Neil LaBute: Right Back @ You

US playwright and film director Neil LaBute wonders #whendidwebecomesofuckingneedyandruthlessandawful?

Illustration by Jason Ford
Illustration by Jason Ford

That’s a rhetorical question, mind you, since I’m sitting at my computer writing this and there’s no one at my table who can respond to the query, even if I wanted them to. If there was someone close by me, however, I’d certainly want them to just shout their answer out to me – like we used to do it in the old days – rather than text it or tweet it or trend it or like it on my Facebook page (which, to be fair, would be doubly difficult to do as I do not and never will have a Facebook page).

It seems that we have come to a crossroads of sorts in the life of human expression: back in what I will fondly call “the day” people used to speak when spoken to, write things down in their diaries, and communicate openly with one another. If you wanted to say a nice or mean thing to a person, you did it to their face (can you even imagine it?), or if it was behind their back it was at least to someone who knew them so you knew that it would, in time, get back to them.

Today we utilise a cloak of the latest technology to mask ourselves in screen names and anonymity as we blurt out everything that comes to mind, anything that we feel might be remotely clever or funny, and whatever the hell we want to simply because we can. We have become a society of internet sociopaths that is blazing a trail of snark and hate across the web and throughout humanity with little or no regard for our fellow man (or woman, whom I want to be sure to mention, lest someone decides to cut and paste my name next to the word “misogynist” yet again).

Mind you, I’ve blazed plenty of trails of snark and hate, in fact it’s become part of the bread and butter of my career (including 10 or so films and twice that many plays and short stories) – but most of those comments were hurled at fictional people and not in the direction of anyone who was actually living and breathing. When did the world become so critical, so filled with rage and ready to attack the best and the worst and all that lies in between? Obviously people like to see their name in print – that’s always been the case – but never has it felt so much like open season as it does today.

Now it is done with relish and passion and folks can’t seem to help themselves from tweeting the most inane crap that has yet to be recorded in the annals of history. Social websites of all types are popping up with frightening frequency, and encouraging the public at large to say virtually (as in “almost”) anything they want to about their content, from hilarious right down to the meanest shit on Earth that has ever been said about any living person, period. Why? Because there is no one who can stop it (yet), because someone (usually) has found a way to make some money out of the situation, and, in today’s free market economy, commerce trumps all other forms of sense, logic, taste and/or morality. In terms of actual vitriol and contempt, I am now merely an amateur compared to anyone with an iPhone and a desire to spread nastiness about their fellow man (or woman). I may be a Luddite, but I’d trade a few lightning-quick updates on Syria for a few less handheld clips of Madonna in concert or tweeted death threats by public school bullies. I’m funny that way.

In some form or another, I’ve been getting reviews on work that I’ve written and/or directed for the past 20 years, and while I don’t always agree with the critics (and have written them a variety of responses stating that fact), I have respected their position as critics and duly read their work in response to my own. The fact that their job is a reactive one and not an artistic one is simply a fact, and if they are often vengeful, mean-spirited and jealous I usually put it down to bad manners and the way they were raised. I have even read of a critic openly wishing that my own mother had cut me out of her belly before birth (I’m assuming in an attempt to keep me from writing the show that he happened to be reviewing, but perhaps just for the act of violence itself), so I know the world of which I speak.

That said, I think I would rather read a few more of those reviews – with bylines and photos of the mean little bastards who write them attached – then yet another anonymous tweet or blog that simperingly tries to make fun of another person without having the decency or the balls (except for you ladies, of course) to say: “Hey, I feel this way and I wrote that.” Once we all start taking a bit more responsibility for our withering remarks and for at least acknowledging that we are wasting other people’s lives with our tweets and fucking hashtag comments, then maybe (just maybe) we can all get back to the act of living and working and experiencing one another in real time and with some sense of actual interaction. The world wide web was supposed to bring us together – I believe it has created an army of lonely people sitting in their underwear in the darkness of their own homes (rented not owned) lashing out at the world around them. Hey, that’s only my opinion (but at least I am wearing pants as I write this).

I used to love reading theatrical stories of Joe Papp kicking reviewers out of one of his shows at the Public Theater in Manhattan or of the wonderful director David Leveaux cold-cocking a critic over something that he printed in his bitchy column in a New York news rag. I threw a photographer out of a production of Fat Pig in London when I discovered he was there trying to get the first bikini photo of Kelly Brook. We almost came to blows in the street but I’m secretly happy he stood his ground and copped to the fact that he did his shitty job because “they pay me a lot of money”. He didn’t lie about the fact he was a worm – he shouldered the burden and slithered away.

I’m not an advocate for a return to dueling in the tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries (unless everyone else thinks it’s a good idea and then I’m game), but I appreciate it when someone stands their ground, fights their battles and attributes their own name to their viral bile. Believe me, critics hate it when artists (or even readers) bite back, but why shouldn’t they? Why is their review or post or article the end of the conversation? People can say whatever they want – apparently that free speech thing applies even when what is said is stupid and uneducated and of no use to anyone. Men (and women) have died for this right so I stand solidly behind it and all I ask is that these folks (the bloggers and tweeters and comment-makers of this world) show their faces and state their names, instead of cowering behind anime icons and bogus email addresses.

What happened to us that created such a race of pussies and posers? I have no idea, but I’m going to strip down to my undies, go online and figure this out immediately.

This story was taken from issue 8 of PORT. To subscribe or buy a back issue, click here