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Mac Wellman, CELLOPHANE (Johns Hopkins U.P, 2001)
Introduction by MARJORIE PERLOFF

At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.371

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.

Mac Wellman, "Poisonous Tomatoes: A Statement on Logic and the Theater"

"Poisonous Tomatoes," which appeared as the preface to Mac Wellman’s earlier collection of plays, The Bad Infinity (Johns Hopkins, 1992), makes the case that naturalism, with its premise that the stage is a "true to life" replica of the coherent "real" world outside its frame, has lost its efficacy as a form of theatre. But in dismissing the naturalist theater with its petty "topical" plays as a "minor province of journalism" and opting for the "logic of illogic," Wellman could not have known just how quickly actual events would confirm his suspicions. At this writing (November 2000), the U.S. electoral process has totally broken down, thanks to the giant media glitch involving exit polls, a "confusing" Florida "butterfly" ballot, and the unprecedented and unbelievable closeness of a presidential race between two candidates whom Ralph Nader, for one, has defined as interchangeable Republocrats. To read the plays collected in Cellophane against the "debates" currently in progress on the TV screen or in the New York Times is to marvel at Wellman’s uncanny ability to capture the deep structure of contemporary experience in all its absurdity and illogic. Perhaps this is why Wellman calls himself "a pessimist but a cheerful one." Living, as he says we do, in a "low and contemptible time . . . . a time when ideals are mocked and scorned, when the merely human is expendable, when those in position of official trust have put aside any pretense to disinterestedness and practice openly the grossest kind of self-aggrandizement," the artist’s "collective act of imagining" becomes all the more important.

The ten plays collected in this new Wellman volume are prefaced by "A Chrestomathy of 22 Answers to 22 Wholly Unaskable and Unrelated Questions Concerning Political and Poetic Theater." The obscure word chrestomathy is carefully chosen: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it combines chrestos (useful) and matheia (learning) to designate "a collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language." Useful learning that helps us acquire a "language": here is a good description of Wellman’s own conception of dramatic art. True, such science-fiction Westerns as Harm’s Way have been linked to the theater of Sam Shephard, who was an early influence, even as Wellman’s dense verbal surfaces and cross-purpose dialogue recall Beckett and Pinter as well as the language poets–Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery-- who are his contemporaries. But Wellman’s uniqueness may well be his preoccupation with chrestomathy, useful learning, or, more properly, Useful Knowledge, as Gertrude Stein called her fascinating book of 1928.

Stein’s "useful knowledge" has to do with such notoriously non-useful topics as "Wherein Iowa Differs from Kansas and Indiana" or "The Difference Between the Inhabitants of France and the Inhabitants of the United States of America." In a similar vein, Wellman’s teachings are never the obvious lessons. In the playful sections of his "Chrestomathy," with its headings like "perot (rhymes with ‘parrot’)," Wellman dissociates himself from the "false moralism" of contemporary PCdom, even that of the "earnest, politically committed theater downtown in New York." PC, he posits, stems from the fear that "communication with the widest possible audience has failed" and hence the playwright frantically tries to please the "public" by preaching this or that PC dogma rather than engaging the "low politics of actual people, living their complicated, actual, ridiculous lives."

In a Wellman play, the "low politics of actual people" turn out to be as instructive as they are hilariously funny. Consider the opening dialogue between two suburban neighbors in Albanian Softshoe:


I can’t believe it.


You can’t imagine how difficult this is.


Oh, yes, yes. . . . Still, I’m stunned.


I saw him do it. Could’ve called the police you know.


It’s not that I don’t want to believe you. It’s just.

Oh darn. I’m just so disappointed.


Can I trust you to do what has to be done?


I’ll confront him with it, what you’ve told me,

tell him he needs help, that we’ll need a lawyer.


If Bill had his way Harry’d need a pack of lawyers.


But I know he never meant any harm.

This exchange is at once wholly familiar and yet as "strange" as the "sunny afternoon" of the stage directions. "I can’t believe it," Susan exclaims, evidently having been told by her "best friend" next door about the nameless crime her husband Harry has committed. Nell must tell it all for Susan’s own good; Susan is appropriately "disappointed" and "stunned." But next thing we know–and this is a Wellman trademark–the tone has shifted. Harry "needs help"–the standard contemporary cliché about psychic trauma (everyone, it seems, needs "help") but it turns out that he needs, not a shrink, but a lawyer, indeed in Nell’s malicious words, "a pack of lawyers." And this despite the fact that–again, the cliché–""But I know he never meant any harm."

Pinteresque as this dialogue is, it quickly turns Gothic in the next scene, where Susan tells Harry that "It’s about Jill." Jill, we assume is Nell and Bill’s daughter (note the rhyming names) and it’s only after an unapologetic Harry says, "I keep thinking about it, how much I wanted it, how good it felt," that we learn that the "fucking bitch" who’s "been asking for it for months" is not the young girl next door--–not, for that matter, any woman-- but literally a bitch--that is, the neighbor’s dog, whom Harry enjoyed running over and reducing to a "pancake" in the driveway. When Susan responds, "You need help, Harry. You’re sick," he changes the subject by confessing to her that something else is wrong: namely, "I keep finding myself following people."

