CATF: This play is based on an idea that obsessed you for over two decades, the germ of which you say, “was dropped into my brain as early as 1956.”
Michael Weller: I was 14 years old and attending a very radical, small boarding school in the country, the headmaster of which was a refugee from the Second World War. One day during his weekly news brief, he told us that the Third World War would happen because of a conflict over Israel. Although I was raised among very political people, I myself was a day-dreamy kind of kid and thought, “Oh, that’s terrifying!” It brought a whole expanse of nightmare images that had been shaped by watching atom bomb tests in Las Vegas, where I grew up. You knew from reading the news or hearing grown-ups talk that the atom bomb could end the world.
Then later, as I realized that I was half-Jewish and started to read about the way Israel was founded and settled in this country that was occupied by other people, I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting – someone comes along and says, ‘This is mine. I’m taking it back.’” How does that work? What happens there? I wonder if there’s any way to write a play about that?
I started to sketch scenes for this play in 1998 or so, never thinking I would write it or that I would find a producer who was interested in it. So I never truly took it seriously.
Then I saw Arturo Ui, a play by Bertolt Brecht at SCS Repertory – an allegory about Hitler’s rise to power – and the play just didn’t work. So I knew I couldn’t make the play a direct parable about Israel and Palestine, but then I considered the notion of someone taking another person’s home.
First, allegorical writing for most Americans is an odd thing to do because outside of Washington, D.C., they are not well informed about politics. Second, I thought the subject of someone taking over someone else’s land – which can be Americans taking over Indians, the conflict between Pakistan and India, etc. – with a broader allegorical treatment involving prejudices, superstitions, and the way we make fun of each other, would be more interesting.
Last, the level of discourse on my social media newsfeeds about politics is psychotic. Things have become so crazed that the attempt to actually speak quietly in the middle of it to try and unravel what’s going on isn’t nearly as strong, at least to me, as trying to yell over it more stupidly than the discourse itself. By screaming that loud and that irrationally, could you make people think, for a moment, “That’s actually what we sound like?” I gave myself permission to take that route and that’s how the play resulted.
You said that in this play, you were trying to write “surreal slapstick”.
Slapstick comedy is basically pie-in-the-face, whack-you-in-the-butt stuff, like low, low humor that appeals to everybody. It appeals to the person wandering off the street that has no education at all, and it appeals to a more sophisticated audience because if you do it with the right kind of sensibility and the right kind of “winky” way, they understand that you’re mocking it as well as doing it straight out.
Is surreal slapstick more difficult to write than traditional comedy?
I grew up with painters, and I remember conversations around the work of painting that would include questions like, “Did you hear that Phil Everygood was very influenced by African masks? Do you think he’s just exploring the kind of thinking that goes into that sort of artwork?” So my notion of being an artist is you have what you do, but you also become very interested in other styles and other traditions of work. If they touch a nerve, you try to absorb them in your work. If I discover that I am drawn to crazy comedic writing, then I let myself go that way and try to immerse myself in that kind of work – looking at it, referencing it, remembering the experiences I’ve had with it that I liked.
Surreal slapstick is not more difficult or less difficult than traditional comedy. It’s just a constant experience of finding some new way to work and exploring it.
You have described this play as a “crazy-quilt of Fred Flintstone meets Monty Python, with visits to Mad Max and Ubu Roi on the way.”
What I’m trying to do is to find a framework for an audience, pointing them to the sorts of theater experiences that might be referenced when they sit and watch this play, although the mix itself is finally very unconscious. I proceeded totally on instincts in this play, and I entertained myself, too. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard while I was writing any play as I have writing this one.
But I’m not a crazy person. I worked very hard on this, and it has as tough a design as I can possibly put on it. When you come and see it, it’s not going to be Tea and Sympathy or one of those plays you recognize from your theatergoing. I’m trying to prepare people to go and have fun.
In 1988, you said in the New York Times, “You grow to a certain point and things begin to feel old to you. It’s not a conscious thing; you just feel a need to go in a new way.” Is that what is happening with A Welcome Guest?
I am restless in my work, but people want you to be a brand. They want to be able to identify your style and what to expect from you, which is useful if you are pursuing a career with an identity. But it’s a bit of a trap if you’re trying to explore and let yourself dive completely into unfamiliar water.
