WHAT IS VIRTUAL REALITY? Virtual Reality (VR) is central to Jennifer Haley’s The Nether. VR is computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment. It can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment. It is most frequently accessed by using items such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors. The term was term coined in the 1980s by Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field. Research into this area of technology has been explored since the 1800s and is now becoming accessible and affordable to the masses.
Here is a brief summary of how far we have come with this technology:
TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of pedophilia.
When I was seven years old, my family got our first computer. It was positioned right next to my turtle, Matilda, who smelled like shit. My Dad told me she ran away while he was supposed to be watching her in the front yard, but he really took her to a nearby park and left her there. I believed this story until I was 16. ANYWAY. My parents knew NOTHING about computers and they still don’t; there was a complete lack of internet etiquette and appropriateness in my home growing up. So much so that we had to have a sit down with my Dad a few years ago when he gave a STRANGER from Words with Friends our home address, so they could send us a Christmas card… you never think you need to give the internet safety talk to your parents – that could be a whole other blog post.
I digress. A year after said computer entered our lives, at eight years old I got The Sims, a life simulation game where you make avatars and control all aspects of their daily life. Early on I learned the cheat code “rosebud” and was BALLIN’. I built mansions with incredible detail, bought my Sims frivolous cars and clothing, and I also killed them. I would fill a room with wooden tables, light fireworks, take the door away, and watch them burn alive. I would build a pool, put the Sims in the pool, take away the ladder used to enter and exit the pool, and then watch them drown. Yeah dude, it was dark.
Not long ago I was talking with my sister (who is much more rule-abiding than I am) who played this same game. I was joyfully reminiscing about how I would murder these virtual characters I had made, assuming everyone had done the same. She looked at me like I was fucking crazy and told me she never did those things. So why did I do this, and she didn’t? I think it is because even at age eight, I could feel the rush of virtual actions without repercussions.
When looking at The Nether, Jennifer Haley has crafted a world where there is possibility to live outside of consequence; an examination of morality in a virtual reality. It’s an idea that is so cutting edge, I struggled to find concrete facts about it in my research. People have speculated about what could happen when VR becomes affordable and accessible to the masses, but nothing has been proven – we will undoubtedly see this all unfold during our lifetime.
I think it will come as no surprise to most of us when we see all this new technology that’s made at rapid speeds around us be used for immoral things – content for sexual proclivities that have been deemed illegal, internet hacking and thievery, and purchasing of illegal substances are only a few examples. The list is quite long.
With this in mind, how do we have this conversation about morality in a space that is not concrete or “real” by some standards? Bobbin Ramsey, our fearless director, has made it very clear that by using pedophilia, something that is condemnable, heinous, and unacceptable by all standards, in the play as the impetus for the Hideaway (the virtual, interactive world the characters go to), it doesn’t ask whether or not pedophilia is wrong. It becomes about exploring morality in the age of the internet, how to be intimate in a virtual world, and how to govern said world.
When I first started researching this play I was dead set on never feeling an ounce of empathy for pedophiles. But now, on the other side of my research, I know that the term pedophile is not synonymous with criminal.
Studies show that one to five percent of all men experience attraction to children, but a much smaller percentage of this group will act on their impulses. There are many people who know that their interests in children are wrong, and it sickens them. But where can they get help when most therapists won’t see them? Why would they reach out to a therapist about these urges when the therapist is legally obligated to report them to Child Protective Services?
In the play, the character of Sims constructs the Hideaway as a place to act out his sexual perversions toward children knowing that no innocent child offline will be hurt. But is the Hideaway helping people with these same impulses or legitimizing their behavior offline even though every user in the Hideaway, guest and child, is a consenting adult?
The show Westworld on HBO offers a similar look at living outside of consequence just as this play does but in a Wild West fantasy where you can fuck, murder, and torture anyone you want with zero repercussions. When you arrive at the park, you have to make a decision of which cowboy hat you would like to accompany your Western outfit. The white hat? Or the black hat? To be good? Or bad?
So, who will you decide to be? Good? Bad? Kill your Sims? Not kill your Sims? Because offline at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live with yourself, your actions, and the consequences that accompany them all.
To quote Shakespeare via Westworld: “These violent delights have violent ends.”
