The plays of Mac Wellman. Pretentious nonsense? Or clever fun? Damned if I know. Over the years, I’d read nearly every play by the sexteguagenarian, Obie-award winning, Guggenheim fellowship recipient, thus developing an unhealthy obsession with bad pennies, cheese, crows, and engaging in analytical discussions about every Wellman-loving director from Jim Simpson to some undergrad. I thought, “Pshaw. I’ve got this.”
I was determined to not be the ditzy, inarticulate actor who gushes “I love Mac Wellman” and then, when asked to support her view, dishes out a puzzled look. I had smart things to say about the kooky, yet philosophical writer. Still, I wasn’t going to drone on with doctoral gobbledygook about Brechtian storytelling, Beckettian landscapes, puppets, social metaphors, and references to Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and meter.
Wellman’s verbally deft play, Left Glove was read at The Great Plains Theatre Conference in 2006, workshopped at Five Myles in Brooklyn in 2007, and published last year. Although the work is intended for the stage, its unconventional structure, carefully-woven word plays, and intricate rhythms make it perfect for savoring and dissecting on the page. In fact, Left Glove deserves numerous reads in order to be properly digested.
The plot of Left Glove is simple enough. A character named Yamaha Nazimova has lost a glove, and another character, Jewel Beckett has found a glove. Should she use it? Give it back? The analogies made in reference to the left glove, however, are profound and complex. One doesn’t read Left Glove for plot or Stanislavskian psychological character study, but rather the poetry used to convey deeper meaning. It is, as David Savran, professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, has said of Wellman’s past work, a “veritable org[y] of language.” But how to really, truly appreciate the orgy? I had to meet Mac Wellman.
Recently, I sat down with Mac Wellman at a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn to discuss Left Glove. Given his work, I was expecting perhaps puppets and spirits, and maybe a cosmic-looking lighting cue. Maybe he’d only talk to objects and every once in a while give a pompous nod to acknowledge my existence. After all, the guy’s papers are in the New York Public Library amongst the work of theatre legends like Harold Clurman. My “papers” are in a heap on the floor next to my faux wood, self-assemble desk.
But Wellman looks like any dude just chillin’ in Brooklyn on a Sunday afternoon. No puppets. No pomposity. Wellman is humble. A professor in Brooklyn College’s graduate Creative Writing program, he doesn’t just want to talk about his own work, he wants to know about what other people—particularly young people—are writing. He enjoys immersing himself in artistic communities, seeing himself as one part of something much larger.
Wellman says that while he was a fellow at the MacDowell colony he ordered a digital recorder so he could write out loud. “I don’t think you can do this in New York. Just walk around talking. Then you’ll get arrested, people will look at you funny. But in the woods…” Although Left Glove was created in the woods, it was inspired in Manhattan. Wellman was walking through a walkway in midtown Manhattan and saw a glove lying on the ground. “And I thought about it,” Wellman says. “I thought about it for a long time, and then I thought, you see this all the time. There really is a story there. So, I wanted to tease the story out. And that’s all it is: It’s the story of being dropped—One woman drops the glove. The glove is there for twenty-four hours and another woman picks the glove up. Nothing is known about either woman besides the fact that they have the same glove size… So, it’s a very simple story.”
Like much of Wellman’s work—Bad Penny, A Murder of Crows, Girl Gone, Infrared—Left Glove addresses the importance of losing and finding someone or something. Sometimes the message is direct; in A Murder of Crows Susannah’s father, whether dead or alive, is clearly lost. But other times, as in the case of Left Glove, the message is implied via the use of symbolism, anthropomorphized utterings (The, And, If, Um, and Er are characters, not just parts of speech), choruses, intentionally-grammatically-incorrect and seemingly nonsensical phrases, and of course, “Various other Moths and Spiders.”
In Wellman’s world, a lost glove is an empty glove—a glove without a function, a single, unemployed, impoverished glove. The chorus argues for a world with working gloves: “May the gloves of the hungry be filled with oats and hay; /May the gloves of the thirsty be filled with water and wine;” Gloves are partners with the universe: “…night is the moon’s glove… day is the sun’s glove…” Anything left unfulfilled, without purpose or a home, is a lost, empty glove. Left or right, we’re lonely without our finder—our Jewel Beckett—our partner glove.
I asked Wellman about the ever-present theme of loneliness in his work, and he reflected on a conversation he’d had with composer David Lang, with whom he wrote an opera. Wellman told Lang, “There’s just sex and death.” Lang replied, “No, there’s just death.” “I’ve thought about that for a long time,” Wellman says. “And something about the glove— Something nobody else— Something nobody pays attention to— But it’s just as lost as somebody who’s hurting.”
Hearing this, one might be tempted to put Wellman as part of the sad, lonely, Brooklyn writer club. But Wellman isn’t sentimental or whiney, and neither are his plays. Wellman, in his own life, has struggled with death—his father died when Wellman was seven; his mother died when he was in his mid-twenties; and his older brother died when Wellman was in his forties—but rather than purging the grief in a kitchen-sink, autobiographical drama, he seeks to present the tragic and yes, comic, from new angles. He understands the preciousness of life, saying, “A lot of people think they have all the time in the world, and you don’t have all the time in the world.”
Grief seems to have served not only as an impetus to write from new angles, but also as a reason to be a perpetual optimist. Although there is emptiness in Left Glove, the play is also, according to Wellman, “full of love and touching.” He says he “got very interested in just fingers. Writing about fingers. What fingers do.” Fingers make me think of Ted Hughes’ poem “Fingers” about his dead wife, Sylvia Plath’s appendages. Fingers are a subject for nostalgia—a lost glove, a lost spouse—but for Wellman, someone who once described himself as a “cheerful pessimist,” fingers seem to be reason to celebrate. I’ve never met someone as excited about fingers as Mac Wellman.
Through his study of fingers, Wellman found himself thinking about government: “…because it was the left glove left behind, I got interested in politics. There was a left glove and the right glove hated it.” Like a partisan a partisan Congress, life without a full pair of gloves lacks the “glove of even-handedness.” The yin without the yang. The sun without the moon. “…Nothing shall wear the glove. /Till time topples all the towers of crime and error. /Till all gloves are reunited, both the Left and the Right.” Wellman is talking politics—left wing, right wing—but the conversation is hidden in symbols, rather than spoken outright as it is in previous work such as 7 Blowjobs in which Senator Bob, a caricature of Senator Jesse Helms, pans what he views as offensive art. Politics are disguised by gloves, puppets, and shadows. In this sense, gloves are not only part of a balanced equation, but also a way of concealing the equation: “What gloves the hand gloves the eye /and heart and soul…” Unlike 7 Blow Jobs, however, Left Glove Wellman doesn’t take sides in politics—Wellman, by the way is a Leftist—but rather creates a metaphor for viewing them.
Wellman isn’t a political preacher; he’s a questioner: “I want to figure out what it is I have to say that I don’t know I have to say. And believe me, that gets worse the older you get because you end up knowing more and you just become a prisoner of your own opinions. So, I have to keep ahead of what I know. Or what I think I know.”
So. Pretentious nonsense or clever fun? Both. The gloves of carefully monitored subtext and fantastical merriment work together. One needn’t take sides.