On Mac Wellman and Theatre
In an interview with Eliza Bent, one of his former students from Brooklyn College, Mac Wellman describes American Naturalism as an investigation into inner turmoil, motivations, conflicts and addictions. This, he says, is “baloney.” Naturalism, due to the way it’s sentimentalized, misses the weird, true things people often say and do, the interesting stuff. Like, he says, witnessing a dead shark being carried into an East Side bank or a man brushing his teeth at a stop light. In his words, these events are more truthful than what is often seen in mainstream plays, which mainly “reaffirm what the audience thinks it already knows.”
Mac Wellman is consistent across interviews. Much like his penchant for drinking rosé in Brooklyn cafes, this critique of mainstream American theatre repeats itself. In a BOMB Magazine interview, he states, “American naturalism, in all its variants, despite its inveterate thieving of popular speech, seems to me basically and deeply anti- linguistic, anti-poetic.” Or, more simply, it’s not “real.” In the same interview, he goes on to equate American theatre’s idea of drama with two people arguing with each other. There’s a conflict exposed, a conflict in progress, and a conflict solved with a resolution. This traditional form of theatre, often existing in Aristotelian terms, fails to do anything other than reassure people. Such a repetitive process of reassurance is limiting. Working on such narrow terms eliminates “…much of what we have to deal with” as human beings. Rather than acknowledging life outside of emotionality, Americans live in a subjective world, which is shored up by endless truisms and glad-handed moments of catharsis.
If American theatre doesn’t represent Americans through and through, what are the alternatives? What are the alternatives to traditional theatre or, more to Mac’s words, what are the other forms of theatre being overlooked? What else exists and how do we get there? It starts with analyzing our current state in the world, which is often “… very strange and complicated,” which might be the understatement of the century. How does one make sense of a complicated world? Perhaps, as Mac says in an interview with the LA Times, it’s best to “make plays that in some sense are as complicated and strange as the world we live in.” How does one do that? Some of the process lives in analyzing the things one sees in their own lives, like a dead shark in a bank or a man brushing his teeth in his car. Supporting a truthful look at the lives of American citizens requires the use of language and dialogue unaware of its use in theatre. The language has to work to reflect reality as opposed to propping up drama. This process necessitates, or encourages, a heightened language, which may seem contradictory to accurate portrayal, but in reality, captures the way people speak in their daily lives.
While Mac Wellman works to include language more comfortable in a dictionary than spoken, he also works to illuminate the ways we speak to each other. In his interview with BOMB Magazine, Mac discusses how he would write the “worst possible writing, grammatically speaking.” He would write out bad sentences on a legal pad every day, investigating the way language is actually used. “… 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.” Yet, this truth is contradictory in American theatre. The closer one comes to approximating a vernacular, the odder it looks. What he writes looks strange, “as if it were chiseled in stone.” What seems strange at first, truthful language not being truthful, actually connects with Mac’s initial diagnosis of the American theatre-goer, a person who is restricted to seeing the world through his/her emotions. If the average theatre-goer in America seeks reassurance through a large display of emotions similar to his/her own (see his comment on two characters arguing), it would follow that a language investigating the average appears unnatural. After all, American theatre isn’t about the thoughts of the man brushing his teeth at the stoplight, it’s about uncovering trauma, understanding the “bad boy [who was once] a good boy with a sad story.”
The definition of this heightened language is malleable. While Mac may say the most sophisticated forms of art are “unparaphraseable,” he often deals in phrases, which when put together, represent the “exact emotional and philosophical expression… Americans feel.” For example, “If I hadda been, I mighta could,” or, “If I hadda been, I mighta could.” This language in its impreciseness is “casual,” but is specific in its use of sound and shorthand. There’s repetition and a vagueness to them, they’re both open in their generalness and open in their direction, but they maintain a specific emotion.
In both The Self Begotten and A Murder of Crows, Mac deals almost exclusively in this language. The Self Begotten is a long monologue to an unspeaking client, while A Murder of Crows traces a daughter’s premonitions and her father’s death through overlapping language and the musicality of language. These plays focus more on the micro arcs of sentences and inscrutable language than a traditional dramatic arc. From The Self Begotten: “Fucking Arab, who wants to buy my legislative ass. Hell, you ain’t even an Arab. If you ask me. Looks more like a Jew. Think I’m dumb. Hell, man, we are talking…” This sort of language marries rhythmic independent conjunctions with isolated, but similar in structure, dependent conjunctions. It carries a similar, clipped musicality as the “hadda been, mighta could” examples.
