Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Douglas Messerli "What America Abandons Abandons America" (on Mac Wellman's Two September)

by Douglas Messerli

Mac Wellman Two September, New York, The Flea Theater / November 29-December 16, 2006 (The performance I saw was on December 7, 2006)

Over the years I have probably seen more plays by the noted American playwright Mac Wellman than any other writer. Beginning as early as 1986, I saw Mac’s play Cleveland performed as a BACA downtown production at, of all places, Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. In 1992, I attended the first of his famed Crowtet series, The Murder of Crows, at Primary Stages in New York. At the first production of the reconstructed Victory Theater on 42nd Street, I witnessed the 1994 En Garde Arts production of his Crowbar, which won two Obie Awards. The same year I saw both Swoop and Dracula at the Soho Repetory Theatre. The Los Angeles theater company, Bottom's Dream—with whom I co-produced a series of readings that included Mac’s Second-Hand Smoke, the third play in his Crowtet series—premiered the final play of that series, The Lesser Magoo, in Los Angeles in 1997. A year later I sat in on a reading of his Cats-Paw while visiting New York. I saw Terminal Hip performed in Los Angeles by Bottom's Dream in 2000, and witnessed his dance-drama Antigone in New York at the Big Dance Company/Classic Stage Company in 2001.

Beyond these numerous play productions, I published his plays The Professional Frenchman (1990) and Bad Penny (1990) on my Blue Corner Drama series (the precursor to my later publishing house, Green Integer), printed his influential anthology Theatre of Wonders: Six Contemporary Plays on my Sun & Moon Press in 1985, published the first two Crowtet plays as Two Plays in 1994 on Sun & Moon and reprinted those plays as Crowtet 1 on the Green Integer imprint in 2000, following up with Crowtet 2 in 2003. Wellman’s two Dracula plays, The Land Beyond the Forest: Dracula and Swoop (1994) appeared on my Sun & Moon Press, as did his novels The Fortuneteller (1991) and Annie Salem (1996) and his collection of poetry, A Shelf in Woop’s Clothing (1990). More recently, I published his novel Q’s Q: An Arboreal Narrative on my Green Integer press. Together we co-edited the significant anthology of American drama, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Drama 1960-1995, which included 38 American plays since 1960, including Wellman’s own The Hyacinth Macaw.

Accordingly, I presume that it will be understood as no disparagement of Wellman’s great talent to suggest that the newest play I witnessed, Two September, at The Flea Theater on
December 7, 2006, was not my favorite of his works. Basically a political statement, the play seemed without much of the linguistic energy of his other works, despite the interweaving of texts by American writer Josephine Herbst, from whom he quotes a long passage that might be read as a thematic entry into this work:

Today the point of gravity for responsibility has shifted from the small community to the relationship between things. Experiences have even made themselves independent of men… Over the air ways, in movies, experiences come to be dogmatized to certain kinds of experiences at the cost of all others… The world comes second hand—or fifth hand—to us and the illusion that it is fresh because it is shown as a picture of an actual place by some reporter divides man into incalculable parts of any true center. (from New Green World, 1954)

Although I have difficulty with what I perceive as a romanticized notion of “the center”—a harkening back to an order of small town America and the social priorities of another age—I think there may be no better direct statement of what I began to explore in the 2006 volume of My Year: the simulacrum we now seem to desire in place of the “real” because it remains, in its imitation of dangerous reality, at a safer distance than the actual events. But, of course, in that preference we often have no way of knowing whether what we are witnessing is something that has been manipulated to look like the real thing or an accurate image of it. Truth thus becomes so separated from reality, from what might have really happened, that we have no way of unweaving it from someone’s fabricated warp and weft. As Herbst has argued, coming as it has from one or perhaps six degrees of separation, the real becomes disconnected from us, and, accordingly, is indeterminable and often indecipherable.

Herbst’s statements seem even more prescient in the context of later wars in Vietnam, the first Iraq invasion (when even news reporters were kept at a distance from significant events) and our current occupation of Iraq. Only yesterday—through the simulacrum of my choice, a CNN television report—the young soldier, Staff Sgt. Roy Starbeck, interviewed from Baghdad, expressed precisely these issues: "It's just...really just aggravating," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "People saying that they don't support the war because they don't like the president or saying they don't support the war because they are Democrats or saying they support the war because they are Republicans. None of them are taking the time or energy to find out what is actually going on over here."

Obviously, with the rise of virtual realities in our computerized age, it becomes even more difficult to separate any notion of “real” from what is imagined or simulated.

