The Break of Noon by Neil LaBute. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010. World premiere (directed by Jo Bonney): Manhattan Class Company (MCC), New York, 28 October 2010. Text available from amazon.com here.
You’re still a guy. And guys always wanna hide shit. Right? … And not any amount of God’s light in this world is gonna change that fact. (79)
The origin of the United States as a cultural and national entity has a unique basis in faith and religion; John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon A Model of Christian Charity described the new American settlement at the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “Shining City upon a hill,” that the settlers had been chosen by God as an example to the rest of the world, quoting Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon investigates the mystery of grace, its arbitrary nature and its ability (or inability) to change the behavior of those who believe they have been the recipients of spiritual redemption. LaBute draws the plot of the play from the headlines: from the American school and office massacres that have occurred with considerable regularity over the past decade since 9/11, the 2011 Tucson shooting being only the most recent example. While LaBute’s lead character, the everyman John (or Jonathan) Smith, may or may not have had grace bestowed on him in the moments following a mass office shooting, LaBute’s play about private individuals also resonates with cultural and political significance, like those of Howard Brenton to whom the play is dedicated (along with Blaise Pascal). Far from treating Smith as a mere lucky victim, LaBute also acknowledges Smith’s own culpability and guilt for the violence which left him relatively unscathed, as well as the egocentrism and narcissism that accompanies his conversion experience. These also inform LaBute’s early play The Mercy Seat, written in the days immediately after 9/11, and cast light upon the American stage’s continuing examination and absorption of the experience of urban Americans in the years following the World Trade Center disaster.
The play itself takes the form of a spiritual journey — a “stations of the cross” for the sole survivor of an office shooting (which notably takes place in the month of September, though no direct mention is made of 9/11), who believes not only that he was saved by God, but that he was “chosen” to deliver a message to the world, “like Saul on the road to Damascus” (37), revealing this message to a skeptical talkshow host:
JOHN: He told me … God said to me that I should try to … that I needed to be good. / That we should try and be good. To each other.
HOST: … excuse me? / “Good”?
JOHN: Yes. You know, like … kind.
HOST: That’s it? That you should be … what?
JOHN: No, that we all did. We all need to be …
HOST: We should be, what, good people? …
JOHN: Yes. / Or better. Better than we are. That is what he was telling me … (51)
John has also managed to take a cellphone picture of the killer — one of John’s underlings named Juan Diaz — in the moments before he turned the gun to his own head to kill himself; in the first of his stations, a visit to a lawyer, he is rather easily convinced to sell the photograph to the media for a considerable sum of money. This exploitation of his own position for financial gain (through the rest of the play Smith vaguely says that he has given “most” of the money to charity, though he doesn’t reveal how much he’s retained) is only the first of several instances that call into question the efficacy of this conversion. A picnic with his ex-wife, with whom he hopes to reconcile, ends in recrimination and insult; he is unable to contain his hostility to a blithely cynical talk-show host; he visits a dominatrix (in fact the daughter of one of the victims) in an attempt to see whether the conversion has had an effect on his sexuality; a meeting with a former mistress (the cousin of his ex-wife) ends in physical violence; a session at a police station reveals Smith’s continuing belief that he has been at least marginally responsible for some of the deaths of his fellow co-workers through his reluctance to help the victims and his overriding interest in taking the cellphone picture — for reasons he himself cannot explain.