While I doubt Mac Wellman would say this style is an investigation into Truth with a capital T, he’s comfortable instructing his students to find their respective truths. In an interview with the New York Times, a former student describes his teaching style as a deconstruction of what’s “right.” “He taught me that we have the right to read whatever the hell we want, and write whatever the hell we want, whether we’re smart, dumb worthy, irresponsible, interesting, boring, pious, satanic or confused, and whether we ‘get it’ or not. And he’s right.” Nowhere within that statement is a directive to create plays adhering to an effective structure or dramatic arc. “Structure,” Mac says, “is just a set of cliches.” He once instructed his students to write a play without structure but found each play contained a structure, as if the students were hardwired to understand the world a certain way. And, much like his attempts to uncover a more representative dialect by constructing an untraditional language, he instructs his students to write bad plays or “… plays with their non dominant hands, to write a play that takes five hours to perform and covers a period of seven years.” One of his students described an assignment where she was required to write a play in a language she barely knew. This unfamiliarity reduces the dramatic and digs out the Truth. It’s much harder to construct language supporting traditional moments of catharsis and drama when the vocabulary is limited and personal, containing shorthand, colloquialisms, subjective phrases and esoteric terms. It’s also much truer to the way people use language on a daily basis. Unlike in traditional American theatre, a dialogue between two real people follows no real rules, is scattershot and incomplete. It moves, retreats and advances with no regard for structure or knowledge of an endpoint.
Just as apparent as Mac Wellman’s distaste for traditional theatre, which he deems conservative, is his refusal to state what is correct or what is superior. Across a multitude of interviews and essays, he disavows traditional theatre and its representative playwrights, like Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams. He also says, “That [form of drama is] fine with me.” Instead, Mac seems much more comfortable stating what works for Mac and less in defining the totality of theatre. Much like his penchant for rosé and heightened language, this openness is a constant. Often, Mac takes an anti-establishment stand and then analyzes its opposite in an even- handed way. And, I’d like to point out, I’m holding the term “anti-establishment” with a loose hand with no attribution to the man himself. I don’t mean to portray Mac as a hardliner or a man who speaks in hyperbole or exclusionary statements. Instead, I’m working to find universal touchstones for Mac’s arguments, as he seems uninterested in the universal.
Hitchhiking in the Netherlands during a study abroad trip, he encountered Dutch director Annemarie Prins. As the story goes, Prins stopped on the road and scolded Mac for hitchhiking in an off limits area. She offered him a ride and the two became friends, him sharing a collection of his poetry. She asked if he ever considered writing plays. He said no, saying he didn’t like plays. Mac has never explicitly stated how she persuaded him to start writing for the theatre, but shortly after their meeting, he began writing plays for Dutch radio. This wasn’t his livelihood, however. Speaking to the LA Times, he describes life after graduate study at the University of Wisconsin, after his meeting with Annemarie Prins. “Wellman taught college composition to pay rent; in his spare time, he devoured books on literature, philosophy and history and wrote poetry… But writing for the stage proved a slow and often agonizing struggle.” And, he admits, “I certainly wasn’t any kind of prodigy.” It took him until his early 30s, almost ten years, before he could write anything that was digestible or interesting.
Years after meeting Prins, Mac Wellman had his first production (Starluster) at the American Theatre in 1979. “It was a tiny production,” and a template for the coming years. Having started as a poet, Mac describes his initial plays as unproduceable, closer to bad poetry than theatre. Looking at his long list of accomplishments and his C.V., the eighties and nineties were full of productions, but their histories are not as realized or detailed as his initial foray into theatre. Speaking to his former student Eliza Bent for American Theatre, he describes being on the panel for the NYSCA (New York State Council on the Arts), but he doesn’t specify the time period. One can assume, based on his mention of Whirligig (1988) and the NYSCA grant, it was sometime in the late eighties or nineties. But it’s difficult to chart his history from hitchhiking in the Netherlands to his current state, where his website states a minimum commission is two and a half million dollars. I’m uncertain if this is a truthful statement or another example of his playfulness, reminiscent of the time he ended a scheduling email with the New York Times by saying, “See you tamale!”
It’s hard to draw parallels with Mac Wellman. His origin in theatre was one of a poet’s happenstance. His style eschews and attacks traditional forms of drama, naturalism in particular. Yet, his work aims to represent the world in its true form, just as naturalism does (or attempts to). I would argue, however, by focusing on language as opposed to perception, Mac comes closer to approximating naturalism than naturalism does. Although, I think he would be uncomfortable with such a definition, as it’s a shorthand attempt to condense his philosophy. After all, what’s real and true doesn’t make much sense anyway.
Bent, Eliza. “Mac Wellman: An Outlier Tracing His Own Orbit.” AMERICAN THEATRE.
Collins, Scott. “Is Nothing Sacred? (Nope).” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 26 Jan. 1997
“Mac Wellman by Linda Yablonsky — BOMB Magazine.” Mac Wellman — BOMB Magazine
“Mac Wellman.” Mac Wellman :: Foundation for Contemporary Arts
Magazine, Method. “THE TORTOISE AND THE CROWBAR: AN INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT MAC WELLMAN.” METHOD
Soloski, Alexis. “Mac Wellman, a Playwriting Mentor Whose Only Mantra Is Oddity.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2015
“This Theater Is a Strange Hole: Mac Wellman’s Poetics of Apparence.” This Theater Is a Strange Hole: Mac Wellman’s Poetics of Apparence | POSTMODERN CULTURE