Michael Weller Essay - Critical Essays

Weller, Michael

Introduction

Weller, Michael 1942–

An American playwright now living in England, Weller writes of contemporary events with a brand of realism that is uncluttered and rhetorically fresh.

Clive Barnes

"Moonchildren" is a joyously funny (yes, funny-funny, as funny as the Marx Brothers) and yet unaffectedly profound play….

Mr. Weller's play traces, with a little more affection than remorse, the final year of a group of students about to embark on the mystery of graduation….

Vietnam and peace marches, love and grades, the entire aquarium-moment of student life is captured here. Mr. Weller's story—witty, absurd and touching—is not about any particular age group. He relates this period of transition to a special time—to his own special time—but it has a relevance to everyone who has grown up with strange people in a strange place.

Mr. Weller is punctilious in not having a story because he has settled on a theme. He gives us sketches of life on the turn, and it is not too fantastic to compare this with Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." The structure is almost identical, and the mood may have more in common than we can at present suspect….

Mr. Weller's skill is two-fold. He writes dialogue that is both believable and yet surprising, which is no easy trick. He also relates a man to his setting. There are a hundred and one stories in this play, but what is important is that every single character rings totally true….

"Moonchildren" is the rare kind of play that you go to, and you laugh a lot. But, rarer still, the next day your laughter has an aftertaste of immortality. Lines, scenes and attitudes stick with you and you suddenly realize that that harmless pile of jokes, interspersed with a few shards of reality, has really meant something to you. (p. 51)

Clive Barnes, in The New York Times (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1973.

Clive Barnes

"Fishing" is a perceptive picture of a generation or at least one aspect of it….

Mr. Weller's ear for dialogue is as convincing as ever, and his good-natured wit (his characters are rarely waspish; irony or violence is the nearest they get to nastiness) is always appealing. Despite a slow, rather poor beginning, and a joking, pseudo-melodramatic ending that doesn't quite come off, the play is neatly constructed. You get to know the people and they are interesting.

The author's theme is one of survival. "Keep on," a character says at one point, "stay alive." They often talk casually of death, but do not wish it. I am not sure what kind of development this marks from "Moonchildren"—lateral perhaps—but Mr. Weller's writing, if not his dramaturgy, is more secure than ever….

Mr. Weller does not seem to write gratefully for characters outside his central group—it was the same in "Moonchildren"—and the … monumentally stoned gravedigger and … the dying fisherman can never quite redeem for the author the basic shallowness of the characterizations.

After the first few moments of awkward angling, I thoroughly enjoyed "Fishing." It is certainly a revealing play. In 100 years time, if anyone is around, it will tell them something about us. Or some of us. (p. 41)

Clive Barnes, in The New York Times (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 13, 1975.

Walter Kerr

In "Moonchildren," a college generation adrift in a void and at a loss for identity devoted all of its crackling verbal powers to erecting far-out and very funny façades in order to conceal an emptiness….

They were performing for others, creating alternate selves that lived only in the group imagination, making the hilarious most of lies that came within inches of persuading the unpersuadable. The device was called a "put-on" by this time, and was far more conscious than it had been….

But [in "Fishing"] the little jokes are littler now, the antic urge to con the world gone flat. Flatness is an unrewarding thing to dramatize … and Mr. Weller has taken refuge in spelling out too plainly the ache that was formerly, gaily, implied. The remnants of that captivating college crew now speak of themselves, baldly, as "a lost generation in search of roles in a century without meaning," announce that "Life is a freak show, right?" (This of course gives the whole show away; we used to deduce such things, beneath the cock-crows, to our delight.) When one of the friends is told he's moody, he snaps "You're not supposed to notice, and if you notice you're not supposed to say anything, and if you say anything it's supposed to be a joke." In "Fishing" they do notice, and they do say, and it's not a joke.

Walter Kerr, "Poor 'Fishing'," in The New York Times, Section II (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1975, p. 1.

John Simon

One of the main troubles with Fishing was that Weller had done it better in Moonchildren, itself only a very promising play. In Fishing, much the same young people who had cavorted through their final year of college in Moonchildren were seen, a handful of years later, still romping through life. This time they were trying to find themselves in the Pacific Northwest, the last American frontier abutting the terra incognita of myth—of clear air, good earth, and hard, clean living….

Fishing is a play of texture. It captures accurately, I think, the sound and feel of whimsical, aimless, not yet uncontented lives, some of which will wander into usefulness, some into chronic dissatisfaction and dilettantism, and some, perhaps, into suicide. But except for this texture, the play gives us little else. It is as if a tailor showed us an expertly woven and ingeniously patterned piece of cloth, but teasingly refused to comply with our request to cut it into a suit. (p. 78)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (copyright © 1975 by the NYM Corporation; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), March 10, 1975.

Catharine Hughes

None of [the characters in Fishing] really communicate with each other. They are caustic, sardonic, defensive, in their exchanges, as to a large extent were the young people in Moonchildren, but they are—with advancing age?—less spirited, less interesting…. Although the play frequently displays Weller's facility for adroit dialogue, it also abounds in exchanges that are heavily portentous. A little of such things as 'being on the ocean with no one to hassle you' and 'I feel there is some very negative energy between us' clearly goes a long way.

Yet, Fishing is not really a bad play. It seldom, except in a protracted opening scene, actually bores…. It does, however, rely far too heavily on dramatic tricks and, in a fake melodramatic conclusion, something bordering on a copout. Weller is a better playwright than that…. [Even] at his less than best, Weller is invariably worth watching. (p. 35)

Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1975; reprinted with permission), May, 1975.