The playwright, Neil LaBute, deftly delves beneath the surface with his trilogy of ‘beauty plays,’ all showing in rotation last spring at the Wyly Theater in Dallas. For the characters in the three plays, surface beauty harms both in its absences and presence. All three plays deal with society’s preoccupation with physical beauty: judgments made, spoken and unspoken; the subtle methods of manipulation around beauty; and how physical attributes are both asset and liability. Each play features four characters, consisting of two men and two women in their mid-twenties to early thirties involved some sort of romantic entanglement. The men are confined to archetypes: the Alpha Male, a rude, selfish prick with no morals or scruples; the Beta Male, a self-deprecating nebbish who knows good from evil but is too emotionally underdeveloped to choose what is right. The women are more nuanced: a slender blonde beauty unsure of why she is loved, a stocky yet beautiful brunette secure with her body, a career woman striving to be perfect, a demure sweet woman who defers to men, a plain woman who takes offense at being called “regular” rather than the ‘hot new thing’ in the office The dynamic among the four is endlessly fascinating and stimulates much discussion.
Deeper than the issues around beauty, all three of the plays present us with one startling truth. It is very hard for any individual at every level of society-student, businessman, or dockworker-to withstand pressure to conform. And this is why the plays matter. After the actors take their bows, the audience has more questions than answers. Do I know myself and like myself the way I am? Do I have the guts to stand up to those who want to shape me, tell me what to believe, tell me how to be pretty, what weight to be, who to like, what to wear, and what to value? Do I accept the current societal standards of beauty, rather than mine? And is this all there is to beauty? Do personality, character, and values play any role in the perception of what is beautiful? What if I can’t change things that make me unattractive to someone about whom I care? What if I can change, should I?
When I was in grade school at Immaculate Conception in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, I really wanted to play the role of the Mary in the school’s annual Christmas play. Everyone rehearsed for all the roles specific to the gender required for them. The nun in charge of the music and theater program cast the roles. The standards for selection were mysterious to me, as it seemed that I ‘measured up’ on all counts: I could sing, dance, act, look piously upon the Baby Jesus, and wear the costume well. Yet, every year, I was passed over for the prize role. After a couple of years of disappointment, I mustered enough courage to ask “why not me?” Sister Angelle looked down at me with her best I-know-I-am-so right countenance and said, “you are a brunette and everyone knows that our Mary must be blond.” WHAT?!? Mary was a blond? Really now, Sister, you must be joking. My mind flipped insanely through my limited biblical knowledge: Mary and Joseph leave Nazareth on a donkey for their rocky ride to Bethlehem to be counted with other Jews; they were born in the Middle East; Joseph is an old brunette. What am I missing here? You don’t want me for this role because blonds look more like young virgin mothers?! I don’t know if I felt ugly before second grade. I don’t think I did. But, here and now, I was ashamed of eyes that burned like coals, dark curly ringlets, and olive skin.
By the time I was twenty-five, I launched a full blown frontal attack on my appearance: too short, thighs not boyish enough, square feet, flimsy nails, hair that frizzes in humidity, American Indian nose, prominent leg veins, short neck. When a friend of mine stated flatly, “we need longer toes for great toe cleavage in stilettos,” I became truly inconsolable. Then fashion magazines abruptly shifted the ‘ideal’ to women with crooked noses, dark frizzy hair, flat chests, and heroin-addict circles under their eyes. And then, I got it. This beauty thing is a moving target, completely arbitrary, contextual, and externally motivated by Madison Avenue sales gurus who are as lame a judge of perfect as Sister Angelle. I’m going with what I got. I need to find my beauty, not yours. And if you don’t get it, well, I’m just sorry for your loss. And if I shape myself to please someone else, I abandon the core of who I am.
As I write this story, I look down at my sixty-four year old hands on the computer keys. They are only the beginning of an oozy slide into the invisible stage of womanhood. With a $100,000, I could fix this saggy chin, the upper arm sway, thicker belly, gray hair, roadway map thighs, the ‘whatever else is not in style for ‘thirtysomethings’ beauty. But, I’d rather work on what’s inside and have something to say. I want to think rather than fret over imagined shortcomings.
If you never have the time to read or see Neil LaBute’s unblinking three-way mirror that he holds up to society’s beauty values and roles, just take my word for it. Love what you see in the mirror right this very moment. You’ve only got one life. You can waste it trying to be ‘the young blond virgin mother’ or you can embrace it and direct your attention to all that is real and lasting. It’s a beautiful world. You can own it on your own terms. And this is something you can change.