Charles L. Mee, Jr.
in conversation with Caridad
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
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
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
the will to possess
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
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,
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
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 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
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.