Parties, Poverty, and Pointless Positivity
A Dawson Theatre production pushes us to reexamine the moral failings of our lifestyle
By Olivia Hallett
Can a truly good person enjoy the comforts of an upper-middle-class urban lifestyle while knowing that innocent civilians are being tortured in war-torn countries? Is it morally acceptable to spend your Friday evening at a cocktail party when a woman just down the street will be cleaning hotel bathrooms all night? Questions like these can make us deeply uncomfortable, and yet they are the central theme of Dawson's Professional Theatre Program's most recent play.
"The Fever" by Wallace Shawn highlights these exact disturbing and discomforting topics, intentionally making the audience feel guilty and question their own moral standing. It is the story of a wealthy city dweller becoming aware of the suffering of others, as they lie sick on the floor of a hotel room in a distant country. The country they have travelled to is at war, and they contemplate the torture and terror experienced by its citizens for the sake of a revolution; however, their stream of consciousness periodically jumps back to accounts of parties and celebratory dinners in their home life, abandoning the misery of the present. One particularly jarring transition happens as they begin to describe the luxury of hotel room service but are brought back to reality by the thought of a little peasant girl being whipped.
The speaker's attitude towards the poor is sympathetic, but ultimately useless, as they fail to abandon any part of their exploitative lifestyle or come to any conclusion about their own immorality. Their shallow musings are ignorant and painful to watch. Whenever they come close to the truth – with powerful statements such as "there is nothing that justifies my corrupt life" – they backtrack and remind themselves that they are still a decent person, that they have worked hard for their money, that they're doing as much as they can to help the poor. The audience is meant to regard this character with contempt, to reject their pathetic justifications, but also to gradually realize that we and the character are one and the same. None of us can live our lives in peace without occasionally employing similar rhetoric to justify our own choices. We are thus unable to distance ourselves from the unlikeable person onstage, despite denouncing their beliefs at every point in the play.
The second-year Professional Theatre students expertly captured these complicated emotions in a performance very different from the original. While the play is written as a monologue, their production features twelve different actors, who each embody the same main character in different parts of the speech. As one spoke, the eleven others would move and pose in formation behind them, reproducing and reacting to the speaker's words, almost like a silent Greek chorus. The transitions between horror and luxury were sometimes marked by a change in actor, but not always, which further emphasized the inconsistency of the two positions. The character's thoughts are not just those of one corrupt and ignorant person: they are spread across the minds and experiences of many. They live in all of us, a sentiment that is reinforced at every turn by a lively, often comedic, occasionally shocking performance.