Shaped, in bits, drips and quips

Special to The Times

I grew up with people telling me -- I think rightly -- that the greatest plays in the western world were written by Shakespeare, and, of course, by the Greeks. But when I started writing plays, people were trying to write plays like Ibsen and Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. And I thought: If the Greeks and Shakespeare were the greatest playwrights, why aren’t we all trying to write plays the way they did?

Then I noticed what everyone else had already noticed centuries before I did: that the Greeks and Shakespeare never wrote an original play. The Greek plays were all based on earlier plays or poems or myths. And Shakespeare’s plays are all taken from earlier work too. “As You Like It” is taken from a novel by Thomas Lodge published just 10 years before Shakespeare put on his play -- without attribution or acknowledgment. Chunks of “Antony and Cleopatra” are taken verbatim, and, to be sure, without apology, from a contemporary translation of Plutarch’s “Lives.” In everything he wrote, he put in chunks of things he had taken from Italian folk tales or Cervantes or Holinshed’s “Chronicles” or his own daily life.

And then I noticed that Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” was taken from a play by the German dramatist Klabund, on which Brecht had served as dramaturge in 1926; and Klabund had taken his play from an earlier Chinese work.


And then the realization dawned: There is no such thing as an original play.

Sometimes playwrights steal stories and conversations and dreams and intimate revelations from their friends and lovers and call this original.

And sometimes some of us write about our own innermost lives, believing that we have written something truly original and unique.

But, of course, the culture writes us first, and then we write our stories.

Everything of its time

When we look at a painting of the virgin and child by Botticelli, we recognize at once that it is a Renaissance painting -- that is, it’s a product of its time and place. We may not know or recognize at once that it was painted by Botticelli, but we do see that it is a Renaissance painting. We see that it has been derived from, and authored by, the culture that produced it.

And yet we recognize too that this painting of the virgin and child is not identical to one by Raphael or Ghirlandaio or Leonardo. So clearly while the culture creates much of Botticelli, it is also true that Botticelli creates the culture -- that he took the culture into himself and transformed it in his own unique way.

So whether we mean to, the work we do is both received and created, both an adaptation and an original at the same time. We re-make things as we go.

This seems like life to me. So often I find myself passionately telling someone what I think of George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, feeling this intense, personal -- what? -- rage? I go on and on, and my friends go on and on back at me -- and, at some point in the conversation I always think: What are we all saying to each other except things we heard on CNN or read in the newspaper? And we think these are our thoughts?

But then, it is true, what I am thinking about the president is shaped by a book or two I’ve read, by something I heard someone say in Paris, by a certain moral sense my grandmother passed down to me, and by the peculiar pattern of neurons inside my head -- a combination of things that does produce, finally, something unique. So, yes, once again what I say to my friends may be made by the culture and then remade in my own head -- both an adaptation and an original thought at the same time.

I love to make plays that feel like my life in this way -- and that don’t hide what is appropriated or sampled or stolen from others. So when I look at my own plays onstage, I can see what came from the inside of my head and what came from the world, from MTV and Soap Opera Digest and the op-ed page of The Times. Stories and songs and dances, pieces of found text, overheard conversations, classical plays, dances from Bollywood, opinions that come straight off a television talk show, stuff from the Internet. My plays feel like my life -- a life lived inside my head and in the world at the same time. I call the way these plays are made “realism.”

I like to put these plays out into the world and invite others to do what I’ve done: to steal them, to rip chunks of text out of my plays and make their own plays and put their own names to them. I put my plays on the Internet and people do as I suggest -- they take my plays and mine them for things that appeal to them, and put them on in Istanbul and Trivandrum, India, and sometimes they even send me the plays they’ve written in this way, and I think, that’s cool, how this story comes out when you filter it through the mind of some guy in Turkey or some woman in India.

Property rights and plagiarism

Of course, these days -- unlike the days of the Greeks and Shakespeare, when the culture belonged to everyone -- everyone is now worried about property rights and plagiarism. I am always careful to see to it that nothing is hidden, to say openly what I am doing, to name my sources in the program and to use only small enough bits of text to come under the copyright law’s doctrine of “fair use” -- and never, never, ever to use a song without permission from the copyright holder, because, well, the music business doesn’t work like Shakespeare.

In this way, in the 20 years that I’ve been doing this, no one has ever objected to it.

Even so, and even though Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg were never sued for the collages of stolen stuff they did, I still expect one day to be sued.

Some years ago, I did a version of the Greek classic Orestes, and I appropriated verbatim some chunks of text about the pain and horror of recent wars from a wonderful book, “The Body in Pain” by Elaine Scarry, a professor at Harvard, where plagiarism is thought to be worse than incest. A couple of years ago, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s house in Cambridge, and, to my surprise, to my left was seated Elaine Scarry. I turned to her and said, “You know, I can’t eat dinner without confessing to you first that, a few years ago, I stole a bunch of text from your book ‘The Body in Pain’ to put into a play I was writing.” She looked up at me, hesitated a moment, and then said: “I’ve just published a new book. I’ll send it to you.”

I’m guessing that Scarry understood the spirit in which I work and even took some pleasure in it. She and I share a world, with the Greeks and Shakespeare and Ernst and Cornell and Rauschenberg.

Meanwhile, of course, I’m stealing hand over fist from her new book.

Playwright Charles Mee has written “Summertime,” “Big Love” and “Berlin Circle” as well as “A Perfect Wedding.”