Theater 30.2 (2000) 34-43
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The Difficulty of Defending a Form
David Lang and Mac Wellman, Interviewed by Erika Munk
When Theater published Mac Wellman's play The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (in our 1997 double issue, vol. 27, nos. 2-3), he and composer David Lang were in the beginning stages of turning it into a music-theater piece with the Kronos Quartet. The play expands Ambrose Bierce's cryptic story about an Alabama planter who vanishes while walking across a field into seven "tellings" that explore some of the ways in which slavery itself has been "disappeared" in white American consciousness. It is allusive, poetic, and at first reading indirect, revealing its subject through a kind of antididacticism. Curious about how Wellman and Lang had made opera from such a difficult text, I asked them to record a conversation on their collaboration.
ERIKA MUNK How did the two of you first get together professionally?
DAVID LANG Carey Perloff suggested it, because I'd been writing a lot of incidental music for her theater, and Mac was ACT's playwright-in-residence. I knew only one play of his, Nine Blowjobs . . .
MAC WELLMAN Seven.
LANG Excuse me. I remembered the important part. Anyway, it was a great combination of hilariously biting politics and braininess.
WELLMAN Carey's only restriction was that the project must somehow have to do with San Francisco, so The Difficulty of Crossing a Field seemed the logical choice, as I adapted it from a short story by Ambrose Bierce, who was a San Franciscan.
Bierce's story is only two pages long, and a particularly bare, flat narrative. I can see its usefulness if you wanted to write allusively rather than directly about slavery, but why did you think of it as music-theater?
WELLMAN I thought Bierce's would be an interesting text because his work has great clarity, simplicity, interesting structures, and a coldness to the writing that is oddly appropriate for music-theater. If a libretto is full of emotion and you sock music under it, it comes out creepy, it comes out soggy. That's why it's hard to set Shakespeare--his poetry has too much weight and heft of its own.
Once you decided on this script, what was your working process?
WELLMAN The most important part of any collaboration of this kind is the initial stage, figuring out what the project is and setting up the rules. And then of course we had to check each other out. The little of David's music I'd heard wasn't soggy. [End Page 34]
LANG You made it clear that you had done a lot of plays in which music had been added, but nothing like this, which was intended to be sung from start to finish, and you were trying to anticipate the different ways in which music might or might not participate in what you were doing.
WELLMAN I was thinking about Górecki, whom you probably loathe--that kind of sprawling sentimental setting, and you don't do that. I'm behind in my knowledge of contemporary music. I wanted to set you problems.
LANG The play used what seemed like premusical strategies, recyclings, whole texts repeated or chopped up and delivered in different circumstances by different characters. That was really provocative to me. We had long discussions about how music could be another element with the same power as design or staging and have a palpable existence. We also talked about how music could be an extra character, an ominous presence, with its own interior logic, whose entrances and exits were controlled independent of the action and the other characters. I loved the idea, but when I tried to make it work I couldn't make those distinctions, the music wanted to go elsewhere.
I ended up writing the parts that made sense to me first. In most operas you sit back, everything makes sense, there's a story, a plot. You figure out, here's where I'm going to...