As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Mac Wellman is a poet and playwright whose theater is not the sort you see on an average night on Broadway. Or Off-Broadway. His work always garners positive reviews, yet he has never been offered a major production in the so-called legitimate theater. With 40 plays to his credit in the last 20 years, he determinedly practices a vigorous, if undernourished, alternative to the ever “Fabulous Invalid.” Attending a Wellman play means assembling rambling, often politically pointed and mind-bending speeches into a coherent narrative, albeit one the playwright has carefully composed for a particular stage. There may not, however, be a stage, not as we usually know it. He is perhaps best known for such site-specific works as Bad Penny(performed on the lake in Central Park) and Crowbar (at the Victory Theater on 42nd Street). His is a world of phantasm, environmental decay, bigotry, evil, longing. In a Wellman play, the end of the world seems just around the corner but then it turns out the corner is not all that close—it may even be behind us, an even scarier proposition. The point is simply that all is not lost. In such plays as Terminal Hip Dracula, Swoop, Sincerity Forever, A Murder of Crows, and The Hyacinth Macaw, he has determined to unmask the illusions that undermine the value of experience with a showman’s love of artifice and an absurdist’s sense of dread. For Wellman, patriotism is a love of American speech, which he offers in all its deeply disturbed and poetic glory. We talked about it and its effect on his career at a small Village cafe early in the summer, just before he was to leave for a residency at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Wellman’s new play, Tallahassee, written in collaboration with Len Jenkin, opens at New York’s Workhouse Theater this October.
Linda Yablonsky It’s a very impressive biography you’ve got. How many Obies have you won?
Mac Wellman Actually, just two. But, all in all, my productions have earned a lot more—for actors, directors and designers.
LY Just two? What do you mean, just two?
MW One of them was for three plays. Len Jenkin said, “How many plaques did they give you?”
LY When did you start? What was your first production?
MW It was at the American Place Theater, 1979. But it was a tiny production, I’ve always had those sorts of productions. I started off as a poet, and for years I wrote really dreadful poet’s plays. They were not only bad poetry, they were unproduceable.
LY What brought you from poetry into the theater? Did you have any idea that you wanted to write for the stage?
MW No. I was hitchhiking in Europe in the ‘60s and met a Dutch theater director (Annemarie Prins, of Amsterdam, still a close friend) who read some of my poems and said, “Have you ever thought about writing for theater? There’s someone here coming from Dutch radio tomorrow. If you have an outline for something, I’ll try to get you a commission.” And she did. So, it fell in my lap. But the way I tend to think about language makes me more a theater writer, a theater poet if you will, rather than, say, a poet in the sense of a writer of magazine verse.
LY How do you think about language?
MW I think that words are objects.
LY Spoken words?
MW Yeah. I don’t think it’s that different on the page. Shakespeare is spoken language, written. If you look at the way his texts have been punctuated by editors and then you look at the original Folio for instance, Shakespeare only punctuated for breath. The first English grammar wasn’t written until twenty years after he was dead, so what you encounter in those unedited texts is leaner; they are punctuated rhetorically rather than grammatically. By the eighteenth century the language had been tidied up by people in the universities, people who were concerned with developing strictly utilitarian possibilities of English. Real and important uses, but ones that have largely driven out poetry in the name of facticity. This is even true in the naturalistic theater of our time which prefers a lot of talk about emotional facts to the real thing. A denuded, and one might say depraved, journalism of the soul. Real life, in the tabloid sense. The Simpson trial, enormously detailed, and almost pathologically obsessed with being true to life. We’re addicted to the phony clarity of this kind of language. And American naturalism, in all its variants, despite its inveterate thieving of popular speech, seems to me basically and deeply anti-linguistic, anti-poetic. It boils down to a hunger for television. There’s nothing real about it, except the space it takes up in the so-called public mind. And it’s not so much imitative of life as of other plays.
LY Have commercial producers been so resistant to your work because they think you’re too literary?
MW I don’t think I am. Being a poet is hard because as you get older the incredible loneliness of it, the sheer solitariness of it can get to you, you can turn into a psychopath. But working in theater, you’re always having to explain what you do, what you’ve written—to actors, directors and designers, so you can’t go quite as crazy.
LY How old are you?
LY Are you going through a mid-life crisis?
MW I did that twenty years ago.
LY What changed you? Changed your thinking?
MW The main thing that happened to me was actually ten years ago. It was a bad period in my career—there have been many long stretches like this—and I was reading H.L. Mencken’s book on the American language, which is wonderful by the way. I had always hated dialect, because it seemed corny and stupid…
LY As in the Eugene O’Neill plays?
