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Essay

The American Voice: Human Nature

For the most part, since Ancient Greeks paraded across proskenions in their masks, the intent of satire has been to expose a world plagued by hypocrisy and hubris, in the interest of discrediting these ills. From Aristophanes to The Book of Mormon, writers have placed man’s folly center-stage in the interest of giving it a good flogging. But however scathing the ridicule, however harsh the mockery, the satirist’s aim is traditionally meliorative at its heart: surely with knowledge of our flaws, we can take ownership over them and correct them. Though we laugh like teenagers at the humiliation of Malvolio or the comeuppance of Tartuffe, these characters reflect writers who share faith in the essential corrigibility of man; faith in progress. 


And then there’s Bruce Norris, whose ruthless comedies aren’t concerned with inciting us to heal our more sinister problems because he doesn’t believe we can. “If you want some sort of climax,” we’re told at the top of The Infidel (2000), “some moment in which great truths are spoken, well, check your ticket stubs because you have come to the wrong performance.” Refusing to provide easy comfort, his work inspects the psyche of American progressivism, mining comedy from the futility of good intentions. Though his characters yearn for an ethical life, the struggle is Sisyphean. “I think ethical behavior should extend as far as your arm,” Norris quipped in a 2006 interview with Chicago magazine. “You can try your best to do things that are ethical beyond that radius, but I think it’s ultimately kind of hopeless because human nature is indifferent to something like ethics…To go around with a plan how to make the world a better place usually results in the opposite.” In the cosmology of his plays, a harmless or well-intentioned gesture can provoke a chain of events that takes down an innocent bystander; even the most altruistic acts cause harm, however unintentionally. This lack of a compass is terrifying, and it’s precisely what gives his plays the danger and the thrill that make them so excruciatingly funny.

While individually his plays wage war on different terrain, as a collection they reveal a writer hell-bent on testing American beliefs.

While individually his plays wage war on different terrain, as a collection they reveal a writer hell-bent on testing American beliefs — or, more specifically, white, privileged lefty liberal American beliefs. The Infidel places a Supreme Court judge on trial for his own murky morality, and his play Purple Heart (2002) confronts a post Vietnam America that is reckless with its global legacy. The Pain and the Itch (2005) skewers the narcissism and compliance of a wealthy family whose progressive attitude shifts dramatically when they discover their 4-year-old daughter has a venereal disease; and The Unmentionables (2006) charts the consequences of American do-gooders in a Third World country. All of these plays challenge our belief that human progress is possible, suggesting that it's advance is consistently undermined by human nature — which, despite intervals of righteous vim, will inevitably default back to its own self-interest. Clybourne Park (2010) places the cultural attitudes of A Raisin in the Sun (1959) next to America in 2009, making a case that we’re a deeply divided country, despite what we tell ourselves. A Parallelogram (2010) is a more introspective take on this cycle of ineffectuality, centering on Bee, who’s able to look into the future (due to a cosmic glitch) and see her dismal fate, and the world’s, discovering there’s nothing she can do to change it. And Domesticated (2013) tracks the public downfall of a politician’s marriage after he’s caught with a prostitute. The abyss that separates people — our ultimate inability to agree on the common good — is yet again mined for vicious laughs as Bruce positions the divide between the sexes as an indelible fact of being human. 


It seems right to hop on a parallel track here and point to the writing of John Gray, the British economist and philosopher, a favorite of Bruce's (who is crucially not to be confused with the American John Gray, who wrote Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus). “‘Humanity’ does not exist,” Gray proclaims in his book Straw Dogs. “There are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions, and subject to every kind of infirmity of will and judgment.” Central to Gray’s arguments is that our faith in progress comes from a misguided belief that humankind as a species is able to transcend our natural limitations, that the human condition will cumulatively be bettered by our ethical superiority. “History,” he says in the introduction to Heresies, “is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even and inch by inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human need.” We can see this belief—that human nature is an inherent obstacle to progress — reflected in Bruce’s plays. “You know as well as I do that this is a progressive community,” says Karl Lindner in Clybourne Park, trying to bar a black family from his white neighborhood in 1959. “Some would say change is inevitable. And I can support that, if it’s change for the better. But I’ll tell you what I can’t support, and that’s disregarding the needs of the people who live in a community.”

This perspective is reflected in Bruce’s take on theater itself, as he criticizes the hubris of a progressive-minded theater community’s belief that theater can be an agent of change. Not only is art — like all endeavors — incapable of significantly impacting human consciousness and behavior, he feels, but “if you slice the audience for theater,” he said in his 2010 interview, “which is already 1% the audience for all other entertainment, and you take that 1% and slice it down to the audience that actually attends new plays, and then go further cut to those who would be interested in so-called controversial new plays, that’s a tiny fraction of the entertainment-consuming public. It’s almost like a tiny little club, a tiny little fan club for a strange and useless obsolete art form…I certainly don’t think the plays I write are very important.”

But it’s impossible to read all this back to myself, to consider what Bruce has said in interviews, in public, and in his work, without suggesting that his actions betray him. He’s a contradictory guy. Because on one hand, he categorically rejects humanism and doesn’t believe in a social or anthropological value of theater; while on the other hand, he is the author of twelve stunning, immaculately made plays. And at the risk of him bee-lining to me in some theater lobby with an out-stretched finger and a head full of logical points I can’t argue with, I can’t shake my conviction that no artist can sit in an empty room in front of a laptop and put in the time, care, skill and conviction that he has — repeatedly throughout his career to date — without believing, however reluctantly, in its importance. I’m reminded of Article Three of Charles Ludlam’s manifesto for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company: “Just as many people who claim belief in God disprove it with their every act, so too there are those whose every deed, though they say there is no God, is an act of faith.”

I also think of the very final moments of Clybourne Park, in which Bev addresses her son, who’s about to commit suicide: “I know it’s been a hard couple of years for all of us, I know they have been, but I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that.” A true cynic would have ended the play there, cruelly leaving us with how wrong Bev is. But Bruce chose to end the play instead by giving her a moment of grace. “You have enough light, there?” Bev asks her son. “Well, don’t hurt your eyes.”

Adam Greenfield
Associate Artistic Director