Early in his memoir A Nearly Normal Life, the playwright Charles Mee describes how, one lovely summer evening in 1953, at a country club dance in his hometown of Barrington, Illinois, he found himself hunched over in a cold sweat, dizzy, rubbery, and faint–racked, at age 14, by the onset of polio. He goes on to write about the shattering effect polio has continued to have on his entire life.
Shattering and struggle also inform his plays, fragmented works that have, over the last 15 years, established Mee as a major voice in American theatre. Mee draws upon diverse sources of inspiration–ranging from Aeschylus to Robert Rauschenberg–to confront a broken, jagged world resistant to being put back together. Mee’s work has never been produced in Texas (at least, not to his knowledge), but this month it makes a long-overdue appearance with the staging of his play Big Love by the Rude Mechanicals, an Austin theater collective.
In his memoir Mee writes of how, as a teenager, he fell in love with Woyczek, a 19th-century German play by Georg Buchner that exists only in an incomplete form. It’s a play, Mee writes, “whose scenes break off suddenly in midsentence, where bits of scenes occur out of place, inexplicable things happen; a play composed of chunks and shards, broken pieces, raw awkward, clumsy, with events crashing into one another without reason or cause; a shattered world, fucked up and roughhewn…. From the first time I read it I loved it: it felt to me exactly like life itself, with all its anguish and ruin and love…. Buchner left me free to make a whole life from ruins.”
In Mee’s own plays, he often juxtaposes shards derived from a variety of different sources. In his notes to The Berlin Circle, for instance, a play inspired by Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mee explains that he composed the piece as German artist Max Ernst did his post-WWI Fatagaga series of pictures, “creating a collage of historical material by sampling or quoting documents of his time.” Through collage Mee not only achieves a fragmentary effect but also, through the juxtaposing of disparate aspects of our culture, discovers new meaning in familiar objects, often to comic results. In his use of collage Mee has also taken cues from artist Robert Rauschenburg, who has been such an inspiration that Mee wrote Bobrauschenbergamerica, his most recent play, to take on the artist directly.
As in much of Mee’s work, Big Love is less a linear narrative than it is an assemblage of separate, distinct fragments. Mee refers to it as a “re-making” of Aeschylus’ Suppliants, perhaps the oldest surviving play in the western world. The story is of 50 young sisters, engaged to marry their cousins, who attempt to flee their fiances by escaping to a villa on the coast of Italy–only to be followed by their betrothed, who insist on marriage. Each of the brides subsequently agrees to kill her intended on the night of the wedding, and what was to be a mass marriage suddenly becomes a mass murder.
Darron L. West, who has worked on other Mee plays in New York and was enlisted by the Rude Mechanicals to direct Big Love, says he has tried to respect the play’s nonlinear structure: “I realized that trying to superimpose a thread onto this play was just something the play wasn’t going to allow to have happen.” In Big Love Mee humorously mixes contemporary and Greek cultures, illustrating the similarities between the two. In one moment, for instance, Olympia, one of the sisters, is explaining her relation to Zeus; the next moment she’s complaining that she’s without Estee Lauder 24 Karat Color Golden Body Crème with Sun Bloc. The subjects Aeschylus addresses in Suppliants, including love, marriage and the plight of the refugee, are still our own, Mee thereby suggests, even if our world is not Aeschylus’.
Ree, now 62 and living in Brooklyn, seems to have recently hit his stride. Bobrauschenbergamerica was a sensation at this year’s prestigious Humana Festival and in this year alone Big Love will have been produced all over the country, including stagings at the Goodman in Chicago and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its Next Wave Festival. Although he started writing plays immediately after graduating from Harvard in 1960, the politics of the time drew him to write history books. “I got very caught up in the anti-Vietnam war movement,” Mee recalled during a recent phone interview. “This led to political arguments, which led to historical arguments and I found myself writing about politics, writing about the history of the Cold War, writing about American constitutional issues, about powers of the federal government, and national security, and all these things. I never meant to do this. I didn’t want to. I never thought of myself as an historian. I just got caught up in this debate as a citizen. I never thought of myself as a professional historian but as a citizen talking to other citizens about these things.”
Mee quit writing history books in 1985 when he determined that playwriting was his true passion. “As an historian I used my head,” Mee said. “As a playwright, I get to use both my head and my heart and that feels better to me. As an historian I was dealing with stuff that made you want to weep and cry and rip your hair out but writing a history book doesn’t allow you to do that. But writing a play does.”
While Mee has written about many different topics, ranging from Rauschenberg to El Salvador, a number of his plays have been inspired by Greek dramas, including Agamemnon, Orestes, and The Trojan Women. Mee is drawn, he says, to those plays’ acknowledgment of people’s basest impulses. The Greeks “start by talking about matricide and fratricide,” he said, “so the working hypothesis of Greek plays is, ‘This is human nature. Try to make a civilization out of that.'” Greek tragedy also offers Mee a way to move beyond the psychological realism that inevitably locates the root of people’s problems somewhere in their pasts: “There’s not one thing that makes human beings the way they are. The Greeks said human beings are shaped not just by their personal stories but by the conditions of their lives.” While we may know of some of these forces as gender, genetics or economics, the Greeks called it fate or the gods. The masterfulness of Mee’s work lies in his ability to signal universal human concerns while engaging the audience in the smaller, specific concerns of an individual character.
Ultimately, Mee’s characters inhabit not ancient Greece or contemporary America, but a world all their own. “Something seems crucial to me for a playwright to make the rules rather than to step in and accept somebody else’s set of rules,” Mee said. “If the playwright makes the rules then you can create a world that people have never been in before and they step into your world and then they see what it feels like to live there. It’s inherently more surprising and more fun.”
Tim Staley is a playwright and freelance writer living in Austin.