Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Mac Wellman wants to slap the audience in the face

Almost five years ago I noted that Mac Wellman likes to talk about how much most American theater sucks, but he refrained from naming names - although the interviewer of this American Theatre piece claims otherwise, but this is the first time I have ever seen it:

(Wellman) ...I never wanted to write the American kind of “play.” Some of my plays are disguised—they have five legs instead of four legs. Some of them have tusks. 
(Interviewer) Oh, I know your plays are multi-limbed! 
When you say you’re not interested in writing the American play—what does that mean to you? 
Ooh, I wouldn’t want to list all the plays that I hate! I mean, I’m not a big fan of Arthur Miller or even Eugene O’Neill, though I think he knew a lot about theatre. O’Neill is a great person but you put him next to Strindberg and he disappears. I don’t particularly care for Tennessee Williams. I think, really, American playwriting began to get interesting in the ’60s with Shepard and Fornes. Before that, it’s screenplays that are great. 
I actually think the great period of playwriting is now. The problem is there just aren’t enough theatres willing to do plays. As well you know. 
In New York everything has to make money and be corporate. So it’s hard. But it continually evolves, so I don’t know where it will be in 10 years. 
Looking back at your texts and essays, you never seemed afraid to name names, as in your disinterest in Edward Albee, O’Neill. 
I mean, I like Albee. He likes to think he’s like Beckett, but he’s not like Beckett at all. You can’t imitate Beckett but you can imitate Albee and a million people have, and they aren’t as smart or interesting as he is—it’s hard. I mean, that’s why I always try to get my students to read foreign plays. This country is very cut off, I think.

So Wellman doesn't like the work of O'Neill or Miller or Albee or Williams. And yet audiences persist in wanting to see their work, those plays which invoke unsightly human emotions.

The interview continues...

You often encouraged us to let the play reveal itself, or let the structure reveal itself. Will you talk a little bit about that in comparison to the idea of conflict and resolution? 
In American theatre, structure is just a set of clichés. Plays are not about plots. They are about moments. And moments are about epiphanies when something happens that wakes you up. But mainstream plays are about reaffirming what the audience thinks it already knows. And I think that’s a waste of time. Why do that? Why not give them a slap in the face? Actually the most interesting playwrights I know are practicing a slap-in-the-face kind of theatre, whether they know it or not. I used to have students write a play with no structure.
As Theresa Rebeck said:
I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. "All that structure, all that story," he growled, pouring himself more wine. "What a nightmare." 
"I love structure," I confessed. "I think it's beautiful." 
"Yeah, the audience loved it too," he sneered.

I don't know if she was speaking to Wellman in this story, but I wouldn't be surprised if she was.

Wellman doesn't like "cliches" and "plots" because he doesn't see the point of coherent structure that invokes the human sympathetic response. Human emotions aren't progressive - humans respond to various stimuli as they always have since before the theater of ancient Greece.

Mac Wellman should have had a career in technology or mathematics or anything that doesn't involve working with people and their stupid feelings. His current profession must be incredibly frustrating for him. He uses a metaphor of physical assault because he has no empathy for the audience. Or as Donald Trump fans would say: fuck your feelings.

But he is adored in American theater anyway, because many theater writers (critics, interviewers for American Theatre, etc.) are postmodernist pseudo-intellectuals who also feel similar contempt for theater audiences and have a constant yearning for plays that "break the boundaries" as I documented five years ago here - and as this recent review of Wellman's THE OFFENDING GESTURE demonstrates:
One of the many wonderful things about Mac Wellman’s work is that there are no boundaries to where he takes us. Sure, we can be on earth sometimes, but he’d rather not stay anywhere too recognizable for very long, and he would much prefer to be in space or on a different planet (often one of his own creation). Who can blame him? Earth is pretty awful. You know what/who else is awful? Hitler.
But every now and then there will be a critic who isn't as reverential as the rest and refuses to be baffled by Wellman's bullshit, as with these two:
David Barbour in  Light and Sound America: 
Yet these elements somehow fail to add up to a satisfying evening. Wellman's dog's-eye view of the semiotics of power seems awfully thin on ideas; it dawdles, it meanders, it pauses for passages of vocalizing, and scenes seem to repeat endlessly. Even the ravishing musical scenes (composed by Alaina Ferris and beautifully sung by the Mooncats) come to seem like so many interruptions. A last-minute reference to the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq comes out of nowhere in a strange attempt at capping off the show. It is merely mystifying; the circumstances of Hitler's brief and unconsummated flirtation with that country (which was encouraged by anti-British Iraqis) was nothing like the long-running calamity of Bush's Middle East misadventure. If this is the punch line to the joke, it's little better than Noble Wolf's snapper about Goering.
Christopher Kompanek in the Village Voice:

A third pooch, a bulldog named Wuffles who belongs to Winston Churchill, remains offstage (and is solely an invention of the playwright). He's used as a way to introduce Churchill's creation of Iraq (combining the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds — or, in doggyspeak, "Sunfish, Shits, and Turds"). This sort of wordplay appears frequently and amounts more to a source of annoyance than humor. Likewise, Layla Khoshnoudi plays Hitler (named Noble Wolf, the English translation of Adolf) with a farcical abandon, but the material is too opaque for any real levity to land...

...Wellman writes with a unique blend of poetry, puns, and non sequiturs that confound more than they illuminate and never fail to feel written. "I do the gesture as it gives me a please, a pleasure in the right front foot department," is one of Jackie's most straightforward lines, and it could easily have been lopped in half. While the title gesture is repeated throughout and mentioned ad nauseam, the actual offense is that it never rises to more than a background din. The final moments attempt to spell out a theme that should have been gradually building throughout, and only in the last line does Wellman finally pose a question worth asking.
Wellman and other postmodernists have their own cliches - the obsessive need to play with form and word salad at the expense of content, and macho bad-boy posturing, imagining violence upon the audience. Basically the angry young men of the theater, except the men haven't been young since the 20th century.

But you'll never get them to believe they are rehashing the same old shit - they will go to their graves believing they are the last word in daring, novel rebellion.

More and more Mac Wellman sounds like the Darren Nichols character from Slings and Arrows.