MW Well, that’s the best of it. But reading Mencken, and playing around with phrases, I put together a good list of anomalous word forms. I put two of those together and it came out, “If I hadda been, I mighta could.” I thought about that, it was like a burr in my pants, it bothered me. I thought, that’s really interesting. It’s the exact emotional and philosophical expression for something that all Americans know and feel: “If I hadda been, I mighta could.” It’s almost surreal in its logic. Starting with notions like this, I really sat down to write. I would write a legal pad page every day of the worst possible writing, grammatically speaking, that I could possibly do. I was making bad sentences. And within a few days, I got totally enraptured by this, because I found if you try to write totally in cliches and things that don’t sound right, you deal with a language that frankly is 98% of what people speak, think, and hear. So, it’s enormously enjoyable. It rolls off your lips far easier and sounds better than—
LY …anything of substance?
MW Anything of apparent facticity. Yeah. Emotionally, it’s richer. I also began to see that philosophically I was covering a terrain that was far larger than what was available to me when I was trying to be a “good” writer. Because when you’re trying to be a good writer, you’re always worried about Shakespeare and the 8,000 other people who write, and that basically gets in the way. It messes you up. You lose passion, you lose a sense of ideas. You lose consecutive thinking…. Consecutive thinking takes you in directions that have nothing to do with accepted rules of exposition.
LY What do you mean by consecutive thinking?
MW Just the way your mind is working. Our notions of what correct arguments are—whether it’s theater, journalism, or even science, are pretty limited. So a lot of this began to occur to me, and I ended up with Terminal Hip, for one actor, and Cellophane, for a bunch of actors. I had this idea of making up, almost from scratch, an alternative theater language—probably a completely lunatic idea. In practice, of course, I had a hard time figuring out how to do it. For a while I tried to snip the text up and make it into quotation plays. That didn’t work. After many false starts, dead ends, and desperate sallies into what I call the realm of Higher Malarkey I stumbled upon the obvious. The only way to do it was to direct it simply and cleanly, chunk by chunk, the way it was written, in monologues. Maniacal monologues on occasion, or moon-mad ones, but always deeply sincere sallies into the long night of the (contemporary) American nightmare.
LY In all your plays people speak mostly in monologues and soliloquies. The plays are more performance-oriented than traditional drama.
MW I discovered that about them over the years. I have friends who have that amazing ear for dialogue that you need to write for movies and television. I have something else. People talk more like my plays than they do on those things on television, but when I write things that people have actually said, which I do frequently, it looks odd. Everything I write looks odd, as if it were chiseled in stone.
LY Most people have a hard time reading plays because scripts don’t read naturally. Whereas I find, to read one of your plays, each monologue or exchange is like a short story. There’s a real narrative to each—it’s wonderful reading, actually.
MW Most of American theater is built on the notion that what constitutes drama is two people yapping at each other in the foreground about something emotional. That’s called drama. And that’s fine with me, but that doesn’t exhaust what drama can be. I don’t think in Aristotelian terms. The failure of a lot of theater is that it’s Aristotelian, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end: Now we’re in the conflict part, now you know the conflict is going to be resolved, and then we can all get together and celebrate some perfectly obvious and banal emotional or theatrical truism in some meaningless way. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but that’s not the only kind of work. I think of theater not just as propositions but propositions put in a specific context. Take Bad Penny — that was the best thing I ever did. You couldn’t tell where it started or stopped, and it picked up its special lunacy from the setting. I’m interested in the whole problem of text against context and the interplay between them. That’s what makes something theatrical or dramatic—a complex relationship between the dialogue and the setting. Basically, I’m trying to argue for a theater that’s a little more interested in ideas and texture.
LY Do you see any other writers fulfilling that promise?
MW Probably the closest one philosophically is Suzan Lori-Parks. And Erik Ehn, Eric Overmyer, Len Jenkin. And of course Jeff Jones, who wrote this play, J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation which went on down at the corner of Wall Street and Broad. I used to talk about these people as representing some sort of school, or group. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. Although it’s nice to think that, particularly when you’re practicing unconventional theater. But the truth is my work isn’t like anybody else’s. And it’s getting stranger and stranger. But we live in such an odd time. In fact, it’s a deeply unsettling and disquieting and strange time, spiritually as well as politically, in every conceivable way.
LY Do you consider your theater to be political?
MW Yeah, I do. Most of it. But it can’t be reduced to slogans. Most American theater is about reassuring people. Evil is pretty much explainable in this country. I used to call it, “A bad boy is a good boy with a sad story.” And in the conventional theater, that’s always the case: “I turned into an axe-murderer because I didn’t get the rubber duck in the fourth grade.” It literally, usually, boils down to something that stupid. And that misses so much of what we have to deal with.
LY It does seem to me that what you’re going for is as much a spiritual epiphany as an emotional story. Most of it is very dark, yet there’s always a parallel sense of something else that’s strong, powerful, and not completely negative, bubbling up.
