Dear Evan Hansen is not a good play.
I mean in this in both senses: it is neither good Theatre nor Good theatre.
Dear Evan Hansen is too lacking in genuine artistry or originality — despite its nominally “original” source material — to qualify as good Theatre. Its book and score are, at best, inept reproductions of pedestrian pop cultural mediocrities. The script attempts to pass off the plot of a middling teen movie or young adult novel as high drama; the score likewise suffers as a bland imitation other contemporary pop/rock musicals.
Any play so lacking in creativity and artistic merit would ordinarily fail to elicit the visceral anger and disgust I have for Dear Evan Hansen, but these artistic failures (its failure as good Theatre) are bolstered by its ethical deficiencies (its concomitant failure to be Good theatre). Dear Evan Hansen is not the powerful, moving, socially conscious work critics have made it out to be. Dear Evan Hansen is a toxic piece of theatre, a morally bankrupt exploitation of the experience of mental illness. Dear Evan Hansen relies on not only formulaic, but legitimately dangerous ideas about people with such experiences, and perpetuates them with enthusiasm and self-righteousness.
Dear Evan Hansen is evil.
It has been suggested to me that I simply don’t “get it”; I am not, after all, unfamiliar with being the odd one out when it comes to takes on popular entertainment. This would perhaps be true if Dear Evan Hansen’s flaws did not extend beyond its artistic and technical defects.
I believe the opposite is true: that I “get it” too deeply, that because I manage psychological conditions similar to those depicted onstage, I have a direct, immediate, and instinctual insight into the play. It has also been suggested to me that this is in actuality a bias, blinding me to what the show really is.
This is ludicrous.
This is logically identical to saying I can’t appreciate the hilarity of a joke that is objectively homophobic because I am gay. I don’t lack a sense of humor because I’m queer; the joke lacks humor because it is homophobic. (Incidentally, this has also come up with regard to Dear Evan Hansen, particularly with respect to a character and entire musical number that exploit the idea of closeted gay teens for laughs.) Ableism and homophobia are biases; having a mental illness and being queer just make it easier to spot them.
I’m not the one with a problem.
This play has a problem. Anyone who defends this play has a problem. The target audience for this play — essentially anyone who thinks television series like Thirteen Reasons Why are important steps forward in public discourse surrounding adolescent depression and suicide — has a problem.
Dear Evan Hansen fails to satisfy the bare minimum requirement of basic social awareness, let alone present perspectives that can justifiably be termed socially responsible. Socially responsible theatre — Good theatre — is not overly dependent on cheap, mass-produced stereotypes of mental illnesses and the people who live with them. It doesn’t pretend that simply pointing out that Important Issues Exist constitutes a profound or novel perspective, or brings a rawness or an edginess to the art form. It is not overtly and recurrently homophobic. And it certainly doesn’t use the dead bodies of suicidal teenagers as props for character development and comedy.
Dear Evan Hansen does all of these things, and is crafted to do so with intention and careful deliberation.
Mental Illness as Metaphor
On Evan Hansen
To construct its central characters, Dear Evan Hansen takes diverse and wide-ranging experiences of mental illness and disability and condenses them into broad and ill-defined psychological disorders, in essence converting mental illness into a literary device. “Mental illness” is ultimately nothing more than a metaphor, plot point, and character trait to the play and its creators. It’s merely something that spoke to them, that made them believe in this project, that inspired them to make it the defining element of two of the roles in an eight-character play. It was just that compelling, that deep, that rich, that powerful, that they felt justified in transforming social anxiety, depression, and suicide into theatrical devices — in carelessly oversimplifying the complex lived experiences of real, nonfictional people who exist off the stage, who matter.
Out of this haze of vague, poorly sourced metaphors emerges, supposedly, a hero in Evan Hansen, someone who lacks any quality that deserves to be termed heroic. I don’t mean this in the way the play would like me to. I don’t mean that Evan Hansen is an unlikely hero because of his debilitating social anxiety and isolation. I mean that Evan Hansen is a rather unremarkable antihero: manipulative, inconsiderate, self-interested, and self-serving. He falsely claims to have been friends with a peer who has committed suicide and inserts himself into the grief of a family he does not know, because he feels starved for parental affection and relishes the attention this boy’s parents readily give him, and because he has a crush on a girl who happens to be this boy’s sister and would do anything to be near her. How is this a hero’s moral ambiguity, rather than an antihero’s base amorality?
Yet we are expected to sympathize with Evan, because he is self-conscious and insecure and feels really bad about how he has manipulated and hurt the people he has come to care about. And the play, unsurprisingly, redeems him: by the finale he is forgiven by every person he has wounded. The family he has deceived even thanks him in the final scene for helping them cope with their loss, irrespective of whether or not it was all a lie.
But is impossible for me to see Evan Hansen as the sympathetic character he is intended to be. I can’t explain how his self-consciousness and insecurity carry weight equal to the pain he causes other people, or how his occasional second thoughts or moments of self-awareness are proof that he deserves forgiveness. And I can’t figure out how feeling sorry and learning a lesson, at an astronomical expense to others, are grounds for absolution and redemption.
Evan Hansen uses his condition as a rationale for his deception and the emotional devastation he causes. Evan Hansen hurts people, but the play would like us to understand him. He can’t help it. He does what he needs to do to fit himself into a world that does not want people like him. Everyone has felt like an outsider and no one deserves to. There is no price tag on feeling accepted and wanted. In a rare instance of this play’s genius, this manages to accomplish two diametrically opposed objectives: this at once universalizes Evan’s experiences, so as to excuse his behavior, and makes the more specific and despicable insinuation that people with mental illness are fundamentally self-serving.
The very core of Evan’s character is this poisonous, and ubiquitous, stereotype: that people with mental illness are profoundly, inherently selfish. That we are manipulative people who use our conditions as excuses to be cruel to and take advantage of the people who care about us. That we are incapable of taking responsibility for ourselves and the impulses driven by our conditions. That we demand constant accommodation, forgiveness, and validation for and in spite of these behaviors. That we are incapable of considering, much less prioritizing, another’s needs over our own.
That mental illness, much like irony, means never having to say you’re sorry.
That we, like Evan Hansen, can’t help ourselves.
There surely are people like Evan Hansen who fit these toxic stereotypes, but in large measure, they are not selfish people because they are mentally ill; they are selfish people who have a mental illness. But the play disregards this, and consequently every person with a mental illness who makes an attempt to resist our conditions, to not allow them dictate our behavior or how we treat those around us.
Pop Culture / Pop Psychology
On Mental Healthcare and Universality
It is far easier to give Evan Hansen a redemption narrative when nuance is eschewed in favor of cheap stereotypes. There can be no subtlety, no ambiguity, no humanity, if Evan’s condition is something he must move beyond for both plot and character to develop. It’s something he must prove himself to be above, to be better than. It’s a weakness he must overcome, a moral deficiency he must rectify to prove his worth.
Evan’s social anxiety is nothing more than a metaphorical journey he must go on, go through, grow through, grow out of. It’s an ill-defined condition (which may or may not require therapy and psychopharmacological treatment) that he can just get over, that can be overcome with the right amount of self-confidence and affection from parents, lovers, and friends.
Accordingly, Evan’s growth encompasses the swearing off of medication and the denigration of counseling and therapy. Part of his journey to self-acceptance — during which he becomes a surrogate son to grieving parents and a boyfriend to their daughter — is discovering, all on his own, that he no longer needs to take his prescribed medication for his anxiety. It seems, after all, that Evan just needed to fill the void left by absent parents: his own father left when he was a young child, and his mother Heidi is a nurse who works overtime and goes to night school to support herself and Evan. Predictably, Evan lashes out at his mother, convinced she has given up on him, sees him as irreparably broken, and doesn’t really care about his wellbeing. He resents her attempts to “fix” him by taking a clinical approach to his condition — somehow a shock, despite the heavily referenced fact that she is, again, a nurse.
