To an extent, The Niceties does probe a fault line between the Democratic Party and the left: a boundary that will rupture sooner rather than later.
By Lucas Spiro
I wasn’t going to write about The Niceties, and perhaps I shouldn’t. After all, the esteemed editor of The Arts Fuse, Bill Marx, already told you what he thought, and he did a damn fine job. I happen to agree with most of what he writes in his Arts Fuse review of Eleanor Burgess’ new play, which is making its first Boston run at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End via a production from the Huntington Theatre Company (through October 6).
Like Marx, I also expected a damp squib from this much ballyhooed play and agree with him that all the ballyhooing is not merited. It’s a fine play. Go see it. If you’re a Boston area theatergoer interested in serious drama then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it and probably leave the theater feeling more ‘woke’ than when you went in. But, for me, this will be like seeing Game of Death and believing you could defeat Kareem Abdul Jabbar with the Jeet Kune Do that you never learned.
My major objection to the script stems from what I think is either a misrepresentation of the left or another example of the omission of left wing ideology in contemporary American theater. The most contemptible aspect of The Niceties is that people are being led to believe that they are witnessing an accurate and ideologically consistent depiction of a real political divide that exists on the left in America. I don’t accept that the best direction for America’s future, and its politics, sits in the mushy terrain and policies of the Democratic Party. But that is the impression, despite the claims of critics, left by The Niceties.
To an extent, The Niceties does probe a fault line between the Democratic Party and the left: a boundary that will rupture sooner rather than later, if left-wing politics is going to have any impact in the US. Despite Burgess’ suggestion that one character is a radical, the two central figures are both liberals. But I’m afraid this fact is likely lost on the mostly white, wealthy, left-leaning audience at the South End Boston theater. I left the production feeling as if I’d seen a play that wasn’t entirely sure about where it stood. It felt to me to be an expression of the moral, ideological, and political incoherence of Democrats: not a debate between a moderate who sees herself, more or less, as on the “right team” and a Sanders-ish radical.
Zoe is a brilliant, black, female student at an elite Connecticut university (pretty much Yale). She comes from a wealthy background and is an engaged political activist. Janine is Zoe’s history professor for a class about revolutions. She is white with Polish-Jewish immigrant (refugee) parents, comes from a working class background, and happens to be a lesbian. These various identities play a part in the drama, but race is the most important, and that ends up undercutting the complexity of the conflict’s political discourse. For all their erudition, knowledge, and the debate style dialogue that “rivals Aaron Sorkin” (more on why this is a bad thing later), both characters are ideologically, politically, and philosophically stifled by virtue of their both holding positions that never venture beyond conventional liberal discourse, positions that are antithetical to genuine emancipatory politics.
One prop among the books and papers in the professor’s campus office stands out: a Clinton 2016 coffee mug. Janine brandishes it about on stage, making sure we see the campaign symbol of an H with an arrow pointing toward the right (a spot-on representation of who Clinton is). Zoe is of the generation who is wary of microagressions and she brings up a few of the ways Janine is guilty. (I am of roughly the same generation as Zoe, but I’ve never seen a microagression in the wild. And I’ve never seen a leftist of any marginalized identity point one out on a college campus.) I did, however, see the Clinton mug as one of the many microagressions Zoe reacts to, indicative of the play’s power dynamics (the “wait your turn” attitude from the Clinton camp toward the Sanders wing of the party). The mug is one way we’re meant to see that Janine is oblivious to her liberal ideology and how it is complicit with the historical as well as current racism, xenophobia, and American expansionism.
To me, Clinton was another racist candidate in the 2016 presidential race. In the ’90s, she was fully on- board with her sexual predator husband’s expansion of the carceral state, calling some black people “super predators.” That H with the arrow is just another symbol of American institutional racism — and the white people who benefit from it.
Marx is right to point out that Zoe gets all the best lines. And Janine is an easy target: she betrays the utterly ineffectual politics of liberalism and the Democrats when she praises an America that elected a black president and is on the verge of electing a woman. The Boston audience lapped up this cute moment with ironic appreciation. Zoe’s response: “We have our first black president and we’re still getting lynched.” Nothing else matters. No amount of progress can explain away the ongoing public lynching of black people in America. The play could have begun and ended with this exchange; instead, it goes on, lobbying for our sympathies.
