Questioning the reality of imagination: Some thoughts on The Nether

The Victorian fantasy world of The Nether, in the MCC Theater production. (Uncredited photo from MCC website)

The Victorian fantasy world of The Nether, in the MCC Theater production. (Photograph by Joan Marcus)

In the guise of debating a technology of the future, Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether appears to be addressing an age-old concern of morality and, at the same time, a modern issue of social control. (I say “appears to be” because I’m judging from reviews and other material, without having seen it myself.) The play premiered in Los Angeles in 2013 and is now running in New York and in London. Haley described the origin of The Nether for a Q&A published last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

One of the things Paula [Vogel, with whom Haley studied] would say is “write what you hate.” I’d never really tried that before, but whenever I start a new play, I like to build in some kind of challenge for myself. I started The Nether in 2010, so I’d been out of school for five years, and I was mulling over the whole “write what you hate” idea, and I thought, “What do I hate?” I landed on television procedurals. Like cop procedurals, CSI-type shows. I really can’t stand them. I feel like they’re so pat. You know all the answers in advance; the bad guy is caught in 40 minutes. It’s very predictable. I thought, “What if I did my own procedural onstage?” I’ve been interested in technology and video games for a long time, virtual reality, so I wondered, “What if a guy is being interrogated for something he did online? And what if it’s in the future, so online reality is a much more sensual and lifelike experience?” Then I wondered, “What’s the worst thing you could do in that world?” That took me to this idea involving children and what people might do with child avatars online.

In other words, The Nether tackles virtual pedophilia. Some reviewers haven’t seen beyond that; Ben Brantley, writing in the Times, summarized it as having “lurid topical resonance.” Others have connected The Nether with the debate about online pornography or the ongoing contention over violent video games and films. The basic question in the play seems to be how we should evaluate imagined experience. If you’ve done a thing in your mind, is that the same as having done it in actuality? Does playing out a mental fantasy defuse desires or inflame them? Can it be wrong in itself? Does what happens in the mind stay in the mind, or is it apt to spill over into overt action in the world? For me, these questions are intriguing in part because they’re not purely contemporary. Some of us are old enough to remember a remark made by Governor Jimmy Carter in a 1976 Playboy interview:

Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, “I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery.” I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.

That’s one side of The Nether’s issue in a nutshell, as it was stated in Matthew 5:28 (the passage Carter was quoting), and, to judge from a quick glance at Biblical commentary, St. Matthew was only restating a prohibition given earlier, in Exodus 20:14. Apparently some pre-Christian writers had much the same view, but even the single page I glanced at shows that others did not; it quotes Roman historian Josephus declaring that “The purposing to do a thing, without actually doing it, is not worthy of punishment.” Among other problems, the Christian prohibition created a dilemma: if you’re to be blamed for thinking about a bad act, do you deserve credit for thinking about a good one? Moralists and theologians aren’t the only ones who have worried over imagined acts. Authoritarian and democratic governments always want to know, and for reasons of this world rather than the next, what their subjects are thinking. Haley’s play pretty clearly nods to this by employing a detective. Oddly, among the reviews I’ve seen of the multiple productions that Haley’s play has enjoyed, only the critic for the Financial Times thought this aspect worth mentioning: he read the detective’s pursuit as representing the “Orwellian notion of thoughtcrime.” There’s at least one more major dimension to what Haley is exploring in The Nether. The mind both is, and at the same time is not, a part of the world. If you couldn’t see things in your mind that don’t exist, you could neither plan a murder nor plan a meal. Haley said as much in the LARB interview, which was one of those affairs conducted over lunch:

We spend a lot of our time in daydreams or imagining the future. In some ways, it’s what makes us human, what separates us from animals—being able to imagine different scenarios and change our behavior based on that.… We wouldn’t be eating this food, we wouldn’t be in this building without that imagination. Someone thought of this burger I’m eating; someone came up with this recipe, and someone had an idea for how to make this plate.

That LARB interview is worth reading for anyone interested in The Nether or in Haley, who supports her playwriting habit with TV scriptwriting. More:

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