Charles Mee and the Open Source Revolution

Charles Mee and the (re)making project is something which I came across while completing a module in adaptation in my second year of Drama and Theatre Studies. Ever since then his revolutionary approach to theatre has stuck with me.

Charles Mee was born in Evanston, Illinois and lived a typical middle-class Midwestern boyhood up until he contracted polio at the age of 14 which lead to his difficult life. After graduating from Harvard in 1960 he moved to Greenwich Village and began to write plays. However he quickly had to switch from playwrighting to novel writing to support himself and his family. Mee returned to playwrighting in 1985 and proceeded over the next few years to stun critics.

In 1992, Mee wrote his breakthrough play, Orestes. The play was the first of ten plays that would use Greek texts as scaffolding upon which he would stick the new fragments of text and then “...throw away the scaffolding and call what remained ‘The Script’”. As source material, Mee would use mainly the framework of Greek tragedy, but also Shakespeare, Molière, Anton Chekhov, Rèné Magritte paintings, Bollywood musicals and his own writing. For example, his play Full Circle is based on Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Mee began making his own work freely available online by posting three of his plays on Carnegie Mellon’s humanities English server in the mid 1990’s. By 1996, along with the help of his friend Tom Demrauer, “The (re)making project”, a website with his full scripts, was launched. It contained an invitation for people to “... do freely whatever they want with them.” He is the first and only playwright to make his full body of work available for free. Mee did not at all view this as a challenge to the current copyright law or a vehicle through which to raise issues of intellectual property. It was done as a populist gesture towards his utopian vision of a free and democratic internet. In 1996, he said: “I’m attracted to the idea of things being owned in common.” National Public Radio called Mee the “Public Domain Playwright” in 2000 and credited him with touching a raw cultural nerve by making his work freely available.

“Do unto my writing as I have done unto the writings of others.” In an explanation about the (re)making project on the website itself, Mee says that his plays are protected by copyright if they are essentially or substantially performed as he has composed them. He continues however to invite others to freely pillage his texts to make their own work without any attribution to him. In other words, you can perform the plays in their complete entirety as Mee has written them or take advantage of the fact that he offers up all of his plays for anyone wishing to plunder his texts for their own work.

As part of the adaptation module which we covered, we had to take an original text and adapt it to theatre in our groups of four. My group came across the work of Charles Mee and we couldn’t help but spot the raw potential in what we could create, considering the nature of his work ethic. Seeing as we had previously covered a lot of Greek tragedy in our first year, we took great interest in his method of using the format of a Greek tragedy to be the framework of his work. We then almost took this full circle by adapting his play Trojan Women: A Love Story into a piece revolving around the subject of sex trafficking. A Chorus of Prostitutes re-instated the traditional Greek Chorus which Mee had removed on his re-working of the framework of the Greek text and took advantage of the unified group of antagonists which so often inhabit this genre of tragedy.

We played on the usual dynamic of the protagonist being the hero and the antagonists being of an opposite opinion by making the “chorus” a group of victimised and de-moralised prostitutes and sex-workers. The protagonist was a man arriving to avail of their services. Mee strives to have people continuously re-working his texts in this manner, he delights in the idea of “(re)making” and collage. Since the foundation of Mee’s writing is built upon collage, the homepage image echoes this technique. Each visit reveals a newly composed image of multiple parts. I feel that this small detail is amazingly effective in highlighting how he feels about the art of playwrighting.

As regards the idea of Open Source in general the term itself describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end products’ source materials. Some consider Open Source itself to be a philosophy while others consider it more of a pragmatic methodology. Someone who has continued to argue for a freer internet has been Apple’s own Steve Wozniak. He continually expresses a high degree of frustration and concern about the future of the internet and begs that it be kept as open and as free as possible. He has very famously written a heartfelt letter to the Federal communications commission of the US pleading with them to stop the monopoly. “Please, I beg you; open your senses to the will of the people to keep the internet as free as possible.”

Tim Berners-Lee is another advocate of net neutrality. Similar to Wozniak, Lee has expressed the view that ISPs should supply “...connectivity with no strings attached,” and should neither control nor monitor customers’ browsing activities without their express consent. He states that “... threats to the internet, such as companies or governments that interfere with or snoop on internet traffic compromise basic human network rights.”

Both Wozniak and Berners-Lee seem to be on the same page as Charles Mee. Mee continues to be the only playwright to have made all of his work completely available for free online. If more novelists and playwrights would jump aboard the route to a completely free internet perhaps Mee’s utopian vision may have more of a chance of becoming a reality.