Moral Boundaries

A guest blog post from OUR CLASS dramaturg (and DC-based playwright/Locally Grown alumnus) Stephen Spotswood.

The first time I read OUR CLASS, I had to put it down. A lot. There were moments when I just couldn’t keep reading. I had to take a breath, take a walk, take a few steps back from the world of this play.

And then I stepped back in. I couldn’t not go back.

This wasn’t out of obligation. I hadn’t signed up to dramaturg it yet. I could have told [Theater J’s Director of Literary and Public Programs] Shirley, it wasn’t for me. And I’d find out how the play ended when I saw the production in three months time.

I went back because I needed to see. I needed to see how these ten people—ten incredibly ordinary people—would complete the circle they start in a classroom at the beginning of the play.

The cast of OUR CLASS in rehearsal.

And when I found out how that circle completes itself, I went back and read it again. And I sent an e-mail saying I’d love to be the dramaturg.

Prior to working on this project, I had no particular interest (and an embarrassing dearth of knowledge) regarding Poland, circa-WW II or otherwise. I had never heard of Jedwabne or come into contact with the story of that atrocity and the controversies that followed. Over the course of a few months, I rectified this as best as possible. One of the very selfish reasons I take the occasional break from playwriting to dramaturg is so I can learn about things I never would have otherwise (the philosophy of Baruch de Spinoza or the lives of Orthodox Jews, for example).

But the research aspects of OUR CLASS that have been the most rich for me personally haven’t been the historical dimensions, but the philosophical and ethical ones.

This is a story that takes the tried and true roles of victim, perpetrator, bystander and hero and throws them out the window. Those roles allow us to hear about awful events, but be comfortable in knowing who is who and how we should feel about them. Not this play. It doesn’t make things so easy.

It brings up burning questions about the nature of humanity. Mostly it makes us ask what is the nature of humanity. Is there such a thing? We say that when someone commits an atrocity that it is “inhuman.” But in this play, again and again, these awful things people do to each other are the result of a series of small, sometimes innocuous decisions that add up over time.

One of the books that I found invaluable in providing some philosophical context for the play is Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.

In it he notes, “People slide by degrees into doing things they would not do if given a clear choice at the beginning. Each of the early steps may seem too small to count, but later anxiety about the moral boundary may only suggest the uncomfortable thought that it has already been passed.”

There are no monsters in this play. Just ten friends who probably look a lot like your friends. Which makes the events in the play both easier and harder to understand.

Which is why I kept putting down the script that first time I read it.

This is not an easy play. It asks a lot of everyone involved, audience included. But I’m not telling you that to frighten you away from it. On the contrary, things that ask a lot frequently give a lot in return. I believe this play does that.