At the same time as he experiences this newfound grace, he also seems to experience a particular brand of survivors’ guilt: a guilt which he may well deserve, for the final scene of the play, a direct address to the audience, reveals that Smith and his colleagues profoundly abused the gunman — “A friend of mine … a salesman who was shot that day — he did this, like, massive poop in his desk one time. Over lunch. I mean, he did it out in the bathroom but carried it in on a paper towel and laid it in the lower drawer [of Diaz' desk]” — in the days before Smith blithely handed him his termination letter: “I did it, I mean, put [the termination letter] in his hands — as the Operations Manager, that was my job. I gave him a little smile and a wink, even … I handed it to him and off I trotted, back over to my friends and laughing.” (98-99) Smith’s professional and personal abuse of this cultural outsider, this “other” who “barely spoke English” and with whom he can feel no empathy, has its clear result in this outburst of violence. When Diaz finally confronts him on the day of the shooting, Smith confesses, it’s mere bad luck (on Diaz’s part) that keeps Smith alive:
He put this huge … gun … its barrel … into my mouth and he pulled the trigger. And nothing. And again. Nothing. Click. Click. Click. Without looking away he discharged the clip and slammed in another. … I had to put it back into my throat and then he did it again. Pulled the trigger … click. Oh Christ, I was … I dunno, this couldn’t be happening! … He looks at me and do you know what he did? He turned the gun on himself. He shrugged like, you know, like I’d asked him a science question that he couldn’t figure out — he shrugged and put the gun in his own mouth. Pulled the trigger once and it roared. BAM! This spray of blood went, oh-my-God, it was … everywhere … and he dropped to the ground. At my feet. (99-100)
In the days after 9/11, I can anecdotally report that many New Yorkers seemed to experience a kind of survivors’ guilt as well, the “there but for the grace of God” haunted self-justification for the continuation of everyday life that inevitably occurred, in the wake of the disaster; perhaps this extended to many other Americans. When commingled with pride in their own community, this sense of good luck can rapidly expand to a form of determinism: an internal manifest destiny. If LaBute’s play examines the disconnect between ambition and ability on the individual level, this disconnect might be extended to a national and communal context as well.
As the name of the protagonist and the structure of the play imply, The Break of Noon is, finally, an allegory wrapped within the genre of English-language dramatic realism, and as such what occurs on the stage can be trusted about as much as John Smith. At the end of the play, as he speaks to the audience, Smith levitates — “And for a moment it’s true — John Smith rises slowly off the ground,” the stage directions have it (102). But if Smith is a self-deceiver, the spectator must ask whether or not this is operating as a realistic gesture or a (mere?) metaphor for grace. In a sense, it’s unimportant whether or not Smith the character truly levitates, whether he is truly blessed or chosen; what is significant here is that he thinks he is. As his behavior through the play has indicated, Smith is no match for Jesus Christ. But the egocentrism and selfishness which American culture inculcates into its citizens permits them to believe that they have a special, chosen role to play in global culture, a new post-capitalist, post-9/11 manifest destiny: the victim, in the days following the World Trade Center or the supermarket or office shooting, is turned into a hero. Whether or not the imperfect, even cruel and guilty, individual is a reliable vehicle for this idealized heroism is a question that LaBute refuses to answer.
In terms of dramatic language and like many of his contemporaries, LaBute’s dialogue builds upon the work of his predecessors Harold Pinter and David Mamet. British playwright Terry Johnson once noted of these two playwrights that, “Good dialogue has a rhythm. If Pinter works at a strict four beats to the bar … Mamet instinctively pushed it to a more contemporary sixteen beats.”  Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, LaBute extends it into a more fragmented linguistic structure: instead of the four-four time of Pinter and even Mamet, LaBute’s dialogue is continually overlapping in linguistic polyrhythms (as the slashes in the above dialogue between Smith and the talk show host suggest) — a five-sixteenths time signature, to extend the musical comparison somewhat, not unlike that of LaBute’s near-exact British contemporary Martin Crimp.
Crimp, like the other British dramatists that Neil LaBute admires (he discussed them in this 2008 article for the Guardian, to which I responded shortly thereafter, participating in a good-natured tussle with LaBute), is more formally experimental. But like Christopher Shinn, LaBute is mining the possibilities that remain in the genre of American realism. In so doing — and by confronting head-on the so-called “big issues” of religion, culture, politics and sexuality — LaBute demonstrates that theatre and drama are more than equal to the challenges that American life in a world of fear can offer. Of course, American dramatists have been meeting these challenges with wildly varying degrees of success, and the issues that LaBute raised in his Guardian article may be even more resonant now, a few years later.
Although LaBute, with The Mercy Seat, was among the first American dramatists to respond to the changed status of American culture in the aftermath of 9/11, he was not the first. That distinction most likely goes to Anne Nelson and her play The Guys — a play about memorialization and heroism written immediately after the event, and which I will discuss in the next entry in this series, before looking more generally at LaBute’s career in the last decade. Appropriately, too, Nelson’s title suggests a realignment of ideas about American masculinity, ideas which LaBute would also contemplate with several plays written from 2001-2011.
Below is a brief interview with Neil LaBute speaking about the play in regard to the current Los Angeles Geffen Playhouse production, running through 6 March: