Sunday, January 13, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "A Linguistic Fantasia" (on Mac Wellman's Murder of Crows)

a linguistic fantasia
by Douglas Messerli
Mac Wellman A Murder of Crows / New York, Primary Stages, April 22, 1992

Without complaining about the very thing I’ve determined to do, I still have to admit I feel a bit daunted about writing on Mac Wellman’s unforgettable play, Murder of Crows. Without any true plot, you might describe this work as more of a linguistic fantasia than a drama peopled with interrelating characters. Although family is vaguely at the center of this play, all is more than slightly askew, as the very set suggests, where stands a porch without a house attached: “We lost the house,” suggests Nella (Anne O’Sullivan) glibly tossing out one of the hundreds of American vernacular terms with which this work engages.

     I first saw this play at Primary stages in late April 1992, and I published it, along with the second of Wellman’s so-called “Crowtet” on my Sun & Moon Press two years later; I reprinted that volume through my Green Integer imprint in 2000, adding the second volume, containing the last two “Crowtet” plays, in 2003. So, I obviously have great affection for and intimate knowledge of the play. Yet it has taken me all this time to attempt to write about it, and I still find it more experiential than explicable.

      Let me just suggest that although the characters are slightly related—Susannah (Jan Leslie Harding) and her mother Nella, along with their son Andy (the handsome Reed Birney, who stands all in gold throughout as a kind of lawn ornament) having come to live with Nella’s brother Howard (William Mesnik) and his unbelievably lucky and mean-hearted wife, Georgia (Lauren Hamilton)—it might be best to think of their interrelationships more as a series of monologues that each satirizes various aspects of contemporary American culture.

      Wellman’s play is set someone in Midwest (he grew up in Ohio) near a vast “hellacious grease pit” and a nearby reactor which makes the rivers “look like bubble baths, and the air’s all mustardy.” Her husband, Raymond (Stephen Mellor) has evidently been drowned in the pit, and all they have is a shoe left. With feet of different sizes and a dislocated face, Nella is clearly a dependent, in need not only of the begrudging housing (in a chicken coop) that her relatives have provided her and her daughter, but in need of inspirational reading matter and spiritual help. She is, in short, a representative of all in American life that is hated, a woman who has been bypassed by any element of the “American dream.” Although her brother Howard is somewhat sympathetic, he himself is impatient with his sister, and particularly her dreamy daughter, whose major focus seems to be a “weather change”:

 Susannah: The weather is changing, the weather
                   is changing for sure, I can smell it.
                   The weather has got a whole wheelbarrow
                   full of surprises up its sleeve for us.

Not only is she predicting, like a local Cassandra, a serious change in the climate—significant implications in the environmental ravaged worlds where many of Wellman’s plays take place—but a change of philosophical, spiritual, even metaphysical significance. For her, “The moment will come. Everything that is vertical will become horizontal,” Time will turn inside out. In part, of course, Susannah’s “strangeness,” as Howard describes it, is simply the desire of any young being for change. But the change she prophesies is also terrifying, particularly for the hidebound gold diggers whom Howard and his wife represent.

    The wife, Georgia, has not only broken the bank at Monte Carlo, one of the hundreds of clichés Wellman proudly spouts, but wins big weekly at their attendances at the local horse track, from which she brings home wheelbarrows full of money. If she can be said characterize the dream of all Americans, hooked on a system that promises enormous, accidental, and undeserved wealth, she, in her xenophobic hostility of anything outside what finds to be normal, experiences little happiness. Berating Raymond’s shoes and hats, for example, she snarls:
 ……..Grotesque. Perverted.
 If it’s possible for a hat to be obscene, his
 hats were obscene. I mean, They made you
 think of things no sane person ought to think
 of, ever. They were not good-looking American
 hats, law-and-order type hats, or patriotic,
 military hats, or socially eminent country
 club or corporate hats.

Later in the play Howard and Nella reveal that their own strange attic-stored hats (fezzes) and clothes was a result of their having as children been gypsies (or pretending to be gypsies) who stole money from German tourists. Their real family name, so they claim, was Babaghanouj, their great grandfather having been a rug merchant from Istanbul named Nebuchanezzar. It all reminds one, a bit, of the patriotic, right-wing Eleanor Shaw Iselin from The Manchurian Candidate, who near film’s end is revealed to be a Communist set on taking over the US.

      It is almost inevitable, accordingly, that the shining gold statue, Andy, says nothing and does nothing throughout most of the play, since, as he briefly admits, the excitement aroused in him by bombing Iraq cities has taken him into a higher plain of being than any of the family members can comprehend.

      Like most American comedies, Wellman’s Murder of Crows, predictably ends happily as the dead father Raymond reappears, rising from his coffin, having, he admits, been living all these years with the Crows. As confused and mysteriously baffled as his daughter, he would go living with them, he vows, if he weren’t allergic to their feathers. Released from her earth-bound bondage by his sudden resurrection and her mother’s symbolic death as she retreats into the coffin the husband has left, Susannah discovers she is not at all allergic to their wings, and joins up with the busy crows, who, somewhat like the cartoon figures of Heckle and Jeckle, sit apart, at play’s end, discussing interminably deep and unanswerable philosophical issues:

 What if were are Type A entities.
 That is, what if we contextualize
 and explain the existences of
 others but cannot, on pain of
 infinite regress, be contextualized
 or explained ourselves? 

    Yet, while these seemingly profound figures nicely close down Wellman’s hilarious look at the “State of the Onion,” it is important to remember that in other cultures, such as in Japan, crows represent ominous forces of evil for the human species. One can only wonder, accordingly, whether the author is suggesting that in both Andy and Susannah we have lost, as a people, our only dreamers to realms that have no effect on our daily lives. Never mind, hints the witty writer, that these crows “look more like mynas or parrots than real crows: ie., they’re fake crows.” In a world built of language anything is possible or nothing is.

      Beware: the forces hovering over the second play of Wellman’s quartet are Macaws.

Los Angeles, January 13, 2013

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