Tuesday, January 24, 2012

more thoughts on Mac Wellman

Someone commented on my recent post "poor Mac Wellman" asking "who are you, again?"

I suspect it's Wellman himself. After I wrote the post, someone doing a search for "Mac Wellman" visited my web site several times. And nine times out of ten the person Googling a name is the person themselves.

But no worries - as the commenter, with the use of "again", is pointedly saying, I am nobody. My opinions are not a threat to the hermetically sealed perfection that is the career of Mac Wellman. For unlike other playwrights, like say, Tennessee Williams, William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Wellman does not get bad reviews. I am not kidding. Here is an interview with Wellman from  BOMB magazine from 1995:
LY You always get good reviews.

MW I know.

LY Always.

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.
It doesn't strike the interviewer or Wellman as odd that he always gets good reviews. Rather they find it inexplicable that those good reviews don't translate into vast public acclaim.

Just who do these nobodies in these neighborhoods think they are, anyway? How could they not be begging him to give them more of this?
The overall thrust of the piece seems to be about the impossibility of meaningful communication among people. Assuming that’s the case, the play totally makes its point.
And that was written by one of his admirers.

Almost all his reviews mention the communication issue, mainly the impossibility of meaningful communication. If there is any drearier topic for a theatre production, I can't think of it.

Lately Wellman has been working on  an  idea to fund CUNY MFA students.  The concern over the cost of education and the crushing debt that entails is an important issue and by no means one just for students in arts programs. It would be nice if we could just give all American students a bunch of money to continue their educations, even into post-graduate studies. And so...
...Wellman and his colleagues on the CUNY Affiliation Committee have a plan. They’ve recently launched a campaign entitled “CUNY Creative Writing MFA: The New Bohemia” that would fund a full tuition abatement for all creative-writing MFAs. If it succeeds, this initiative will render tuition entirely free for the programs at Brooklyn, City, Hunter, and Queens colleges.
But how important is it, really for a playwright to have an MFA? Instead of money to complete an MFA, why not give them money to do productions - or offer to produce their work?

That wouldn't do Wellman much good though - other playwrights receiving productions would be competition for Wellman, but more importantly, without MFA students, Wellman, the Program Coordinator of the Brooklyn College English Department Master of Fine Arts Program, Playwriting would be out of a job. So for Wellman to come up with a plan to raise five million dollars to fund this program, with the Newspeak-inspired subtitle of "New Bohemia", is a smart career move. Wellman has no trouble whatsoever with meaningful communication when it counts, whatever his plays might say about the impossibility.

Of all the reviews of Wellman's work, I think this is the most clarifying. It's a rare, bad review. However, the reviewer is certain of Wellman's titanic genius:
Wellman is a playwright of considerable merit, an icon of American experimental theater, if not its guru. He has written more than 40 plays; has received three OBIE awards (including a lifetime-achievement nod); and is, by all accounts, a brilliant, thoughtful, amazingly talented writer. But you wouldn't know from this miserably failed piece of experimental theater.
But based on the ensuing description of the work, it sounds exactly like every other play Wellman has written:
A press release... quotes Wellman as saying Hyacinth Macaw is one of "four plays that . . . taken together, [tell] a story about a young woman adrift and alienated in a world essentially gone mad. . . . Populated by corporate thieves and religious maniacs and desperate losers of all kinds." He goes on to disclose that he doesn't "write psychological plays. . . . I'm interested more in plays about the 'big picture' rather than little intimate studies of a presumably sacrosanct inner life."
That sounds reasonable and important and compelling; unfortunately, it doesn't manifest in Hyacinth Macaw. It's as if the play were afflicted with Tourette's syndrome, continually convulsing in a stream of gibberish.
The basic storyline: a mysterious stranger shows up in a family's back yard. He calls the teenage daughter an orphan and tells the mother he has a letter for her husband. She gives the letter to her husband, Ray. It informs him he is a fake and the mysterious stranger is a duplicate of him. Dad has to leave his family forever. No one really seems to mind, least of all Dad. In Act 2, the mysterious stranger gives Dad a snake because that's apparently a gift where he comes from. Dad leaves, as the other characters sing the chorus of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The stranger is now the new dad; he says the contract calls for him to stay 99 years. The daughter feeds him bugs. Mom runs off with Mad Wu, a vagabond from China. The daughter goes with dad to bury the moon; she caw-caws like a macaw. New dad says we are all orphans. Play over.
The critics all agree, Wellman is a genius. But how, I wonder, do they distinguish a "good" Wellman play from a "bad" Wellman play? I think this paragraph in the same review gives the game away:
To not "get" a play like this opens one up to feeling as if one's a Philistine, someone who lacks the intellect to wrestle with highly stylized "art." But it's also possible there really is nothing to get in Wellman's play. And that's fine. Plays that stubbornly refuse to give answers and are instead devoted to making the audience ask questions are absolutely worthwhile.
That's what Wellman's perfect career is all about. The worry of theatre reviewers and academics that to dislike the work of Wellman is to risk being thought a stupid Philistine. And so they err on the side of caution, and heap on the praise for yet another inscrutable piece of anti-emotional, anti-narrative incoherence.

