Harm’s Other Way: Some Notes on Mac Wellman’s Theatre

Harm’s Other Way:

Some Notes on Mac Wellman’s Theatre*

Marjorie Perloff

published in The Mac Wellman Journal (Sock Monkey Press, 1998): 31-36. Reprinted in GERM, 3 (1998).

The insidious thing about the causal point of view is that it leads us to say: “Of course, it had to happen like that.” Whereas we ought to think: it may have happened –like that-and also in many other ways.
Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

People who are constantly asking ‘why’ are like tourists who stand in front of a building reading Baedeker and are so busy reading the history of its construction, etc., that they are prevented from seeing the building.
Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“We do not always need to construct a world,” Mac Wellman remarks in a recent interview, “The world is quite good about reminding us of its claims. What we need is curiosity, and a passion for detailed observation. Ideology is worthless, as are all foundations of knowledge.” [1] A passion for detailed observation: it is not a quality one immediately associates with the work of a playwright who has gone on the record to excoriate the “naturalism” of the Broadway stage as no more than “a minor province of journalism.” [2] But then, as Wellman has repeatedly noted, the mimetic convention that dominates our theatre is governed by “the desire to subsume all human experience under labels, definitions, and explanations and therefore to substitute rationalizations for experience” (BI ix). To convey “the thing itself” rather than “successive (repetitive) images of the thing,” what is needed, as Wittgenstein has taught us, is not explanation but description.

Consider the title of Wellman’s early play Harm’s Way (1978). Not a day goes by that CNN doesn’t present our President or Secretary of Defense or four-star General telling us that although we are technically sending troops to Bosnia or the Persian Gulf or Haiti, we will do everything in our power to keep our boys (and now girls) entirely “out of harm’s way.” No one seems to notice that this is an absurd statement, the army being by definition an institution committed to combat in the defense of its nation–and hence by definition exposed to the threat of death in combat. How does one keep the whole military out of harm’s way? Presumably by developing weapons so powerful and remote that only the enemy is subject to harm’s way. Or again, consider the application of the cliché “harm’s way” to the lives of the underclass within the U.S. “We must do something,” public officials tell us earnestly, “to keep our young people out of harm’s way.” It sounds so much more benign than references to gang shootings or drug deaths or infanticide.

Now look at the opening of Wellman’s Harm’s Way. The scene is “an alley between darkened tenements,” where “The MOTHER is chasing her CHILD about in an attempt to get him to eat a sandwich she is holding in one hand. She has a revolver in her pocket” (BI 3):

MOTHER Ugly kid. Eat!
CHILD Witch. Go stuff it.
MOTHER Watch your mouth.
CHILD Don’t want that crap. It’s crap.
MOTHER Good American cheese. Real baloney
On Wonderbread. Eat it. Or else.
Mother You don’t eat it and I’ll whip you good.
CHILD Crap sandwich.
MOTHER I’ll show your ass.
CHILD Stuff it up
Your ass, witch
MOTHER You don’t eat that sandwich
And I’ll kill your good.
CHILD Suck my
Dingus, witch.
MOTHER Lemme at you, I’ll bust your chops.
CHILD Nyah! Nyah!
MOTHER Kid don’t talk to his mother like that.
I’ll teach you, little son of a bitch.
She shoots him.
No respect. . . (BI 3)

The dialogue between mother and child is a delicious send-up of the most profound pieties of the American media: (1) children, as represented, say, on the Soaps are always little darlings, adorable innocents who never question the wisdom of their elders and respond to every parental command or gesture with the words “I love you, Mommy”; (2) mothers by nature adore their children and want nothing so much as their children’s welfare, which begins with three good nourishing meals a day; (3) “nourishment” is provided by those miracle items on the supermarket shelf– “baloney,” American Cheese, and Wonderbread (never mind that “real” baloney is made largely from pork wastage and fat, that American cheese is largely synthetic, or that Wonderbread is a limp, white bread without nutrients); (4) although mothers must be “loving”, they must also discipline their children, must punish them for being “rude” or using “bad” language (“Kid don’t talk to his mother like that”).

Accordingly, the refusal to eat the proferred sandwich logically leads to the shooting of the child, the explanation given by the mother being “No respect.” This action quickly sets off a logical reaction: Santouche (“Sans-touche” or Untouchable) appears on the scene, learns from Fisheye what has happened and, in turn, shoots the Mother with the words, “I’ll show you respect, bitch.” And this is the context within which all the other killings and absurdly violent events in the play will occur. Harm’s Way, it gradually turns out, is Our Way. Characters are always protesting, as does the man who calls himself William McKinley, a man who explains to Santouche that he has killed his friend “Grover Cleveland” because the latter refused to bury him alive. When Santouche accedes to his wish and starts shoveling dirt over him, “McKinley” protests:

It was a joke, just part of the show.
I was bored. Have pity on me. The future
Is boredom. I wouldn’t have harmed you, I
Swear! It was all part of the show. (BI 20)

Again, note that phrases from what is, in terms of the play, a lost discourse–phrases like “Have pity on me,” and “I swear!”–recur, as if to remind the viewer that these phrases once meant something. But now it’s “all part of the show,” just as Santouche, learning that the two men are the two U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, immediately moves into polite and circumspect “Victorian-speak”:

Ah yes, Mr. McKinley here desires
that I do my utmost to convince
You of the folly of your ways, in so
Willfully resisting his blandishments
To the effect that you assist him in his
Ardent wish to be–er–interred, at this
Time, in this place. . . (BI 19)

Such shifts in speech registers by no means imply that in late nineteenth-century America, values were “nobler”: McKinley, after all, was the imperialist president responsible for the Spanish-American War, the blood bath in the Philippines, and the annexation of Hawaii. On the contrary, Wellman suggests, the couching of violence and greed in the polite discourse of “blandishments” and “interments,” is still with us, as the play’s leitmotif “no respect,” suggests. At the end of the play, when Santouche shoots his beloved, Isle of Mercy for the simple reason that she “busted” his watch, he explains “Got no respect. That’s the trouble” (BI 42).

The conventions of naturalism, in this scheme of things, cannot work in the theatre because the mimetic code can skim only the surface of what Wallace Stevens called “things as they are.” Consider the triangle love story (two sisters meet male stranger) in Whirligig (1989). The scene, the “waiting room in a rural bus station” immediately brings to mind William Inge’s realistic Bus Stop as well as Allen Ginsberg’s “In the Baggage Room at Greyhound.” But here the bus station is also a fantasy realm, as the girl with green hair spins her science fiction-fairy-tale about girl Huns riding “across the vast empty spaces the sky is filled with,” and Xuthus (diminutive of Zeus?, also known, in an allusion to Hardy’s ill-fated Jude, “Xuphus the obscure”), her new outer-space friend assures her that “Elmer” is even worse than America. To which the Girl responds with the following little song, made up of seven-syllable lines:

Murder, mayhem, slaughter of
innocence, rock-’n-’roll. Death.
Death, departure, pilgrimage,
Mecca, Moluccas, sea-green.
Robespierre, revolution, raunch,
ranch, Ronald Rubout. Death,
destruction, blast force, crater,
lime pit, death star, wipeout. . . (BI 147)

The subtlety of this ballad is vintage Wellman: it splices together the most disparate items, like the Slaughter of the Innocents and “rock-’n’-roll, Robespierre and Ronald [Reagan] Rubout, ocean and moon crater. Remove a single phoneme, Wellman suggests, and “raunch” turns to “ranch,” or alliterate two nouns and “mayhem” can become “murder,” “Meccas” (Near East), “Moluccas” (Far East). Wellman’s language represents the depths of videated consciousness: a mind stocked with discrete sound bytes about the French Revolution (wasn’t someone called Robespierre in it?) and tales of pilgrimage to Mecca jumbled with Star Trek talk about “blast force” and “wipeout.” Yet, despite all the fun and horseplay, the key word in this lyric is the thrice-repeated word “death.”

The catalogues in Whirligig are never random, never just displays of linguistic virtuosity. When for example, the Girl sings:

Banks, box, motor, profit, sleazoid,
cheapskate, thrift, virtue, value,
timeless, elegance, Cadillac, warlock,
cannibal, time, slime, drop dead. . . (BI 148)

the reference is to bank box and financial “profit” as the “motor” of our “sleazoid” culture, a culture that preaches the “virtue” and “value” of “thrift,” but is quick to pronounce someone a “cheapskate” if s/he won’t spend money on a given item–the “timeless elegance,” for example, of a Cadillac.” But somehow “Cadillac” sounds like “cannibal,” “time” rhymes with “slime,” and Cadillacs have a way of giving way to “warlocks” and “drop dead” time.

Rhyme, paragram, pun, alliteration, assonance: Wellman’s is a “whirligig” made up of carefully chosen sonic and rhetorical figures. And the play further juxtaposes such poetic riffs with the more prosaic language of Sister, who reproaches Girl (Michelle) for not being true to the PC values of her Sixties one-time “hippie honey” family:

you, on the other hand, are no more
than a fearful ingrate. A leech on the body
politic. You do not go to church, you
do not send aid to the contras, you
do not join the family in our
choral readings of the New Republic.
you are apathetic, you do not follow
current events except from this
insane perspective of radicalism
this insane PLO terrorist line you
repeat to shock us, your father
and mother, the cat and dog, all
shocked but not surprised, Michelle.
For you are bad seed, Michelle, the
black sheep, pariah, outcast, the family
failure, the disgrace, the wicked child,
the ne’er-do-well, the satanic changeling. . . .
I have always known this. (BI 155)

