Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mac Wellman: "I don't like plays."

"I don't like plays" is not something you expect the Donald I. Fine Distinguished Professor of Play Writing to say. Now granted, Mac Wellman hasn't said that recently, but there's nothing in his body of work that indicates to me that he ever changed his mind.

Once again he reminds me of the Darren Nichols character in "Slings and Arrows." Here is an exchange from S&A
   Geoffrey Tennant 
You know, Darren, your problem is you hate the theater. 
   Darren Nichols 
I don't hate it, I pity it. Sad little medium struggling to be heard. More people listen to the radio than go to the theater and nobody listens to the radio.

NYTimes' latest article about Wellman is one more example of the fact that among theater gatekeepers, Mac Wellman is an untouchable - there is an unspoken rule that he may not be criticized, and the Times complies. Although the headline writer reveals what Wellman is all about:
Mac Wellman, a Playwriting Mentor Whose Only Mantra Is Oddity
Wellman expressed his dislike of plays before some idiot talked him into becoming a playwright. From the Times article:
Mr. Wellman, 69, came to playwriting accidentally. As he explained over a glass of rosé at a cafe near his Park Slope apartment, he was hitchhiking in the Netherlands during a junior year abroad when the Dutch director Annemarie Prins happened to give him a ride. He gave her a few of his poems, and she asked him if he had ever considered writing plays. “No,” he told her. “I don’t like plays.” But she persisted, and he obliged her, writing plays for Dutch radio.
Damn you to hell, Annemarie Prins. Mac Wellman is the ne plus ultra of the dread postmodernism that infected all the American arts beginning in the 1950s. And yes, it is explicitly postmodernism:
He loathes what he calls “the theater of the already known” — the predictable, the formulaic, the tasteful, the complacent. As a consequence, his work is strange. He favors, as an article in the journal Postmodern Culture suggested, “wrongness, ceremony and a bit of demonism.”
By "the theater of the already known" Wellman means human emotions, which have not changed since the days of ancient Greek theater. Human emotions - and so naturally, actual human drama portrayed on a stage - are anathema to Mac Wellman. So instead his work is devoted to inane prissy wordplay:
There’s an exacting attention to language — every sentence, every word, every syllable — that would seem exhausting if the works weren’t so mischievous, so exultant, so fun. (He signed a scheduling email, “See you tamale!” This was not a case of autocorrect.) And he’s fond of impossible stage directions like “something strange happens” or “a furry pause.”
It turns out that there is very little commercial - or any other kind of - demand for Wellman's tweeness, outside of Academia and the more pretentious circle of critics, but that doesn't matter. Wellman is well-connected. And then of course there are his sycophants:
To Mr. Wellman’s annoyance and delight, his students tend to treat him as a cross between a favorite uncle and a minor deity. He teases them, mispronouncing their names or kidding them when they turn serious, but when he offers one of his playwriting koans — “The theater is a very strange and elusive thing to do,” he told his seminar participants — they reach for their notebooks.
I got a snootful of this bullshit myself when I attended one of his seminars and didn't return after the first session.

He seems to be getting credit in this Times puff piece for the success of some of his former students, although there doesn't seem to be any real reason given - and in fact...
...Mr. Wellman’s program has the distinction of turning out audacious writers with very little in common with him or with one another. Try to find the overlap of Ms. Baker’s empathetic neorealism and Mr. Bradshaw’s scabrous provocations. Look for the intersection between Ms. Lee’s canny deconstructions of identity politics and Sibyl Kempson’s rapturous nonsense. Keep looking.
Even Alexis Soloski, an obvious fan of Wellman, can't find his artistic influence on his successful students. So has Wellman had any influence on their careers at all? I suspect he has, but almost exclusively through his contacts -  he's very well connected and ferociously revered and so I'm sure he was able to help his students make the connections they needed to get ahead in their theater careers. This is not spelled out in the article - but then that bit of realpolitik would not fit in well in the standard airy-fairy Wellman hagiography.

Wellman himself is still writing plays, although apparently enough producers are clued in by now that...
Mr. Wellman’s own work no longer receives the attention it once did, although he’s still writing plays, as well as poetry, novels and opera librettos. He’d like to see these new works staged, though he worries about taking opportunities away from young writers like his students.
I think Wellman would do well to avoid having his work produced. He's already been declared a legendary theatrical deity, and he can only go downhill from there. To the best of my knowledge I am his only living critic, although possibly because I'm one of the rare theater people who has heard of him, outside of Academia and theater critics. Whenever I ask actors or other playwrights what they think of Mac Wellman, I get a blank look.

Wellman and his admirers don't like human emotions, and thus they don't like theater - they pity it. And they are attempting to rehabilitate it, to free it from its sad little formal conventions, the ones that allow meaningful stories to be comprehensible to ordinary mortals. Playing with form and with words is all they care about, and fuck your "already known" feelings. Mac Wellman and his followers would like to drive theater into complete irrelevance. Only then can it be pure enough for them not to despise its grubby little earth-borne commonality.

Another Wellman sycophant, Alec Duffy, expresses the pity and desire for rehabilitation of the theater in this way:
Alec Duffy, the artistic director of JACK, enthusiastically described the work that emerges from the program as “plays that don’t really behave like plays, plays that feature an adventure in form.”