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Harm’s Way

August 30th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Harm's WayI just finished reading Mac Wellman’s 1978 play about angry people doing harmful things: really angry people living in a world where the landscape reflects or projects their inner turmoil.

The landscape that Wellman creates which stands out for me most is Scene Three:

A nightmarish hillside. Dim fires and explosions in the distance. There are three tall poles, or posts, on top of which are mounted wagon wheel. BY WAY OF BEING HIDDEN and two dummies are strapped respectively atop each of these.

The setting is apocalyptic. Getting all filled up on zombie shows: Fear the Walking Dead, and Z Nation (on Netflix), as well as what I’ll repeat, again, is one of the best pieces of social satire I’ve seen in a long time (Zombies of Mass Destruction). Regardless, I’m sort of in a place where I can easily picture total destruction and the haunted backdrop of the destroyed American landscape. Wellman seems to flick his pen to conjure this.

I was reminded of Caryl Churchill whilst reading this. Especially, Far Away.

Just as much as the setting/landscape, the characters are bombed out, devastated people. There’s not too much of humanity left in them and things are pretty bleak. SANTOUCHE, our through line in this fairytale, is an ignorant piece-of-shit killer on the run. He’s on the run for shooting MOTHER who shot her young son (CHILD) because he wouldn’t eat his Wonderbreaded American sandwich. In all fairness, Child did have a nasty mouth of his own alongside an antagonistic attitude. The shit goes down in an “alley between darkened tenements.” Santouche is there with his acquaintance, FISHEYE, whom Santouche verbally abuses like Walter abuses Donny in The Big Lebowsky. Fisheye tells Santouche he better beat it as people have seen the killing. On stage these people are THE CHORUS who also play instruments throughout: “a fiddle, a drum, and a flute or trumpet.”

I appreciate the use of a Chorus more and more now every time I see it utilized. It’s flexible and ambiguous. Convenient and practical. It also adds a bit of spectacle alongside the Brechtian wall-breaking that it provides. In this case, it adds character flavor and music, which is always fucking nice.

Santouche runs off to his special lady ISLE OF MERCY, which is what Santouche must believe a woman is—maybe a special lady or maybe just a lady friend, who knows. This interaction is the first in which Santouche displays his astonishing ignorance of himself and argumentative logic. It’s like watching Bugs Bunny flip an argument on Daffy Duck: “Duck Season.” “Rabbit season.” “Duck season.” “Rabbit season.” “Rabbit Season.” “Duck Season.” Santouche needs something to sell. Isle of Mercy agrees to sell a broken watch and meet up with Santouche later, at a fair across the river, to give him the proceeds.

In Scene Three, besides the startling landscape I described at the outset, Santouche encounters BY WAY OF BEING HIDDEN, who is a gender bent, non-specific Man / Woman. Whilst trying to get Santouche to get him/her down from the wagon wheel pole, BW says:

“Look, I’ll do good by you, you’ll see./
You let me down and I’ll even it up, /
Don’t you worry about that, a man like me /
You can trust, I swear.”

Only to create startling mystery at the end of the scene when BW entices Santouche up to help by stating:

“I’m a girl.”

I was also astonished by the “a man like me / you can trust, I swear.” I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this line: the act of presuming to say it to a complete stranger and, for the stranger hearing it, how to comprehend the naivety expected on the part of the speaker. There is implicit irony in the statement itself, as if there are two completely different people inside of BW: one of who is vouching for the other. Compounding this, of course, is the irony that the man swearing about his trustworthiness claims, a page later, to be not a man at all.

The interaction between BW and Santouche also touches on the problems of trust and willingness that this play relentlessly pounds. Each character is motivated, for the most part, by selfishness. Each wants what he wants. This creates a problem for each character, as, when he finds himself in a tough spot, he must rely on other characters that have no sense of empathy whatsoever. Inclination to help must be bought or traded. There is no trust. Everyone is lying. Everyone is hiding something and trying to get around on someone else.

There is a texture that feels like the old west to this play. A sense of Wellman critiquing the American psyche: the confident self-reliance in situations that are, as often as not, created by some ignorant action to begin with. That, and everyone is packing a gun.

To be continued….

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