internet has, likewise, profoundly revised the landscape of social interaction. The entire premise of Ethan's blog, (now book) Sex with Strangers, is predicated on this revised landscape. The blog was borne of a dare: could Ethan persuade one woman a week to have sex with him by meeting her the “old fashioned way”: in person and in conversation? Ethan's blogging of these encounters engenders a parallel universe: an online conversation conducted by the women he has encountered. Ethan has, unwittingly or not, created a world in which everything private is public and spun into being a discourse over which he has no control—he is now a character in someone else's narrative.

The difference between Olivia and Ethan in their writerly lives deeply informs their interpersonal relationship. Olivia is private (we meet her in a cabin that serves as a writer's retreat, currently without internet access). The critical reception of her first novel has dissuaded her from publishing her work. As she says to Ethan when he asks to read her new novel, her reluctance is borne of a wish not to care what he thinks and a knowledge that she cares very much. She has decided that the self she treasures in authorship can only be preserved by keeping her writing private; Ethan's authorial self is constructed in the conflation of the private and public.

It's revealing that the books that Olivia admires and offers to Ethan are by D.H. Lawrence and Marguerite Duras. Both Lawrence and Duras write about love and sex but the contrast between these authors and Ethan, whose Sex with Strangers would seem to survey similar terrain, is striking. The intimacies of Lawrence and Duras are crafted in prose that is nuanced and spiritually resonant. The intimacies in Ethan's writing are rendered as half-remembered, drunken escapades—conquests in pursuit of a dare.

And so to the romance between Olivia and Ethan. Laura is posing a question in the play: what is the course of intimacy between two such different personalities? Their intimate relationship is intertwined with their ambition as writers. Each seeks from the other what they lack professionally: Olivia seeks a public platform for her work which Ethan can provide; Ethan seeks the legitimacy as a writer that he admires in Olivia. Their attraction to one another is a Gordian knot of their public and private desires.

It's only fair to the play that I not reveal the outcome of their story. What I think is helpful in receiving the play is to be attentive to the complex web that Laura has created in her narrative of the public/private lives of the characters. One of the most compelling issues that Laura is teasing out is the how platforms like blogs and social networking sites are impacting the capacity for intimacy. What are the implications of knowing—before meeting in person—the private life of someone who becomes an intimate partner? Is that publically-expressed, self-reliable representation of the private self? And what about change? If we have published our inner life, how do we revise ourselves? And which of our selves is trustworthy?

We are very happy to present Laura Eason's play that interrogates our contemporary landscape of the social network. We are proud to bring this First Look success to a larger audience and welcome your conversation about the play.

Martha Lavey
Artistic Director

More Information