Insight into Sweat: The Dramatic Appeal of Bars

By Elspeth Sweatman

A mug of beer. Photo courtesy Max Pixel.
Whether writing a slapstick comedy, a sci-fi action flick, or a tense family drama, writers for both stage and screen have been drawn to bars. The bar in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (which starts previews at The Geary on September 26) is an excellent example. Most of the play takes place in a bar; it’s where mill workers spend their time between shifts. So why would Nottage—and so many other storytellers—choose this setting? What does the presence of alcohol add dramaturgically to a story?

Often nicknamed the truth-telling serum, alcohol affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where rational thought and decision-making occur. For storytellers, this creates moments of incredible humor—take actors Stockard Channing, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, and Dianne Wiest howling with laughter and calling each other “witch” after downing too many midnight margaritas in the film Practical Magic (1998)—but also moments of unforgettable drama. Think of the suspense as James Bond prepares to down his shot with a scorpion on his hand in Casino Royale (2006).

Onstage, alcohol’s effect on characters’ judgment creates a tension and inevitability that propels a play forward. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) by Edward Albee and August: Osage County (2007) by Tracey Letts, characters slowly reveal secrets as they consume drink after drink. Public facades are shattered, and characters must find a way of picking up the pieces and moving forward. These revelations may not have occurred without a steady supply of the truth-telling serum.

Because bars are public spaces, they often act as a microcosm for the larger world. In Casablanca (1942), German soldiers and French refugees warily share the tables of Rick’s Café Américain. When the German occupiers begin to sing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” the rest of the bar launches into the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” literally voicing their resistance by drowning them out. This pivotal scene changes everything; Rick has chosen a side, both in terms of his feelings for former flame Ilsa and also in terms of the larger battle for control happening in his town and in towns across the globe during World War II. This allows a wider audience to identify with this scene and the broader themes of the film.

Similarly, Stan’s bar in Sweat stands for not only the community of Reading, but also hundreds of communities across the Rust Belt. The bewilderment, despair, anger, and resilience these characters express are emotions that many Americans felt as mills closed and jobs moved overseas. Sweat may be set in the early 2000s in a town in Pennsylvania, but the human story at its center is resonates just as strongly today.

To learn more, purchase a copy of Words On Plays—available now. To experience Sweat onstage, get your tickets today!

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