But what really annoys me is when Wellman starts expounding on The Problem with Naturalism in Theater as he does in his introduction to a collection of his plays "The Bad Infinity" which I recently took out of the library.
Wellman loves to reach out to the Great Men of History for affirmation. He starts with Kierkegaard:
...Kierkegaard said that a direct relation to the deity was the definition of paganism, and he meant by this that the attempt to grasp and seize divinity by the appropriation of a human definition was to create an idol, an unreal apparition that possessed no truth. If we take the world we know as an act of collective imagining, an idol of the modern mind, it becomes apparent that reality as such becomes subject to the same - or a similar - danger: decay of the perceptual process, enactment of an unreal idol reality. The banishment of the real world. In other terms, the thing itself is replaced by successive (repetitive) images of the thing...If you can find any actual substance in the above excerpt you are a better semiotician than I Gunga Din.
First off, Kierkegaard was a theist who thought Christianity needed reforming. Presumably along the lines of Martin Luther - Kierkegaard was raised Lutheran and is commemorated in the Lutheran Church's "Calendar of Saints."
Kierkegaard's attitude towards Christianity is similar to Luther's - that salvation, or a connection to God is on an individual basis, not to be mediated through the Catholic Church (in Luther's day) or the Protestant establishment (in Kierkegaard's day.) So what does a non-Christian - an atheist even - care about these ecumenical squabbles on the supposed evils of paganism? I mean, really, why would I care if the relationship to "the deity" is direct or indirect? It's a relationship to a fiction either way.
But even if I did care, what do I make of Wellman's interpretation?
...the attempt to grasp and seize divinity by the appropriation of a human definition was to create an idol, an unreal apparition that possessed no truthWhat exists outside of "human definition?" Unless you are a mystic, you must agree that nothing does. Whether your relation to deity is direct or indirect, it is defined by you - or by a group of individuals as in the Catholic Church - as a human. And surely even a mystic, one who believes humans are created by the deity in question, can hardly fault humans for defining the world around them based on human understanding.
Or could you? If you don't worry about logic or coherence, then I guess you could.
So with that in mind, onto the next statement:
If we take the world we know as an act of collective imagining, an idol of the modern mind...
That's a big if, and it depends on how you define "the world" and "collective" and "imagining" - but you fans of Wellman don't need to be told, you're already among the knowing. Clearly from the context, the world we know, "an idol of the modern mind" is bad... we know it's bad because Wellman continues:
...it becomes apparent that reality as such becomes subject to the same - or a similar - danger: decay of the perceptual process, enactment of an unreal idol reality.
Danger. That's bad. So is decay. And the danger is enactment of an "unreal idol reality." From this we can infer that real reality - or "reality" - is good.
So there we go. Idols are bad, because they are not reality, which is good.
I would argue that idols in themselves are neither good nor bad, but just a symbol of something. You know, just like these words you are reading inspire thoughts in your head, but the words themselves are just black marks on a white database field. And Wellman doesn't think words are bad since he generally uses an excess of them whenever he wants a character to speak.
So how does all this evil idolatry connect to theater? Wellman continues:
In American theater this idolatry bears the name of naturalism. Its origin is the same as that of the paganism Kierkegaard wrote of: the desire to subsume all human experience under labels, definitions, and explanations and therefore to substitute rationalizations for experience.It should be noted that Wellman's distaste for unreal paganism doesn't stop him from providing his own labels, definitions and explanations. Although perhaps all can be understood with what comes next:
The logic of The Bad Infinity is an attempt to suggest the logic of this decayed act of collective imagining. It is not interesting at this point in human time to portray the real world as it seems to be in its own terms; but it is interesting to unfold, in human terms, the logic of its illogic and so get at the nut of our contemporary human experience.At least, it's Wellman's opinion that his plays are interesting and that they unfold in human terms the logic of illogic (or I guess the blackness of white, or the fullness of emptiness, etc.); and that this in turn somehow gets at "the nut of our contemporary human experience."
I'd say his plays are as interesting and as penetrating as his anti-naturalism philosophizing.
You do have to at least be grateful that he will allow the unfolding to take place, you know "in human terms" rather than presumably in his more native direct-from-deity terms.
He then goes on to ask us to worship more of his personal idols, the aforementioned Great Men of History in addition to Kierkegaard - he name drops Beckett, Handke, Witkiewicz, Twain, Bierce and Mencken:
We need a dozen Mark Twains, a score of Bierces, a hundred Menckens to do justice to the times. Those of us involved in this critique of apparent reality cannot expect to convince many, much less can we expect our views to prevail (the time may be past for all that); all we can expect is to have some fun, share some laughter, and go out with a modicum of self-respect. We must love the truth not because it favors us but because it is the truth.What "the truth" is, Wellman doesn't actually say, but maybe if you have to ask it's a sign you're not a member of the mystical anti-pagan truth brotherhood and shouldn't even bother asking for a definition - you know "in human terms."Although maybe he really is saying nothing more nuanced than "naturalism in theater is bad and untruthful" and "postmodern theater like mine is good and truthful."
I have to laugh at his inclusion of Twain, who I seriously doubt would be a fan of Wellman's plays or theories. Twain's own play, IS HE DEAD? is about as naturalistic as they come (and also a big mess), and so are his novels. Then of course, as lovable as he often is, Twain was a raging bigot against native Americans, and Mencken was an anti-Semite.
In any case, I'm taking "The Bad Infinity" back to the library, and with any luck won't have to think about Mac Wellman much more in the future, apart from bumping into the occasional Internet hagiography.