Saturday, January 28, 2012


I received a response to my second post about the work of Mac Wellman. The commenter seems to think I'm wrong about something, but they don't say what exactly.

One of the points I made about Wellman's work is that because it elevates word-play over dramatic narrative, it is anti-emotional.

To continue along those lines - human emotions are not progressive. Unlike human intellectual endeavors, human emotions are not about innovation and novelty. People feel the same old shit. Emotions are stereotypes. And because the same old emotions are common to most people - possibly psychopaths and those with extreme cases of autism or brain-damage excepted - we can identify with the characters on stage. We don't have to be ex-kings and fathers of recently deceased daughters to be emotionally impacted by the last scene of KING LEAR. Now if we didn't know anything about King Lear's situation except with signage - a sign tells us he's an ex-king, a sign tells us she's his dead daughter, we would still respond emotionally to the spectacle of his mourning her death. But it's only through the coherent story, the dramatic narrative, do we really feel the full impact of King Lear's regret, remorse, anguish and mourning. That is what makes drama work.

I said in the previous post that I thought that Wellman's preferred text-centric approach to theatre was hostile to emotion. When Wellman says, in disparagement of "Aristotelian" theatre:  "we can all get together and celebrate some perfectly obvious and banal emotional or theatrical truism" he reveals his attitude towards emotion. Because emotion is banal. As the dictionary has it, banal is by definition:
lacking originality, freshness, or novelty
Yep. That's emotions for you. That's why we still watch The Trojan Women. Because we feel the same old banal shit that the ancient Greeks felt.

I'm not the only one who says this about emotion and Wellman's work. Consider this paper, "The Challenge of Neo-dramatic Writing in the Anglo-Saxon Theater" by Avra Sidiropoulou, from, amusingly, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

The paper provides a nice label for Wellman's postmodernist theatre - "Neo-dramatic Writing", the anti-Aristotelian approach to drama.

Neo-dramatic Writing is a true acrobat of all artistic disciplines. Sidiropoulou explains:
Essentially, in neo-dramatic writing textual primacy is restored, but done so after having been percolated through performance considerations, while simultaneously underlining the dangers of over-exposure to visuality and the limitations of empty formalism.
Sidiropoulou appears to be a fan of Wellman, but really, who, besides me, is not? And this is what he says about Wellman's work:
Traces of this tendency can be found in the plays of Mac Wellman. A poet, as well as a playwright, Wellman sometimes oscillates between the structures of poetry and theater in his dramatic work. As a result some of his plays display a portentous verbosity that actually flattens the characters, cerebralizing and ultimately sabotaging all sense of emotional content. For example, in Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS (2000) one of the most characteristic speeches reveals the narcissistic trend of writers to over-verbalize, which is in theory similar to some auteurs’ image-saturated and as such, fatuous and heavy-handed performances:
Can you believe it? I am surrounded by

maniacs and idiots. It is hard to say
which is worse, the maniacs or the idiots.
It is hard to say which is worse, the
mania of the maniacs, or the idiocy of the
idiots. For if there is one thing I
cannot abide it is the mania of maniacs;
for if there is something I hate even more
than that it is the idiocy of idiots. (Wellman)
This observation, together with the readers’ and the spectators’ (re-vised?) quest for essence and meaning does by no means vindicate a return to the structures of well-made plays.  
As that last sentence indicates, the author doesn't consider the sabotaging of emotional content a bad thing. And as he soon after says:
...fragmentation of character, fracturing and distortion of narrative, and mistrust for conventional representation are key characteristics of the post-1980s dramaturgy, part of the inevitable development of dramatic writing towards the ambiguity and abstraction that express our twenty-first-century sensibilities...
Yes, those traditional aspects of theatre, like emotional resonance, must be jettisoned - inevitably - in order to make way for 21st-century theatre.

Like Sidiropoulou's paper, Neo-dramatic Writing is a creature of the well-heeled confines of Academia. And in order to show that it is worth keeping around, in order to maintain any kind of prestige, theatre can't do the same old tired, trite, emotional-narrative thing that Wellman disparages. It has to show some kind of progress.

After all, science is always coming up with new ideas, creating new paradigms. Surely art must do the same thing.  Audiences can come to Neo-dramatic Writing theatre and they can like it. Or not. It doesn't matter - either way there's funding available.