No magic proportion of marginalized people in power will change a system that is inherently immoral. This is our inheritance. Until we create a politics built on the abolition of all forms of oppression—capitalism above all else—then representation, while immensely important, will only be at the service of oppression and mollifying the status quo, which will never be able to fully confront our history of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, the illegal wars, and the murder of millions in the name of profit. The status quo will never atone for torturing people, for using nuclear warfare or chemical weapons. The status quo will always find reasons to justify selling billions in arms to the Saudis, to prop up fascist dictators, to turn a blind eye when half a million leftists are murdered in Indonesia, and put our politics at the service of capitalists on Wall Street and the defense industry.
The Niceties is a fine play, with some truly compelling speeches, but I’m afraid the mostly liberal audiences who see it will remain as comfortable with their political positions as when they walked in. The epic speechifying and rapid fire debate club dialogue is everything that’s wrong with Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing or films like The Post. Talk becomes a reassuring substitute for action. A well-crafted, milquetoast, neoliberal policy encased in dripping irony, wit, sarcasm, and arrogance does not win elections—organizing for the sake of wielding power does.
Marked by its smug paralysis, Sorkin-esque dialogue upholds the staid interests and mannerisms of the powerful. In that way, we have to see through the incoherent liberalism in The Niceties or the right will continue to take more power. Obama embodied the quintessential Sorkin president: an eloquent, intelligent, scholarly, charismatic, and conflicted orator who promised us the moon. Obama was someone liberals could count on to do the wrong thing and explain it in a way that made them feel good. We tortured some folks, but since it was Obama and the Democrats it must have been the right thing to do. We rained hell-fire from above on children in Yemen, but since the planes were Saudi we’re not to blame. Who cares if the bombs were made in Rhode Island? Obama deported more immigrants than any president in history, extended Bush era tax cuts, filled his administration with people from Goldman Sachs and Wall Street, oversaw more simultaneous foreign wars than any president in history, and perfected the art of assassination by killer robots.
If we allow ourselves to feel comfortable with a president like that, then we deserve Donald Trump, because he’s what we’ve always been. If you don’t believe me then maybe Obama can convince you. It was only a couple of weeks ago he called Trump a symptom, not a cause. It was around the time he simultaneously joined the resistance and let us know that despite his differences with John McCain, they were always on the same team.
The reason Zoe and Janine can’t get along is not because they are both on the left and the only thing that separates them is that one is woke and the other isn’t; it’s because they are both liberals who care too much about identity and representation within an ideology that is incoherent and immoral. The Democrats insist “we’re the good guys, vote for us,” while the party is run by people like Janine and backs old conservative men in primaries against young progressive women of color all over the country. Clinton and Obama encouraged the young, progressive women of color to run, but the fear moderates display at their success prove it is all palaver. This is why cynicism is the dominant mode of our age.
The ideological division in The Niceties is real, but it’s muddled. Avant guard video artist ContraPoints explains the conflict that Burgess thinks she is dramatizing with much more nuance, creativity, and understanding. If Zoe were on the left, she wouldn’t hedge her materialist critiques and settle for being a race reductionist, using identity politics and guilt to make her points rather than class analysis. Janine is a class traitor, a full-blown believer in the American way, but with a dab of liberalism that is supposed to absolve her complicity in empire and oppression. Janine brags about receiving calls from the State Department so that she can give them her expert advice. No doubt her ‘expert advice’ has led to war crimes. In America, liberal permissiveness serves as an antidote to structural change, and that is why both the Democratic and Republican Parties remain obsessed with identity politics.
In the play’s final moments Zoe says she hears the “death rattle” of Janine’s ideology. She’s right, but she hasn’t argued the points that would lead her to this conclusion. Zoe’s 21st century racial justice activism is compatible with liberalism — because it doesn’t genuinely challenge the mechanisms of power. Janine tells Zoe that she’s been reading Ta-Nehasi Coates, as if that means she has learned her lesson. But Coates has received incisive criticism from the left, because he too, like Zoe and Janine, focuses on race in an unconstructive way.
To her credit, Zoe speaks truth to power. She confronts Janine in honorable and significant ways. The next step is for her to escape the traps of liberal discourse and assume a radical position that will fight entrenched power. Unfortunately, the liberals in the audience sitting around me at The Niceties probably think Zoe is about as far as radicalism should be allowed to go.
Lucas Spiro is a writer living outside Boston. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin and his fiction has appeared in the Watermark. Generally, he despairs. Occassionally, he is joyous.