by Trisha Mahoney
Graphic by Bri Schwartz
In over the 200 plays that I have read in my 21-year-old life, there has only been one that I have vehemently hated. Guess what? Terminal Hip is that play. I have been avoiding this for years. Reading Mac Wellman’s Terminal Hip is experiencing the death of everything enjoyable about the theatre.
Instead of reading that atrocity of a play, I have been trying to understand the mindset of the man behind the script. I have googled, searched the library, read reviews of him, read his essays on theatre, and talked about this topic with everyone I know for the last three weeks. I hate Mac Wellman, but he is consuming my life.
I found someone describing his teaching style as “a playwriting mentor whose only mantra is oddity.” The only supposed compliment that can be found for him is that he’s just plain weird. Mac Wellman’s plays are not reflective of any other mode of thought except to be grotesque in his purposeful misuse of the English language.
Mac Wellman has managed to write 26 pages that are completely devoid of discernable meaning. In that first class, when we discussed the meaning that Wellman intended, we discussed the Iraq War and the Bush administration and how remnants of this could be reflected in the text. I agonized searching for any clue of this. After hours of sitting at my desk with a highlighter and a steady stream of Dr. Pepper intake, I realized I had been lied to. Hyped up on syrupy caffeine, I had wasted a day trying to understand what was purposeful nonsense. And since that day, I will forever associate the downfall of my favorite beverage with the painstaking scratch of my colored pens trying to track some non-existent consistency in the language.
Terminal Hip certainly functions as a conversation-starter, but where that conversation ends is anybody’s guess. It feels like a cruel joke of the SATs where the questions don’t even apply to the reading. Sure, Mac Wellman has created a new type of theatre with Terminal Hip. But is it an effective one?
As a play, it has failed at its intent to be understood. And even if it’s a play that’s in the market for visceral experiences, it seems unlikely to me that anyone has left the theatre of Terminal Hip espousing the life-altering experiences that it provided. Especially considering the script seems like it was written by taking a refrigerator poetry kit and throwing it down the stairs. People tell me this is art. I disagree.
I wondered if my strong aversion to Wellman is because I don’t like modern art. But I have no issue with modern art. It’s ability to play with the visuals to create something, that even though it may be devoid of meaning, is still is beautiful to see.
With a Jackson Pollock piece, the paint splatters individually might not be impressive but on the whole, they create an overwhelming and breathtaking piece of art that just has to be taken in. It is enjoyable, and more importantly, it is clearly purposeful.
Mac Wellman instead perfectly crafts each fraction of a sentence to be the perfect picture of nonsense. But when every sentence in the entire piece is like that, the components don’t add up to anything. Instead of a puzzle that works together, it is a stack of puzzle pieces so high that the top cannot be seen. The whole of Wellman cannot be comprehended. Maybe that makes it better than us mortals can even comprehend. But as a writing tutor, I would urge him to keep in mind who he is writing for.
And yet, people read Mac Wellman and eat it up. They gorge themselves on the novelty of a play that is completely devoid of any meaning. Not everything that is weird is good. It doesn’t automatically give it a pass to become America’s next top play.
The worst part is that I’m not mad at Wellman. I respect the fact that he has been able to write 26 pages of alphabet soup and have people claim that he is a leading playwright of the time. One reviewer even writes that “his work gleefully subverts not only traditional dramatic rules of form and content but also, and particularly in this play, the very basis of how meaning is created through language.” He certainly subverts meaning, but he doesn’t offer anything in response. Mac Wellman is that boyfriend who just takes and takes while never giving anything back.
I have seen stage adaptations of Blues Clues that I have gotten more emotional and thematic depth than I have from Wellman’s Terminal Hip. Blues Clues maintains a level of absurdity; it is about a blue dog and talking inanimate objects.
Blues Clues also subverts our society’s idea of how we create meaning through language: the title character doesn’t talk at all but uses noises to clearly and effectively communicate. In some instances in Blues Clues, it is easier to understand a dog than it is to understand the human being. As audience members, we begin to identify with characters that do not fit into our standard worldview of what is human.
Blues Clues breaks the tradition of audience interaction. While the characters in Blues Clues give the appearance of waiting for the audience to reply, the truth is that the script is written and the time is planned. The audience becomes increasingly aware of the unrealistic and stock elements of theatre and how this could be representative of our interactions with each other on a daily basis.
A production of Blues Clues has social implications as well. Breaking stereotypical gender norms, the blue dog, Blue, is a female. And so is her very close female friend, Magenta. While never explicitly stated or addressed, it is understood by most of the audience that there is a relationship between Blue and Magenta. Blues Clues normalizes for children relationships that other adults are not willing to accept. I don’t see Mac Wellman doing anything like that.
And the fact that Mac Wellman is an individual whose plays can only be compared to his own orbit of absurdity? Blues Clues has taken place in space before.
Mac Wellman is not accomplishing anything in Terminal Hip that Blues Clues hasn’t done before him and better than him.
I think all of these things as I avoid going to the library to pick up a copy of Terminal Hip. Maybe I’ll watch some Blues Clues instead…