Charles L. Mee is an original playwright if ever there was one, though he might argue that in fact, there never was one. The New York-based Mee uses appropriated texts freely and constructs his narratives largely through collage. Only in a Charles Mee play would you hear a character from Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women giving a tirade straight out of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, as you might have in 2001 when his breakout work Big Love played Berkeley Rep — directed by Les Waters, who’s now helming Mee’s Rep-commissioned world premiere, Fêtes de la Nuit, through February 27.
Mee argues that there is no such thing as a wholly original play. The Greek classics were all based on preexisting stories, as were Shakespeare’s, he says. “This is what human beings do: They take stuff from their culture and they remake it and rethink it. Most playwrights steal hand over fist from conversations with their partners or best friends, and they call that original.”
Now 66, Mee spent 25 years as a political historian and returned to writing plays only in 1985. He attributes some of his affinity for fragmented narrative to a sense of physical fragmentation — he walks with braces, having contracted polio at age fourteen — and though he describes his use of collage as intuitive rather than premeditated, it’s certainly informed by his historical background. “One thing you do as a historian is take documents from the time and you put them in your text,” he says.
As a way of putting back what he has borrowed into the cultural stream where he found it, Mee makes his plays available online at CharlesMee.org in what he calls “the (re)making project.” He encourages people to scavenge pieces of his work freely as source material for their own work, though if they choose to perform the whole plays instead they’ll be subject to the usual royalties.
Inspired by recent visits to Paris with his new wife Michi Barall, his new play is a sort of love letter to the city and its devotion to the details of a perfect cup of coffee or a beautiful boulevard. “Fêtes de la Nuit is what you’d call an original play,” he says. “It has a bunch of stuff that’s been appropriated — conversations with friends or chunks of books we read — but the piece on the whole theoretically springs from my mind as a wholly original play. But it’s deeply inspired by the work of Robert Rauschenburg, by the collages of Max Ernst; those are the underlying structural principles. That’s how a lot of people write plays: they don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m stealing this from Eugene O’Neill,’ but of course the structure and methods of playwriting and understanding of the nature of character are all derived from the culture they come from.”
As an ode to love and sensuality, Fêtes is a very physical, adult piece, and is not at all the story about old Europe transformed by immigrants that Mee set out to write. “It’s about people taking terrific pleasure in the moments of everyday life, which the French understand better than anyone,” he says. “When you die, that’s all you will have had.”
For more information, visit BerkeleyRep.org