Confronting an Ugly Truth

Beauty, Conformity, and Ethics in Marius von Mayenberg’s The Ugly One

Is there anything so ubiquitous and yet extraordinary as a human face? We see hundreds, perhaps thousands of faces each day, its ubiquity masking the depth of its various meanings. As a component of human anatomy, the face is a remarkable collection of nerves and muscles that serves as one of the most easily identifiable features of a human—a person, a word which, not incidentally, is derived from the Latin persona from the Greek prosopon, referring to masks worn by actors to differentiate characters in a play. Faces receive scrutiny to ascertain meaning and confirm emotion. We look to the faces of our parents and friends for affirmation and for signs of disappointment, to the faces of our lovers for comfort and stimulation, and to the faces of total strangers for social cues of embarrassment or amusement. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that the mere encounter of another face brought us into an immutable ethical encounter with the other, a demand to affirm or negate that other face’s very freedom. Tied into our own faces and the faces of others is the very question of our identity, of who we are and how we behave. And of course, there is the question of beauty. There is always the question of beauty.

The evolutionary psychologists have worked out that perceptions of beauty seem to be more than just skin deep; facial beauty seems to be correlated to the easy identification of desirable underlying characteristics, such as good bone structure, social perceptivity, and a variety of other qualities that indicate friendliness or one’s suitability as a mate. Beauty has its social perks, as well. Recall that episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon is dating a gorgeous character played by Jon Hamm: suddenly there is no more waiting for a reservation, better service in stores, and admiring looks from passers-by. It turns out that Hamm’s character is grossly incompetent and has coasted in life because of his good looks, proving that prophet Jack Donaghy right once again when he explains to her that some people live in a “handsome bubble” where no one tells you the truth about anything. Beautiful people, says social science research, tend to make more money and are more often promoted at work. A handsome face pays social and evolutionary dividends.

What if the question when we saw our own faces was not, “Who am I?” but rather, “Am I beautiful?”

But what happens when the question of beauty and the question of identity are fused into one? What if the question when we saw our own faces was not, “Who am I?” but rather, “Am I beautiful?” This fusion, it seems to me, is at the heart of German playwright Marius von Mayenberg’s The Ugly One, at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace and co-produced with Toronto-based company Theatre Smash.

an actor on stage
Hardee T. Lineham in The Ugly One. Photo by Bronwen Sharp.

First mounted in 2011 and now revived in the Extraspace, The Ugly One is the story of Lette (David Jansen), a nice and competent engineer who designed a “plug”—some industrial widget—but who is not permitted to go to the major conference to sell the plug to other firms because, his manager (Hardee T. Lineham) informs him, he is unspeakably ugly. Lette had been oblivious to this fact, and perhaps with good reason. He had steadily advanced at work, excelled in his profession, and had a loving wife (Naomi Wright) at home. Yet far from living in a “handsome bubble,” Lette seemed to be living in an ugly bubble where no one told him just how bad it was. When he confronts his wife about his ugliness, she informs him that he is a “beautiful person” but Lette notices for the first time that she is unable to actually look at his face; for the duration of their marriage she has only looked at his left eye.

 

Two actors on stage
Jesse Aaron Dwyre and Naomi Wright in The Ugly One.
Photo by Bronwen Sharp.

With the support of his wife, Lette goes to visit a surgeon (also played by Lineham) who promises to remake his face. The results are stunning: after the surgery, Lette is the most handsome and attractive man most people have ever seen. Things change for him rapidly. His wife’s libido increases dramatically. His boss lets him go to the conference, where he sells more plugs than the company has ever sold before, and women begin to throw themselves at him. When his wife, initially so thrilled at his conversion from beast to beauty, confronts him about the other women, he tells her matter-of-factly that it’s “a question of demand.” His personality—persona—is drastically different. No longer the competent but kind person he once was, Lette becomes a cocky and insufferable man trapped inside a “handsome bubble.”

But Lette’s world of beautiful privilege comes crashing down when the surgeon begins to sell his face to anyone who can pay.

Suddenly anyone, including Lette’s lowly assistant Karlmann (Jesse Aaron Dwyre), can buy his face. And they do. Why wouldn’t they? The consequences for Lette are dire. After all, if everyone has his face, it isn’t really his face anymore, is it? What happens when your face ceases to be a marker of your individual identity and instead becomes just another accessory, something that can be bought for status like a Gucci handbag? In the end, as he is taking an elevator to the top of the building to kill himself, Lette encounters one of his many doubles, and falls in love with that face, his face. But is he really only falling in love with himself?

Director Ashlie Corcoran helms a taut production of a very tight and compact script, translated by Schaubühne dramaturg Maja Zade. The use of a minimalist aesthetic—the set is comprised mainly of several tables in the middle—serves everything from the conference stage to the operating room where Lette has his surgery to the hotel room where he has his many liaisons. This coupled with the fact that Camellia Koo’s costume design has everyone in grey-hued business attire artfully reinforces the delicate balance between stylishness, sameness, and individuality highlighted in Mayenberg’s script. The evocative performances from Jansen, Wright, Lineham, and Dwyre make for a captivating hour.

And what are we to make of this show, in an era where style dominates in only the most superficial way over substance, and where the “mystery of the visible” has been reduced to commodification? There are some obvious conclusions to draw about the importance of individuality and identity; the play is certainly a cri de coeur against the homogenizing effects of a media fuelled consumerist ideal of beauty. There is the fascinating dramaturgical question of  the willing suspension of disbelief as we are asked to consciously homogenize the faces of the actors on stage, a rather complex feat given that the play largely critiques homogenization.

Take, for example, the fact that Lette’s face–Jansen’s face–did not actually change at all even as the world of the play drew us to the willing suspension of this fact, even though the play is a comment on individuation against commercial conformity. In this way, the audience is made directly complicit in the space of the theater with the very thing the play decries that they do in real life: buy in to what they are told about beauty rather than evaluate it with their own eyes. The play is a deeply layered critique of the mechanisms of conformity that define our thinking about beauty. But perhaps most important is the calling forth of that old question of beauty, demanding that we deal with it in more than a superficial way, question it more deeply than a Jezebel article about Lena Dunham’s airbrushing on the cover of Vogue or a Dove soap commercial. Maybe the play is actually a call to arms to evaluate the relationship between the beautiful and the ethical, the encounter of the face both in the theater and in every day life. Maybe, just maybe, it is the very ubiquity of faces in our lives, their constancy, individuality, and all of their many social and political implications that make them, in the end, so damn beautiful.

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