MW And when it works, that’s what happens—something else suddenly rises up all around you and you are aware of the fact that you’re alive in a world that is unique. And that’s a political sentiment. I’m more and more intrigued by the fact that the only place we know life exists is this place, and that, to me, has a lot of poignancy. Even to talk about it in a literal-minded way demeans it. I veer in the direction that scares me, the darker emotions, which you don’t see a lot of on the stage. Envy, for instance. Real envy. Jealousy. Hatred. Cold hatred. Suspicion.
LY One of the driving forces of the earth.
MW Or despair! Utter hopelessness. We’re often subject to these things. You get inside them and a lot of times they’re very comical. But Americans are convinced that their emotions are the only reality they have.
LY That’s a pretty sweeping generalization to make.
MW I don’t think it is.
LY Are people threatened by your work? (Yeah.) Because I don’t understand why you haven’t been invited into more high-profile theaters.
MW I still have a really hard time. I know a lot of people who run bigger theaters who like my work, but are afraid it won’t play at their houses. I think they’re wrong.
LY You always get good reviews.
MW I know.
MW I know. At least, most of the time.
LY Your plays make up-to-the-moment points that you don’t get from a newspaper. Why isn’t there a Mac Wellman play going on in every neighborhood every night?
MW That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing—two, three plays a year for the past five, six years. I’m worn out.
LY I don’t know how you can turn it out like that.
MW I don’t either. I am slowing down, I know that.
LY Tell me about Tallahassee.
MW It’s an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Len and I came up with the idea four years ago, and workshopped it at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
LY Is this the first time you’ve worked from another poet’s source?
MW It’s not the first time I’ve adapted. I’ve adapted a number of things. Bierce. Lope de Vega. And also with Len Jenkin, Dracula.
LY Oh, I’m sorry. I knew that.
MW And I hope I’m going to do Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the same producer. But Ovid’s Metamorphoses is wonderful because it’s hundreds and hundreds of stories. We set it in Florida. Tallahassee, the state capital, is our Mount Olympus. There’s a corrupt governor of Florida named Ted Madrid, who’s Zeus, and people get turned into lawn furniture. It’s full of alligators. My favorite scene is just a bunch of lawn furniture sitting in front of microphones. These are people who have suffered metamorphosis for their sordid crimes, specifically the vengeful mother who cooked her children into an elaborate meal for her philandering husband.
LY How many characters are in this play?
MW A lot. But we’re going to do it with a cast of ten or twelve. We’re doing it in a small theater.
LY Ten or twelve in a small theater that accommodates how many?
MW Seventy seats. It’s a young company called Workhouse Theater. Damien Gray is the Artistic Director, and he’ll be directing it. For them, it’s a big deal and they’re going to work their tails off. If we did it anyplace uptown, we’d get hesitant, confused support, assuming we’d get anybody to do it. It’s hard now, if you’re an unconventional writer. Everybody’s very conservative, but they don’t think they are.
LY All the interesting new ideas or movements or changes in language have always come from the marginalized. That’s where the energy is, and everyone knows it. But they won’t put any money into it. It just snakes surreptitiously through the culture. But you don’t get rich waiting for it to get there.
MW I used to be foolish enough to think things would change but, no, it’s not going to change in my lifetime. But I can’t complain, because at least I can do my work. And it costs a lot of money to produce a play at any level, it takes a huge amount of human effort, so I’m very fortunate. I’m more concerned about the younger people I know who are really talented and whom there’s basically no room for. Of course, they’ll have to get better at what they do and make new venues. It’s one thing I devote a lot of time to, helping younger writers get their work done and performed.
LY The artists whose sensibility I like most are the ones who are able to be generous. The ones who don’t hold back. There’s less paranoia about other artists using their ideas, not so much worrying about their place in the world. I mean, you can worry about that metaphorically.
MW It’s hard to have a career in the arts. If it’s totally about you, you’ll burn out in nothing flat. As soon as I want back more from it than I’m willing to put in, that’s when it turns around and I get in trouble. I’m not selfless but there’s a lot I can do to help people. When I came to New York, nobody did that for me. I always said to myself, if I ever get into a position where I can make a difference to people, I will do it. The wonderful thing about New York is that it really is diverse. It’s one of the few places in this country where you can have dealings with people who are profoundly different. I would never have found my way to anything interesting if I hadn’t come here. As I get older, too, I’m interested in doing things I haven’t done. You realize life is so short.
LY Do you have a regular discipline you follow every day, no matter what?
MW No. In fact, I fight not to have one. It’s another useless habit. I go to the Public Library to write, or the NYU library. I can’t write at home. Occasionally I do, because I don’t want to make that into another pointless rule. I like to be surprised. I like to feel uncomfortable. I’m obsessed with handwriting so I write with pencil, so it doesn’t look good. But I never go for long without writing.
