Mac Makes an Operaby Kathryn Walat
Mac Wellman is one of the reasons I’m a playwright. His play A Murder of Crows was the first thing we read (after Fornes) in my undergraduate playwriting class lead by then-grad student Nilo Cruz. The fact that plays could be like this—a weird girl conjuring up the weather with words that made your mouth water—just made me want to write them.
Now we’re once again in for a delight from the self-described “damnable scribbler” and venerated patron saint of downtown theater (not to mention longtime Brooklynite). The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, Wellman’s opera collaboration with Bang on a Can–composer David Lang, is making its East Coast debut in a Ridge Theater production at Montclair State University. The decision to cross state lines is easy—this is a theatrical event not to be missed—but don’t go expecting the expected opera or music-theater experience. Mac writes by his decree: “Conventional structure is a redundancy in fact… Structure reveals her plan and purpose as a fractal, at infinite depths.”
From THE DIFFICULTY OF CROSSING A FIELD:
Opening: very fast creepy music
Scene [belladonna]: The First Telling. The empty field at night. Only, the face of the moon is MRS WILLIAMSON’s. We hear night noises; she speaks quietly.
MRS WILLIAMSON How could I have known, back in Memphis, what I cannot tell, nor find a name for, here? I swear to you I did not see nothing. I swear, it was… it was…
A cloud passes over her face. Gap. Gulf. Abyss. Pause.
More than a mere disappearance.
More than a mere disappearance
More than a mere disappearance.
I had no reason to think I had at the time lost my mind. It was only that I have never seen nor heard of Mister Williamson since. Nor Mrs Williamson.
VIRGINIA CREEPER, then CHORUS OF SLAVES Round, Square, Juniper, Crab-grass, Candlestick, Limbo, Clock, Bumblebee, Jackass, Crawdad, Nuisance, Puissance, Doorbell and Virginia Creeper.
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is adapted from a very short story of the same title by American writer Ambrose Bierce, who was born in 1842 and whose date of death is followed by a question mark. With eerie similarity to the fictional Alabama plantation owner Williamson who disappears while crossing a field, Bierce’s own demise is shrouded in mystery after he disappeared into revolution-torn Mexico at age 71. The opera is composed of seven different versions or “tellings” of Williamson’s sudden vanishing, according to the family members, neighbors, and slaves who all witnessed the event one July morning in 1854 just outside Selma, Alabama.
This is not the only time Wellman has crossed paths with Ambrose Bierce, a writer he deems “may be the most unjustly (and unwisely) neglected American writer,” whose body of work is “too real for realism,” according to the ode he wrote in Conjunctions magazine’s Tribute issue. Mac has written a one-man play entitled Bitter Bierce, in which Bierce relates the story of his troubled life and increasing bitterness interspersed with excerpts from Bierce’s own writing—supernatural short stories and cynical entries in his Devil’s Dictionary. Mac has also written two other Bierce-inspired pieces, one of them with puppets.
Of Bierce, Mac says: “I find him very theatrical, mysterious.” I find Mac as forthcoming as ever with the kind of talk that makes you feel like a smarter playwright just from sitting down with him for coffee in his Park Slope neighborhood.
Kathryn Walat (Rail): Tell me about your opera.
Mac Wellman: David [Lang] thinks it’s his best music, and I think it’s pretty damn good. We didn’t want to write an opera with a lot of standard types of arias. We talked, actually, a lot about it. And I wrote it with the idea that there would be big sections where there would be nothing sung, just music.
Rail: Did it turn out that way?
Wellman: No. And to my great surprise, he set all of it, just about, including a lot of the stage directions. He said, is that all right? And I said, it’s fine with me. If you don’t like collaboration, you shouldn’t be in the theater. And when you deal with music theater, you have to be even more collaborative, figuring out what kind of text can be sung, what can’t be sung.
Rail: And how did you do that?
Wellman: I think I just had beginners luck. Since then, I’ve written a couple of plays that are just large choruses, because I’m very interested in the idea of having a lot of people on stage, talking or singing. But these two plays—I don’t think they can be done musically. I’ve showed them to a couple of composers who’ve said: No you can’t do that.
From THE INVENTION OF TRAGEDY:
A chorus of students, all alike and all unalike… There are 1001 of them and they are trying like the devil to tell a simple story.
FIRST CHORUS And chop the chails off all cats. All things come all things come and are based on the hope apple. Let there be hope apples, hope apples and donuts of every silvery degree. Let there be a dragon of trees and of washing without wash cloths bags cats wardrobes bungle things and other things traps and twerps and words and greater words of estuarial conviviality. La la la la la la la. La la la.
