Dec 21, 2004

Mee Me

I knew I liked Chuck Mee’s politics, even though the playwright has seldom come out and stated them as directly as he does in last weekend’s curious LA Times Magazine piece. I guess I could sense, from his Brecht revision The Berlin Circle on, that here was a man steeped in left-of-center thinking who had nevertheless moved beyond leftist cant and score-keeping, and who was alert to the contradictions of politics as they’re actually practiced, both between individuals and groups. A typical liberal dramatist—David Edgar, for instance—might have strained to show us how the triumph represented by the fall of the Berlin Wall was really a loss, a Western invasion, the rape of a valid (a more valid?) way of organizing the world. While certainly not portraying it as an unambiguous triumph, Mee saw it correctly as a kind of hinge of history, overturning old paradigms and alignments in ways that were, and still are, inherently dramatic.

And I recall fondly the Q&A between Mee and director Matt Wilder, printed in the program of Songs of Joy and Destituion, Wilder’s stridently anti-war staging of two Mee adaptations (The Trojan Women and The Oresteia) at the Open Fist months before the war on Iraq began. Wilder kept trying to get Mee to join in his de rigeuer critique of Western imperialism and warmongering, but Mee was remarkably circumspect and measured about his opinion, without sounding wishy-washy.

Which is why the Times magazine piece, by a Washington political writer rather than an arts journalist, is such a tantalizing glimpse into the politics behind Mee's plays. The headline, “A ’60s Lefty Reconsiders,” is a little misleading, since Mee doesn’t seem to have revised his progressive views so much as stayed awake to the ways they’ve proved unexpectedly durable, renewable, even in our flawed democracy.

Compare Mee’s closing thoughts on the Constitutional Convention, for instance, with Howard Zinn’s disgraceful chapter on same, in his overrated A People’s History of the United States, and you’ll see the difference between a playwright/historian with a lively open mind and a hollow, one-worldview-fits-all-times polemicist:

"If you go back to the Constitutional Convention," Mee says, "what you find is, oh, yeah, a bunch of white guys got together and conspiratorially designed this system that didn't give women the vote or blacks citizenship and so forth. But if you look at it in detail, really what you find is that the slave-owning interests of the South fought the merchant-banking system of the North, and there were dozens of other similar conflicts in such a way that they forced each other to resort to general principles in order to defend their own interests, and those general principles set up amendments that gave citizenship to blacks, the vote to women and so forth."

Mee’s work is one reason I sometimes think, pace Eric Bentley, that because the best playwrights embrace and rehearse conflict, ambiguity, contradiction, and catharsis for us, they sometimes make the most challenging and inspiring political thinkers. And, as I’ve mentioned before, the best “political” playwrights don’t toe any party line.

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