LY What is The Land of For and Whistles?
MW That was a solo piece. It was only performed once, as part of the Whitney Biennial in 1993. The evil Biennial that everyone hated.
LY Everyone seems to hate every single one of ’em.
MW I think they’re wonderful. I got such a hoot out of being in the Biennial, my painter friends were looking at me very grimly. But it was fun, and they gave enough money so that we could do the performance. It is a phenomenally difficult piece for the actress doing it (the fabulous Jan Leslie Harding). It nearly drove her nuts. She stood on a platform the size of a small table that was mounted to a genie lift. At the end of the piece, the table rises from twelve to thirty-four feet up in the air. Alone, suspended in empty space.
LY My God! Do you know what’s going to happen visually while you’re writing?
MW No. Some writers think they envisage the whole thing while they’re writing. I feel like I’m setting problems for myself and the other people involved, so often I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like until it’s performed.
LY You don’t form any visual image?
MW I do, I do. I did. I imagined it much smaller and quieter and stiller and colder. It ended up being quite amazing. In something like The Hyacinth Macaw, for instance, which is basically an odd, (anti) naturalistic play with people saying unusual things and talking for far too long. The designer I worked with, Kyle Chepulis, noticed all the sun and moon images. The sun came up and went down at the wrong time and he proposed we try to light the show with a single source. This guy’s an inveterate techie, he’s buying catalogs all the time—he found a five-thousand-watt light bulb.
LY That’s extraordinary. One light bulb?
MW Yeah, it’s huge and comes in its own wooden box. So he literally built a sun and a moon that were separately tracked, and could cruise along the top and move down. It was hilarious, because all of the shadows in the room would start gliding around. Actors were advised not to look directly at it.
LY Have you ever collaborated with anyone, besides production people? Another writer, aside from Len Jenkin?
MW A few years ago I did a piece with Connie Congdon about Byzantium. She’s a good friend.
LY Myths seem to have a big attraction for you.
MW Byzantium is interesting because it’s a thousand-year history, the history of Rome. It’s enormously rich and contradictory but has been totally ignored by everybody. Someone like Richard Nixon would have fit in real well there, there were political double-dealings and shenanigans. I was interested in a Byzantine emperor named Constantine the Fifth, who was nicknamed Copronymus, which means “shit-named,” because when he was baptized he fouled the baptismal font. It’s supposed to be a bad sign. He was actually Asian, his dynasty was Syrian. People thought he was nothing, an unimportant weakling. He was sickly, and when he was a kid, other people basically ran the Empire. And then his uncle deposed him, but Constantine turned out to be a military genius. He came back and deposed his uncle and then attacked the church. He confiscated church lands, marched five thousand monks and nuns into the Hippodrome and married them, gave church riches to the poor… He was sort of a Communist. And the same time he was doing this, he was fighting the Arabs, who were at the height of their power in the eighth century, and the Bulgars. The word “iconoclasm” comes from his generation, because they banned church images and fostered interest in the secular arts. After his death, the religious people came back into power and destroyed all the images of him. Although, when Constantinople was besieged by the Turks in 1453, people didn’t go to pray at the church. They went to the tomb of Constantine the Fifth. He was the one hero they had, who was of the people, completely. People like that interest me. Totally contradictory in character.
LY You’ve read a great deal. You’re this incredible treasury of knowledge from obscure sources.
MW Too much. But it makes the work specific.
LY How so?
MW Referring to specifically odd things. My favorite philosopher, Heraclitus, said the most beautiful thing in the world is “a random collection” of unrelated objects. We all know this is true, it’s why nature is so wonderful. I would like to make plays that are like things you find in the street, that are like natural objects. But it’s hard to do that. It’s very easy to get possessed by one’s own intentions as an artist, what one thinks is right and wrong in an obvious way (if it’s obvious, it’s obviously wrong, as the cynic says). But there are deeper things that I know, that I don’t know I know, and it’s getting at those things that makes a person an artist. Every year, the older I get, it’s harder to think clearly about anything, and I’m more trapped by my own wishful thinking, and rightful thinking. Political notions. They’re just like everybody else’s. You need more than that to live, much less to make a work of art.
LY What do you mean?
MW Theater is its own way of perceiving the world, but theater isn’t just important because it can promote such-and-such ideas or that it makes people better people or expresses our emotions. It’s a different way of looking at the world. Art is important not because it can be translated into something else, but because art possesses and embodies its own good, its own special (and spiritual) value, period. People who try to argue for its social utility do it a disservice, even though they’re really trying not to. You can’t paraphrase it too well. The most sophisticated art is unparaphraseable, and that goes for mine.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.