At this point you might as well call Mac Wellman a spiritual father to contemporary American experimental theatre. He’d probably balk at that. The father label makes him sound wizened and behind the times (plus, of course, it usurps roles played by those he might call his mothers and fathers – but you gotta cut the generation line somewhere). Plus spelling theatre in ye olde English form puts Wellman in mind of Geezer Theatre, an insidious zombie art that has been shuffling around stages since performance tumbled free from the heaven of ritual, probably, and infecting young artists to perpetuate its slow horror. All the same, he’s been teaching playwriting at Brooklyn College for nearly fourteen years now, and it’s hard to find young NY writers submitting to Undermain who haven’t done time in his shop (Undermain has produced five of Wellman’s plays).
At the back of Wellman’s 2008 collection of plays, The Difficulty Of Crossing A Field, lies an untrammeled, horizon-hugging bed of chaos called “Speculations: An Essay On The Theater.” There’s a longer version available on his website under the Works In Progress header, in case the print edition leaves you somehow confused. “Speculations” concerns the possibilities inherent in the occurrence of true theater and the deficiencies Wellman finds in regarding the contemporary mainstream. It reads as list of aphorisms, endlessly unscrolling, falling from one point to the next whether or not you’ve had a chance to make sense what precedes.
Because Wellman is such an important figure, for contemporary theatre and the Undermain, and because “Speculations” is such a devilish piece of work, I’m going to take time over the next several weeks to try to grapple with what exactly he’s saying. Wellman’s a bracing intellect and incredibly well read, so I’ll try to start from an advocatory position, assuming that he knows what the hell he’s talking about even if it is initially unclear. I anticipate a fair deal of dismissive humor, too, and contrariness, since I find those to be congenial stances for hiding fear and confusion.
If you want to read through with me, I’ll be taking on several pages per post, hopping around throughout the piece. The essay is here
. I’ll be quoting from it liberally in the posts, but there’s no harm in going to the source itself.
|Wittgenstein. Photo by Ben Richards
The difficulty starts before Wellman writes a single word. “Speculations” is prefaced by four quotations.
“Man can do everything but make a birdnest.” – Bachelard
From Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics Of Space, a phenomenological and experiential study of spaces in poetry. Bachelard was a French philosopher whose major work arrived in the first half of the 20th century. The Poetics Of Space, with its emphasis on the intimate associations of architecture, and the final value of engendered actions (both internal and external) over abstractions, will prove to be an influence over the whole of “Speculations”.
As we will see, “Speculations” is a phenomenological work in the sense of being more interested in material than reality, more interested in subjective experience than objective knowledge.
The second quotation, from Wittgenstein, reads:
“’Understanding’ is a vague concept.”
This is from his “Remarks On The Foundations Of Mathematics”, one of the late-middle-period works leading up to hisPhilosophical Investigations. Frankly, I’ve not read the work in question, but I am familiar with the twin poles between which this quotation comes (the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations). Wittgenstein’s skepticism regarding the meaning of abstract terms, or really the possibility of talking meaningfully about abstract concepts in general, lingered throughout his philosophical career. One important change, though, is that in the later works, conceptual vagueness in language is not seen as an inherent failure of precision (on the part of the speaker) or a total epistemological blindness (though that still may be the case), but rather as a feature of the way we make language communally.
What does this have to do with Wellman’s theatre and “Speculations”? Well, groping into the dark a bit, I’m going to argue that Wellman favors an indeterminate theatre, where meaning is created through exchange, rather than the logically rigid form Wittgenstein describes in the Tractatus. Either that, or Wellman’s just making a joke about how hard it is to “understand” his plays.
The final quotation is an anecdote about Goethe, drawn from Ortega Y Gasset. It ends with an admonition: “One should never confine oneself to a single thought…he needs to have a thousand things, a confusion in his head!” Like the Wittgenstein quote, it is easy enough to see this as an apologia for Wellman’s work and the forthcoming “Speculations”. Seeking deeper correspondences, though, I refer you back to my suggested reading of the Wittgenstein: we are moving from a simple, point-to-point logic into an unmoored world of multivalence.
Wellman is going to attack the value of Aristotelian, “old logic” theatre, and he’s going to try to push us toward a new, phenomenological understanding of how theatre ought to be.
You notice quickly that Wellman is writing in an aphoristic style. This is common enough in philosophy (particularly from the East), and it’s the noted structure of our old friend Wittgenstein’s Tractatus– though, not, it should be said, the Philosophical Investigations.
The STRUCTURE of a play ought not be viewed as a fixed thing, but as a mutable one.
I mean, the structure of a play conceived of as a moving point:
vvvvvvvv . vvvvv
passing over – or through – time, from inception to end point; so that what it is relation of part to who(o)le [Oh Mereology!] changes continuously and continually:
changes because space is filled with invisible lines – as theatron. (Da Vinci) This is why vertical narrative is possible.
This is why monologue is inherently demonic.
This is why only the wicked walk in circles (Augustine).
Yes, that is actually the first page (or most of it). The fact we need to prepare ourselves for, with regard to structure, is that Wellman will not be slowing down to explain his terms or assertions as he goes. He will not be guiding us along the connections between points. Statements simply fly out, and we must hope to catch them. Meaning, if there is to be a broader one, will be reached not through a traditional dialectical development of ideas, but rather in the long accretion of related facts.
