Moral Muddles

I think a playwright is in greater danger of getting into a moral muddle than other writers. In general a playwright can more easily get muddled in his thinking because he is forced to give equal weight to conflicting perspectives. The playwright cannot afford to give too little consideration to the antagonist’s views. If the antagonist’s actions lack justification the actor playing that part will find it hard to understand that character’s motivation. So the playwright must give due consideration to the antagonist’s perspective. In addition, the playwright must express those views to the best of his ability to make the character seem plausible and formidable. The audience will quickly detect a cardboard villain and feel that the play has been weighted towards a moral conclusion without earning it. Therefore a playwright will often give the antagonist great speeches which make valid points. The protagonist will then need to refute those valid points to the best of his ability.

In giving so much consideration to the antagonist’s perspective and in generating so much of what this character will say, the playwright runs the risk of coming around to this view. As more and more good points come to mind he might be persuaded that the antagonist was right all along! Even when the playwright manages to balance the protagonist’s  arguments with the antagonist’s arguments he may be left confused about where he stands on the issue. Eventually the poor playwright does not know what he thinks because he has been inhabiting both sides of the debate for too long. I’m convinced that this is the reason so many plays seem muddled.

It can be very beneficial to give consideration to opposing viewpoints. It prevents you from becoming too dogmatic. I think there is a sort of power in admitting you might be wrong. When you stubbornly refuse to admit that you could be wrong about something, you can get stuck with the wrong idea about things and never move forward. I’ve learned this lesson from computer science. In working with computers, you will often be unable to move past a problem until you admit that you don’t know how something works. Computers operate by very strict rules. When you are wrong about something you are usually dead wrong. A dogmatic programmer who refuses to admit that he could be wrong about how a piece of code works is going to be stuck on this problem until he considers the possibility that he could be mistaken. I have learned that the sooner I consider the possibility that I could be mistaken the sooner I can get past a problem.

Playwrights often fail to take the expected moral stance. They refuse to weight the play towards a moral conclusion and let the audience decide which character is in the right. This conveniently absolves the playwright of resolving a moral dilemma in his own mind. When asked where he stands on this issue he can merely shrug his shoulders. Unfortunately this moral ambivalence is becoming more unacceptable as the nation becomes more polarized. Everyone is addicted to moral outrage and will jump upon anyone who dares to express a controversial opinion. Even a character in a play is not allowed to express a controversial opinion. The playwright might object that he does not share the opinion of his deplorable antagonist, but in the end he is responsible for every word uttered by that character. When the antagonist speaks eloquently and makes some valid points, it is natural for the audience to suspect the author of speaking his mind through that character. This means the playwright gets it in the neck for dreaming up some especially rotten people. Keep in mind that the dramatic stakes can be raised by making your antagonist say the most appalling things you can think of. The better the writer, the deeper the hole that will be dug. The solution to this problem is to make it abundantly clear that you, the writer, do not share the views of the character, but this becomes problematic when your play is morally ambivalent.

I can think of one playwright whose career is probably over due his moral ambivalence, Neil LaBute. Neil LaBute is now widely suspected of being a misogynist based on a long history of plays which focus on the battle between the sexes without taking a clear moral stance on abusive behavior. In some of Neil LaBute’s plays the sexual abuser comes out on top or does not receive any punishment. While one or two plays of this sort is fine, a long career of celebrating relationship abuse begins to seem a little suspicious.  Now it is possible that Neil LaBute had an early success with this type of play and he has merely been repeating a successful formula. But one has to wonder why he keeps returning to this theme when he could be writing about anything. The suspicion is that Neil LaBute is justifying abusive relationships compulsively. In any event, failing to take a clear moral stance can create uncertainty and when the audience is looking for any excuse to freak out in moral outrage this can get the playwright in serious trouble.

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