Prepare for Life in Post-Christian America: Play “After Virtue”–The Game!

Prepare for Life in Post-Christian America: Play “After Virtue”–The Game! November 18, 2015

or, my review of Winners and Losers:

Winners and Losers,” created by Marcus Youssef and James Long and playing at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through November 22, is a tense and springy 100 minutes of aggression hidden under friendship–and vice versa. Youssef and Long act out their own longstanding, competitive friendship, getting rawer and more accusatory as the night wears on. I’m going to use “Marcus” for the guy I saw onstage, “Youssef” for the off-stage creator, but the two men’s comments on the emotional difficulties of doing this piece suggest that the stage personae are intentionally blurred with real life. Their often-hilarious attacks touch on race, class, besetting sins, fears, and paternal legacies; they wrestle and play Ping-Pong and bounce off the audience’s suggestions, mixing improv and rehearsed material in a kind of intersectionality decathlon.

They start out with a game in which they judge various people, places, and things to be “winners” or “losers.” Ticks, Occupy Wall Street, penguins, marijuana: thumbs up or thumbs down? Whoever comes up with a judgment first states it and makes his case, and then the other guy has to argue against him. That meant that on the night I saw the show Marcus had to scramble to argue, in response to an audience suggestion, that the University of Missouri was somehow a “winner.” He spluttered and floundered for a moment before throwing out a perfectly-timed, “They’ve got a hell of a football team! Winner.”

more! And this review could’ve been twice the length, so here are a couple outtakes: I have total esprit d’escalier about Jamie’s “very convenient solidarity” line. I should’ve pointed out that that’s a very convenient critique!

This is a great theatrical event–here’s where the title of this post comes in–for demonstrating that we lack a coherent moral order. I don’t think that’s a postmodernity thing entirely. Any culture big enough to have cities will develop multiple codes of conduct, multiple yardsticks by which to measure oneself. We’re all polytheists when we want to be. If you fail at masculinity you can switch yardsticks and say you win on grounds of compassion; if you fail at morals you can be badass; if you’re losing on ethical grounds you can switch to aesthetics, if you’re losing a competition based on worldly success you can invoke identity politics. It’s the old lawyer’s maxim: “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law and the facts are against you, pound the table!”

What makes our current culture distinct (maybe) is that, as I say in the review, morality is always a trump card, so if you want to win you have to come up with some way for your position to be the most moral one. In this endeavor our moral chaos, our “after virtue” clash of irreconcilables, proves extremely handy.

Marcus is a master of… is it passive-aggression or conversational judo? He defends Jamie in ways that end up cutting him down. (Jamie may not know anything about current events, but he knows so much about “art”–which turns out to mean he knows how many wives Tom Cruise has had.) He says, “I accept your anger”–as a way of getting the upper hand. He admits fault or cops to privilege so that, if all else fails, he can win on grounds of honesty and humility. If he still doesn’t win, hey, at least he can say that he doesn’t have to win, and that makes him the bigger man.

But Marcus also comes up with a more or less coherent moral code: a solution to the post-Christian leftist problem in which the only justified winners are the victims. Marcus says, in one of his most sincere and passionate pleas, that he believes we should “at least recognize that we’re winning, and try to mitigate the effects of our winning.” When human nature is an ego-driven machine for making absolutely anything into some kind of success, to have as little success as possible may be the best we can do. (What happens if we succeed at that?)

(title from this glorious relic of the In These Times ads of my childhood; sorry for the Canadian erasure)

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