Clybourne Park: taking racism at face value

A new hit play about US racial sensitivities would have been better as a tragedy rather than a comedy of manners.

Patrick Marmion

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‘A scabrous comedy of manners’ really ought to be a contradiction in terms. Yet that is precisely what Bruce Norris has created with his hit comedy Clybourne Park, which has marched from the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square into London’s West End. But how can it be that the lion of lacerating satire can lie down with the lamb of refined comedy and that caustic social commentary can be buffed up to a gorgeous gloss? Surely some sort of coup de théâtre is at work? Or could it be that there is an insidious sleight of hand in Norris’s story?

Norris’s play is set in a house in Chicago, which is sold first by a white family to a black family in 1959 and then again by a black family to a white family 50 years later. Norris’s inspiration comes from a character in the play A Raisin in the Sun, by the black American playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In that drama, also set in 1959, there is a white character who tries to buy back a house purchased by a black family in a white suburb. He now reappears in Norris’s story.

Hansberry’s drama, however, was a serious statement about black pride and tenacity in the face of institutional prejudice. Norris’s play, by contrast, is a teasing take on honky-tonk hang-ups and embarrassing faux pas. In the first half, this means that the shiny good manners of God-fearing Middle America are strained to breaking point. And in the second half, a middle-class modern white couple desperately tries to avoid offending their black neighbours.

Throughout, the play is a kind of bonfire of sensitivities. One joke about a black man sodomising a white man in prison manages to offend everyone on stage – being interpreted as racist, sexist and homophobic. But to keep their meeting civil, the middle-class black couple assure their white counterparts that ‘we’re not questioning your ethics, we’re questioning your taste’.

Much has been made of the risqué jokes in Clybourne Park, including one about why white women are like tampons (they’re both stuck up cunts). But this only distracts from the conflation of taste and ethics that lies at the heart of the piece – and at the centre of the contemporary cold war that is political correctness.

Today, of course, ‘ethics’ has come to mean anything from choosing low-energy light bulbs over incandescent ones to buying organic fruit and veg instead of genetically modified ones. But here, it is the old-fashioned notion of ethics as the regulations of civil society that are associated with matters of taste. One character quips, ‘you can’t live in a principle’. And yet, although this is an amusingly wry remark, it is surely not true. In fact, principles are our most important assets, shielding us from the pitiless logic of property and the vagaries of the free market.

But there is an even more sinister suggestion here of which Norris’s play seems only dimly aware. That is that good manners and political correctness enshrine and repress racism and other forms of endemic inequality. Beneath public revulsion at racial discrimination, good manners and political correctness maintain race as a category of truth, rather than a category of appearance. They objectify and police cultural difference rather than defuse or challenge it.

The best tool for a complete understanding of Norris’s play therefore comes from an unsurprising source – Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Marx referred to all forms of property in his theory, but for most people today a house represents their deepest involvement in the market. And not only is property highly fetishised in the colloquial sense, it also takes on the much grander role of revered mystical communion administered by a priesthood of lawyers, estate agents, financial advisers and bankers.

Norris’s play vaguely touches on some of this; one white character acknowledges that the history of America is the history of private property. But one of the black characters is quick to maintain this as a private agony by pointing out that white folks’ grandparents weren’t sold as private property.

That’s why the economic abyss around which the characters tiptoe with the euphemisms of politeness and political correctness never really opens up. Clybourne Park remains instead an exquisitely crafted artefact, and despite the quickfire dialogue blazingly conducted by director Dominic Cooke, it remains a deeply conservative performance. It’s a highly conventional, well-made drama under a proscenium arch with a neatly crafted naturalistic interior. It says nothing new, rather asserting the widely accepted wisdom of the gulf between appearance and reality.

Indeed, the play has a love of veneer – from the faultless production to the freshly laundered costumes. The American accents of the British cast are flawless and the overall standards are nowhere better epitomised than by Sophie Thompson as a batty wife in 1950s Chicago. She has a comic habit of closing her eyes when she speaks – as though trying to shut out all the unpleasantness – and for her character there is plenty of unpleasantness to shut out, thanks to a traumatic family history.

Clybourne Park is more of a celebration than a denunciation of coping strategies. Norris is insufficiently critical of the commodity fetishism which structures our market-worshipping way of life. If it were ever Norris’s intention to be properly scabrous, he might have pushed beyond appearances to expose something properly nasty – the homelessness and dispossession that underpin the property market worldwide. If it had been seriously scabrous, his play would have been a tragedy. Instead it is a comedy of manners merely endorsing what it censures.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Clybourne Park is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre in London until 7 May 2011.

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