Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for the musical Dear Evan Hansen.
Throughout lockdown, I have found that the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack has been on repeat, both on Spotify and in my head. In particular, ‘Waving Through a Window’ resonates with me much more as a result of the national lockdown. I was lucky enough to see the musical at the Noel Coward Theatre in London, and since then I have been mulling over the layers upon layers of issues that it deals with, from the relationship between a parent and a child, to grief and mental health. The production masterfully discusses them with a gentle hand. However, one of my biggest takeaways from the show came from their exploration of social media and performativity.
Social media becomes a central theme within the show following the suicide of Evan Hansen’s classmate, Connor Murphy. Students from the school begin to post online, sharing their sorrow for his death. The production clearly states that none of these students were close with him, forcing the audience to question the sincerity of the words being shared.
It is interesting, then, that the term ‘performative activism’ has been popularised and brought into the forefront of social discourse within the #BlackLivesMatter movement and, more specifically, the #BlackOutTuesday that took place on the 2nd June 2020. Do we have a social responsibility to regularly question and review our online sincerity? Is it possible that some of us use social media as a way to project our feelings? Do people choose to perform an effortless token of solidarity without taking accountability, or more meaningful action, to tick a social box?
Performativity on Instagram has been part of a huge social debate over the past few years. Many users perform ‘perfectionism’, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, to make their online lives appear idealistic, compared with mundane reality. Whether this is a way of convincing their followers of the fun in their lives, or a way of preemptively holding onto rose-tinted glasses and feeling nostalgic before the moment has even passed, I suppose, depends on the person. Maybe their choices even go beyond what I have just outlined- but it is these low-risk, ‘socially acceptable’ examples of performative, online behaviour, that in bigger movements (such as #BlackLivesMatter) showcases the detrimental impact of performance and social media.
In Dear Evan Hansen, Zoe feels almost forced to mourn the death of her brother, despite having hated him and the way he treated her. The online, performative grief of people in her school causes her to question her own feelings. In ‘Requiem’, the audience witnesses her confusion. She sings, “Why should I play this game of pretend? // Remembering through a secondhand sorrow”. Her memories of her brother do not match up to everyone else’s, even though a selection of everyone else’s ‘memories’ are performative, only existing to tick a social box, making them appear as one of the “good ones”.
Later on in the musical, Evan Hansen does a speech that goes viral online. This moment is depicted in the song that also ends Act One, ‘You Will Be Found’. It is a spine-chilling number that draws attention to the implications of trying to raise awareness online. Midway through the song, layers of voices appear of the response online with phrases like: “Oh my God, everyone needs to see this!”, “Repost”, “The world needs to hear this, especially now with everything you hear in the news”. Many of these are statements that we are hearing, and seeing, in posts in support of #BlackLivesMatter. Whilst this song, on the surface, appears uplifting and hopeful, the layering of spoken voices creates an ‘echo chamber’, a dramatic effect of which derives from “a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system on social media, insulating people from rebuttal”. ‘You Will Be Found’ brings the question of online sincerity to the forefront of Dear Evan Hansen, once again.
Of course, it is important to keep in mind that Dear Evan Hansen is fictitious and written for theatre, compared with the very real and crucial work surrounding #BlackLivesMatter. The parallels between the two simply showcases the performative nature of social media and how we respond to tragedy online. The musical serves as a reminder to question what we see online, to be suspicious of the world that is depicted through the online lens, and to ensure that sincerity and actionable change is kept at the forefront of our minds when discussing important issues.
Words by Charlotte West.