“SCUM” Is a brand new post-apocalyptic play going on at The Producers Club in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. The play was written by Sarah Shear, who also stars as Bekah in this production, and Shear worked with Ross Lampert for dramaturgy. This play stars Aaron Mauck as Dan, Adrian Abel Amador as Ronnie, and Jay Cobian as Adam, and was directed by Javan Nelson.
“SCUM” is a last man standing play, so by the end of the play, there’s only one person left. Three of the four players slowly pick off, one by one, until the play is over. The characters are in a small enclosed space, during a World War III nuclear attack, and so the high pressure and drama comes from the anxieties about the end of the world.
Symbolically, the play could refer to climate change, and specifically talks about Israel. Wild fires are raging all over California in real life right now and 90-degree Fahrenheit weather is the new normal going until October and November in New York. Israel is closer than ever to war with its suppressed Palestinian population, and Israel’s sworn enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in headlines for their instability in the past week. The end of the world is always greatly exaggerated, but in 2018 it’s never felt so close.
“SCUM” resembles popular culture forays into apocalypse dystopian fiction. In a recent example, the second 2016 Cloverfield movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane,” starring John Goodman, saw three characters interacting in a fallout shelter. Likewise, Shear’s play references the popular video game series “Fallout,” by having Ronnie wear a “Fallout” tee shirt in the middle of the play. In Fox’s 2015 “Last Man on Earth” the premise is that there is only one person left after the apocalypse.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about the metaphysics of slime in Being and Nothingness, and reading his work here is weird because slime is a weird subject. Sartre talked about how slime is slippery and contagious, and the metaphysical part of this one – the reader – doesn’t have to have any physical or literal proximity to slime to be or to feel disgusted. Wall-eyed, short, and hideously ugly, Sartre may have been talking about and defending himself. Martha Nussbaum’s discussions of disgust in Upheavals of Thought and From Disgust to Humanity are that much more urgent, and that much more rational, such that her writing lacks the surprise and immediacy the reader must decide about himself in relation to the text.
Nussbaum’s thesis is that disgust is a rulebreaker in the world of emotions. Emotions like anger or happiness have literal or embodied manifestations, too. They just have an intelligence about them. This intelligence is to go slowly. With disgust, there is no wait and no patience. Disgust makes the outgroup – always a minority or women – into a group not only worth excluding and suppressing, but actively necessitating perpetual continuous repression.
So, the audience knows from the actions in the play how Dan becomes an object of disgust, and as per Sartre and Nussbaum, one knows what disgust is and how it works. The next question might be why playwright Shear thinks this is a moral lesson. Why does the character Dan devolve into a monster? Is his sentence of guilt and punishment, to die alone, granted or deserved? Shear posits his innocence by claiming his fight with Ronnie to be in self-defense; the duo’s subsequent cannibalism is framed in the story as a necessary consequence of dwindling food supplies.
Two parallel scenes give a clue. Shear posed Dan and Bekah having a heart-to-heart early on in the story, whereupon Dan consoles Bekah. In its later corresponding scene, Dan tries again to console Bekah. It’s here that Bekah turns the tables and calls these consolations lies. And, they are lies because they are empty promises that Dan has no plans to fulfill. Dan is called out as a manipulator in a “Me Too” moment. Disgust – the pronouncement of Dan as scum – is in line with Nussbaum and Sartre because it’s the bypassing of the rationality of emotions. Shear thinks disgust is warranted and justified, contrary to Nussbaum.
Following Sartre and somewhat contemporaneously with Nussbaum, psychologists have researched disgust on many levels in many ways. Evolutionary anthropologists believe disgust has real antecedents that other tribes indeed had diseases, with real examples in the Old Testament dictum, “Not to mix linens,” and the small pox epidemic of the Native Americans in the 1700’s. Disgust has a referent. Shear takes the moral abhorrence of the Me Too movement and pronounces these crimes worthy of disgust as a rhetorical strategy.
Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein are very much morally abhorrent. They are worthy of disgust. This might not be the best reaction all of the time because disgust hijacks emotions and actions. In this play, Dan is disgusting because his bodily functions and sexuality – as in Weinstein or Cosby – however, there are Me Too problems that aren’t sexual such as Quentin Tarantino’s coercion of Uma Thurman to film a stunt she didn’t want to do and risk her life. When Nussbaum talks about disgust, she writes in apologia for and defense of women and minorities against disgust. Playwright Shear lovingly and respectfully flips this, and the play to a certain extent is satire on animalistic drives. The dramatic irony is these characters are in a bomb shelter in the Nuclear Holocaust, whereas Weinstein was a multi-millionaire.
Shear’s new play is witty, controversial, timely, and fun. “SCUM,” is a fictional, doomsday play with great hopes about society in real life – that, because the world isn’t actually ending, there is realistic hope for moral awakening and insight. Thus, Shear’s work teaches lessons about disgust and morality using satire. Walking out of this play, one might have the sensation of having watched a street reverend preach about cataclysm, like in the book Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. There’s an odd reassurance about hearing someone grieve about the end of the world.