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Martha Lavey on The Unmentionables

by Martha Lavey

We close our 30th anniversary season with our production of Bruce Norris’ The Unmentionables. It feels apt that we conclude this season of new work with a play by Bruce. The Unmentionables is the fifth of Bruce’s plays that Steppenwolf has produced, all of which received their premiere here. Bruce represents Steppenwolf’s commitment to innovation in new writing and to the principle of repeated creative relationships in the development of that work. We feel honored to have been entrusted with the cultivation of this playwright’s voice and fortunate to have an audience with an appetite for the challenging, thought-provoking work he produces. One of the benefits that accrues from producing a body of work by a single playwright is the opportunity to be in conversation with the playwright, to discern the playwright’s enduring fascinations and to see those issues and concerns in a series of contexts, in a variety of articulations. So what is Bruce Norris’ fascination? What is he pursuing in his plays and what is the tone he establishes for the conversation of that pursuit? It’s always a little dice-y to offer an interpretation of an artist’s purpose – to locate the artist’s “fascination.” The totalizing statement will always feel inadequate to the work’s frisky and contrarian voice. This is pointedly true in the case of Bruce’s work – it doesn’t want to be pinned down, it doesn’t want to issue up its “meaning” in easy terms. With that proviso, I plunge ahead, buoyed by my own fascination with this playwright’s voice. The common theme that I discern in Bruce’s plays – and a theme vividly expressed in The Unmentionables – is the dissonance between our avowed beliefs, our “principles,” and our actions. Bruce’ plays open up a space for critique – an opportunity to see the characters in a way that they are unable (or unwilling) to see themselves. To whom does Bruce subject to this scrutiny? They are people like us, with a lot of cultural capital. They are smart, funny, apparently self-aware (they talk, vehemently, about their motivations, about their beliefs). They have education and social position (they belong to Mensa! They’re religiously-motivated! They’re principled!) They have choices, they are making their lives. To choose one’s life is a luxury, and with choice comes responsibility, comes accountability. What Bruce offers, in his plays, is a test of that accountability. He subjects the characters to a moment of crisis – to panic – and allows us to observe the true character of their actions. What happens when an individual is driven by pure instinct, when an individual loses the luxury of self-explanation and is operating on the instinct of self-preservation? Do the ideals and self-idealizations hold? Do they, do we, do the right thing? The suggestion, in The Unmentionables, is that our talk is… our talk. What matters, finally, is the choice we make when our self-interest is threatened. Interestingly – tellingly – the character who talks the least, the doctor, is the one character who refuses to participate in the crisis. He leaves the room, saying simply: “There is nothing I can do. […] People will do what they want to do. It is what they have always done. […] Goodnight.” It’s not a comforting view that Bruce offers up. The stories he issues do not end tidily – the heroes are overturned and their alternates, like the doctor in The Unmentionables, refuse our impulse to idealize them. It’s a curious challenge for a playwright to pose himself: to press the case for the integrity of the one who cannot – or will not – speak on his own behalf. Where, then, is the moral compass in the world of Bruce’s plays? As Etienne, the wily young man who serves as the narrative voice of the play asks us, “you lurn you lessen?” In other words, did the play teach you anything? To our putative silence he declares the play over, “Timah to go home.” It may be that in that simple directive – time to go home – lives the play’s real challenge. All of the central characters of the play, Don and his wife, Nancy; the earnest young Christian, Dave, his girlfriend, Jane, have come to Africa to “do good.” Don and Nancy with the project of stimulating economic growth; Dave and Jane with the project of religious and educational evangelism. These are the stories they provide themselves. It is not incidental that all of them have felt compelled to abandon their lives at home to achieve these heroic narratives. When the doctor, a native of the African country, snickers at the motives of Don and Jane for coming to Africa, Don is indignant: “(He) sits there making cracks at the expense of a guest here in my home, a woman who’s made all sorts of sacrifices just so she could come to do these poor people herein your country a little bit of good.” The Doctor, unimpressed, asks, “Why, could you find no poor people in your country?” It is the pertinent question of the play. The answer, which seems implicit in the play is that the “do-gooding” of Don and Nancy, of Dave and Jane, requires the visibility, the story, of doing good. Africa provides the background against which their presence stands in relief. To “go home” is to return to invisibility – it is to become part of the background, to join one’s commonality. At home, one loses the project of one’s principled narrative, relinquishes the role of the hero. One’s actions are negotiated within the web of one’s peers: we show ourselves, at home, by our actions (rather than declaring ourselves, by our motives). If there is a moral code in Bruce’s plays, it may be this. It is the code of the apophatic: the declaration of belief by a refusal to speak it. The good cannot be defined (it can only be approached – by pointing to what it is not). For a playwright so dedicated to the finesse of speech, it is surprising, perhaps, that Bruce is, finally, an advocate for silence. He asks us to go home, to stop whipping out our Mensa cards, to make the brave and moral choice to listen. Interesting that his plays provoke such rich conversation, so fruitful an engagement in that fundamental social act.