WORDS: BEN MEDINA '19
Int. Café Dada, in Park Slope.
Ben—Alright, well, I’ll put that there, and also take notes, and somehow I’ll figure it out. I was wondering if you could talk about – uh, how you began writing plays and became invested in the theatre. I understand you were initially a poet?
Mac Wellman—Yeah. I was hitchhiking in Holland, and I got picked up by a Dutch theatre director, who was doing the first productions there of Bertolt Brecht. And we became friends, and she’s still a friend, and so—at one point she said, “would you try to write a play?” Because I had a few poems with dialogue in them. So I wrote a few radio plays for the Dutch radio. And that’s basically how it started.
Ben—What poets inspired you? How’d you start writing poetry?
Mac Wellman—I read a lot of poetry. I liked poets who were, uh—had several different voices, like Ezra Pound, the German poet Holderlin, uh, in fact I’m teaching courses in that stuff now, too.
Ben—and what would you say the American well-made play is?
Mac Wellman—I don’t know. I mean, you know that as well as anybody. I mean—as a poet I’m American but as a playwright I’m something else. But there are a lot of playwrights who wanna do that something else.
Ben—wh- why—could you—expand on that, that as a poet, you’re an American poet, but you wouldn’t call yourself an American playwright?
Mac Wellman—not in the mainstream sense.
Ben—What’s the mainstream sense?
Mac Wellman—Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, people like that. But there’s a lot more variety now in playwriting than there used to be.
Ben—How do you conceive of language in relation to your plays?
Mac Wellman—well, I’m very interested in the American language, which, uh, which is not studied very much. H. L. Mencken has a great book on the American language, which more people should read. And it’s not just dialect, it’s other things about it. But language is very important, and playwrights tend to be not so interested in that. But I have a lot of playwrights who are, my students.
Ben— could you talk about the author Ambrose Bierce?
Mac Wellman—Well, he’s very interesting. He’s a severe, or a drastic moralist. And I like his work a great deal. I’ve adapted a few things from him. I made a one person show out of a lot of his writings.
Ben—what was the one person show called?
Mac Wellman— Bitter Bierce. It’s published in a book of mine.
Ben—what’s so appealing about Bierce to you?
Mac Wellman—well, he just attacks the whole public use of language in this culture. How corrupt it is.
Ben—how is it corrupt?
Ben—how is the public use of language corrupt?
Waiter—Hello young man.
Mac Wellman—you know what I want.
Mac Wellman— Rosé. (To Ben) No, I mean, look at the Devil’s Dictionary. Just open it up at any point. He wasn’t just an atheist, he was an anti theist, so he hated religion. All of it.
Ben—all of it?
Mac Wellman—All of it!
Ben—Also, uh, is there—sort of a project or intention for theatre that you feel like you’ve pursued in your own work? Because when I read your work or interviews of you, you mention this investment in areas of theater as an experience that aren’t typically addressed. So instead of a typical arc, three acts, characters, you have ideas and the monologue almost as a structuring principle—
Mac Wellman—well, it’s not just that, I pay a lot of attention to what people actually do. Which you don’t find in a lot of plays. I like looking at things, I like to look at what people do, you look at this restaurant, you see a lot of things that would never end up in any play. That’s important, to try to get to those things.
Ben—what sort of things do end up in a play?
Mac Wellman—Just—very emotional revelations of a predictable sort.
Ben—right. So, and, so you think—is theatre now healthier, or more interesting, or more diverse than when you started?
Mac Wellman—Well, there’s more people doing interesting things in it. Still too much Broadway. And who do you study with at Wesleyan?
Ben—Wesleyan? I’m a freshman, so I haven’t declared a major yet, and I’m not in a playwriting class.
Mac Wellman—How’d you get interested in this?
Ben—The New York Times article, and then I’m just passionate about these things on my own, yknow, and I think that at Wesleyan there’s not enough of an awareness of these artists that are interesting and strange and invested in form. That’s part of my project, I guess. Are you working on any new plays?
Mac Wellman—right now I’m more working on a book of poems that’ll come out. But that’s kind of in the early stages. I like doing opera, I’ve done one opera and I wanna do more.
Ben—what is exciting about opera?
Mac Wellman—well things that have music in them don’t have to be naturalistic. Music brings everything up. Naturalistic plays aren’t musical at all, they’re something else. How often do you come to New York?
Ben—Uh, this is the second time I’ve been to New York under my own power. The first time I came up to talk to a filmmaker called Gabriel Abrantes, uh, and—
Mac Wellman—well, there’s a lot going on. Lotta my students are doing interesting work, too. Trying to think of anything coming up right now.
Ben—Thank you. What was the, um, hm. You were born in Ohio?
Mac Wellman—yeah, Cleveland.
Ben—Were you interested in writing there?
