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Charles Mee
Unfinished Stories
Charles L. Mee, Jr.
in conversation with Caridad Svich








Dramatist and historian Charles L. Mee, Jr.'s plays include The Murder of the Investigation in El Salvador, bobrauschenbergamerica, Big Love, The Berlin Circle, Wintertime, and the text for Vienna: Lusthaus. His work has been produced by theaters across the U.S. and abroad, including New York Theatre Workshop, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Steppenwolf Theatre, BAM, and McCarter Theatre. He has engaged in successful, significant collaborations with the directors Anne Bogart (and SITI Company), Tina Landau, Ivo Van Hove, and the choreographer-director Martha Clarke. This interview was conducted online December 2003-January 2004, as Snow in June, Mee's collaboration with director Shen Zi-Yeng and composer Paul Dresher, was running at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At this time, Mee had begun work on a Joseph Cornell project with the SITI company, to be directed by Anne Bogart, which will premiere in the 2005 theatre season.

CS: So, let's start with what is indeed familiar territory, but nevertheless consistently engaging and vital to address: you re-use forms and stories, you re-make them for the contemporary world. When is the familiar familiar in a sad boring way and when is the familiar familiar in an ancient blood-curdling way?

CM: I take stories the way Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides and Shakespeare did. None of them ever wrote an original play, and, since they are among the greatest playwrights who have ever lived, I thought it would be worthwhile thinking of trying to do what they did. So I appropriate stories (half the time, anyway; the other half I make up). And then to the appropriated stories I add appropriated texts from other sources, so that I make a collage of the materials of the world that we have received, and also of the world we are in the process of making at the moment: this seems to me what people do in their daily lives. I think a story is still vital if it is still being made. If something is taken as finished, then it is dead; if something is taken as unfinished, then it is vital. This is how we make our lives, and, since we only get one life on earth, this seems urgent, the most urgent and important thing we do.

CS: It's true that Shakespeare, Euripides, and Sophocles didn't write original plays. They appropriated sources and fashioned them anew. I think there has been, however, a premium placed on "originality" as a concept in modern theater, and it has dis-allowed to a great extent the free-wheeling ability Shakespeare and Euripides (and even Brecht) had with re-shaping stories, re-imagining them, and re-claiming them for their time. It is as if a value judgment is placed on contemporary dramatists if they write "original" work versus "source-driven" work, i.e. that if it is "original" it is somehow worthier. I think such a value judgment reflects a misunderstanding of the artistic process because, in the end, aren't we all re-making stories whether they be from our own lives, our friends' lives, our lovers' lives, or lives told in fiction and history? Moreover, what do you think the (and I think it is) particularly U.S. preoccupation with "originality" in the arts comes from?

CM: I really don't know where the preoccupation comes from. Maybe it's a byproduct of Renaissance individualism. The current obsession, though, comes from the copyright law. I'm sure you know there was no such thing as copyright in the time of the Greeks and Shakespeare. In Western Europe, I think, the Pope eventually became weary of having to support so many clamoring artists and so began to issue Papal bulls giving chosen writers the right to copy their works, or to have them copied. In this way, the Pope distributed the cost of patronage (and democratized it). And that model has grown, obviously, as a way for artists to support themselves. It puts a premium on a certain kind of originality. It seems to me, though, as corporations have taken an increasing interest in owning copyrights and using intellectual property as a basis for corporate valuations, the original intent of copyright law to support artists and nurture the arts and sciences has become skewed. It seems to me, in fact, that the law stifles development of art and science. To the extent that America has developed capitalism more energetically than many other countries, it may be that this preoccupation is a little stronger in America than elsewhere.

CS: Are you aware that you have influenced a generation of playwrights who are now more likely to try adaptations? Is there something about our cultural moment that begs for adaptations of the big stories? And do you define a "big" story?

CM: I'm very aware of being influenced by others all the time--but not aware that I influence anyone else. And--this is a small point--I don't call what I do adaptations. Any more than I would call a play by Aeschylus or Shakespeare an adaptation. We are all engaged in the process of reconsidering and recreating the things that have been given to us by our lives and histories, and then seeing what can be made of that. Nothing comes ex nihilo. There are stories that playwrights have worked over for a couple thousand years, and so I guess that some of those stories have something extremely compelling about them--and I go to them to see what that might be, to see if they are still compelling, and, if they are, what about them is still alive and compelling, what they have to say about what human beings are, and what human beings might become.

CS: Your latest cycle of plays was about love . . . are you done with love for the moment? Or is there more theatrical love to be had?

