‘Damnable Scribbler’

April 26, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Mac Wellman may be the American theater’s most perseverant renegade playwright. A cockeyed iconoclast, Wellman has never had much use for conventional notions of plot, character or even language. This could explain why he might be the most prolific playwright mainstream theatergoers have never heard of — as well as why he’s been a fascination to critics, arts foundations and his students at Brooklyn College, where he’s the Donald I. Fine Professor of Play Writing.

Wellman has been awarded three Obies, including one for lifetime achievement. He’s also working with CUNY colleagues to find new ways to help MFA writing students offset tuition costs.

Many have described you and your writing, but you’ve boiled it down to this: “Mac Wellman, Damnable Scribbler.” At least that’s what it says on your website.

On my card, too. Around 1990, I wrote a play called “Sincerity Forever,” about a bunch of Klansmen in full costume talking about love and romance and being very sweet. Jesus Christ appears as a black woman toward the end and gives them a lecture. I wrote it with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Jesse Helms and a few others were trying to kill the NEA at the time, so I dedicated the play to him. This irritated a lot of people and caused kind of a stink on Capitol Hill, and the NEA asked me to take their name off the play. I made the letters back and forth with the NEA part of the published version of the play. Somewhere in there, I started calling myself “Damnable Scribbler.”

You’ve famously rejected things like plot and structure, at least as most people tend to understand them. What do you find objectionable?

Writing for theater is very odd, because you make markings on a page and somebody else reads that page, gets up and does something, and that’s supposed to make you feel something. It’s very weird and complex. And there are just a ton of assumptions that are age-old about what this whole thing is about. Most plot and characters and what people mean when they refer to structure are just a set of clichés. Prospective students call and say, “Mr. Wellman, do you teach structure?” I say no, because structure is that part of a play that resembles some other play, usually a better one.

You’re known for writing characters who speak what you’ve proudly called “nonsense.” What’s that all about?

If you listen to what people actually say in the world, many times it verges on incomprehensibility but in beautifully contradictory ways that we actually do understand. Many years ago, I read H.L. Mencken’s book on the American language, and there’s a section dealing with grammatical oddities from the 19th century. There’s one — “If I hadda been, I mighta could” — which is completely bad grammar, but it captures something really true about the American spirit that you could not say in any other way. It’s very hard to write anything good in the theater — I mean, you have to compete with Sophocles and Shakespeare. In other words, it’s hopeless. So I began to do the opposite. I began to write badly. I had a legal pad, and I wrote one page of bad writing every day for two and a half years. And I found out that my bad writing was much more speakable than my correct writing. It had a kind of wonderful rhetorical roll that my serious writing did not have.

Are you ever concerned about your plays being accessible?

What I think accessible means to people is that they have already heard it. No, I don’t want to do something they have already heard. I want to give them an experience that might be a little unfamiliar. The best theater has always surprised you, I think, rather than reassured you.

What was your first play?

Oh, I don’t even know anymore. My first plays were done in Holland as radio plays, because I met a Dutch director who got me commissioned to write for Dutch radio.

It wasn’t until you were in your mid-40s that you got any real attention from the theater establishment. What was the breakthrough?

In 1989, I wrote a small play called “Bad Penny,” and it was performed in Central Park and got a very good review in The Times. Also from the downtown critics, who were more influential than they are today. And all of a sudden doors started opening, and I could do kind of what I wanted.

What makes you passionate these days?

A while ago, I started to notice I was losing students who just freaked out because they couldn’t afford $2,000 a month to live in New York City. So one of the projects I’m working on now is tuition abatement for all CUNY creative writing MFAs. If you get an MFA in poetry, you are not going to make a living. It is insane to think that you will. I am on a committee with three others from CUNY schools that have writing MFAs. And we got it into our heads that we would try to raise enough money so that writers could get an MFA. Otherwise, New York City’s legacy of being a great place for writers will disappear. It will be known for Madoff hedge funds and potholes. I think it’s important to make some move in this direction.