"The Shape of Things' at Plays and Players

6 minute read
1015 La Bute
What price art? Or:
Who will say 'no' to beauty?


Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, as might be expected in a play whose main characters are named Adam and Evelyn, is a play about a Fall. But it may be a fall turned inside out, for the play shows that the most splendid among us can perhaps fall without personal consequence. The incapacity of Evelyn, the beautiful artist, to comprehend that morality too can be beauty–– and that denying moral beauty in the name of artistic beauty makes her ugly–– would seem to constitute the play’s tragedy. Or, to the contrary, is LaBute saying that the real tragedy of ethics is that one can disregard them and remain unscathed?

The plot is simple. Evelyn, a bombshell M.F.A. candidate in Sculpture at a small Midwestern school (Jacqueline Holloway), makes Adam –– unattractive, unconfident, fully aware he is not in Evelyn’s league –– her boyfriend. In the penultimate scene, as she humiliates Adam publicly at her thesis defense, we learn that her seduction and makeover of him was an art project to earn her degree.

In the ultimate scene, Adam (Ken Sandburg) seeks to make Evelyn see she has done wrong –– to little effect, for Evelyn has a double defense: She has created art, and art must be created whatever the costs. Moreover, there were no costs; she has done Adam a good term by rendering him more desirable.

Kierkegaard had a name for it

Evelyn’s justification is inevitable for anyone familiar with LaBute’s confidence that whatever drives women and men toward the good will be countered by the at least equally powerful drive to violate it. In this play, LaBute focuses on the extent to which the violation of goodness is fueled by the quest for what Kierkegaard called “the aesthetic,” a violation perpetrated by both seducer and seduced.

Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, drew his famous distinction between what he called the “aesthetic stage” and the “ethical stage.” What he meant is that humans are driven by two fundamental longings: The aesthetic stage comprises the longing for splendor, for beauty, for heightened sensation, for pleasure, for exquisite experience. The ethical stage is the drive to pursue the moral good. The theologian Paul Tillich writes, correctly, I think, that these are not so much hierarchical stages (no human ever transcends the need for beauty by becoming ethical) as they are tendencies, often opposed to one another, within each of us. The desire for beauty or splendor at least equals, and often trumps, the desire for good. We discover this anew whenever we hurt anyone to procure or retain a pleasure.

The audacity of a splendid woman

From the opening scene, Evelyn’s chief weapon is an audacity solely derived from her full consciousness that she is the splendor that men seek. She, not Adam, is the real work of art, and she knows it. Stepping over a barrier in the Art Museum room where Adam works as a security guard, she intimidates him through the force of her beauty into allowing her to deface a male nude by spray painting a penis. From then on, unbeknownst to him, or us, Adam becomes her thesis project, a living sculpture that she will create, as she says at her thesis defense, out of a palate consisting exclusively of manipulation.

In Evelyn’s presence, the gawky Adam and his only two friends –– the dubiously engaged Jenny and Philip –– become diminished beings, two-dimensional cutouts in contrast to Evelyn’s three-dimensional existence. The key to the play (at least to me) is that at no point–– neither when Evelyn divulges her plot nor when Adam condemns her in the finale –– does LaBute allow her moral diminishment to diminish the force of her splendor.

If the dean is an adult male…

The Fall in this play resides not in her violation of the ethical, but in the impotence of moral beauty to thwart the power of splendor that has enabled Evelyn her whole life to get away with the harm she perpetrates. She is as formidable a power as she exits the stage for the last time as she was at the first, flouncing off to see the dean— to whom, if she wants her degree, she “has some explaining to do.” One gathers that if the dean is an adult male, she’ll graduate with honors.

So here is the contradiction. On the one hand Evelyn, with her superior power of being, is the most diminished of the four characters. At the same time, she is undiminished, and will live undiminished, up to more mischief, until nature— not ethics— strips her power away.

At her thesis defense, Evelyn explains that she determined to work on the “base material” of Adam’s flesh, but that her artistic innovation was to work as well on a second base material –– his will. I was caught off guard when she said will, expecting her to say heart, or soul, or perhaps mind. Later it occurred to me that heart or soul are precisely what she would not and could not say: The will of men bends before physical beauty; but the heart and soul, fragile as they may be, are the sole elements that strengthen the will to say no to beauty when no must be said.

But can she create art?

Adam’s fall is that his pronounced tendency toward moral loveliness is incapacitated by the longing for the splendor that is absent in his life until Evelyn appears; he cannot say no to her, even when she gives him an ultimatum that to keep her he must, without explanation, sever all ties with his friends. Her certainty in the inability of the world to say no to her is the source of Evelyn’s will. It is the source of her vitality as well as her sickness.

LaBute declines to explore whether Evelyn is capable of producing art. Her real art is her ability to glide through the world without spoiling either her physical beauty or her amoral spiritual exquisiteness, despite her cruelty.

Adam bombards Evelyn with arguments: “Picasso knew the difference between when he took a shit and when he made art.” “Anyone can be provocative; art is more than just pushing the envelope.” Evelyn flinches a little, but she breezes past it all.

The sole chink in her armor is that, when pressed, she justifies her project on moral grounds: She has made Adam better (albeit aesthetically, not morally). In that one sense she may suspect that she is fallen as she soars. As La Rochefoucauld put it: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

To read responses, click here.
To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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