Iowa writer Herbst, former friend to Ernest Hemingway and Robert MacAlmon, experienced these problems first hand when she was summarily dismissed from her position at the Office of Strategic Services—precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency—an organization that helped to arm, train, and supply anti-German and anti-Japanese groups, including Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Forces in China and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, the Vietnamese National Liberation Movement. Herbst was released from her position, evidently, on the basis of classified reports, thus allowing her no opportunity to even know the charges or defend herself from them.

Sound familiar? It is precisely what President Bush is advocating for individuals who today are arrested on terrorist charges, that such people—defined by the government as terrorists—should have no access to normal legal procedures, that because of the need for governmental secrecy they have no right to know all the charges against them, and, accordingly, no possibility of a knowledgeable defense. Herbst was later to discover that the source of information that named her as a political radical (in fact, her second marriage was to John Herrmann, the writer who introduced Whittaker Chambers to Alger Hiss, and Herbst did embrace various Marxist ideas of the time)—information that was filled with lies and exaggeration—had come from her supposed friend, Texas fiction writer Katherine Anne Porter. Although Herbst was later cleared of all charges, her reputation and career basically ended with her dismissal in the early 1940s.
Against this backdrop Wellman portrays larger world-wide political events, particularly those relating to the young Ho Chi Minh, who had lived in and traveled throughout the United States in the first decade of the 20th century, and was highly influenced in his own attempts to free Indochina from the French colonialist regimes by the American Declaration of Independence and other such documents. His September 2nd, 1945 declaration of Vietnamese Independence in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi began:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with
certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness….”

Wellman presents the man as having sympathetic allies on the American front in China and Vietnam in 1945, individuals who attempted to explain to American higher-ups that it was in our better interest to support the Vietnamese National Liberation. OSS chief, William J. Donovan—the same man who fired Herbst—finally notified the local American forces to have no more connections with Ho Chi Minh, and in 1946 the first Indochina War (the Franco-Vietnamese war) began, resulting in the division of South and North Vietnam, and, ultimately, in the American military involvement in that country.

The only actual link between Herbst and Ho Chi Minh is the figure of Donovan, and that fact, perhaps, is what weakens this play’s claim to our moral outrage. Donovan, moreover, later became assistant to the chief prosecutor, Telford Taylor, at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal and received the Distinguished Service Medal.*

What continues to haunt me, long after Wellman’s play, however, has less specifically to do with Donovan or his role in these two seemingly unconnected events, but relates to what might be perceived as the American inability to separate our fears from listening to the voices of people who, caring about our values and ideals, represent opposing viewpoints. And it is in this matrix of events—even more than our misunderstandings of Indochinese politics, it seems to me—that we reveal our ready acceptance of the simulacrum over truth. The same blindness that Wellman speaks of in the post-World War II politics were continued in the Nixon-era slogans such as “Love it or leave it,” declarations of hatred to anybody who even questioned American military decisions in the Vietnam War, perpetuating the absurd confusion that disagreeing with governmental policies and decisions necessarily means opposition to or hatred of our country or—to bring it into today’s context—represents terrorist attitudes. It is strange that in a country founded on individual freedoms—a country that was created by individuals speaking out against what was perceived as unfair governmental authority—is so fearful of embracing those who question and challenge political monotheism. In fact, by dismissing figures as radically different as Ho Chi Minh and Josephine Herbst we threaten our existence. Had we heard and followed the enthusiasms and admonitions of that Vietnamese leader, we might have saved ourselves from years of painful political turmoil and rescued the lives of thousands of American and Vietnamese men and women. Had we listened to a voice like Josephine Herbst, we might have recognized that the truths we believed we held were imitations of—indeed were false presentations of—the real thing. By abandoning figures such as Herbst and the hundreds of falsely accused liberals and even communist sympathizers within our own country, we forced them to abandon America; their insights and percipient warnings were no longer heard. That some of them remained to advocate alternative views speaks not to the greatness of our country but to their own unswerving beliefs in the truth.

*Of more interest, however, is the fact that Donovan was later the chairman of the American Committee on United Europe which, with funding from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations—secretly supported by CIA monies channeled through the Fairchild Foundation—fought against what was perceived as the omnipresent Communist force by attempting to unify Europe, which, in turn, led not only to the establishment of America’s cold war policies, but helped to fuel the cauldron of Communist fears brewed by the Senate Committee for Un-American Activities investigations and those meetings by house member Joseph McCarthy (part of the larger series of events related to the experiences of Josephine Herbst)—and indirectly led to today’s European Union.

Los Angeles, January 11, 2007

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