FOR THE PAST SEVEN YEARS CHUCK MEE HAS LIVED in Cobble Hill, a quiet Brooklyn neighborhood that quietly became hip almost overnight. Despite the area's growing profile, Mee's abbreviated street maintains a kind of New England solitude; to reach his home, a visitor enters the basement level of a century-old, four-story brownstone. The playwright and historian who wrote Big Love and Meeting in Potsdam handles the steps with two cuffed crutches, just as he has handled steps and sidewalks every day since 1953, when he contracted polio as a teenager. In the cruelest of twists, paralysis felled him while, attired in a white-jacket tuxedo, he was on his first date.
"There was to be dinner and swimming," he recalls in his book, A Nearly Normal Life. "A local country club had let the students use its clubhouse, and there would be an evening of wandering out onto the veranda, strolling out onto the golf course . . . In the parking lot at the club, I felt dizzy."
The chaos of polio made Mee's life the opposite of a well-made play, and he frequently describes his work in terms of jagged fragmentation: dialogues and imagery that shatter into pieces and are then reassembled in a kind of cubist rebirth.
In L.A., Mee currently has two works up: a boisterous production of Big Love at Pacific Resident Theater, and the premiere of Songs of Joy and Destitution at Open Fist. We spoke about his career over veggie wraps and potato salad in a nearby café. Mee's face, dominated by a set of watchful Gary Cooper eyes and a wide nose, seems nowhere near his age, and, sporting a red Land's End jacket, he looked as though he might be a ski instructor. Mee speaks in deliberate, matter-of-fact sentences and in the kind of voice that John Hersey might have used if he'd ever read Hiroshima as a bedtime story.
Songs of Joy and Destitution (see review in Calendar), directed by Matthew Wilder, is actually a coupling of two earlier Mee reinterpretations, Trojan Women: A Love Story and Orestes. Greek scholars will have little difficulty discerning Mee's departures from Euripides: Amid recitations from Hannah Arendt, Slavenka Drakulic, Amy Vanderbilt and Geraldo, Menelaus struts around like a Latin American caudillo, and Apollo appears in the form of George W. Bush holding a fuck-me doll. The evening explores the nature of war and conquest — things that are very much on Mee's mind during the crisis over Iraq, which he sees as America's attempt to establish an imperial presence in the Middle East.
"Matt Wilder called me about directing a work of mine," Mee says of the show's origins, "and I suggested he do the first act of Trojan Women and boil down Orestes, using the script that David Schweizer had made for his Actors Gang production."
Mee, in fact, gives all comers carte blanche with his work.
"My plays are on the Internet," he says. "I encourage people to download and remake them however they want. If they end up doing something that's more or less faithful to my play, then I ask them to get in touch with my agent. If they do something else they should just put their name to it and do it. I just say, 'Here's the script, see you on opening night. Call me if you want to.'"
Before our interview I had stood in a Staples store next to the art critic Robert Hughes, who, thanks to a car crash, now requires the use of a crutch. He's still luckier than Mee, whose condition has worsened since the publication of his polio memoir. He's weaker, Mee admits, but when I ask him about the desirability of installing a ramp or elevator to make it easier for him to go up and down his building's steps, he demurs. "I don't want anything like that," he says, "it makes you use your body less."
Mee's work, like his career, is a study in tangents. He came to New York in 1960, after Harvard, and began writing for the theater but got diverted by the Vietnam War into activism and, eventually, into writing history and editing Horizon magazine. Mee didn't write for the stage again until 1985 but hasn't looked back since.
Collage is the word most often used to describe his plays, which are known for their ricocheting ideas and free appropriation of songs and text from both pop culture and Greek classics; it's an authorial strategy that early on made Mee the darling of semioticians but left him unknown to most theatergoers. Then, in 2000, the Humana Theater in Louisville premiered Big Love, a retrofit of Aeschylus' The Suppliants, and suddenly Mee began showing up on everyone's go-to list of playwrights. The next year Anne Bogart staged his eccentric assemblage of 1950s suburbiana, Bobrauschenbergamerica, while, locally, David Schweizer directed an enormously successful version of his Berlin Circle at the Evidence Room.
MEE'S ENDURING TOUCHSTONE HAS BEEN THE Greeks, to whom he was introduced in his very first weeks of paralysis by one of his school teachers.
"I think that in all their plays the Greeks consciously tried to identify human problems and conditions. You put on a play today that was written 2,500 years ago, and it seems prophetic."
Prophecy — or at least, familiarity — is certainly everywhere in his more political work.
"I don't write political plays with direct lessons like Brecht did. But I write plays, because of my work as a historian and my love of the Greeks, that have as their premise that human beings are not created just by domestic conditions and early childhood and psychologies that develop as a result, but by history and culture, politics, economics, gender and genetics — all of those things that the Greeks called Destiny or Favor of the Gods, that we call 'the world.'"
If anything personally rankles Mee more than the rehabilitation of Richard Nixon or the romanticization of the 1950s, it might be the "well-made play" — the epitome of text-driven, naturalistic drama full of pregnant pauses and stuffed furniture.
"To us, theater is a literary product that's somehow placed in a living room," he says. "But the idea that theater is a literary text that has been mounted onstage is a very recent idea — and a European and American idea. In the rest of the world, from China to Japan and remote villages in India, theater includes music and dance. If you move outside pure text and domestic settings, then you move into the world of what other people call 'spectacle' — striking, ravishing information that shouldn't just be razzle-dazzle, but something meaningful."
A NEARLY NORMAL LIFE BETRAYS A QUIET RAGE rippling beneath Mee's acceptance of his paralysis. There is one scene in which Mee toys with a Jesuit who is trying to talk the stricken adolescent back into the arms of Catholicism. The priest relies upon the first three of Thomas Aquinas' proofs of God's existence — ignorant of the remaining proofs that the young Mee, well versed in them and their refutations, is about to spring against him. Reading the passage, you sense a precocious Dirty Harry pistol-whipping an intellectual punk.
And yet a dogged humanism warms even the most obsidian corners of Mee's work, a fact he acknowledges by admitting he has been feeling "sweeter" about life over the past few years as his work has flowered.
"I think it's hard to be good," he says. "There are a lot of good people for whom it's a real struggle to know how to get through from day to day and be good. So I have a lot of sympathy for people who fall short of their own goals."
Back in his cozy galley of a kitchen, with its low, hammered-tin ceiling and vast supplies of various teas, Mee tells me of his coming marriage to his fourth wife, and of four writing projects that keep him Brooklyn-bound these days.
Mee professes not to "hang around" theaters a lot, preferring art galleries instead, and spending time with his family.
"I'm a very normal guy. I have two teenage daughters, and when they come home we have dinner and watch Lizzie McGuire."
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And of his unseen audiences?
"I never try to think if people will like a work or not. I write until it feels good to me, then it's finished — I'm the world's leading expert in what I like."
SONGS OF JOY AND DESTITUTION | BY CHARLES L. MEE | At OPEN FIST THEATER COMPANY, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood Through February 15
BIG LOVE | BY CHARLES L. MEE | At PACIFIC RESIDENT THEATER, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Through February 2