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March 30, 2011 / katextuality

Pillage My Texts. A Review of Jorge J. Rodríguez’s “The Rape of the Author: How Charles Mee (re)defines authorship and its manifestation in his play Big Love”

This essays seeks to draw a comparison between Mee’s figurative “raping” of texts and his portrayal of rape in his play Big Love, a play based on Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women. Mee more or less preserves the storyline of the original play but bases it in modern America. He frames it within a pop-culture context and makes continuous reference to contemporary songs and themes. Rodriguez comprehensively explains how Mee takes both texts that belong to the public domain (e.g.: Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare) alongside those which do not and are copyrighted (e.g.: Brecht, Beckett and other contemporary playwrights). Rodriguez explains that the reason Mee blatantly plagiarises with no apology is to establish these works as violations and to force us to read them as so. This mindset encourages us to consider how amazing the possibilities may be if there was a free exchange of work amongst writers without restrictions. Mee continually argues that it is absolutely impossible for us to exist independent from culture and that we should embrace its obviously heavy influence on our writing. Mee’s utopian world would be one in which all copyright laws were abolished and all texts would be included in the public domain.

Rodriguez highlights the fact that Mee does in fact violate our “…most basic sense of what a responsible author is” and that by doing so, implies that there must always be some sort of violence involved to liberate writing from the notions we have imposed upon it. Big Love deals with a similar issue in its approach to the discussion of the subject of rape and Rodriguez explains how it provides a working analogy which is very helpful in our understanding of Mee’s writing techniques. Mee suggests in his play that rape, if interpreted from a completely figurative point of view is not necessarily the evil that our society has made it out to be, this immediately juxtaposes the notion that what Mee does with other writer’s texts is not necessarily the crime we have made it out to be. Big Love actually points out how this figurative rape may have some cultural value: “We learn to appreciate Mee’s plagiaristic tendencies not as a hindrance to writing, but as a useful tool for the production of literature”.

Rodriguez examines Mee’s method of collaging and creating texts. Mee considers a work that is completely of the writer’s own to be impossibility. An outcome of using a collage-like technique for his writing is that all of his texts seem fragmented and unfinished, but this is purposeful. In A Nearly Normal Life he explains why this aesthetic appeals to him:

I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, and too presentable. My own plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. (214)

Rodriguez draws the conclusion that Mee gives his plays these sharp edges in order to distinguish them from the more presentable works we are very used to hearing and seeing. Mee wants to create a more global database of “cultural commons” and his first step towards creating this is offering his plays to his readers for them to freely use in their own compositions of work. He extends an invitation for them to use them as a resource for their own “original” work. This act resolves the tension originally created by Mee using the copyrighted texts of previous playwrights and authors by “paying it forward” as such. Rodriguez draws attention to the fact that Mee himself had made a conscious decision to “play dead” so that his texts would be treated as if he were. He wants to guarantee that those who want to change or elaborate on his texts have endless possibilities in which to do so.

However, Rodriguez also remarks upon how it’s strange that despite everything, Mee’s own work is still copyrighted. He then explains comprehensively that Mee’s intention in doing this is not proprietary, it is more to encourage his readers to completely (re)make his texts and to put their own name on the work that results without crediting him whatsoever: “Ultimately, having his plays copyrighted forces readers to fully commit to the idea of (re)making one of his plays instead of just cutting a few parts and calling it their own”. Rodriguez delves into Mee’s theory that “…some of history’s greatest playwrights were what today’s critics might call plagiarists”. The ever more-repressive pressure of copyright laws is preventing masterpieces from being devised in the same fashion in which masterpieces like Shakespeare and Greek tragedy were created. Rodriguez discusses how Mee utilises this liberty in his creation of his work Big Love.

The only aspect of the original piece which Mee utilises is the plot. He radically changes every other aspect of the story presented. Both Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women and Mee’s Big Love tell the story of fifty sisters who flee from their home country when fifty of their cousins threaten to impose an ancient marriage agreement. The cousins eventually discover the whereabouts of these women and impose the marriage upon them. Surprisingly enough, Rodriguez points out that there is no direct reference to sex or incest so perhaps this “rape” that these women speak of is not necessarily explicitly sexual. The “rape” seems to solely point to the violation of their will, a definition that implies rape is taking anything by force. The play seems to try to demonstrate how the concept of rape should stretch beyond its definition of sexual violence and that in these other forms; it may prove a beneficial strategy. Rodriguez surprisingly states that Mee’s plays and his technique of writing

…appears to encourage us to think of rape as a useful model for how we should approach culture itself. If we are able to get rid of our preconceived notions of rape, we can then see the violence of rape, as represented in Big Love, as an analogy for the dramatist’s notions about how writing should appropriate the work of others in an effort to create what he defines as a “cultural commons”.

Mee’s figurative rape of other author’s texts is his way of helping to free copyright restrictions and to establish a free textual exchange of work among writers. In this essay, Rodriguez seeks to clarify that that Mee’s violation of texts is not a malicious attempt to “rape” the writings of others in the traditional sense of the word, but more so to question the conventions of copyright which we are so tightly bound by in this day and age.




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