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Playwrights' Perspectives

Bruce Norris on The Qualms

So people have been asking me a lot lately, “Why did you want to write a play about swinging? And how did you do your research?” Well… the thing is, it was never really meant to be about swinging. Not exactly. 

About ten years ago a friend and I went to see a matinee screening of a documentary called The Lifestyle about the swinging scene in suburban USA — very much alive and thriving, in case you didn’t know. (FYI — Hacienda Villa, an all-polyamorous apartment building, just opened in Bushwick) And we watched the semi-pornographic footage of these couples — many of them quite elderly — arriving at a potluck dinner and, after eating and pleasantries, proceeding to casually penetrate each other’s partner at random, interchangeably, with no regard for distinctions such as age or aesthetics. Everyone fucked or got fucked equally, while discussing football scores and the weather at the same time. 

My friend and I emerged into the daylight outside the movie theatre feeling vaguely sick to our stomachs — “Jesus, something is seriously wrong with those people,” we thought, “right?” But neither of us could articulate exactly what it was we found so repellent. I mean, I like to think of myself as a tolerant, liberal person. I have no problem with pornography. And yes, admittedly, some of their bodies weren’t totally attractive, but so what? And the couples all participate of their own choice, consensually. So what was pushing me to the limits of my tolerance? Why did I feel this lurking, conservative disdain, this reflexive need to condemn them? Was it because, as a hetero male, I’ve spent my life trying — and paying the price when I fail —to adhere to the monogamous binary? Maybe. But if that’s what was eating at me, didn’t that just mean I was maybe, possibly, a little bit… jealous?

So, a few years later I’m a guest instructor for a playwriting class at Columbia and we’re talking about how playwrights eke out a living and one of the graduate students in the class happens to mention a convenient method she’d found to make some extra cash to pay for tuition: she logs on to Sugardaddy.com or Seekingarrangement.com and hooks up with older, wealthy guys for “dates,” which the older men pay her for quite handsomely. I sat there — slightly stupefied — but wasn’t that… prostitution? Yes, she answered — so? Once again, I felt like, well, okay, I know I’m old and everything but somehow I’m finding this very hard to condone. Why, she asked? She’s choosing the men she sleeps with. It’s totally consensual. She’s not being coerced (other than economically). She’s in control of the whole thing, so what’s the problem?  

Why was I having this conflicted response to her personal choice, as if she was in some way… unprincipled?

And she had a point. Why was I having this conflicted response to her personal choice, as if she was in some way… unprincipled? Was I really so judgmental? What if there were actually no principles involved at all. What if, once again, I was just kind of… jealous. Jealous, in part, of the rich men who could afford casual sex with this girl, but also jealous of the girl herself for being so modern and uninhibited and freethinking. What, did she think she was better than me, because she was more sophisticated?  

I happen to be writing this five weeks after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, two weeks after protesters shut down a production of The Vagina Monologues at Mount Holyoke for fear of offending trans women without vaginas, one week after a mosque was burned down in Houston and ISIS militants beheaded 20 Coptic Christians in Libya. In each case, one constituency supposedly acts on “principle” to control or punish the behavior of another group who choose to live differently. But why do we find it so hard to tolerate people who have different values and customs? Does the mere existence of difference erode our certainty and call into question the choices (or compromises) we’ve made in our own lives? And if we’re really so committed to tolerance, don’t we have to tolerate the intolerant?

So, forgive the bizarre leap of logic here, but this is why I think democracy —insofar as it places a value on social justice, fairness and equality — is very, very difficult. And I think the reasons have something to do with sex, and our sexually-driven competitiveness. 

We primates tend to live in communities, defined by blood or geography or income or sexual orientation or political affiliation — and in each of those overlapping communities we constantly observe each other and reevaluate our status at every given moment, relative to the other primates in the group. When any one of us gets too high, the other monkeys revolt. As the now-famous capuchin monkey footage demonstrates (look it up on YouTube) we don’t like it when another monkey gets too many bananas. Like Gary says in The Qualms: “Gotta share the bananas, man.” 

We happen to be living in a time and place (’Murica) where competition is glorified. Where aggressiveness, personal advantage, individual achievement are highly valued, and fuck the losers that can’t cut it. Free-market ideologues like Paul Ryan tell us competition is a blessing (Innovation! Efficiency! Lower prices!). But I tend to think — for what it’s worth — that competition is the curse that dooms our species. Sure, it’s sometimes balanced—hopefully — by its twin instinct, cooperation.  That’s what we primates do — compete and cooperate by turns. I feel compelled to compete with people like Paul Ryan. I consider him my “ideological enemy.” I’m not saying I hope ISIS beheads Paul Ryan – but I might take a look at the videotape. 

The Qualms, for me, is as much about class-competitiveness as it is about sex. A new couple — with obvious advantages — attempts to join a group with fewer advantages, and one of them winds up feeling left out. He feels outraged that somehow the advantages he enjoys every single day of his life aren’t being respected on this one. And when that happens to us privileged people — like those of us who can afford to go to the theatre — we tend to get pissed off.

Problem is, the monkeys that get more bananas on a regular basis rarely defend the less fortunate monkeys. That’s because monkeys don’t have any “principles,” just primitive instincts.  And frankly, I don’t think we operate according to “principles” either. Not really. I wish we did. I wish that our “principles” actually mattered, but I don’t think they do — not in the way we think they do. At least, not for me. Because I’m just a primate. A rotten, conniving, jealous, selfish little primate like anyone else.  I occasionally rise above my rottenness and do something halfway decent, but for the most part, I’m just studying your pile of bananas vs. my pile, and if you have more bananas than me, I criticize you for your lack of “principles.” And that’s what happens in the play.

Our genitals are not non-renewable resources.

So I wrote a play about people who swing — and the people that condemn them — because I admire something about the swinging “lifestyle,” so to speak.  I could never be part of it, but, to my way of thinking, swingers offer an implicit critique of competition and self-interest: Why are you so possessive of your partner? And sure, maybe they’re also a little bit tacky and gross and maybe polyamory is an unworkable utopian fantasy. Maybe they’re just a bunch of perverts — but how optimistic! Such generous perverts! Their lifestyle forces me to ask myself, where does my jealousy, this competitiveness, come from? And what risk would it pose to me — in a world with readily available contraceptives and antibiotics — to share my partner, sexually speaking, with others? Our genitals are not non-renewable resources.  So what do we lose, exactly, when our partners have sex with someone else, provided we’ve agreed to it? Why, for most of us, is it so impossible to conceive, so utterly destructive to the very foundation of the partnership? 

So anyway, that’s the play. And I hope you think it’s funny. And if you don’t, it’ll be over in ninety minutes.

Bruce Norris
February 2015