WET’s Literary Manager Maggie Rogers sat down with Sara Porkalob, director of Straight White Men, to discuss her approach to the play and how audiences can avoid getting caught in the trap of “feeling bad” for any of the characters.
Maggie Rogers: Could you tell me about your point of view on what Straight White Men is about? I know people say “this is a political play BUT it’s a heart warming family drama.”
Sara Porkalob: Whenever we set out to derive meaning from a piece of art, context and vantage points are key. For example, when it comes to stories: who is telling it and who is listening to it directly influence the extraction of meaning and because every individual has a different context and vantage point, it’s automatically false to assume that a piece of art, or a play, means one thing.
So, when people talk about this play as a political thing the “BUT” is already a falsehood. The “BUT” prioritizes the family drama over the politics. Something can be political and a realistic family drama at the same damn time. You don’t wanna be hit over the head by plays talking about race? I don’t want unarmed black men to be shot in the streets by policemen anymore. I don’t want privileged little white boys who rape unconscious women getting mere months of probation because jail time might affect their future. Something can be the definition of how white supremacy infiltrates institutions and families and still look like the friendly, warm people we interact with every day.
MR: Right. Like white supremacy isn’t just a KKK rally in Alabama.
SP: Totally. And when we do that, when we say “white supremacy is a KKK rally in Alabama” we are distancing ourselves from racism, as if racism only looks like one way and if we don’t look that way, we’re not racist. When we do that, we relieve ourselves of any type of really rigorous investigation of our ideology and how our actions immediately affect the people around us. We are not separate from that. Our country was founded by, created by, and still is run as a white supremacist nation.
MR: I am sure people ask you this often, but how can white people be better? What steps can we take?
SP: Don’t leave this play feeling sorry for Matt. If you feel at all sorry for Matt, at all sorry for any man in the play, at all compelled to prioritize the family drama over the performative construction of whiteness created by a woman of color deliberately controlled by people of color – you are missing the fucking point. And you are not doing better.
MR: The play is divisive in being presented as a “white male centered crisis play.” Do you think the audience will be caught in this trap?
SP: If you watch the play, Matt is not having an existential crisis. He is content. He has actually found a way to be in the world that feels useful. And that is all that he wants and no one believes him. Even the people closest to him do not believe him – his brothers. His father. They are all convinced that something is wrong with him because we have been conditioned to believe that a white able-bodied man is the leader of the world. So any man who looks less than that or looks like he is not even trying to be the leader of the world looks like a fucking loser because of our white supremacist patriarchal society.
He is not having a crisis. Everyone else thinks he is having a crisis. And if the audience thinks he is having a crisis well then they need to check themselves. And they need to ask themselves why they are thinking that. That is what I had to do. I really had to do that when I first read this play because I had that reaction. I was like “Oh, I feel sorry for this guy. But wait, why?” and it took months to figure it out and I did. So I took the fucking time. I’m not white. But I took the time to figure out why I felt sorry for this white guy. I am sure that this brown woman didn’t write this play called Straight White Men for us to feel sorry for the white guy. I am pretty sure that it was the goddamn opposite.
So [laughs] like the playwright I am going to, instead of accept the first thing that comes to my mind, my emotional response to it because I have to realize this isn’t real life, it’s a piece of art meant to be questioned, interpreted, extrapolated; I had to take the time to do exactly that.
Speaking as an American artist, so much of the American theatre canon are, at their heart, family dramas, cathartic and emotional and mostly about masculine crisis. And secrets! Every white guy in a classic American play has a secret and its like “Oh you cheated on your wife because you are a traveling salesman and your son found out oh my god and his whole image of you is like distorted because you got your dick wet.” Or like, “Oh man, maybe if you hadn’t have slept with that pubescent girl, she wouldn’t be accusing your wife of witchcraft but like, whatever, this play is now uber political because you’re the voice of reason now.” Ok, whatever.
MR: And what is it that people scream in Miller plays? “Give me my name!”
SP: Give me my – who fucking cares about your name?! You ruined your own damn name. That is why you are mad; your name means shit and you were taught to believe your name was law. That your name was god. That YOU were god. You’re trash. TRASH.
Photo Credit: Joshua Taylor