“This is the first play I wrote after writing about George Bush and John Kerry [The Strangerer], an unsexy play in which I had to spend time with characters who were unsympathetic. I wanted to flush that out of my system and write about sex – middle aged sex and love and death. Things that are generally important.”
I was on the phone with Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, founding member of Theater Oobleck . We were talking about his play now at WSC Avant Bard, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is. Happiness has been called “hilarious and engaging.” This is an excerpt of our 30 minutes together, which, as is true of Happiness, included laughter, followed by reflection.
What he knew when he began: there would be two central characters. They would be experts in their respective fields: Macbeth and mummification. They would give lectures. They would be in a relationship that had gone awry. And sex would be involved.
In 2011, at the end of a two year writing process, here’s what the play had become:
Bernard and Ellen, two tenured professors teaching the works of William Blake in a small college, are discovered making love in the quadrant, in full view of the student population. They must apologize to their classes, or be dismissed.
Mickle Maher: “The play was written in prose first and the Goodman was helping me with that. We had a deadline and so there was a reading with some professional actors. It was a great reading but the play fell flat as a pancake. I thought ‘this is a mediocre play and I have to do something seismic to rescue it.’
“Lying on my bed, I thought ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to change.’ I picked it up. Looked at the first monologue from Bernard and starting writing it in pentameter.
There is a happiness that morning is.
Just is, just on its own. Outside the hiss
and song of whatever serpents and larks
are playing throughout the chambers of our hearts.
The morning doesn’t care. It doesn’t care.
Look out that window, there.
The fact is I could slit my wrist
up here, that sun would still persist.
The birds would still pick seeds out of their feathers,
and sip the dew blown from those mountains whether
I cry or dance or die. Be assured
the morning will not be in the least disturbed.
Lorraine: Everyone loves Bernard. Our Bernard (Brian Crane) comes in just besotted with love, like Martin in the first scene of The Goat or Who Is Sylvia.
“I love that play.”
I do too.
Earlier I had asked when he realized that he had a very good play, one which would go on to be produced around the country.
“You feel that way throughout the process of writing. You delude yourself into thinking both that it will be the greatest piece ever and then you wake up the next day and think it’s a piece of garbage.
“The best feeling is I don’t care if this sinks like a stone but this is something I believe in and from that time on [after rewriting it in pentameter] I believed in the play.”
Ellen’s role is very believably written, something male playwrights can’t always do. Was there someone in your life you used as a reference?
“I have a number of go-to actors in my theatre company. Diana Slickman originated the role here. She was the actor I worked with from the beginning. She has done a number of things with me: actor, editor, publisher and agent. So she is a big part of my life. I drink with her and rehearse with her. We’ve known each other for a long time, so I know her voice pretty well.”
I am at war with sorrow and distress
and have no heart for grey-lipped confessing
of — of what? I’m like Baryshnikov.
Each day: a dance. A joy. So fuck off.
I’m sorry to take that tone. But on this campus
there’s one who’d use last night’s rumpus
— what happened between myself and Mr. Barrow
out by the hedge — would use that event to narrow
my sluices; dam and perplex life’s sea.
He’ll fail. This day will find its ecstasy.
“Right away the key to Ellen was the obscenities. I gave a great deal of thought and attention to it. They are the words that I cared the most about in the beginning. [The role is] something that draws a particular type of actress. From productions in other cities, it’s clear that the woman playing Ellen is always one of the most respected actors, a well regarded force of nature in her own right. There’s something about the swearing and the anger and sharp tongued bitterness of her that draws a type of smart powerful person.”
You’ve just described Lynn Sharp Spears, who plays Ellen in WSC’s production.
How did you get to William Blake?
“Blake was a latecomer. My process usually ends up integrating the work of some dead white guy, usually somewhere late in the process. Someone I read in college or high school.
“I had messed around before. Ellen was speaking on mummification and Bernard was an expert on Macbeth. I have long lectures on both those topics in some ancient file on my computer. Once I realized the play was about love and sex and innocence, a light bulb went off and I thought, of course, what they’re discussing is Blake, and then the third character makes sense and they could talk about their various views through his poetry.”
What better poet if you want to write about sex outdoors.
“I remembered that after. There is some belief that they [William and Catherine Blake] read “Paradise Lost”in the altogether” then he added, quietly, almost an aside, “it’s probably wrong.”
So, Blake came to the party later. What would he think of your play?
“I think he would think the lecturers don’t understand his poetry. I don’t know. He’s kind of a mystery to me. I think he would want more music and less talk. I think he would think it’s too wordy. Maybe he’d like a prettier picture onstage, more music.
“I’m not sure he’d understand why the characters are so self-involved and not talking about the larger world he was more interested in – how the world worked and how the cosmos worked. In later life, he was more interested in God and opaque cosmology. I don’t think he’d cotton to the swearing either.
“I think he would find it maybe funny, maybe flattering.”
I think Catherine would like it.
“Yeah. I hope so.”
WSC Avant Bard is reprising the play because audiences demanded to see it again.
There Is a Happiness That Morning Is
Closes November 23, 2014
Theater On The Run
3700 South Four Mile Run Drive
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
I’m told the actors are having the same experience here. Having the time to dig into the characters, the production has become richer. When I saw this play a year ago, I was so moved at the end, I couldn’t leave my seat. I’m realizing something. Those who saw it the first time have changed. I know my life has changed, so I go back to it with some differences in who I am. I just can’t wait to see it again.
What do you want the audience to take away when they see Happiness?
“I want plays to be satisfying on every level. I don’t want people to think in terms of comedy and tragedy. I want there to be as much tears and laughter as possible, as many ideas as possible shoved into a single space. In a play we really are in a paradoxical and contradictory zone. Not like real life. [We’re in] a particular world where the laws of thinking are changed, the laws of feeling are changed and that changes you and every strata of your being is involved.
“There isn’t as much interest in rich language or poetry in American theatre as I would like there to be. A return to that is well worth working for.
“Playwrights are thinking too much like screen writers or TV writers. Our ace in the hole is we can do spoken word like nobody else. Playwrights bring people into the zone of intense spoken language. That is the only thing we have. Everything else, movies do better.
“I guess I want people to come away feeling they have experienced something intense, that it was intense because of an actor speaking and moving in a simple space. That a human body speaking out loud can move you in an intense way.
“Going back to what you just said, I want people leaving the theatre thinking that there is something more there, that they could see it again.”
And with that, the call needed to end. He had a lecture to deliver to a class.
Mickle Maher is the author of numerous plays, including There is a Happiness That Morning Is; An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening; The Hunchback Variations; The Strangerer; Spirits to Enforce ; Cyrano (translator) The Cabinet; Lady Madeline; The Pine; and An Actor Prepares (an adaptation of Stanislavsky’s seminal book). A cofounder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, his plays have appeared Off-Broadway and in theaters around the world, and have been supported by grants from the NEA, the Rockefeller MAP fund, and Creative Capital. He currently teaches play writing and related subjects at the University of Chicago, Columbia College, and Northwestern University. His plays are published by Hope and Nonthings. He lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.
Note: Many thanks to Mr. Maher, who allowed us to reprint portions of his script for There Is a Happiness That Morning Is.