CM: At the moment, I'm on to other things. I've done a lot of "political" plays in the past, and have a couple more of those that I've been meaning to get back to. So I won't do any love plays for a while, probably. But I do think it is an inexhaustible subject, so I'm sure I'll return to it. In one of my plays, Fetes de la Nuit, a character is asked why he talks always about love, and he says (inspired by the table of contents of a book by Foucault):

love begins a discourse
with anxiety
the will to possess

in love
we come to know what it is to be a human being
what it is to be human today
if we humans see who we are in our relationships with others--in all our relationships--erotic, poetic, political, economic, still the way we know one another most intimately and deeply
how we are when we are free
and how we are unable to be free
it is in our love for one another.
And so, if we are to know what it is to be human
we know that best when know how we are in love
what sort of species we have become in our time
by what sort of love we've become capable of.

CS: Wintertime, for instance, could be described as a colleague has said to me, as a "platonic farce." It has a specific level of philosophical and theatrical grace. Do you love philosophical dialogues? Can theater be a place for philosophical dialogues? How and how not?

CM: I got polio when I was fifteen years old. Until that time, I'd never read a book, only comic books. And then, when I was in the hospital, an English teacher of mine brought me a copy of Plato's Symposium. And I read it and asked for another Plato, and then another and another, so that, before I could again hold a book with more than three fingers of one hand, I had read all of Plato. I was drawn to those dialogues--full of conflicting ideas, passions, of the sort I was feeling, flat on my back, at the time. And then I started in on Aristotle. And I think all the time these days that Aristotle was right, that human beings are social animals, that we are the creatures not just of psychology, but also of history--of culture and politics and economics--and so I've always tried to write plays that go beyond psychology and embrace a larger understanding of what makes humans human, and what makes our world as it is. So, yes, Plato's warring passions, Aristotle's expansive understanding of the human creature: these have been my dramaturgs.

CS: How do you use burlesque or vaudeville...musical numbers in the middle of text, glorious butt-dances in the middle of text? And why? There is such an open-ness to theatrical joy in your work. Where does it come from? How would you characterize it?

CM: I've come to believe--with Shakespeare, and with the postmoderns--that art is most pleasurable not when it closes us down, narrows our perceptions and sympathies, draws boundaries of appropriateness or goodness, but when it opens us up. And I could add lots of justifications for the way I juxtapose high and low, tragic and farcical, intellectual and physical, how they pop against one another, how they make one another more vivid when seen in such surprising contrast--but, the truth is, I just love a wonderful time in the theater, and, for me, a wonderful time includes something challenging to think about, something to feel deeply and sometimes shatteringly, and some plain hilarity and joy and stupidity and release.

CS: You are working on a piece about Joseph Cornell. His memory-boxes in particular are so rich and detailed, and highly idiosyncratic. Unlike say, Bob Rauschenberg's work, which inspired your collaboration with the SITI Company, Cornell's work has often been described by critics as hermetic, and mysterious, and outside the Pop world. What are your thoughts on Cornell and how his work can teach us today about investigating the world, self and memory?

CM: Rauschenberg was a wonderful figure to start with: his energy is so positive, happy, colloquial, and inclusive before anyone knew there was such a word. It's so connected to daily life, so inspiring in its democratic sympathies, it was easy to hear it start talking and living on stage. Scenes made themselves. Cornell, by contrast, I find sad and strange, weird, kinky, a little off-putting. But there is something about him--drawn down deeply inside himself, following some set of impulses so distant and peculiar--that he seems like the very soul of the artist--and, indeed, the very soul of any human who feels herself to be on a journey in life that is essentially internal, that only after a long while rises to the surface and seems to resonate with others. This will be hard to put on stage. But one thing I love about beginning with the life of an artist--and not trying to do a bio-pic, but trying to do a piece "inspired by" a way of seeing the world-is that it leads to discovering very different theatrical forms. I think about Euripides and Shakespeare and Brecht all the time, but I've also learned a lot about how to make theater from Max Ernst and Rauschenberg, and now, I hope, Cornell.

CS: When you are working on a piece, when and how do you decide which container, which form, is best suited to encasing the material you have written and/or assembled?

