Grammar matters: Dear Evan Hansen and the appeal of the passive voice

A wise woman (Rachel Bloom) once said “nothing was ever anyone’s fault.” The universe is a jerk. We are all just passive players in this large game of life, bent to the will and whims of the unknown forces of fates. We are traumatized and tired, and we should not be faulted for our blunders. Evan Hansen, the titular character of the popular musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, seems to be the perfect embodiment of this sentiment. The story of Dear Evan Hansen was comforting: Evan, just like us in at least some points of our lives, found himself in a mess of bad decisions that were not entirely in his control. Throughout the musical, Evan and those around him were all victims of their circumstances and traumas, and the musical established a soothing, hopeful tone that reassured both their characters and their audience that their pain and struggles were valid and understood. The creators used a grammatical tool – the passive voice – to bring about a sense of victimhood in the characters, and a sense of sympathy in the audience. However, by doing so, the musical neglected an equality important part of trauma: healing, growth, and change – all of which cannot be passive. Dear Evan Hansen utilized the passive voice so well that it lured the audience into a false sense of comfort and inaction, and therefore uphold the status quo of mental illness instead of challenge it.

The name of the musical, Dear Evan Hansen already incited a sense of passiveness. “Dear Evan Hansen” was an address from a message: the person addressed in this case was not a part of the story, but an audience member who was told the story. They neither have much control over how the story went nor how the writer portrayed the story. By naming the musical Dear Evan Hansen, the creators already signified that Evan Hansen, while the main character, was not in control of his own story. Instead of being the active subject, he was the passive object. Even though Evan Hansen wrote his own letters, the name of the musical itself foreshadowed the loss of control of his own narrative: his mother told him to write the letter, then Connor took it, and everyone else mistook his writings for Connor’s – Evan had no control over what his letter did and what he could do with his letter. Instead of telling his own story, Evan’s letter to himself became someone else’s story.

The musical also did not start with Evan: it started with his mother instead. The first song in the original cast album was “Anybody Have a Map?”  The first line of the album was “Have you been writing those letters to yourself?”, followed by Heidi Hansen reciting how Evan should write his letter. She came off as an enthusiastic, yet quite overbearing parent. She wanted to direct Evan on his healing, which pushed Evan into a passive role where he could not express how he wanted to write the letter, or even if he wanted to write the letter. Instead of letting her son take control of his own healing, Heidi forced it onto him without considering Evan’s own autonomy. This first moment of the musical, again, brought forth the idea that Evan did not have much control over his own life. The conversation between Heidi and Evan carried on in a similar matter, as Heidi enthusiastically ordering Evan (or, to put it more nicely, asking him very forcefully) to do things that he was clearly not comfortable with. Listening to the original cast album, we could hear the reluctant and discomfort in Evan’s voice, as well as his desire to end the conversation quickly and escape his mother control.

The next song, “Waving Through the Window,” was a solo song for Evan; here, the lyrics did have a mostly active voice where Evan used “I” statements and active verbs. He also used “we” pronoun as a way to connect with the audience and create a sense of shared identity. While Evan’s discomfort in “Anybody Have a Map?” made the audience sympathize for him, “Waving Through the Window” was a more active effort to connect with the audience. As we listened more closely to the lyrics, however, we saw that Evan’s situation was not in his control either. His song was supposed to be vulnerable and relatable, and the song achieved that emotional effect by showcasing Evan’s struggles. He struggled with social interactions and his fear of judgements, both of which were highly reliant on not only himself, but other people’s perception of him. While he was an authority on his own behaviors (as evident by the lines “I’ve learned”), he had no control over how people truly perceived him. His situation, therefore, was not completely in his control. In fact, he was not in control of the source of his struggles at all, externally sourced as it was. In the first three paragraphs of the song, Evan showed somewhat control of his actions: he had “learned” how to behave, “learned” what not to do, and he even tried to tell himself to “step out of the sun” so he wouldn’t be burned. However, as the song progressed, this control slipped away from him. The music changed its tone from a softer tone to a quicken tone, and the words changed from certain, commanding statements to questions and the more tentative verb “try”. Here, Evan started to realize that what he did was “try”, and that the results of his actions were a big question: “can anybody see?” He started to realize that no, he was not exactly in control of the situation at all. Now, Evan started to identify with the audience through the pronoun “we”: the audience felt his uncertainty on a closer level. As the audience identified with Evan, we felt more closely the struggles in the bridge and chorus of the song: we felt Evan’s loneliness and anxiety on a deeper level. Evan then repeated the questions “did I even make a sound?” several times, the question and repetition emphasized Evan’s uncertainty and lack of control, and we as the audience felt for him. This song established the connection, and solidified Evan as a sympathetic character.

