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Harm’s Way, part 2, a continuation that shall continue on…

September 15th, 2015 No comments

Harm's WayScene Four is a triumph in hilarity. Isle of Mercy goes across the river to sell the watch and runs into a carny (CROW’S-FOOT) selling a crowd of people (Chorus) on purchasing a ticket to see the mysterious GUYANOUSA inside the carny tent. The description is something to read, my favorite bit being “a creature / So lopsided – with feet the longer on one / Side than the t’other—that it can graze / On the steepest mountain slope.” ‘Than the t’other.’ Must be a brogue. Everyone pays a quarter to see the marvelous beast, which mysteriously breaks free at the proper moment sending the crowd fleeing for their lives, except Isle of Mercy. She wants to see the Guyanousa, leading to some whopping lies by Crow’s-Foot and a back-and-forth between the two characters that’s worth a read. Throughout the exchange, though, Crow’s-Foot, tellingly, degenerates from a consummate barker and performer to a misogynistic slug that verbally abuses Isle of Mercy and convinces her (somehow) to be a whore for him.

The POP STAR interlude at Scene 5 is, by far, one of the most bizarre scenes I’ve ever read and I’d simply love to see it on stage. The Pop Star is a scarecrow stuck on a post in the ground, and who can only move his “head and hands” as he plays the enormous guitar he holds. His group of followers / fans / mindless inhuman machines (Chorus) do nothing but moan and sway, and “are mounted on short stilts, and they lean together, forming a kind of human tripod.” Throughout, the scene is punctuated by frozen tableaux at the stanza breaks in the Pop Star’s song. The song is dryly repetitive, mindless, and cliché. Into this walk Santouche and By Way Of (BW) seeming very like they are on a date. BW attempts to nudge Santouche into appreciating the music and enjoying himself; however a short series of conversational missteps ends with BW calling Santouche a “bum lay.” Ouch. Santouche doesn’t take kindly to that and the scene ends with him insulting the music, and By Way Of, and stomping off.

Santouche stomps off but soon stumbles into Scene 6, where the MAN “is standing in a waist-deep grave he has dug.” The Man turns out to be WILLIAM McKINLEY who has killed GROVER CLEVELAND because Cleveland would not bury McKinley alive. Being that Mac Wellman is from Cleveland, I get a kick out the references to an Ohio president, a city, and, somewhere, the Chagrin River. As McKinley was the Republican president following Cleveland, I can only assume there is some sort of political commentary here, but it’s gone over my head. However, there’s quite a bit of gunplay in the scene and McKinley was on the wrong end of a gun… So, Cleveland wouldn’t bury McKinley alive, so McKinley shot and killed him. McKinley then pulls his gun on Santouche, who is strongly encouraged by McKinley to talk Cleveland into rising from the dead and finishing what he wouldn’t the first time around. There also appears here the beginning of a running gag regarding Santouche’s inability to recognize “a stiff” when he sees one. Santouche puts on a fine show of talking to Cleveland: he uses some fancy words and some delicate phrasing that’s just real fine to hear. Alas, it is to no avail, but Santouche manages to take the gun from McKinley and, after a brief argument, Santouche buries McKinley alive (in spite of the protests McKinley now makes).

Scene 7 breaks from our episodic journey with Santouche and returns to Isle of Mercy, who is sitting on a rock gazing at the moon while the Chorus as FIRST CHILD and SECOND CHILD sing a short song about Isle of Mercy. The Children then engage Isle of Mercy in a discussion. The discussion is filled with the moon, the stars, a rock with a face on it, and ghosts, and thus is very Fairy Tale/Nursery Rhymish. The children claim “We borned ourselves / Out of rocks.” The discussion turns from this to a “where do babies come from” conversation that is interrupted, at just the right moment, by Crow’s-Foot, who has come to turn Isle of Mercy out for the first time. Crow’s-Foot and Isle of Mercy argue about whether or not IM will whore herself. Crow’s-Foot wins when he threatens to lay into her with another one of his speeches (presumably similar in kind to that about the Guyanousa).

At this point in the play I have been struck at thinking on the journey of Isle of Mercy versus that of Santouche. Isle of Mercy is kind (as her name would imply) and extremely pliable. She is not stupid, so it is stupefying why she makes the choices she makes—even in light of her explanation later in the play (which I’ll discuss). Isle of Mercy is acted on by the world. Santouche on the other hand is not kind and acts on the world, usually with highly adverse consequences. This I’m sure, has Wellman poking holes in sex roles, as compliance and malleability are qualities traditionally associated with women, whilst men thrust themselves into the world a la Camille Paglia. Santouche, acting out of perpetual rage, is unable to see himself (recognize himself) and destroys and misunderstands everything he encounters. Santouche manifests, almost, like a broken Odysseus—having no compass or direction at all. Santouche is dashed against the rocks of fate or chance and has no greater vision than the consequent moment. Wellman, here, is pointing to something very terrible in our society—this nihilism we exude.

To be continued….

Harm’s Way

August 30th, 2015 No 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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