The Late Charles Mee
In On Late Style, Edward Said imagines that “lateness,” the recognition of endings in human lives, constitutes, for the artist attempting to depict this condition, a peculiar style. But what is this style?
For some, like Shakespeare and Sophocles, lateness brings a touch of mature wisdom with the awareness of life’s transience. For others, like Ibsen, this same condition brings renewed youthful vigor. For Said, what matters most, what is most interesting is the grappling with death that carries along with it a sense of “anachronism and anomaly”—a resistance to anything resembling settledness or simple answers or easy endings. I think this is what Chuck Mee is after in his newest work, Gone, which I will direct this February at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan.
Of course this isn’t really “late” Chuck Mee. The prolific Mee shows no signs of infirmity or slowing down. Said writes about artists facing their own mortality and reconciling their own sense of history with the ways of nature and the tearing apart of the body with age and illness. Gone, by contrast, is a requiem—a piece written on the occasion of another person’s death—Mee’s friend and patron of many years, the philanthropist Richard Fisher. But the piece is still a “late” piece. Gone is all about anachronism and anomaly—and is anything but settled. The text is all voices; no narrative. The voices—Proust, Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, Sophocles, along with Ruth Siems—the inventor of stove-top stuffing, travel agents, and a blogger or two who don’t really belong in the same theatrical world. There is no “story.” There are no stage directions and no real “characters.”
But there they all are, speaking of loss and mourning, joined by the voices of lovers from Mee’s earlier plays speaking of love’s loss and mourning. That’s all that connects them—the recognition that they all survive and witness loss. In rehearsal, our work centers around finding a performative world for this disparate set of voices—the play places unusual demands on the performers and the design team, and on my sense of the direction of the piece. Where can mourning make sense among the fragments of lost moments? Who do the actors “play”? What is the piece “about”? How does it work?
I say that Gone is a late Mee play partly because of my sense of the trajectory of Chuck Mee’s own career and life. From an early start as a writer in the Off-Off movement of the early 1960s, Mee became a historian, a “citizen-activist” writer whose books were noted for their ability to look at the world-changing decision through the lens of the telling human detail. When he returned to writing for the theater, the blend of the very personal and the very historically aware made up a potent theatrical vision realized in post-dramatic adaptations like his Orestes, Time To Burn, Full Circle, The Bacchae 2.0 and others. Chuck did, in these plays, what directors like to do—take “classics” and “update” them. Except that directors tend to update them in one direction only—taking the characters and the plots, and dressing them in contemporary period styles allowing a simple collision only. Chuck’s approach destabilized the easy assimilation of old and new and mixed things up—blending voices from many sources: popular, trashy, elevated and debased, authoritarian and those of the excluded so that everything was anomaly and anachronism always. Gone is the logical result of this way of working—as though the structure of a previous play that gave his earlier plays their form has been removed and what’s left is the voices that “haunt” that structure.
For the director, then, the challenge with Chuck’s plays isn’t to take one realm of theatrical reality and fit it into another. It's to create a field where all those many voices—Pentheus and the sex workers, Orestes and Anita Hill, Fellini and the triple murderer, Proust and John Updike and the bloggers—can co-exist without the burden of historicity and genealogy. It’s not a world like the ones we know in the theater with outcomes that reinforce what we already know—here, hierarchies and arrangements and understandings are troubled, disrupted, made strange. The ground is leveled, and the voices are distributed equally throughout the space, throughout the time-space. It is a space of memory, and it functions the way memory is haunted—from the familiar to the defamiliarized, from death to the moment that we first learned of death, from the end we think we know back to the mystery of origins.
So that’s why this is a late play—because it is troubled by an uneasy mourning. We know that mourning is about repetition—of the voices of the lost, the voices that have to be raised up so that they can be mourned and put to rest. Somewhere in the middle of this—the raising of the voices that haunt our memory, and their release—is the moment of theater.
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists,
After the people are dead.
After the things are broken and scattered,
But with more vitality,
The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time,
Ready to remind us,
Waiting and hoping for their moment,
Amid the ruins of all the rest,
And bear unfaltering,
In the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence,
The vast structure of recollection.
We are called to memory. The voices come unbidden, and bid us come to them. We create in the theater the one place where the dead and the living exchange phone numbers and dance on graves.
Chuck Mee’s Gone will perform in February at 59E59, 59 E. 59th St., Manhattan. More info: 212.753.5959 or www.59e59.org.
Kenn Watt is a theater director and managing director of Radiohole.
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