The September 11 attacks shook our nation. Numerous buildings collapsed, and thousands of innocent people perished. The rest of the United States was in shock, in panic and in pain. In “The Mercy Seat,” Neil LaBute refrains from expressing his political viewpoints regarding terrorism. Instead, he focuses on another war—a fight against honesty that most human beings wage. “The Mercy Seat” tells a three-year love affair between Ben Harcourt and his manager, Abby Prescott. The devastating event on September 11th, 2001, opens up a opportunity for Ben to pretend that he has been buried under debris, escape his unpleasant marriage, and start a new life with Abby. The conversation they have reveals a great deal about their personalities, their fears, and their struggles. Of more importance is their gradual reexamination of their own selflessness and selfishness.
Ben has been continuously tortured over the past three years; living a dishonest life and betraying his spouse fills Ben with guilt. His negative feelings are particularly intensified when he makes love to Abby. He favors doing it from behind so as to avoid her eye contact. When Abby pressures Ben to give her a reason as to why they do not have sex in a different position, Ben admits: “It’s probably just guilt or whatever. The “doggie-style” thing . . . I mean about cheating and stuff . . . Maybe it’s just hard to look you in the face or, God, I dunno” (LaBute, 2003). He desires Abby, yet he lacks the courage to confront his wife and bring their marriage into termination.
Mr. Harcourt procrastinates breaking the news to his wife because he is overwhelmingly concerned about his young daughters. In spite of failing to fulfill his role as a father, Ben’s love for his daughters is unquestionable. While arguing with Abby, he references Alanis Morissette, a Canadian singer that one of his daughters admires. He cries: “I watch VH1. . . My daughter liked it! There, how’s that? . . . Because my twelve-year-old . . . likes the same fucking song that you just used to tease me with!” (LaBute, 2003). His attitude discloses that he treasures the precious memories he has with his teenage children. The thought of his daughters weeping tears of sorrow over his death causes him pain, and imagining that they will have to grow up without a father figure due to his dissolution of marriage shatters his heart. Not hiding his true motives, he tells Abby: “Letting ‘em think whatever happened, okay, rather than dragging them through court for a year and fighting over who gets which Barbie, and for how long, and at which designated location” (LaBute, 2003). Though Ben has been inconsiderate to achieve his life goals, he never prioritizes his own welfare over his children’s well-being.
Ben’s behaviors are consistent with his priorities. On his way to work on September 11th, he decides to leave Abby. When Ben calls Abby at the end of the play, he confesses: “I wasn’t gonna phone home, Abby, I can’t do that. You can call my wife, spill your guts if you want to, but I’ll never be able to” (LaBute, 2003). The shocking event offers an easier solution to the puzzle. Ben has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild his life around his sweetheart without hurting his children to the same degree. Ben attempts to explain to Abby how this path would be more beneficial to his children. The more Abby reminds him that he will never be able to see his children, take family vacations to Walt Disney parks, or attend their weddings, the more distressed Ben becomes. He yells: “I GET IT! Fuck . . . you think I didn’t consider all that? Weigh it in? Well I did” (LaBute, 2003). He tries in vain to make Abby understand that he is not self-serving, and to persuade her of the plan. He repeatedly stresses: “It is the best thing for all of us” (LaBute, 2003). When forced to choose between his mistress and his daughters, Ben selects the later and walks out on Abby. The love Ben has for his children guides his decisions.
Abby does not agree to Ben’s plan, partly because of his lack of commitment. Adoring Ben, Abby firmly states: “I want to be with you . . . together, with you, for the rest of my life” (LaBute, 2003). His reluctance to establish an official long-term relationship with her, therefore, bothers her enormously. She notices that Ben is not comfortable taking phone calls or listening to messages around her. She confronts him, stating: “I want the whole “you” or not at all” (LaBute, 2003). Doubting if his feelings for her are sincere, she asks: “You’re asking me to do this . . . all these things, for us. . . In theory, would you make the same kind of gesture for me. If I asked you” (LaBute, 2003). Ben’s indecisiveness is interpreted as lack of devotion to Abby. When Abby could no longer stand Ben’s indecisiveness, she mocks: “That’s what I like about you, Ben. Your absolutely rigid commitment to being a flake” (LaBute, 2003). Abby is correct to conclude that Ben values his children above her.
Besides, accusing Ben of being selfish, Abby herself cannot let go of her unsatisfying life to start fresh with Ben. In her forties, Abby is a successful woman. In fact, she manages to “snag the position [they] have both been gunning for” (LaBute, 2003). To be promoted to such a position of seniority, Abby makes trade-offs, with which Ben is familiar. He calls her lifestyle “less than desirable,” and depicts it as a way of living that “[he hears her] crying about at, like, 2:30 in the morning” (Labute, 2003). In Ben’s opinion, Abby could find a more rewarding job, but Abby is unable to sacrifice her investment. Admittedly, Abby questions if Ben’s promises are truly worth it. She claims: “After everything I’ve worked for, the pounds of shit I’ve eaten to get where I am . . . to blow it all on a piece of ass.” Because Abby views Ben as undevoted, she feels too insecure to join him in his illegal plan.
The play is a tug-of-war, with both sides thinking of themselves first and trying to act selflessly. Ben places greater emphasis on the happiness of his children than his own, which refutes Abby’s argument that he is a narcissist. Nevertheless, Ben seldom takes into consideration the sacrifices he asks of Abby. From this perspective, he seems manipulative. Similarly, Abby selfishly clings to her social status, though she fancies the idea of marrying Ben. Neither is willing to give in. Nail LaBute puts a logical end to their love affair, but the audience is left with intriguing thoughts about the complex and brutal reality.
LaBute, N. (2003). The Mercy Seat. New York, NY: Faber and Faber.