It’s a delicious grammatical twist. A harried husband might well tell his wife, "I’m finding myself being followed," but invert the passive construction and you have the absurdity of "I keep finding myself following people." Such locutions suggest that Harry is suffering from what he refers to as "metal fatigue," and as the play continues, that fatigue transforms Susan and Harry into Rachel and Fred, then Ginny and Art, a couple busy putting "tens and twenties" into the clothes drier even as they continue with their New Age self-help talk. And before we know it, the suburban scene morphs into science fiction adventure, replete with extraterrestrials, sinister Albanian characters, and a fairy tale ending in which Wolfert (Man) marries an Ora ("No one but him ever saw her") and "They were very happy."

Here and in such plays as "Cleveland," another brilliant send-up of suburban life, in which Mom has bumped off Dad the Trotskyite and the senior prom is full of "Mirandan Whispertalk," Wellman’s aim is to expose the sheer terror and irrationality of everyday life as cycled through the euphemisms of mediaspeak. Perhaps the masterpiece in this vein is the site-specific theater piece Bad Penny, designed for Bow Bridge in Central Park–a poetic drama that subtly questions the meaning of representation itself. "Sometimes," says First Woman, "the sky reminds me of the / sea, or sometimes it doesn’t remind / me of anything at all, much, and I pay no attention and sometimes /the sky looks like its own reflection / in an oily puddle of rain water . . . . Sometimes / I think the sky is only pretending to be the sky, or that it’s a fake image of / the true image of the sky, like what you / see in a puddle, and that in fact there’s / no true sky at all."

The First Woman continues in this vein:

I think there is a separate


place for twisted paperclips and too-short

pencil stubs. . .


The plot thickens as the First Man explains that he’s in Central Park because he has "to change my goddam tire. There’s no goddam gas station / over there (Points East.), so I figure, what / the hell, I walk across the park, maybe there’s / a gas station over there (Points West). Here is his description of the abandoned car:

It’s a Ford Fairlane 500. Candy apple Red. Two

four-barrel carburetors. Four on the floor.

Montana plates. Three hundred pounds of rock/

Salt in the trunk. Parked on 69th between Lex

and Park. Parked illegally. I hate parks


This wonderfully "site-specific" description is now questioned by the second and third men on the scene who argue that (1) Ford doesn’t make the Fairlane any more; (2) if the First Man had a Fairlane, he wouldn’t park such a fancy car on the street; (3) there are plenty of gas stations on the East Side, and (4) no one could lift a tire up without a jack, wrench, and tire iron. And so it goes, all the characters now interrupting one another, bickering, remembering real or invented incidents from their past, and becoming increasingly aggressive until the First Man is carried off by the mysterious Boatman of Bow Bridge. The remaining men and women now constitute a mock Greek chorus that pronounces on what has happened:

What you don’t know can’t hurt

you; make hay while the sun

shines; soon ripe, soon rotten;

if every man would sweep his

own doorstep the city would

soon be clean; the dog returns

to his own vomit; the exception

proves the rule, do as I say,

not as I do; dead men tell no

no tales; call no man happy

till he dies. . .

and so on, in what is a wonderfully mad catalogue of contaminated proverbs and aphorisms, culminating, after another twenty lines or so, in the finale of the First Woman, who concludes on a note of religious incantation–"For the Way is ever difficult to discover"-- that recalls T. S. Eliot’s Family Reunion or Murder in the Cathedral..

Bad Penny ("A bad penny always turns up") exemplifies Wellman’s very special fusion of allusion, skewed aphorism, advertising copy, and everyday speech. Other dramatists have parodied contemporary political and media jargon, but I don’t know of another who has Wellman’s learning, command of language, and range of exempla. He can introduce the Greek tragic note ("call no man happy / till he dies") because he has laid the groundwork of his Central Park West site so carefully and conscientiously, that the "moral" at the end of the play is both true and untrue. At the same time, his characters often sound exactly like the people one really does overhear talking on the park bench; their arguments and disagreements are wholly familiar. Again, if you think Wellman is exaggerating, just think of the November 2000 discussion about "chads"–those four little connectors holding the punch-out circles of the Florida ballot that determine whether a vote was or was not actually cast.

But Wellman, far from being merely trendy, is also a very classical playwright. Consider the final play in this volume, Cat’s Paw, which is Wellman’s Don Juan play, or rather, as he says in his headnote, Don Juan combined with Faust. He tells us, "I wanted my Juan to be an absence, not a presence; so I made two rules, and two rules only: there must be no men in the play, and further, there must be no talk of men in the play. My DON JUAN was, thus, a play impossible to write–almost." Impossible to write because even the most female and feminist of plays–think of The Trojan Women–refer continuously to men, if only to revile them, deny their worth, or cut down their power.