The point, of course, is that psychopharmacological drugs are a burden whose side effects (in post-Garden State popular fiction, usually something along the lines of they make me feel nothing) outweigh their benefits, unlike actually life-saving medications. Any proponents of psychopharmacology are suspect, at best ignorant and at worst inhumane, failing to see that what they mistake for a health issue is actually just someone being different. Dear Evan Hansen presents a dangerously inaccurate depiction of mental illness and healthcare, rooted in fear-mongering, lingering paranoia about the historical barbarism of mental healthcare practices, and the presumption of a misinformed and easily manipulated public.
To be sure, treatment is always complex, and not infrequently a protracted, frustrating, exhausting, and even painful process. But it is precisely that, a process: an ongoing exercise, a conversation between the individual seeking treatment for their condition and the medical practitioners and psychotherapists whose assistance and expertise they have sought out. Treatment is a subjective experience and a unique process every time, but I can also say with confidence that if I were not taking my medication as prescribed, and if these were not legitimately life-saving drugs, I wouldn’t be capable of trying to argue this point. I am certain that I would not be alive to do so.
But Evan’s relationship to mental healthcare is just another metaphor, a stepping-stone in character development. The play overlooks lives saved and lives given back for the sake of scraps of dialogue showing us that Evan is getting better, that it might just be all in his head. Crucially, this serves to generalize Evan’s experience: he’s just like all those good normal people who don’t need to take medication; after all, everyone feels like this sometimes. Clinical anxiety is merely a stand-in for feeling like an outsider, a universal experience that everyone can relate to.
It isn’t, and it is reductive and insulting to treat it as such. Social anxiety isn’t some accessory that can be tacked onto a character to make them more interesting or unique. It isn’t some adorable, relatable quality that can be played for awkward or sympathetic comedy, to an audience that has not, in its entirety, experienced this kind of clinical anxiety for themselves.
Because social anxiety is not cute. It’s not adorable. It’s not funny. It’s not just brief moments of awkwardness and sweaty palms and feeling tongue-tied. It’s tremors, and nausea, and soaking through your shirt. It’s not leaving your room until you’ve rehearsed the scripts you need to get through the day. It’s avoiding going out into the world, isolating yourself so you don’t have to witness yourself fuck up. It’s hearing yourself trip over a word, and not being able to stop hearing yourself, until you’re not able to speak at all. It’s feeling words take on a physical form and clot in your throat. It’s the humiliation of being unable to express yourself in the most basic and literal sense. It’s secondhand embarrassment for the person you’re trying to talk to, because you can just imagine how awkward they must feel standing there waiting for you to say something but you can’t because your brain can’t make your mouth move the way it’s supposed to so you avoid eye contact and look down to where you can see your heart pounding against your chest and you know just how pathetic they think you are, you’re a sad sad person who can’t even fucking talk, you fucking loser.
That’s what social anxiety is like, to me. That’s what it feels like — in my head, in my chest, in my hands, in my throat, in my mouth, in my gut, on my tongue. That’s what it sounds like, to me.
And it is humiliating to have to explain this, to have to detail the ways in which Evan Hansen and his vague conditions are not, in fact, something everyone can relate to. That Ben Platt, who plays Evan, lives with anxiety does not universalize this experience, as a recent fawning New York Times profile would suggest. We are not, as a new publicity campaign insists, all Evan Hansen.
Someone Else’s Metaphor
On Connor Murphy
For Evan’s hypothetical universality to retain even a shred of plausibility, his characterization, in particular his illness, must conform to a (completely arbitrary) standard of “goodness.” He is relatable because he does Bad Things, but remains a Good Person. He embodies whatever darkness supposedly exists within all of us, while maintaining some baseline of human decency. Because both plot and character circulate around this conflict, this needs to be clarified through contrast, demonstrated via a foil.
Enter Connor Murphy.
Connor is all the toxicity of Evan magnified, every quality too dark to squeeze into him if he is to play this hero. Whereas Evan represents an at once stereotypical and self-contradictory portrayal of anxiety — manipulative and self-interested but doing his best and isn’t he adorable — Connor is an angry, violent boy, a creepy kid with a “school-shooter-chic” style (their words, not mine) who goes to school high and physically and psychologically torments Evan and threatens his sister. (She explains to Evan in detail how he would chase her through their house and bang on her bedroom door, screaming about how he wanted to kill her.) His main dramaturgical function is to provide the impetus for the dramatic action, via suicide; he serves later on in the play as the manifestation of Evan’s psyche, of his most selfish, manipulative, even violent tendencies.