What is wonderful about this play is that I was always very scared of it. Part of why I thought it would never be done, was I wasn’t ever sure that I wanted it done. I wasn’t sure I could write it.
So when Ed Herendeen commissioned the play, it scared me to death because there were no parameters, no borders. I was given a full production of this play, so I could do anything I want. I could make a little bulldozer go across the stage, or I could get characters to take their pants down.
Ken Campbell had a big influence on this play. A UK performing arts publisher described Campbell’s art this way, “Pranks and wheezes were pursued not only for the sheer hell of it, but as a means of challenging the status quo and subverting the laws of propriety. It’s amazing how little theatre does this nowadays in any serious way, and Campbell was the past master.” Why does theater do so little of this nowadays?
That’s a big question. Because theater is subsidized, it now takes far fewer chances because it must fill seasons and sell subscriptions. That means that you can’t let a wild whoopee cushion loose in church. Also, theater has become much more of a platform for dystopian statement for your social group or your pet peeve. It’s much less a place where you can all get together in a kind of Aristophanic way. We have a harder time collectively acknowledging what we find funny.
You were also influenced by the British radio comedy, The Goon Show . . .
They are fantastic and were my first introduction to British humor. They did about four LPs, and I would listen to them over and over and over again. I got most of my theater chops in England.
The only playwriting teacher I had was actually an American Studies professor at Brandeis who used to say, “The best reason to write a play is it’s the only chance you’ll get to see exactly what you want to in a theater.” I thought about that when I was writing this play, and it’s given me this incredible opportunity to write whatever I want, so I did.
Ionesco said, “We need to be virtually bludgeoned into detachment from our daily lives, our habits and mental laziness, which conceal from us the strangeness of the world. Without a fresh virginity of mind, without a new and healthy awareness of existential reality, there can be no theatre and no art either; the real must be in a way dislocated, before it can be re-integrated.”
Sounds pretty lofty. I don’t know about these high claims.
Perhaps it just comes down to seltzer in your face and saying, “Slowly I turn . . .”
Yes. This is just a big pie in the face. If you can’t laugh at the thing you take the most seriously, you invite a kind of fear and rigidity to lock into place inside you, as well as object on the other side of the fence.
After a great battle, warriors once threw their arms around each other’s’ shoulders and walked off to drink together and tell stories. This is the right way to debate people you don’t agree with. But I think that’s become impossible.
A lot of the liberal left has been incredibly snooty and dismissive of the traditional population that an educated left was supposed to be joining hands with and helping. To me, the great peek around the curtain was the “basket of deplorables.” That phrase captured what a lot of liberals in their heart really do feel. It’s a terrible mistake. They turned their back on the link they were traditionally supposed to be forging with people who needed a hand and some access and articulation.
About two months ago, a post was going around my Facebook feed about a Midwestern company of actors that had formed a Republican theater to do plays with a right-wing message. The tone with which this was reported was somewhat mocking, somewhat condescending, the way the left can be. They showed little bits of the performances, and I watched them. Everything they were performing which is supposed to be an imitation of life, was really an argument; people stating positions in dialogue. A guy sitting next to a girl on stage would say, “I have to talk to you now because there’s something very important on my mind about the way the left has been attacking us.” What you would crave from the right would be a true experiential report of what it means to be in their world. Instead what you got was a rhetorical presentation that had none of the experiential zest of something you’d hope for. That was the thing that made me ache the most. Rather than being able to express directly the rage of how they had been marginalized, crushed, and underpaid in living terms, they used rhetoric. It was heartbreaking. I also see this in the left – that this group or race or background has an experience that is impenetrable to anyone outside of it, so no one outside of it dare enter here and represent it or dare think that they can have a completely meaningful experience.
Everything is being thrown at us to divide us. Maybe what I’m trying to do in this play is to get us all to laugh for a moment. We are taking stuff way too seriously.
In Chester Bailey, another play in CATF’s 2019 repertoire, the character Dr. Cotton makes this observation about his patient, Chester Bailey, to his father: “Your son, Mr. Bailey, is the author of his own mercy. He stitched it together out of what was around him. Just like the rest of us.”
How have you been the author of your own mercy?
That’s such a superb line. That’s a great and very profound thought. I wouldn’t want to put it with anything more. I think that it should just stand.