The musical’s plot now continued with a sequence of decisions and actions that Evan did not have control over. Connor, a suicidal classmate of Evan who also bullied him, took Evan’s letter. He then took his own life, and his family mistook Evan’s letter as Connor’s letter to Evan. These circumstances, wildly out of Evan’s control, pushed Evan into an awkward position. He felt the pressure to lie to console Connor’s family and give them some form of relief from sadness. While it was his decision to make up the lies, the audience – because we already connected and sympathized with him, tend to exempt Evan from being at fault. We would see that Evan did not really had a choice, especially after we saw his struggles with acceptance and being heard.  Jared, Evan’s only friend, then helped us excuse Evan’s lies as he helped Evan fabricate more lies and more letters. Connor’s ghost also appeared, not to condemn Evan but also to encourage Evan and play along to the lies.

The two song “Disappear” and “You Will Be Found” then signified the change in the tone of the musical. While the previous song mainly focused on Evan or the people around him and their interactions with Evan, these two songs symbolized a switch in Evan’s mentality. The scope of his social life broadened: these songs did not just talk about Evan and Connors, but about all the “guys like you and me.” They moved the topic from a specific person with a name to the general mass of people who “keep waiting to be seen.” They moved from Connor and Evan to “someone,” “no one” and “you”. The scope broadened toward the general, and then came toward to audience. They repeated the phrase “you still matter” several times during “Disappear” as both a generic statement and a reminder, a comfort to the audience. While Evan connected and comforted the audience with his struggles and vulnerability before, “Disappear” was where he directly reassured the audience that we too, would be alright. In contrast to “Waving Through a Window”, where Evan started with certainty and ended with uncertainty, “Disappear” went the opposite direction. Connor’s ghost was the one who brought up the idea of keeping his memory alive, and Evan grew more confident in the idea throughout the song, finally deciding to create The Connor Project. However, it is important to note that it was Connor who initiated the idea, not Evan.

In “You Will Be Found,” we saw again the overt use of the passive voice. However, it was not Evan that was the object, but the audience, the “you”. Evan now dedicated this song wholly to the audience instead of to himself or the people around him. This song was the show stopper, the key player of the whole musical. It was what made the show so comforting and reassuring: because of those four words. “You will be found.” The passive voice here played a crucial part in reassuring the audience. As a passive “you” who was not part of the action, the audience did not need to put in effort to create active change – Evan and his Connor Project were already doing the hard work for them. Throughout the song, the only instances of active voice had their subject a generic “someone” instead of “you”. “Someone will come running”, “they’ll take you home”, etc., these sentences showed that the audience did not have to do anything to enact these changes in their lives: they could wait and “someone” would come and solve their problem for them. This song, while hopeful and uplifting, actually neglected that healing and growth required changes within the person themself. The song, focusing too much on comforting the audience, neglected that growth was uncomfortable and changes – active changes – was also necessary.

Evan’s speech went viral without much of his own actions. Again, “someone” put his speech online, not him. He didn’t control how much the story blew up and how far his impact had grown. “Good For You” was the climax of Dear Evan Hansen, where everything came crashing down and people eventually found out about Evan’s lies, again completely outside of his control. They then proceeded to yell at him and pin all the blame on Evan. However, as the audience already grew attached to Evan, we could not help but feel protective over him. We noticed that Evan did not have many choices in what he chose to do (allegedly) and that many people encouraged his ideas for their own gain. We could not help but feel indignant that Heidi, who had never understood her son and an entire adult, was not yelling at her son for his trauma. Or that Alana, who inserted herself into the Connor Project for her own gain, did not feel even a slight remorse that she, indeed, used Connor’s death to become relevant. Jared, who was Evan’s accomplice, was no much better. In fact, Evan was the only one who was sorry for his actions: he was a good person who knew to regret his actions – and we took comfort in that fact.

The tone of the musical changed again to what was similar to the start of “Waving Through a Window”: a shaky, sad, and soft song where Evan again did not have any control over his circumstances. He failed this time, and we recalled what he sang in “Waving Through a Window”: no one was there to tell him when he went wrong. “Words Fail” was a heartfelt song where Evan was again vulnerable and alone. He laid bare his trauma from emotional neglect and his want for an illusion of happiness. Evan was broken, just as his voice broke and the music itself was fractured, and he once again doubted himself. This was the consequence for his actions throughout the musical. He was back to square one, but this song ended differently from “Waving Through a Window”: instead of stepping out of the sunlight, Evan wanted to step in to the sunlight. Instead of despair, the song ended on hope. And that was powerful, heartfelt, and once again, solidified Evan Hansen as a comforting, good-nature character to the audience.

However, this hopeful ending to the song fell flat. There was no explicit effort in Evan to fix what he did wrong. There was no active changes that we get to see on stage. Instead, we had a half-hearted time skip to the future with no real impact on the plot or the viewers. As an audience member, I felt cheated. The ending felt like a generic “and they live happily ever after” ending with no actual impact. It was supposed to be uplifting – that Evan might find forgiveness – but that forgiveness was not deserved if there was no effort putting into righting his wrong. Again, Dear Evan Hansen focused too much on the message of hope and comfort that the show completely neglect the discomfort of growing and being a good person.

~ Rose Nguyen

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