Postmodernism was a disaster for anthropology, for example. Marvin Harris discusses the postmodern hostility towards science in his last book "Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times":
...postmodernists associate science and reason with the domination and oppression of totalitarian regimes. Since science searches for a "best answer" it it precludes diversity and leads to intolerance. In postmodern eyes "reasonable" ways are always brutally unfair to somebody... Pauline Rosenau explains that abandoning reason "means for post-modernists, liberation from modernity's preoccupation with authority, efficiency, hierarchy, power, technology, commerce (the business ethic), administration, social engineering... It means release from modern science's concern for order, consistency, predictability."
Mac Wellman, in this interview from BOMB Magazine reveals himself to be a complete postmodernist when it comes to theatre:
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.
Mind you, he's not saying celebrating some perfectly obvious and banal emotional or theatrical truism in some meaningless way is wrong. Like all postmodernists, Wellman will let you draw your own conclusions.

Now postmodernism isn't quite as pernicious in the arts as it is in anthropology or other scientific endeavors - amusing the upper-classes with cachet-ridden nonsense is pretty harmless, and diverts them from insider trading or any of the many other ways they maintain their economic dominance. But still, what this passage indicates is that Wellman actually hates theatre. He doesn't say that though. Instead he posits that there are two different kinds of theatre: the old-tyme, Aristotelian kind, with a beginning, middle and end and conflicts to be resolved; and his kind, where you can't tell where it stopped or started and the interplay is between text against context. 

In actuality Mac Wellman's theatre is anti-theatre. Because theatre is about human emotion and Wellman and his fans are much too intelligent for human emotion. And really, where is the glory in representing emotional content on stage that just anybody can understand? We can establish a hierarchy based on intelligence - some people are smarter than others. And there is the economic hierarchy - people low on that hierarchy can't really afford to see experimental "theatre" can they?

But what kind of hierarchy can you establish based on emotions? Both dull people and smart people, both those who can afford the time and money to attend experimental theatre and those who can't feel love, sadness, fear, joy. And they've been feeling these things since the beginning of time. What's the point of doing theatre if you can't innovate it far beyond human identification and commonality,  beyond those "banal" done-to-death emotion-laden conflicts-to-be-resolved scenarios, into the heroic realm of word salad?

In 1996, Alan Sokal demonstrated the absurdity of postmodernism by submitting nonsense to Social Text, a journal of post-modern studies. After it was accepted, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as
a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics
The opening of Wellman's "Speculations" demonstrates how it's done:
The STRUCTURE of a play ought not be viewed as a fixed thing, but as a mutable one.

I mean, the structure of a play conceived of as a moving point:
ππππππππ . ππππππ

passing over– or through– time, from inception to end point; so that what it is relation    of    part    to    who(o)le    [Oh Mereology!]    changes    continuously    and continually;

changes because space is filled with invisible lines– as theatron. (Da Vinci) This is why vertical narrative is possible.

This is why monologue is inherently demonic.

This is why only the wicked walk in circles. (Augustine)

Drama takes place in phase space. The continuum of phase-space is to time as time is to space.

Theatricality    takes    place,    as    it    were, perpendicular to time, along the phase-space continuum. We do not know what we are doing.

Thus neither theatricality nor drama takes place in time, although of course they do.

Time (clock time, I mean) is of the essence only in appearance, not in APPARENCE. Time is only apparently an expression of space; the reverse is also true. (Einstein)
Real thinking as well, lies outside time, occupies an    outside-time,    “that    eternal    moment    that medieval philosophy approached in the nunc stans of the mystic”. (Arendt)
Since postmodernism does not recognize traditional values like structure and coherence, the editors at Social Text had nothing against which to evaluate Sokal's submission, except on the basis of impressive turns of phrase. This is the very essence of the "theatre" of Mac Wellman.

I'm not saying that's wrong.

If you find value in Speculations you will certainly find much value in this Postmodernism Generator. Enjoy.


Update: once again, someone Googling "Mac Wellman" has visited this site - from the same URL as last time - and once again, they've posted a response. As you can see in the comments section they seem to be channeling an insulting Snagglepuss suffering from aphasia. If this isn't Wellman himself, it's someone doing a spot-on impression of what I think Wellman would sound like in a pissing contest. But since the commenter is too cowardly (different lion - Snagglepuss may have been an effeminate thespian but he was no coward) to sign their name, I can't say it's Wellman for certain. The commenter thinks I'm wrong, but about exactly what they don't say, so I can't address the  disagreements.

But then we all know about the impossibility of meaningful communication, don't we?