“Sentimentality,” says Wellman in his interview for Theater magazine, “is the canker on the bud of American art” (SMG 95). The poet-playwright who says “Ideology is worthless,” has no illusions about panaceas for our culture. Unlike an Establishment radical like Tony Kushner, Wellman has no program, no brief against “them” who are destroying the culture to which “we” who are morally superior, belong. Hence the devastatingly comic send-up, in the passage above, at the customs of the sixties radicals turned middle-class entrepreneurs, with their “choral readings of the New Republic,” their bourgeois life-style (“your father / and mother, the cat and dog”) and their adoption of traditional diatribes against their prodigal daughter. Earlier in the play, the Girl has neatly characterized her mother’s mode of being:

Mom, the hippie honey. Short skirts, long skirts, short
shirts again. Castro, Che Guevera, born-again, Jews for
Jesus, puke. Moral majority. Likud. Jogging. Condos
Christ. The West Bank. Summer home somewhere.
CDs and money market. Double yawn. (BI 145)

In five lines, this perfectly condenses the trajectory of many a sixties “radical” from Left to thinly veiled and still-earnest Right. One thinks of Jane Fonda or the Washington Times’ columnist Suzanne Fields, a one-time radical hostess for anti-war demonstrators, pictured in her then mini-skirts in Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, now an ardent proponent of Dan Quayle and family values. “Summer home somewhere” says it all: one can protest to one’s heart’s content as long as that summer home is in place “somewhere,” and as long as the money market is doing well enough to allow for purchase of all those CDs and jogging equipment. It is in this context that such intricate verse forms as the double sestina are replaced by a “double yawn.”

What future for these born-again liberals? As the Bus Man puts it in his brilliant monologue, a monologue at the center of Whirligig even as Pozzo’s is at the center of Waiting for Godot:

there ain’t no bus to
Crow, Port Tobacco, Loyalsock, Baraboo,
Washington, Salem, Ceecago, Webster,
Troy, Utica, Carthage, Beanbag, Thorpe,
Hog’s Eye, Noodle, Oblong, Santa Claus,
Rabbit Hash, Bumblebee, Wink, Zigzag,
Jackass Gulch, Gouge, Hang Town, Bug
Humbug Flat, Defeated, Raccoon, Okay,
Custard, Brindle, Dead Man, Horsetail. . . . (BI 152).

The bus, as the country music song of the sixties had it, “don’t go from Saigon to Little Rock, Momma.” Wellman’s Joycean catalogue is a dazzling compound of real places (Washington, Salem, Troy, Utica), phonetically spelled real places like “Cheecago,” and absurd inventions like Rabbit Hash and Noodle–absurd because conceivably, these could be the names of townships or villages. Somewhere along the line “Santa Claus” and “Okay” get on the list, but then the U.S. can boast stranger names than these as place names: there is, for example, a Santa Claus Village on the Pacific coast between Ojai and Santa Barbara. American inventiveness, Wellman implies, is endless: don’t be surprised to run into yet another Carthage (there are a couple in the U.S.), where no one has heard of the original or knows what Augustine meant when he wrote “To Carthage then I came. . . .”

I cannot here do justice to the complexity and brilliant wit of Whirligig; I merely want to alert the reader to a point that is insufficiently made in discussions of “alternate” or “experimental” theatre. Technique, no matter how “innovative” is, in itself, not enough. The importance of Wellman’s plays depends, not upon “clever” language experiments or non-traditional plotting and characterization, but upon his detailed, loving, and marvelously well-informed critique of our social order. It is never an easy critique: Wellman does not indulge in the usual outcry against late-monopoly global capitalism, nor is his a Luddite attack on technology and the media. Rather, his is a Chekhovian stance–the stance of the observer, who portrays current hypocrisies and mendacities as themselves rooted in tradition: witness the Sister’s attack on the Hun Girl’s role as “family failure, disgrace, wicked child.” One has to know a lot to write plays like Whirligig and Harm’s Way. And then one has to drop one’s preconceptions and “see the building,” to use Wittgenstein’s analogy. “I am a pessimist,” says Wellman (BI ix), “but a cheerful one. I believe, along with Beckett and Handke and Witkiewicz, that the depth is on the surface.”

*This essay was originally published in The Mac Wellman Journal, ed. Beth Schachter and Jay Plum (Sock Monkey Press) produced on the occasion of the Mac Wellman Festival, held in New York between December 1997-February 1998.


“Werewolves, Fractals, and Forbidden Knowledge,” Mac Wellmann, Interviewed by Shawn-Marie Garrett, Theater, 27, no. 2 & 3 (1997): 91. Subsequently cited as SMG.

Mac Wellman, “Poisonous Tomatoes: A Statement on Logic and the Theater,” preface to The Bad Infinity, Eight Plays by Mac Wellman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p. ix. This collection is subsequently cited as BI.