Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
The Nature of Human Nature

I ran into an interesting dilemma recently about a play I reviewed.

The play told the story of a returning Iraqi war veteran afflicted with PTSD.  Loosely based on Georg Büchner's Woyzeck (operative word is "loosely"), the soldier ends up murdering the mother of his child after her affair with the Sergeant.  Many things irritated me about the production, but what irritated me most of all was a treacly director's note in the program that the production was "respectfully dedicated to the men and women who are in military service..."

In my review I took the writer and director to task for producing a play about a man's anguish without ever examining the conditions that caused that anguish, namely, politicians sending men and women to slaughter and be slaughtered and then abandoning them when they came home.  To dedicate something like this to our soldiers in arms was to act in a mendacious manner, trying to get patriotic cred on the cheap.

My editor, rightly, told me to tone it down (and she should have added, "Stop rewriting the man's play!"), which I did and re-submitted the review.

But I don't apologize for what I initially wrote. The play's effort to portray the soldier's pain falls into the category of plays that my theater compatriot and I call "so well-meant."  Yes, the humanitarian impulse pulses there, along with the didactic effort to inform us of conditions like these and the melodramatic sentimentality of the poor unfortunate being tugging on our heart strings.

But this "so well-meaning" falsifies the very thing it means so well about when it doesn't take note of the "why" -- in this case, why the solider has the pain that he feels.  To be sure, the play includes a well-meaning but overworked therapist who tries to get the solider medicated and stabilized -- the writer's nod to bureaucratic sloth and indifference. 

Still, not enough.  It doesn't finger the scoundrels, it doesn't advocate for the victim, and, more importantly, it doesn't indict the audience, in whose name all of this mayhem was prosecuted.

The further question, of course, is why should any writer pay any attention to what I've just said.  Writers, rightly, should be free to write whatever they wish to write about and do whatever they can do to get it produced.  But I am not really stating a prescription here, a litmus test for authenticity.  Instead, it's a comment about an insufficiency of imagination, and a specific kind of imagination at that, one that conceives of a human nature as either psychologized (where actions come from DSM-IV states of being) or essentialized (a transcendent "that's the way people are" that cuts cross cultural and historical lines) — in either case, making them ahistorical isolates.

I conceive of people, and thus my characters, as "materialized," that is, creatures defined by the material conditions of their lives: everything historically contingent, driven by economics (i.e., how they get their living), subject to chance and irony, nothing with any transhistorically dependable truth to it.  These material conditions are as much characters in the play as the character to which they are attached, and I have to bring them in to shape the character/world of the play.

This also means that because material conditions can change on a dime, my characters are liable to change on a dime as well, unconstrained by any essential natures or psychologized profiles, and they change because they fight to manage how they live within (or without) the changed conditions of their lives.

I wish my fellow playwrights would expand their thinking about what constitutes the human nature structuring both their characters and the narrative demands of the plays they are writing.  Too often they confine their characters and stories within, at least to me, an outmoded and theatrically unsuccessful concept of what drives people and the lives they live.  To write a play about a returning Iraqi war veteran with PTSD simply to make him a victim without offering some deeper investigation of the who, what, where, when, why, and how is to miss an opportunity to make interesting theatre caused by an insufficiently examined template of what makes human beings "human."

As I said above, why should any writer pay any attention to what I've just said.  But I hope they do, if only to argue the point with me.


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©2010 Michael Bettencourt
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

Read his theatre reviews in Scene4's Qreviews
For more of his Scene4 columns and articles, check the Archives


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December 2010

Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

December 2010

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