Theater

“Mankind” Playwright Robert O’Hara Talks the Challenges of Creating Timely Satire

by

“If men could get pregnant” has long been a set-up for bumper sticker one-liners (and Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies). But now it’s the premise for a politically serious satire: Robert O’Hara’s Mankind, running through January 28 at Playwrights Horizons. Mankind depicts a sci-fi future where women are extinct and men can bear children — in fact, men must bear children, because in this slick, authoritarian society, abortion is punishable as homicide. O’Hara’s protagonists, Jason and Mark, learn this the hard way when they try to end an unwanted pregnancy and end up in prison for attempted murder. Then, through a series of reversals too fascinating to reveal, their misfortune turns to fame and celebrity, and the pair find themselves adored as the high priests of a new religion titled “feminism” (boasting zero female worshippers, of course, since all women are long dead).

Got all that? It’s a heady concoction, and O’Hara answered the Voice’s questions in advance of his provocative play’s opening earlier this month.

Where did the idea for Mankind come from?

Robert O’Hara: The original idea was from a ten-minute play commissioned by Partial Comfort Productions. I wrote this scene — which is now the first scene of Mankind — about two men saying all the wrong things surrounding one of them telling the other, “I’m pregnant.” Several years later I got commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, and I was like, I’ve been thinking about that play and about making it a fuller conversation.

And then the world began to explode. We elected Trump, and there were the revelations of the sexual-harassment conversation. The world was getting more surreal and more like a satire. It was clear that we were speaking to the moment. I wanted to be very careful in the context we were giving it: I didn’t want it being presented as a joke, or a feminist play, because of course it isn’t; it has no women. It certainly has feminist themes.

Why couldn’t it be a feminist play, even though it doesn’t have women characters?

I didn’t set out to write a feminist play; I set out to write a satire on patriarchy. There well may be people who think of it as a feminist play — but I started it as a play about men dealing with pregnancy, and it ended up in all these different worlds: with religion, with feminism.

Watching that first scene where the men talk about their unwanted pregnancy, it was hard to keep from thinking of that bumper sticker saying, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be free, safe, and legal.” But your play depicts a world where the opposite is true.

Yeah. Because men are really kind of stupid when it comes to stuff like that. We still have these old-ass laws. I think the statement that if men could get pregnant then abortion would be legalized assumes that men would get it! We still have these draconian ideas about religion, that this book says this, that, and the other thing. What if I don’t believe in that fucking book?

Can you talk a little about how women became extinct in the world of your play?

I left it vague. But I think that if you make abortion illegal, and then women have to think about, “If I get pregnant, and if I don’t want this child, I may have to go to jail or I may be put on trial,” the stress on the body itself, and the act of living your life in a stressful way, could affect your health. Mind you, the play is set one hundred years after that happened. I felt that society has made it more and more and more difficult for women to exist fully in the world.

What kinds of responses have you gotten? Especially to the moment of audience participation, where men in the audience are supposed to stand up and identify themselves?

Responses have been right on the mark. It’s a very divisive conversation whenever you are dealing with abortion and religion and patriarchy, so I would have hated to have written a play in which everyone had the same reaction to these things.

I have noticed that the more diverse the audience, the more excited and vocal they are. I’m writing a satire. You could just have a play about men getting pregnant — hahaha — but that wasn’t interesting to me. I wanted to know what patriarchy says about men’s bodies when they don’t have women to mistreat. We had to calibrate the participation over the previews. Most of the men participate; even if you don’t participate, you are participating.

You could have written a tragedy on the same themes. Why satire?

Satire allows me to invite the audience in, in a different way than tragedy. Satire allows you to relax in a different way. I wanted to allow the audience in, and then indict them into: Why are you laughing? Why is it funny to hear someone say “ah-women” instead of “amen”? Why is it funny to hear the tenets of feminism?

Yeah, the idea of people worshipping the thing they have killed — killing women and then becoming “feminists” — was funny, but not in a funny way.

Not only have you killed them, you have removed the entire existence of women.

Speaking of religion, we spend much of the play staring at basically a giant idol, a golden sculpture of Mark and Jason’s baby. Where did the image come from?

The script calls for the item to be there at that size. When you paint it gold, it heightens the surreality of it; it also gives a massive, almost spiritual quality. Some religions see a huge Buddha sitting in their services, or a huge Christ figure — there are these symbols that are larger than life, that is where it came from. One character says, about religion, “They need a body and they need it to be dead.”

Could you say something about where your play lands on biological versus socially constructed ideas about gender?

Someone asked me: “Where is the trans in this world; where are the other gender realities?” They’re not there because they’re not part of the story I’m telling. In satire, you have to remove certain things so that you can get further along the aisle you are going down. I go and see theater all the time where I’m not there. We have no problem with seventeen white people being onstage in a world that’s supposed to be looking like us.

I call it a violent act to create a play where women do not exist, but it’s an act that I did deliberately to make a point — not just, “I’m going to write a play and put no women in it.” And I’ve seen lots of those plays.

It seems quite clear why there aren’t women or trans characters. More so, the play seems to present an interesting conundrum about gender. Men’s bodies have evolved in this way, they have gained the ability to bear children, but it’s clearly a world of men.

Yes. I am playing with this idea of gender by making it one idea at the beginning of the play, and as the story opens up, more diversity comes into the world of gender. I do think it is socially constructed. One can change and adapt themselves and also claim the gender that they want to have. I do think the possibility of more genders is in the play at the end.

Mankind
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200
playwrightshorizons.org
Through January 28

Most Popular