Connor Murphy is ultimately just a stock-trope-quality stereotype of a mentally ill person: intensely violent, frightening — evil, even. And he is unable transcend this; he isn’t allowed to transcend this. The entirety of Connor’s actions in the play consists of getting high before school and frustrating his family at breakfast (which we are supposed to find funny), and later acting out and fighting with Evan at school (which we are supposed to find terrifying). And then he kills himself, offstage. Everything else we learn about him we learn from the other characters; everything else he does happens in someone else’s head.
After those brief scenes, we only see Connor through the eyes of other people; he exists solely for the benefit of other character’s narratives. This is how Evan’s character gets fleshed out, voiced by a fantasy image of a character by now established as deranged. And this is the only way we learn about his sister Zoe and his parents Cynthia and Larry: through their experiences of Connor’s experiences. His drug use, his violent tendencies, and his depression are barely part of his own character or narrative arc, but they are integral to everyone else’s.
Connor Murphy is, very clearly, a boy who was suffering and needed help, and was failed. And then he dies. And then we stop learning about who he is, the person he might really be, because when Connor dies he ceases to be a person for his own sake. All we get to know about him is that he is, or might be, a threat to himself as well as his family and peers.
This — the extent of what we know about Connor — is, like so much else in the play, rooted in inaccurate and dangerous stereotypes. Connor’s violent behavior, as written, contradicts numerous studies (here’s a useful compilation) that have found people with mental illnesses to be statistically less likely than neurotypical individuals to commit acts of serious violence, and statistically more likely to be victims of such violence.
Sincerely, a Mentally Ill Queer
On the Homophobia of Dear Evan Hansen
I can, admittedly, vaguely imagine how the ableism and misleading portrayal of mental illness in this play might not be readily apparent to every viewer. We are not, after all, living in a culture where mental illness and healthcare are discussed with much seriousness or candor in mainstream discourse, let alone sincerity or compassion. I am, however, shocked and disturbed that the play’s aggressive homophobia has escaped criticism.
Dear Evan Hansen includes an aggressively homophobic character in Jared Kleinman, whose central dramaturgical role is comic relief. Jared’s idea of a joke — and by extension, the creators’ — is the possibility that Evan Hansen and Connor Murphy had a sexual or romantic relationship. This is, apparently, so funny that it can sustain an entire musical number (“Sincerely, Me”), in which the recently dead Connor participates, his dead body a prop, his corpse a dancing marionette. The concept of closeted queer teens is so ripe for comedy, the notion of gay sex so inherently hysterical, that they can be mined for jokes, bled dry for tedious dialogue and musical-comedy numbers.
Ordinarily, I would be more disappointed than disgusted, but in the context of Dear Evan Hansen this is especially revolting. That the jokes are centered on Connor (who kills himself) and Evan (who is revealed to have attempted suicide in the past) is unconscionable, when it is an established, well-known, and easily researched fact that queer (and especially trans) teens have disproportionately high rates of depression and suicide compared to their straight (and cis) peers.
But I’m biased, I’m told, because it is impossible for me to consider this play without drawing on my own experiences as a queer person with clinical anxiety and depression.
This also means it is impossible for me to be more lenient or forgiving, should members of the creative team happen to be queer or manage a mental illness. (Suggesting an individual should be embarrassed or mocked for being gay, for instance, doesn’t become any less homophobic if a queer person says it. If anything, it’s a lot worse.)
Above all, this means that I am consciously, determinedly resistant to being emotionally manipulated into believing that the artistically flawed work that is Dear Evan Hansen constitutes high drama. I cannot, as so many critics and audience members have, embrace this play as something original, socially conscious, honest, or important.
I can’t, because there is, to me, nothing original about profiting, in the most literal and corrupt sense, off of the lives of the marginalized, underserved, and underrepresented. There is no social consciousness — much less conscience — in claiming that the lives of the othered, the disenfranchised, and those living with mental illness are just like everyone else’s, that everyone has known the same pain or fear. And above all, there is no truth or integrity in declaring that “we are all Evan Hansen.”