The impetus for Eleanor Burgess’s play “The Niceties” was a 2015 incident at Yale, Eleanor’s Alma mater, that involved a disagreement between faculty, administrators and students about whether Yale should be setting guidelines about which Halloween costumes are appropriate. Those in favor of guidance were trying to ward off controversies over students seen in black face, or stereotypical Native American costumes. Those opposed believed one of the purposes of college is for kids to learn to self regulate and make their own decisions.
Friends lost the ability to talk to each other as the controversy continued. While this is common today, it was unique in 2015. People felt the need to pick a side: the university doesn’t have the responsibility to coddle whining snowflakes vs. there should be consequences of making students of color feel uncomfortable.
After two months of obsessively reading op/eds about the incident in her pajamas, Eleanor realized this incident should become a play.
Eleanor said she naively thought the play would be out of date by the time it was produced. But in today’s era of Trump, and the killing of George Floyd, we are still having these conversations. The difference is, in the play, the professor and student have faith and admiration for each other and believe they can change each other’s minds if they just make the right arguments. Today, we would back out of those conversations much faster and realize it’s hopeless.
Eleanor hopes we can learn to talk together again – to thread the needle and realize that two things can both be true at the same time. In the play, the professor says, “no matter how much we disagree, we’re still stuck in a country together.” But today, we don’t even share the same reality or set of facts. Eleanor believes we can’t live this way forever. Restoring our capacity to have conversations with people we disagree with is not just a nicety, it is a fundamental necessity.
Our thanks to Eleanor Burgess for speaking this week and to club member Julie Swenson who interviewed her. We also thank Janet Piraino for preparing this review article. If you missed our meeting, you can watch it here: https://youtu.be/SkGEtyy_sCE.