Wellman: But I like working with musicians because they’re not as literal minded about everything and they’re smart in a different way than theater people.
Rail: How so?
Wellman: So much theater is about: I have an idea and I want to take my idea and put it in your head, so you think—or feel, which is even creepier—the way I want you to. And I write plays, and I don’t care how you respond, as long as you respond in some way—it’s up to you. And with music, it’s not all about putting a paraphrase of some global thought in your head. Also you can do a lot of things in music-theater that you cannot do in [straight theater]. You don’t have to be tied to a naturalistic and narrative order. The language can be much more fanciful. The storytelling can be much more fanciful. So every opportunity I get, I try to work musically.
Rail: What drew you to this particular Ambrose Bierce story?
Wellman: A number of things interested me about the story. First of all, even though it’s only like half a page long, it’s the same sort of form of a lot of Bierce’s stories, where you get multiple points of view. Bierce was a sort of drastic nominalist where he didn’t believe that there was any such thing as reality or truth. So I wanted to tease out that aspect of the story, which wasn’t so apparent if you just read it. And I also wanted to use of much as Bierce’s language as I possibly could. So then I got this idea of doing seven different tellings. I had a lot of fun writing it.
Rail: And the disappearance of Williamson in the story is particularly creepy in light of the mystery surrounding Bierce’s own death.
Wellman: A lot of his stories have disappearances in them. In fact, his definition in The Devil’s Dictionary for “to kill” is to create a vacancy without nominating a successor.
From BITTER BIERCE:
The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.
There is one insuperable obstacle to belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding sheet or “in his habit as he died”. To believe in him then is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics.
Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk about without a ghost in it?
These be riddles of significance. They reach away down and get a convulsive grasp on the very taproot of this flourishing faith.
Wellman: That piece [Bitter Bierce] took me seven years to write. Because I had to read everything written by Bierce, and then everything written about him, and then had to figure out how to write a monologue for somebody like this. Which was interesting. It wasn’t easy. I like to write using somebody else’s voice.
Rail: What’s good about it?
Wellman: Well it’s two things. One is to escape your own voice. Because after you write a lot, you actually get sick of your own voice. When you’re young like you, you think it’s hard to find your own voice and you’re unsure of where it’s going, but it’s not—it’s following you around every day. The real problem is to get rid of it.
The other thing is to extend the realm of your voice. The only way you can do that is by actually using other people’s speech habits and writing habits to extend it forcibly, which is why adaptations are good, because you’re forced to think in a sort of way and write in a way, some cases that are almost completely foreign to you. That interests me a lot.
It was most clear to me in writing the Bierce monologue, because all the good parts were him, [taken directly from his stories]. And I had to write him talking about what he was doing in between, in a way that sounded vaguely like him, that was speakable, and clear, and interesting—and that was actually very hard. The beautiful sections, I just had to figure out what I wanted.
Rail: You just lifted from his stories. But with that piece, it’s also how all those bits are set up, all those amazing transitions where for a moment we’re not sure where Bierce’s life ends and his stories begin.
Wellman: Yeah, it was fun to work on.
Rail: You directed it as well.
Wellman: Uh-huh, and we rehearsed for a year. But when you don’t have any money and you’re just doing a one-person show, you can rehearse for a year, and then you can reach a level of polish that you would never reach in an ordinary rehearsal process, no matter how good the actors are. I would recommend that to you. It’s a different kind of theater, and you have more control over anything than you do if you have money. The more money you have in theater, the worse it is, because then the more people want to tell you what’s wrong with everything—and they will tell you what’s wrong with it.
Rail: Everything gets more conservative, if people feel like there’s money at stake.
Wellman: And pretty soon it becomes about making money—
Rail: And that’s the kiss of death.
Wellman: Well, in theater it is.
The Difficulty of Crossing A Field by Mac Wellman in collaboration with composer David Lang, directed by Bob McGrath with music direction by Alan Johnson, will be performed at Montclair State University, September 14-17. Tickets: $35, call: 973-655-5112.
Mac Wellman heads the Graduate Playwriting program at Brooklyn College. His play Two September, directed by Loy Arcenas, will go up at the Flea Theater in November. The play is set in post-WWII Vietnam when Ho Chi Minh had visions of a free country and a newly formed House Un-American Affairs Committee black-listed a young, female American writer who believed in truth, justice and a humane social order.
About the Author
KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright who currently splits her time between New York and Savannah. She's working on a commission for MCC Theater, called See Bat Fly.