Wellman’s "Don Juan in Hell" has four characters: "the Mother, Jane Bub’s mother, visiting from the Midwest"; Jane Bub, the Mother’s daughter, Jo Rudge, Jane Bub’s best friend; and Lindsay Rudge, Jane Bub’s best friend’s daughter. Its first three scenes take place on great heights: the observation deck of the Empire State Building, the observation deck at the World Trade Center, and the Statue of Liberty, as if to say that women alone must exist in a purer, more spiritual realm. Only in the last scene do we shift to a dark hallway in Federal Superior Court in Lower Manhattan, where Jo Rudge is to be tried for trespassing inside the Statue of Liberty’s raised arm.

Fathers, brothers, lovers–these don’t exist in Cat’s Paw; only very occasionally do we hear of public men like Lenin, Bob Dole–and Don Juan himself. But Wellman’s world of mothers and daughters, daughters and their friends, older and younger generation, is nothing if not poisonous. Cut off one sex completely, the play implies, and you have the "hell is other people" situation, worse than the one Sartre conceived of in No Exit. Yet it would be unfair to call Cat’s Paw sexist for the implication is that an all-male world would be equal horrifying. It is the elimination of half the human species that creates the sense of "only air and misery" to which Jane and Jo refer.

The most experimental play in The Bad Infinity was surely Terminal Hip, a monologue created from what Wellman calls "the undiscovered continent of bad writing." Its idea came from H. L. Mencken’s The American Language, which gave the poet-playwright the idea of creating the most awful combinations possible like "If I hadda been, I mighta could," and following them to their logical conclusions. "For two and a half years," writes Wellman, "I wrote a page or two every day, pages full of clumsy constructions, double (and triple) negatives, demented neologisms, and every conceivable combination of out of fashion, dated, or wholly artificial slang. Not to mention argot, cant, the tortured language of the workplace and the pitchman. I explored verbal detritus of every kind."

The second half of the resulting manuscript became Terminal Hip. The first half is the title play of this new volume, "a spectral portrait," as Wellman calls it in the headnote, "and chronicle of America through the medium of bad language." As such, Cellophane, like Terminal Hip, is perhaps more poem than play, a long monologue or poetic sequence divided into sections and subsections, that impose great demands on the actor who speaks it all. Such monologue does not, of course, make for easy reading and before I actually saw Terminal Hip and Cellophane performed, I had my doubts about them. Could Wellman sustain the dramatic impulse through pages and pages of univocal speech? Could one character hold the audience’s interest?

The answer is a resounding yes given that these monologues are not, in fact, lyric but insistently dramatic and curiously theatrical in their address to the audience. Indeed, these "bad language" monologues consistently posit one or more interlocutors to be questioned, bullied, or cajoled. Cellophane’s first part, "From Mad Potatoes," begins with the passage:


You ain’t seen nothing yet hardly.

Not nobody don’t chew no tobacco nomore nowheres here.

And section 6 begins:

Say them potatoes been longtime round say

At cat

Whyfor not?

Allatime did.

Once the dog are you got pearly X.

Place upon a put why.

Globs of it.

"At cat" is the leitmotif of this section–an amazing debasement of the most primary of grammatical constructions. The rhyming monosyllables "at" and "cat" each belong to a hundred commonplace phrases–"at home," "at sea," "at rest," "at bat"; or again, "the cat," "a cat," "my cat," "pussy cat," "hungry cat," and so on. But the one arena in which "at" and "cat" can’t exist is together. All the more reason why the simply "at cat" becomes so memorable. In section 3 of "Hollowness," we read,

Fire trash causes fire tracks

Track fires stop fire trains

Throw your trash up in the air.

X. . . (Y). . .

Place where gas.

Sheer drop.

This sounds like a shorthand or defective version of a computer printout or web page providing rules for some industrial or household process. "X all the way to Crazy Day on Power Corn." It sounds so familiar.

How does Wellman keep the momentum of the piece for the hour or so of performance? Read Cellophane and you will note that, as in any artful poetic text, individual items are carefully related. The word and grammar pool is in fact quite restricted so that when we come to the Elizabethan inflection of "Have you hat enough for this, or canst?" we want to reply "At cat." Or again, the X’s and Y’s (X and Y chromosomes?) recur throughout, culminating, at the piece’s end, in "As if X on fire kilt the bar. / Won’t, bore, detonate, cream in one’s pants, / offer chew to mysterious stranger. / Go on being as if you didn’t blow it." We can almost picture this "scene", the blow out occurring under those cellophane wraps.

At the heart of Mac Wellman’s theater is the paradox that the exempla of "awful" word combinations heard onstage can help us to acquire the language we need to negotiate our daily lives. But this "useful learning" is never didactic or tendentious; it is, on the contrary, hilariously funny and hence enormously entertaining. Wellman is our latter-day Brecht, providing the Verfremdung, the "making strange" that makes us see what has been before us all along. Indeed, and here is a second paradox, reject naturalism as he may, Wellman, in the final analysis, can be understood as the most clear-eyed of realists. The limits of his language measure with exactitude the limits of his–and our–world. | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage