“What would you do for the happiness of mankind?”
Those words perfectly encapsulated the very essence of Monash Performing Arts Club’s (MPAC) most recent year end production, The Happiness of Mankind. Last year, the club had presented a fun and fast-paced whodunnit titled And Then There Was One, which featured an array of curious characters gathered at a dinner party who would later on find themselves entrapped within a string of deaths at the hands of a mysterious killer.
This year, however, the club is back with a show that is far more serious in tone and theme. Even before the show began, the stage had been dimly lit, with streaks of blue and green washing over the set pieces, casting dark shadows over any unattended surface. The soft rumble of rain and thunder loomed over the audience until it was finally time for the curtains to rise (hypothetically, as no curtains were actually down to begin with).
“Woah. How atmospheric and….ominous,” I said to myself.
And then came the actual start of the show.
This year’s production had been split into three separate parts (Act I, II, III), each focusing on a different point in time in the seemingly not-so-distant future where human beings are subjected to their own monstrous creations. Individuality means little in this world where the worth of a human life is quantifiable, serving the sole purpose of propelling science and technological advancement.
It should be noted that the play had not been arranged in a chronological order. Based on the timeline, the actual sequence of the events are as follows: Act II -> Act I -> Act III
In the first act, we follow the lives of the girls of Ziegfield House, a seedy entertainment club, as they try to make ends meet amidst the ongoing chaos of a society driven by greed. Mira, the head of the girls, is especially left haunted by the death of Agnes, a fellow performer at the club who had agreed to be a test subject for a newly developed pill with the ability to extract a person’s consciousness from its host.
Mira is consumed by guilt, aware that her compliance to the corrupt and exploitative system had cost the life of someone she held close to her heart. The death of Agnes did not simply mean the loss of a life; rather, it signified the never-ending deterioration of human ethics for the purpose maximising control over the population.
In the second act, we go back in time and see where it all started to fall apart, starting with the Collier’s. Picturesque and pristine, who would have thought that such a respected family would be anything far from happy? Both the family and their empire, Collier Co., are led by businessman, Wyatt, and his highly intelligent, scientist wife, Eris. Their most recent development, the Colour pill, was considered to be a major breakthrough as it could equip its consumers with the necessary skills in order to fulfil their dreams.
But diverging interests begin to tear at the pair and they are forced to face an important question,
“Should morality be sacrificed for the sake of greatness?”
Eris, however, had no difficulty in determining what was important to her. Wyatt, their children, people and morality, none of those carried as much weight as her life’s work did. And so Eris does what she believes to be the logical step in her pursuit of innovation; eliminating any obstacle which may come her way.
The final act brings us back to the present day. It focuses on Daughter, a trained assassin working under the higher ups, who struggles to find balance between her personal and professional affairs. Under the command of The Admin, Daughter is set to carry out the important task of retrieving the stolen pills before they hit the black market. But Daughter has grown weary of this line of work which has hindered her from leading a normal life.
One step into the business leaves one with little room for an alternative route, much less a total escape. Daughter recognizes that it is simply impossible to betray The Admin, who had long supported her, in the name of normalcy and love, unscathed and free of any consequence. By the end of the act, Daughter openly embraces her fate as she meets her inescapable demise.
I would consider The Happiness of Mankind as being predominantly sci-fi, with a dash of neo-noir. Moral dilemma runs deep throughout the show and the line between right and wrong is constantly blurred. Mira’s decision to disobey the system only comes after she faces personal loss as a result of it. Eris does not hesitate before feeding Wyatt “the cure” that would strip him of his abilities once he poses as a threat to her progress. Daughter goes against orders, fully aware of the repercussions, after she almost loses her lover, K, from an act of revenge.
What all three acts signify is the idea of control, both its attainment and sustenance as well as its loss. Those in power utilize the pills as a means of standardization, to exert control over the masses. The sacrifices made by the characters are not celebrated as they do not symbolize hope; rather, they are a direct result of a system which forces them to either oblige or resist at any given cost. They are not martyrs but sacrificial lambs, lab rats to an extensive experiment.
The most notable addition to the play had been the use of colours in the narrative alongside the overall mise-en-scene. Collier Co.’s pills were named the Colour pills. Red lighting had been used in several important instances in Act I, most strikingly during Mira’s performance of Cabaret after the death of Agnes. Blue dominated Act II and yellow in Act III.
Initially, I was unsure of whether this had been intentional or not. Surely it was but for what reason? The way I viewed it, colour had been employed for a few purposes. Firstly, colour is able to distinguish a shift in time and place. It also helps signal to the audience a change of perspectives and builds a sense of separation. All three acts focus on different characters and are set at different points in time. Each act is depicted as being distinct and yet, there is a thread which connects one part to the other.
Red, blue and yellow. The primary colours. These are essentially the first things we learn in colour theory. They represent the standard, the basics and its usage in the play further extends the idea of control as previously mentioned. Our internal association of dreams with kaleidoscopic colours works as an indirect façade to conceal the monotonous and wicked intentions behind the pills marketing.
The pills, which are intended to help people achieve their dreams, also serve an additional function as a tool for those in power to govern and monitor the population. At any given moment, consumers of the pill could easily have their gifts be taken away from them by those in possession of “the cure” and have their lives be completely turned over, most definitely for the worse. The pills presented an opportunity for even the most average and underqualified individual to have a chance at a better life. However, like everything in life, it comes at a price. People are equated to the primary colours; liberated but only under specific conditions.
I would like to command the club for tackling sci-fi, considering how difficult it is to translate to a stage production. Nevertheless, I found the writing to be the show’s biggest drawback. Utilizing three separate writers for the three respective sections,