ON THE SUBJECT
by Charles L. Mee
Directed by Joanna Garfinkel
January 24 - February 3, 2007
TELUS Studio Theatre
All shows start at 7:30 p.m.
Background on the Play:
Big Love is based on Aeschylus' Danaid trilogy, which had its première sometime around 463 BC—about five years before the Oresteia and seven before the dramatist's death—and of which Suppliant Maidens was the first, and only surviving, third. (The trilogy's plot we infer from later summaries and some fragments, of which the most significant is seven lines thought to be from the final play.)
Mee has audaciously updated this, one of the oldest plays known. His work is a model of how to present tragedies today: preserving their primary stories while imaginatively reconfiguring the codes—the ancient, formalized theatrical vocabularies of the telling gesture, potent symbol and striking image—in a way that allow the works, after so many centuries, not merely to speak but to be felt and heard.
Forget the staid, static dramas with odd, incongruous parallels to current affairs or actors wearing masks in an effort to be "authentic". Instead, expect murderous brides, baths, dancing and food fights. This production has such dynamism, passion and integrity that it can cover questions of the same universal human scope as Aeschylean drama.
Aeschylus' Suppliant Maidens:
Like so much of high classical tragedy, this lost trilogy entwines what we today would think of as the personal and the political in such a way as to make them inextricable. As far as it's possible to reconstruct it, the trilogy went something like this: In the first play, Suppliant Maidens, the fifty daughters of Danaus, an Egyptian king and descendant of the Greek princess Io, arrive in Io's hometown of Argos, having fled Egypt and their fifty cousins, to whom they've been promised in marriage.
The fifty girls supplicate their distant relation the Argive king, Pelasgus, who after consulting with his assembly nobly agrees to defend the girls. (Their threat of mass suicide at the holy altar, a terrible pollution, helps him to see the light.) The beastly cousins eventually arrive in hot pursuit, threatening war against Argos and testing the resolve of Pelasgus, who tells off their representative in no uncertain terms. The play ends with this tense standoff.
The next play in the trilogy, Egyptians, begins with the defeat of Pelasgus and his army by the Egyptians after a pitched battle; in his place, the steely and ambitious Danaus, father of the fleeing girls, assumes the throne. It is he who makes his daughters swear their famous oath to kill their husbands on their wedding night —which at the climax of this middle play they all do, with the exception of one girl, Hypermnestra, who has fallen in love with her betrothed. End of part two.
The third play, Danaids, portrayed the moral, legal, and political fallout of Hypermnestra's actions. In it, Hypermnestra is tried for breaking her oath, but is acquitted by Aphrodite herself, goddess of love, who affirms the universal and inevitable power of love and sex— the very things that the cousins had shunned, and that Hypermnestra alone embraced. Just as the Oresteia ends with a delicately achieved equilibrium between the craving for retribution and the necessity of peace, so too the Danaid trilogy, which even as it gives voice to female terror of male aggression, reasserts the need for marriage, reproduction, and the social structures that further them.
As Reinterpreted by Mee:
“Impressively interweaving a mix of mayhem, passion, lust and social consciousness-raising rhetoric…a volatile, thoroughly entertaining one-acter,” Variety
Many of Mee's earlier plays are dramatic Humpty Dumptys—reassembled out of the deconstructed shards of preexisting works, among them A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Lower Depths, and of course various Greek tragedies. (Another play, called True Love, updates Euripides' Hippolytus to a gas station in upstate New York.)
Since its conspicuous debut at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2000, Big Love has been sending critics running to their reference books for help describing and analyzing the play. Mee freely juggles pop culture, ancient myths, ethical conundrums, contrary theatrical styles and, significantly, that old mystery -- love.
Mee turns the ancient story of fifty brides who rebel against their arranged marriages a wild free-for-all, while underscoring Aeschylus' meditation on the universal themes of justice and revenge, as well as such contemporary social issues as date rape, domestic abuse and gender inequality.
Mee's facility in combining broadly funny and deadly serious material so that both weigh equally on the senses puts him in a very elite class of dramatists. As an audience member, you may catch yourself laughing out loud while thinking, "Why am I laughing? People's lives are on the line here!" It is comedy with extremely high stakes, and it pays out generously.
Mee demands something huge of the director, designers, and cast simply by giving them so much room to move within his ideas. He describes the set as an installation -- such a suggestion is a challenge -- a dialogue between writer and the creators that you don't often encounter in scripts.
Big Love is, if not a Greek tragedy, then it is a play that has the theatrical and intellectual vigor that Greek tragedies must have had when they were first produced—one that grappled with all the big social and political issues that Aeschylus grappled with, and Mee makes us grapple with them, too.
The humor, physicality, and inventiveness of Mee's play, the way he chooses to represent, visually and gesturally, sexual anxiety and masculine aggressiveness, the mysterious power of love, the whimsy and violence and beauty of life, make us care about the events unfolding on stage, and hence about the underlying issues, which not surprisingly turn out to be the very ones that Aeschylus' play is about. Which is to say, the most pressing questions about relations between the sexes, and the true nature of power.
Charles L. Mee, Playwright
what I like
My own work begins with the belief that human beings are, as Aristotle said, social creatures—that we are the product not just of psychology, but also of history and of culture, that we often express our histories and cultures in ways even we are not conscious of, that the culture speaks through us, grabs us and throws us to the ground, cries out, silences us.
I don't write "political plays" in the usual sense of the term; but I write out of the belief that we are creatures of our history and culture and gender and politics—that our beings and actions arise from that complex of influences and forces and motivations, that our lives are more rich and complex than can be reduced to a single source of human motivation.
So I try in my work to get past traditional forms of psychological realism, to bring into the frame of the plays material from history, philosophy, insanity, inattention, distractedness, judicial theory, sudden violent passion, lyricism, the National Enquirer, nostalgia, longing, aspiration, literary criticism, anguish, confusion, inability.
I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.
And then I like to put this—with some sense of struggle remaining—into a classical form, a Greek form, or a beautiful dance theatre piece, or some other effort at civilization.
— C h u c k M e e
a note on casting
I am an old crippled white guy in love with a young Japanese-Canadian-American woman, and we talk about race and age and polio and disability, but race and disability do not consume our lives. Most of our lives are taken up with love and children and mortality and politics and literature—just like anyone else.
My plays don't take race and disability as their subject matter. Other plays do, and I think that is a good and necessary thing, and I hope many plays will be written and produced that deal directly with these issues.
But I want my plays to be the way my own life is: race and disability exist. They are not denied. And, for example, white parents do not have biological black children. But issues of race and disability do not always consume the lives of people of color or people in wheel chairs. In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheel chair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play.
There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.
Big Love by Charles L. Mee
Full volume: wedding processional music:
the triumphant music at the end of Scene 13, Act III,
of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.
Lydia walks up the aisle,
looking somewhat disoriented,
carrying a wedding bouquet,
in a white wedding dress that is disheveled,
a little torn in places, dirty in spots.
She steps up onto the stage,
goes to the bathtub,
drops the bouquet on the floor,
takes off all her clothes,
or simply walks out of them,
steps into the tub,
leans her head back against the rim, exhausted,
and closes her eyes,
her arms thrown back out of the tub as though she were crucified,
as we listen to the music finish playing.
Continue reading Charles L. Mee's Big Love online: www.charlesmee.org/html/big_love.html