In certain sordid sections of the Internet, you’ll find certain sordid people who are convinced that social movements and cultural reckonings, like what’s popularly referred to as #MeToo, are nothing more than witch hunts. That the ongoing exposure of prominent sexual harassment cases is simply vengeful people taking joy in upending lives. In my own experience, this is bullshit. I know people who have pointedly shared their stories, and they took no pleasure in a single word they spoke. One friend of mine single-handedly reached out to and brought together the women who had been sexually assaulted by a leading voice-over instructor. She claimed no public credit, took no delight in this predator’s fall. This is a grave moment for our society, and nobody is responding to this long-overdue reckoning with anything resembling delight.
Until this past week, that is.
Last Thursday, MCC Theater cancelled its upcoming production of Reasons to be Pretty Happy, the latest play from Neil LaBute. By itself, this isn’t a big deal – to the chagrin of subscription ticket holders, theaters drop plays from their announced seasons all the time. But in so doing, MCC also announced that they were ending LaBute’s tenure as their playwright in residence. This is a big deal – MCC has produced ten of LaBute’s plays over the years. In making the decision public, MCC drew tremendous attention to the rift, and then fanned the flames of speculation by simply stating, “We’re committed to creating and maintaining a respectful and professional work environment for everyone we work with.” The implications of that statement, coupled with the pointed silence surrounding it from all parties, leads to all kinds of terrible speculation – it’s as if they’re inviting us to think the worst. (And aside from the vaguest of rumors, all I can report on this topic are thoughts, so there won’t be any allegations here.) Regardless of the ultimate truth of this matter, it’s obviously a momentous development within the theater world, one to be treated with solemnity and respect for all parties.
Just kidding. People I know in the theatrical community, especially playwrights, are giddy. Openly celebrating. It’s as if MCC had tossed a conveniently placed bucket of water on the man in order to save their friend the Scarecrow.
This may seem like a wildly disproportionate response if you don’t follow theater that closely; LaBute isn’t exactly a household name. But since he first rose to prominence, with In the Company of Men (written as a play in 1992, known for its 1997 film adaptation), he’s had an outsized influence on the culture, especially in theater. Playhouses in the early aughts were filled with LaBute plays and LaBute clones, to the point where you could have easily assumed that he was the Voice of Modern American Theater.
And by and large, that voice kept saying the same things over and over again. His plays are stylistically similar to each other – minimalist, elliptical, and focused on the power dynamics between men and women. In depicting those power dynamics, he keeps showing us men doing unspeakably cruel things to women – and again, he’s been doing that as a writer for over twenty years. Because he keeps circling back to it, and presenting it without comment, it’s provoked an ongoing debate as to whether he’s critiquing the misogynistic elements in our culture, or simply indulging in them himself.
Of course, LaBute is also the man who wrote and directed the notorious remake of the horror classic Wicker Man, in which Nicolas Cage bellows awesomely ridiculous lines like “BEEEES! BEEEES IN MY EYES!” and “HowdidgetburnedHOWDIDGETBURNED!!” And since that movie also features Cage punching lesbian characters while wearing a bear suit (seriously), and posits a global conspiracy of neopagan women sacrificing men to create a genderless society – a fever dream worthy of Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones – it lends a lot of credence to the “indulgence” theory. Indeed, you'd think it would end that debate once and for all.
Is that a cheap shot? Perhaps. But the underlying attitudes of LaBute’s dramatic corpus have held a stranglehold on our culture for years. Decades. A theatrical landscape clogged with endless productions of one-set, three character sexist hipster nihilism. And in monopolizing the crucial artistic incubator of Off- and Off-Off Broadway, he’s prevented dissenting voices from gaining traction. That’s not necessarily his doing, of course. Plenty of directors and producers had to sign off on it. And they might have simply been swayed by the fact that his plays feature minimal sets and tiny casts and are easy to cast, and bring in money from people eager to watch that sexy, controversial brand of bloodsport.
But enough is enough.
And the giddiness, the release that so many are feeling now that MCC has cut ties with the man, involves that hope that “enough” has finally arrived. Because there are so many other voices out there, and the quality of their work is extraordinary – I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat my claim, that this past decade has seen the best playwriting of my lifetime, the most extraordinary collection of writers creating work at all professional levels. But there has to be somewhere to hear them. And for too long, both in the public sphere and behind closed doors, those voices have been ignored because it was cheaper, and easier, to hear voices like LaBute’s say the same things over and over and over again. And I can’t begin to count the number of talented artists I’ve known who have given up the profession out of frustration at the futility, feeling that their voices would never be heard in a world where only LaBute’s, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of drones behind him, never stopped buzzing.
And so yes, many are indeed celebrating an aesthetically stultifying stranglehold which appears, much like a figure made of wicker, to have gone up in flames.