Vitrified Catastrophes and Ontological Whigmaleery

Mac Wellman's plays inevitably get labeled "difficult" because they are full of oddities of language, and in some of them (such as Terminal Hip) the words are so divorced from their referents that the play can seem to be more tone poem than dramatic action.

Despite his reputation, though, Wellman is a diverse writer. He has written more-or-less straightforward plays such as his adaptation of Dracula, down-and-dirty political satire such as 7 Blowjobs and Sincerity Forever, weird musical entertainments like FNU LNU, and more.

"The Sandalwood Box" is a one-act by Wellman that moves from an almost-coherent storyline to fugue-dream fantasies made of vomitted words. It's haunting and funny, perplexing and beautiful; at the moment I think it's one of the best short plays written by an American (no, there isn't stiff competition -- most American one-acts are atrociously awful crimes against art).

I've been thinking about the play recently because I had some students read it a few days ago as an exercise in a theatre activity. I'd read the play before, but not carefully, and so it hadn't stuck in my mind the way some of Wellman's other work has. Listening to students read it, though, as they struggled through some of the more complex locutions and vocabulary, I found myself entranced and amazed, and I went home and reread the play to see if I could figure out what made it work.

"The Sandalwood Box" was first published in Conjunctions 25: The New American Theater and reprinted in The Best American Short Plays 1995-1996 and then Wellman's collection Cellophane: Plays. The characters are described as follows:
MARSHA GATES: A student and prop-girl at Great Wind Repertory Theater

PROFESSOR CLAUDIA MITCHELL: A Professor of Cataclysm at Great Wind University


CHORUS OF VOICES: including Dr. Gladys Stone; Osvaldo (a sadistic monster); and others from the House of the Unseen
The setting is "In the rain forest of South Brooklyn". In the script, Marsha Gates is separate from voiceovers of Marsha, as the first stage directions state "The actor speaking [Marsha's] voiceover appears in a pool of light down right; she bears a strong resemblance to Dr. Claudia Mitchell."

This is, perhaps, confusing. Until the first line, which is Marsha's voiceover: "My name is Marsha Gates. I lost my voice on the 9th of November, 1993, as a result of an act of the Unseen. If you think you cannot be so stricken, dream on." Then the Chorus takes over some of Marsha's voice, and she herself even speaks occasionally without the help of the voiceover. It's as if her voice was not lost so much as scattered and reappropriated. In the world of this play, people can talk about not being able to talk:
MARSHA GATES: I'm a student at City College. No declared major. I also work part-time in a theater. Great Wind Repertory. The plays are all shit. TV with dirty words.


MARSHA GATES: I can't speak, either.


MARSHA GATES: It's very aggravating.
Soon after this bit of paradoxing, the language of the play becomes more and more unmoored:
PROFESSOR CLAUDIA MITCHELL: Perhaps, however, you mean an act of complete probabilistic caprice. A fly in the Unseen's ointment. An ontological whigmaleery. A whim of the die.
Academic jargon feeds on itself, and then the bus arrives, bearing a bus driver who spews out a remarkable monologue that may not be "about" anything, or may be a foray toward the Unseen ("He would like to discover the truth about what can do no harm only if it is kept, safely under lock and key, in its cage, with no poop in its pizzle, aware of us but dimly, us lost in the crunching despair of our endless opening up before the doings of the Unseen, in all our sick, sad, pathetic innocence.") It's as if Lovecraft has been unleashed to run wild in the halls of academe. Neither Marsha nor the professor is welcome on this bus, though, because neither has a token to pay the fare.