With that in mind, what is Wellman saying here at the beginning? His first statement, regarding the structure of a play, sets up that dichotomy, implied in the epigraphs, between “fixed” and “mutable”. What is fixed Wellman will associate with Aristotle and with dead art. What is mutable is new and alive.
So he pictures the structure of the play as a point in motion (no clue what the omegas mean, let’s move on). The point (structure) passes through time, such that it is constantly changing. Stop there and notice that Wellman is treating time simply as one axis of the plane on which structure moves. The “relation of part to who(o)le bit seems obscure, but could perhaps make sense if Wellman has inadvertently left out a pair of commas or em-dashes such that “what it is” = “relation of part to whole”, which is one of the ontological extensions of mereology (the study of parts and wholes). Since I don’t know a damn thing about mereology, it’s hard for me to say if Wellman is further elaborating his geometrical metaphor or simply finding a fancy way of repeating himself.
In any case, the structure changes “because space is filled with invisible lines”. From a geometrical perspective, this is obviously true, and is illustrated nicely by an overhead view of the ancient Greek theatre (theatron). A point moving through this space is indeed continuously changed and changed again by its simultaneous motion through the invisible lines of space and time. What this has to do with Da Vinci is unclear, and what Wellman means by “vertical narrative” may be our first real frustration in trying to tease meaning from “Speculations”. Could it be that a vertical narrative is one that moves along only one plane (space or time, but not both)?
Further corollaries include: 1.) monologue is demonic, by nature. 2.) Only the wicked walk in circles.
So, to summarize we may say: the structure of a play is a moving point changing continuously because it passes through space and/or time, and because of that vertical narrative is possible, monologue is demonic, and only the wicked walk in circles.
The Augustine reference is somewhat clearer, so I’ll tackle that first. Augustine was dealing with a poor translation of Psalm 12, one that rendered “the wicked walk on all sides” as “the wicked walk in circles”, and in the end his quotation (of the mistranslation) became famous in itself. Augustine first takes the line to mean that the ways of the wicked are circular by binding them to paths that will lead them nowhere. Writing later in City Of God, he expanded this notion to make a distinction between the metaphorical fate of sinners (described previously) and the teleological, non-circular arc of God’s creation. As opposed to some religions, Hinduism for example, that see existence as repeating cycles, Augustine sees Christianity as a religion with a beginning, certain key acts that will only occur once (the life of Jesus), and a final end in the eternity of God. Dropping back into “Speculations”, Wellman is reminding us that a play is something that moves forward in time, each act occurring only once and never again the same way.
So why is monologue demonic? Is Wellman suggesting that most monologues do not move forward in space/time? I find that hard to accept.
Drama takes place in phase space. The continuum of phase-space is to time as time
is to space.
Now we’re cooking. Drama takes place in phase space, which is a highly fancy (read: above my pay-grade) physics tool for plotting all possible values/contingencies within a given system. In other words, think of drama as existing in a space where, yes, anything is possible. More than that, there is a place in this space for each possibility. Yes?
Theatricality takes place, as it were, perpendicular to time, along the phase-space continuum.
So to go back to our basic geometry, we’re moving out into a new dimension. Much the way x runs perpendicular to y on the Cartesian plane, and z must run out perpendicular to those in order to add a third dimension, phase-space is going to burst out perpendicular to time. Since time is already a dimension we perceive but dimly, you can guess that phase-space is going to lie beyond our ordinary ways of seeing. But that’s the easy part.
Time (clock time, I mean) is of the essence only in appearance, not in APPARENCE. Time is only apparently an expression of space; the reverse is also true. (Einstein)
Anyone else feeling like an Orange Lazarus-level brainfreeze about now? Just me? Look the appearance vs. apparance stuff is obviously important to Wellman (check those obnoxious caps), but I just don’t have any way of parsing it out. So onto the backburner with that.
In the meantime we have this handy Einstein citation, and, if you’re like me, the phase-space stuff has already put you in mind of space-time, a gift (kind of) of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Relativity, yes! There’s our operant word. It’s all very fine, Wellman reminds us, to treat time as a constant for the purposes of, say, Newtonian Mechanics, but theatre – as we’ve just been told – can’t be described that way. In true theatre, he argues, time and space and just about everything else are to be understood as relative.
Relative to what? Relative to the observers, of course, their position and velocity. But in 99% of the theatre I go to I sit and a chair and don’t move at all (except for slowly orbiting around the sun…). So Wellman must be talking about a new kind of motion and a new kind of position. I anticipate we’ll find those variables to be internal. The dynamic relation between performer and spectator, which must be taken into account and is the reason we’re abandoning Euclidian space for phase-space, occurs without any apparent change in the spectator. I think that’s confirmed in Wellman’s next line:
Real thinking as well, lies outside time, occupies an outside-time, “that eternal moment that medieval philosophy approached in the nunc stans of the mystic”. (Arendt)
To sum up a bit, let’s say that Wellman is criticizing old ways of thinking about theatre. He’s going after Aristotelian dogma, starting with the notion that drama is a representation of an action in time. And he’s searching for more complex models of theatrical exchange, drawing (so far) from the epistemological indeterminacy of Wittgenstein and the relativity of Einstein and modern physics, among other sources.
That’s all for Day One. From here on we’ll be jumping around a bit more, grabbing the gritty bits as they come along. Will it be face-meltingly difficult? You betcha. Will it get any easier at all? Let’s hope so. Will we come to understand the theatre of this madman in Brooklyn? Uh…
Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager