Playwright Erin Shields is a very funny lady. I’ve known this for a while, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised to discover that her play Soliciting Temptation, which just opened at Tarragon Theatre in a production by Andrea Donaldson, is a very funny play. Deceptively so, since for its first half it’s not at all funny, is instead an earnest two-hander that consists of arguments volleyed between a would-be sex tourist in a South Asian country and his would-be prey, a young girl. The arguments and the language that frames them are boilerplate, textbook. He’s a smiling tornado of bourgeois self-justification, “contributing to the local economy.” She’s a Fury, decries him as a pervert, chastises him about the extreme vulnerability of child prostitutes in her country. Except it’s not her country. She’s a young activist from the West.
The play becomes a satire, it seemed to me, as the young activist reveals her motives. Not only does she want to combat the injustices of this unnamed country in the so-called developing world, but she also feels an erotic attraction to the corruption of the place. She believes it can offer her “experience” to colour what she feels to be the innocence of her privileged life. Her desire to help is sincere, but her idealism is a tangle of half-fledged ideas and jargon. She’s all opposition, and while she opposes horrors that are worth opposing, her identity doesn’t have much positive content. She knows only what she lacks and what she’s against. And that she’s angry.
Maybe I’m twisted, but even if the production stays too rooted in understated realism to explode the play’s comic potential, I found it pretty damn funny. Here’s the figure of the young Western liberal do-gooder who wants to save the favela and also “find herself” in it, hopes to free Africa from the IMF and also thinks it’d be quite nice to take Africa to bed. The play is layered with absurdity. The activist forms a sentimental bond with her would-be john over the privilege they have in common. She starts to see him as a father figure. He teases her about her sexual inexperience. She propositions him. It’s all completely over the top, almost burlesque, despite the grave subject matter. And this is great, because it implicates the audience by tempting them to laugh.
To laugh here is to complicate one’s clear, self-congratulatory, morally superior, “Isn’t it terrible how those terrible things happen far away” position. To laugh is to acknowledge the sentimentality that mars most Western liberal lamentations over distant atrocities, to admit that our stern brows and sober pieties don’t actually improve the lot of child prostitutes in Mumbai. To laugh is perhaps a bit cynical. But to laugh is also intellectually honest, which grants a tithe of dignity to those distant sufferers, since it allows that their lives have a complexity beyond our earnest attempts to reduce them to a problem solvable by the West. A laughter that admits the absurdity of Western savior-style presumption is also probably a necessary basis for any real action that might save.
This entry first appeared on Facebook on April 11, 2014.