Mac Wellman —Little bit. I studied to be a diplomat, in the school of international relations, but during the Vietnam War I decided I didn’t wanna have anything to do with that. So I ended up pursuing other things. My master’s degree is in English literature, and I enjoy that a lot. So you’re a freshman?
Mac Wellman—You’re a freshman.
Ben— Yessir. I’ve been 19 for a couple months.
Mac Wellman—Well. Lotta decisions to make. Take your time doing it.
Ben—yeah. I just have a couple more questions—do you think that there’s—if you had to list contemporaries, who would you think your work is in conversation with, even if they’re not in the same medium as you?
Mac Wellman—I don’t really know. Uh… since I pay more attention to playwriting and writing in general. Not so fond of American movies right now. One of my colleagues in playwriting is the originator of almost everything interesting in television. Name’s Eric Overmyer. He’s very important. I have another friend named Len Jenkin who’s another playwright. But that’s just my generation. The younger generation’s very interesting.
Ben—Who are the younger exciting playwrights?
Mac Wellman—Sibyl Gempson. Erin Courtney. Anne Washburn. Julia Jarko. A lot.
Ben—Do you have any sort of system for writing?
Mac Wellman—I try to avoid them.
Ben—you actively work to counter having a set of steps you take to write?
Mac Wellman—yeah. One other book—a novel I wrote called Annie Salem. Young director named Rachel Shavkin is turning it into a play. But no, lot of young writers who are interesting.
Ben—but to circle back to the earlier idea, what do you think of cliché and monologue; do you think that there are ideas in your work that you return to or are invested in? That other playwrights might not be.
Mac Wellman—I don’t know.
Mac Wellman—Miller, I think, is very overrated. Lotta good playwrights. The American mainstream serves a purpose, but I’m not interested. The ones I mentioned, but a lot more. Always new ones. So you’re going back to Connecticut tonight?
Mac Wellman—You like Wesleyan?
Ben—it was the only college I applied to because it was the only college I liked enough to apply to.
Mac Wellman—Good school.
Ben—it is a good school. And I like it a lot. But I personally have to get out.
Mac Wellman—Do what?
Ben—leave the campus. Occasionally. Because there is a bubble that can manifest. And I think it’s healthy to leave that occasionally.
Mac Wellman—So you’re still trying to figure out what to do.
Ben—well, I like the film studies there, but there’s also a great Nabokov course—
Mac Wellman—he’s very good.
Ben—Nabokov is terrific. Do you have a favorite book?
Mac Wellman—Well, Lolita’s great, but I like AH-DAH
Mac Wellman—I like his Russian books.
Ben—Next book for the class is Despair.
Mac Wellman—That’s good.
Ben—do you like Pale Fire?
Mac Wellman—yeah. He’s great. One of the great novelists of our time.
Ben—I love his use of language, the way that, yes, every word has multiple meanings in this interconnected web, this web of meanings, but also the prose as it reads is very beautiful and sort of glides by. Like the first time I read Lolita—it’s very dark and disturbing, but the prose is so beautiful that it’s almost like a perverse beach novel. Sentence by sentence aesthetically gorgeous.
Mac Wellman—his Russian novels are good too. He wrote on 3X5 cards. These little cards, so he could rearrange them.
Ben—Does that mean he’s operating on almost a sentence by sentence basis?
Mac Wellman—pretty much. Paragraph by paragraph.
Ben—Do you think—do you think that different authors or writers have different organizing principles to their work?
Ben—So would Nabokov be working paragraph by paragraph?
Mac Wellman—I don’t know if it’s by paragraph, but it’s not page by page.
Ben—who might work page by page?
Mac Wellman—I don’t know.
Ben—How do you think you work?
Mac Wellman—I’d rather not think about it.
Ben—So you don’t try to reflect on the work?
Mac Wellman—No, I reflect on it. Depends on the piece. Different ones have different methods of construction. One fairly recent play, I had a little voice recorder. It broke, but I’d like to do it again. Get a new one.
Ben—Did it come out differently with the voice recording?
Mac Wellman—Yeah. I’d just be walking along the street, see someone, and say hi.
Ben—That’s so interesting. Typically the structure is the thing set in stone, and you’re supposed to fill it with content. But in your work and the stuff you’re talking about, the structure is the most malleable, flexible thing.
Mac Wellman—yeah. Everything has structure. It tends to become a cliché if you dwell too much on how it should be. Structure. If you idealize it.
Ben—That’s totally there in film writing courses. The fixation on what structures have been successful in the past.
Mac Wellman—The great movies of the 30s and 40s are so far beyond that. You analyze structure after the fact, but when you use it before the fact it doesn’t work. Ok?
Ben—Ok! Thank you so much.
Mac Wellman—Lemme pay for your coffee. If you go out of here and walk to your left for about a block, there’s a beautiful park.
They shake hands.