CM: Often I just steal a story--from Euripides, say. And then I smash his play to bits and write a new play that lies, as it were, in the bed of ruins of Euripides. So Euripides supplies the form. I've done the same with Shakespeare and Brecht--and Rauschenberg and Cornell. But, if I just start out with some other impulse or hunch and write a play that is not derived from any other source, then I just throw stuff out and trust Rauschenberg's example. Rauschenberg made paintings and assemblages based, he thought, on chance. But, of course, what he discovered was that he couldn't "do" chance. His psyche determined his choices at every turn. And so, instead, he learned to trust his own psyche--to trust that whatever he did, it would--it couldn't be any other way--be shaped by who he was, by what he loved, what felt good to him. And, if he trusted that somehow, somewhere--because he wasn't from Mars--his psyche was humanly coherent, the finished work would be coherent, too. And that's what I have to trust when I do something that doesn't start from a previously made form.

CS: Would you elaborate on how the Rauschenberg piece came to be, and what the process of working with Anne and SITI was like for you? How did the text take shape? How was the experience either a new way of working or similar to ways you have worked before with other collaborators?

CM: I've loved Rauschenberg, and been inspired by his collagist way of making work, since the nineteen sixties. He has always seemed to me to be terrifically open, small "d" democratic, optimistic, vigorous, unafraid, free, egalitarian, again, inclusive before the word was in the common vocabulary. He makes art by picking junk up off the street--not merely ignored stuff, but absolutely rejected stuff--bringing it back inside his studio, putting it together and saying, "This, too, is beautiful." So I started by looking at his work, picking some of my favorite images and themes--a stuffed chicken, Martin Luther King, an astronaut--and making a list of the things that recur in Rauschenberg's work. And then I made a list of texts that made me think of: chicken farmers talking about starting a chicken business, astronauts talking to Houston, an astronomer talking about the stars. And then a list of possible events inspired by those images and texts. Actions. Songs. And I took those into a workshop with eight or ten people the SITI Company had brought together--not writers alone but also actors, a choreographer, a sound designer, an administrative person from the SITI office, a couple of students. And they did what I did--made lists of things they saw in Rauschenberg, what it made them think of, texts they heard or remembered or thought to compose. The rule of the workshop was: don't bring in anything you don't want to have stolen. Anyone can steal anything I brought in to make whatever piece they might want to make, and I could steal whatever they brought in.

So I emerged from the workshop with lots of ideas, and some wonderful pieces of text. One of the participants had a friend who was a truck driver, who had written her about starting out at five o' clock in the morning on his cross-country route--and then went directly into the piece. So I put all this stuff into some pages and took that to Skidmore College where the SITI company teaches a group of anywhere from 50 to 100 students--most in their twenties, some older--every June for four weeks. And they all improvised "compositions"--little scenes bringing together chunks of text, songs, dances, movements, physical activities.

I took all this stuff home, and I thought: now this is a mess. This is not a theater piece, it is just a bunch of random associations by a disparate group of people responding to the work of Rauschenberg. I thought: what would Rauschenberg do? I thought: he would just choose his favorite stuff out of it all and call that a piece. So that's what I did. About half of it is stuff I wrote or thought of, and half is stolen. That was a "finished" script. And then the SITI company took the script and made compositions of my compositions, and put other actions with my texts, and made up dances--and that was the finished finished piece.

CS: You majored in history and literature at Harvard, and you worked as a historian for a long time before resuming your interest and life in the theater. What drew you back to playwriting, and why? Do you ever think of your theater writing as an extension of sorts of your work as a historian in some way, in the telling of national and international stories?

CM: History, as a discipline, claims that it is possible to frame rational sentences and paragraphs that will contain the reality of the world. And yet it seems to me that the reality of the world so often makes me want to yell and shriek and cry out and tear my hair--that it engages my heart as well as my head, whether I want it to or not. And so, in time, the writing of history just wore me out. I still read history a lot, and admire wonderful writers of history. But to me the form itself seemed too narrow and constraining to contain the world as I saw and felt it. On the other hand, the theater wants us to use both our heads and our hearts, and so that feels good to me, it feels like the world, and that's where I feel most like myself. Inevitably, having spent twenty years writing about politics and history, I take that with me as I write plays. I think of the characters I write as living in this larger world I've written about, and living in a particular epoch, and occupying some place in the world as it is becoming.

CS: You have collaborated with leading stage directors Anne Bogart, Tina Landau, Robert Woodruff, Ivo van Hove, Martha Clarke, and Les Waters. Would you speak a bit about what you have learned from working with these directors, and how the specific collaborations have informed your writing?

CM: I love theater that is made of music and movement and text. It seems to me that this is what most theatre has always been made of--and, in most of the world, still is. But the theater of western Europe since Ibsen--maybe beginning a little earlier--has been a theater of staged literary texts. And so most directors have become masters of staging texts. The directors I love are the directors who imagine that their job is, rather, to create a three-dimensional event in time--in which text finds a place along with these other theatrical elements. So these directors mobilize an event filled with music and movement and text. And from them--and from the work of Chen Shi-Zheng and Robert Lepage and Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz and Alain Platel and some others in Europe--I learn how to write for this sort of theatrical event. When I write, the text never comes first. First I see an event on stage, and, when I've begun to see it very clearly and in detail, then it just starts speaking.

Snow in June at American Repertory TheatreCS: Snow in June premiered at ART recently. It is a unique project. Would you expand on the making of this piece, and how it came together? What questions came up during the process of this cross-cultural artistic exchange (in terms of direction, text and music), and in what way did the questions lead to creative answers for director Chen Shi-Zheng, composer Paul Dresher, and yourself?

CM: With Snow in June, Shi-Zheng came to me with a 13th-century Chinese play and asked if I would do a version of it. I thought the original play was magnificent, and told Shi-Zheng I thought he should just do that, but he wanted something new. The original is about a young Chinese woman who is badly treated in a dozen ways, is brought to trial for a murder she didn't commit and unjustly executed, and she rises from the dead to find her father, who is by now an official in the central government in Beijing. He hears her story and goes out to the provinces to set everything to rights. In short, the moral of the story is, if only the central government knew, everything would be okay.

So I took it and set it in Queens, New York, today. I threw away the ending and had the girl rise from the dead and murder everyone in revenge, so that, I guess, the moral became: you can take the nicest, sweetest, best human being and, if you treat her badly enough, turn her into a homicidal maniac. All the characters and language and events are from New York today, though the core characters and the essential plot-line remain the same. Paul Dresher asked me to write some songs, and I said I had never done that, but he said, that's okay, just write whatever and I'll set it to music. So whatever is just what I wrote, and lots of songs came out.

When Shi-Zheng took it into rehearsal, he felt it was too linear and narrative, so he sort of threw it up in the air and scrambled the scenes randomly and worked on them a while that way. But then, a couple weeks into rehearsal, he decided he wanted to return to my chronological order, which he did, but leaving out a lot of the narrative chunks and stitchings so that it remained surreal, expressionistic, of another world altogether--somewhere between my original linear treatment and his dreamlike world.

As you can guess from this, I am a guy who usually leaves directors completely alone. I never go to rehearsal, unless specifically asked by the director to come in for a day or two. So the director and the actors are as free to do their thing as I was to do mine, and in this way lots of different sorts of productions of my plays are done. There is no such thing as a definitive production. I do it, I think, because some years ago it struck me that I thought the playwrights who got the best productions were the dead playwrights--and maybe that's because they didn't go to rehearsal. So, ever since, I've tried to behave like a dead playwright.

CS: Many of my U.S. contemporaries in dramatic writing have expressed their desire to live in a culture where the playwright's voice is part of the public discourse. There is a general feeling among us that the dramatic form, that theater in this country, is considered an elitist, rarefied art, disconnected from the world -- from social, political and human concerns -- and therefore irrelevant. What are your thoughts about the playwright's position in society?

CM: I don't think about the playwright's position in society. I do think that if a person wants to stop war or change economic relationships, he or she should get into politics--and do it right away. Or, less directly, write polemics. Or maybe even journalism. Or, if popular propaganda is wanted, then the only medium worth writing for is television, maybe movies. To paint paintings, compose music, write novels, write plays: these have nothing to do with changing the course of the world in the near future. Maybe they have something to do with contributing to the nature of the culture over the long haul--in the way that, say, philosophy or plumbing might, even though they have little to do with the immediate public discourse.

But art is not a subset of politics or ethics. It is not justified by an appeal to some other purpose. It is its own calling, with its own agenda or agendas, subject to no other. I'm really not a person who makes characters in my plays mouthpieces for my own thoughts, but it just happens that a character in bobrauschenbergamerica said something I agree with:

art is made in the freedom of the imagination
with no rules
it's the only human activity like that
where it can do no one any harm
so it is possible to be completely free
and see what it may be that people think and feel
when they are completely free
in a way, what it is to be human when a human being is free
and so art lets us practice freedom
and helps us know what it is to be free
and so what it is to be human.

Still, if you believe that human character is formed not just by psychology but also by history and culture, as I do, then you are destined to write "political" plays in some sense--not plays addressed to an issue of the moment necessarily, but political in the broadest sense. Whether those plays then, in turn, affect the culture is up to the culture.


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