“Drama, like history, is about the construction — and the questioning — of a narrative.”
— Eleanor Burgess
In the author’s note for the script of The Niceties, playwright Eleanor Burgess urges readers to “resist the temptation to think of only one of [the characters] as a mouthpiece for the truth.” Director Candy McLellan has similarly emphasized the importance of throwing out the need to identify which of the characters is “right” and “wrong.” The Niceties is careful to never outright tell its audience, all of whom come into the theater with their own beliefs and understandings about the world, exactly what to think. At its heart, this play is an invitation for audiences to question our assumptions: about the way we navigate the world, about what it means to be an American, about systematic oppression, about democracy, about history, about academia, about “sound methodology.” It’s about listening to assertions that challenge us without immediately rejecting them. It’s about finding the grace within ourselves to, as judicial philosopher Learned Hand said, “believe that [we] may be mistaken.”
The inspiration for the play came in October 2015. In anticipation of Halloween, administrators at Yale sent an email asking students to be thoughtful of the cultural implications of their costumes. One professor, Erika Christiakis, responded to the email questioning whether this email compromised students’ autonomy: “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity… to exercise self-censure, through social norming?” Within two weeks, the emails led to campus-wide protests and a larger conversation surrounding racism and free speech.
“I was fascinated,” Burgess said, “by how a bunch of people who really have a lot in common in terms of politics, academic background, conversational style, and training could all have so much trouble having a successful conversation and an empathetic conversation.” In The Niceties, she transplants this “total breakdown in communication” to a professor’s office hours at an unnamed elite northeastern university and ratchets up the stakes by making the political intensely personal.
The trigger for the meeting between the two characters in The Niceties — Janine, the white professor, and Zoe, the Black student — is Zoe’s thesis, inspired by one of Janine’s lectures: “A successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery.” Janine finds the thesis compelling, but has reservations about Zoe’s research, arguing that essentially no other historian who has studied the Revolutionary War would agree with her claim.
However, as Variety critic Peter Debruge pointed out, this isn’t necessarily true: the day before The Niceties premiered in Los Angeles in 2019, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Brion Davis passed away. Davis notably taught at Yale for decades — the same school that served as the inspiration for this play — and his life’s work was examining the central role of slavery in the western hemisphere. In fact, the second installment in his seminal trilogy The Problem of Slavery, touches directly on the slavery in the American Revolution. In his NPR obituary, Colin Dwyer asserted that Davis is partly responsible for “shatter[ing] the idea” that slavery was “a minor piece of the history of the United States.” Janine doesn’t connect Zoe’s thesis to the well-established and respected work in the same field by Davis (a white man) — unconscious bias in action.
The play, which premiered in fall 2018, is crucially set in spring 2016: The Niceties is specifically a period piece. The events of the play predate the 2016 presidential election, the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, COVID-19, and the George Floyd protests. Burgess has her characters grappling with issues of anti-Black racism and white feminism, but the conversations onstage are happening in the twilight of the Obama administration. The ways we as a culture understand these issues have changed dramatically over the last few years, and undoubtedly will continue to change. This is a play about that change.
— Elliott Folds, dramaturg
Debruge, Peter. “L.A. Theatre Review: ‘The Niceties.’” Variety, 26 April 2019.
Dwyer, Colin. “David Brion Davis, Who Helped Remake The Study Of Slavery, Dies At 92.” NPR, 16 April 2019.
Kennedy, Bobby. “In Conversation: Eleanor Burgess.” Writers Theatre, 18 October 2019.
Nelson, Libby. “Yale’s big fight over sensitivity and free speech, explained.” Vox, 7 November 2015.