And so the professor invites Marsha back to her "estate" to see her collection of "vitrified catastrophes. Enchanted in a case of glass. Encased in glass, that is." At the estate, the professor shows Marsha her sandalwood box, in which are housed her collection of catastrophes -- a collection she delineates in a long, incantatory monologue that roams from a hotel fire in Seoul in 1971 to Clontarf, Ireland in 1014 A.D. to Kosovo in 1389 and onward. A third of the way through the monologue, Marsha's voiceover interrupts, saying, "But I hardly heard the words she spoke because of a curious feeling that stole into my mind, and I began to wonder, out-loud--" and then Marsha Gates, the unspeaking, picks up where her voiceover left off, asking a long series of questions:
Why is the night better than the day? Why do the young become old, and not the other way around? Why is the world made mostly of clay? [...] Why is one person's disaster not catastrophe for all? And who knows why these things are called unaccounted. Unaccountable. Uncountable. And why, oh why, don't we know who does know the answers to these things? [Pause.] ...because isn't it so that if we possess, and are possessed by a question, the answer must, too, be hidden somewhere, somewhere in the heart of someone, someone real, and not a phantom of the Unseen?
The aural effect of the recitation of disasters laid over the questions from Marsha is tremendous, because the audience can only focus on certain words, certain sounds, so that we end up as confused and discombobulated as the characters. The chorus tries to add some context, saying, "Dream on, they did. Dream on..."

But it's not enough -- unanswerable questions added to catastrophes lead to violence, and Marsha's voiceover says, "I stepped quietly behind her while she was focused on her precious set of vitrified catastrophes ... and picked up a large, blunt object to bludgeon her with, but..." The object is a chair, and Marsha freezes, realizing that the professor wants her to do it "out of a curious ... covetous ... vexatious ... perversity..." Those words become a mantra for the chorus, though it quickly gives way to various overlapping refusals, until the professor laughs and calls for Osvaldo, an act that causes the chorus, then, to become Osvaldo and beat her up, though all the while she and the voiceover (or are they the same?) sing a song in praise of darkness and the Id, a song sung "In the name of disaster./ In the name of catastrophe."

Marsha lies outside the house. Birds cry. "Her man," the voiceover says, "an ape named 'Osvaldo', beat me, and threw me out, but..." And Marsha reveals that she is holding a catastrophe, a catastrophe salvaged from the sandalwood box. The chorus, the professor, and Marsha all seem to merge into a single voice for the last lines -- lines full of horror and a strange, triumphant beauty:
CHORUS: As I lay, bloody and beaten, on the Forest floor amongst dead leaves and whatnot, nearly poisoned by lethal inhalation of spoors, and accidental ingestion of strange moss and fennell...


MARSHA (VO): I opened my hand, and my voice returned. I had stolen one small, nearly perfect catastrophe.

[A slow blackout begins.]

MARSHA GATES: April 4, 1933. The United States dirigible Akron goes down in heavy seas, in a remote spot in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a loss of 73 nearly perfect lives.


MARSHA (VO): It was the most perfect jewel of that Sandalwood box.
And so the play ends, with catastrophes encapsulated into perfection, given (and giving) voice.

The play defies summary, despite my best attempts here, because it is not about what happens or even what is said -- it is a tapestry of actions and words, one that requires embodiment in multiple human voices. Reading it now, I can imagine the power that it contains, but it was the stumbling, halting, imperfect reading done by some high school students who'd never seen the script before that made me realize how much depth the play possessed.

In just a few pages, Mac Wellman conveys more than some writers do in three-act juggernauts of oh-so-serious boredom, and he does it through quick, deft movements of language and action. More and more, I find myself attracted to innovative writing that isn't afraid to leave great gaps within itself, that doesn't try to stick the world onto a postage stamp, but rather puts a postage stamp in the middle of the world's unfathomable complexities. There was Leena Krohn's short "sort-of novel" Tainaron, a book that I preferred to various massive novelistic tomes of erudition and insight that I have abandoned, a book that felt like it expanded within my mind rather than a book I had to squeeze into the cluttered space of my cranium. I feel the same way about "The Sandalwood Box" -- I would happily go to see a production of this play, while I tend to dread going to the theatre much anymore, because the time is so often fizzled away with banalities, stock language, clunky character arcs, and desperate attempts to use whizzbangs to take hostage the attentions of an ever-more-distracted audience of tourists seeking 3D movies, the simulacrum dreams of imaginations colonized by Hollywood.

In the world of fractal complication we inhabit, maybe what we most need are not grand gestures and multi-volume compendia, but sharp-edged shocks of concentration and reflection, little gems of language and action that don't try to sum up their own themes or explicate themselves, but rather give a rich glimpse of imagination and possibility, of gaps and fissures, of vitrified catastrophes with just a touch of ontological whigmaleery.

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