Charles L. Mee (born September 15, 1938) is an American playwright, historian and author known for his collage-like style of playwriting, which makes use of radical reconstructions of found texts. He is also a professor of theater at Columbia University.
Mee was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1938. He contracted polio at the age of fourteen. His memoir A Nearly Normal Life (1999) tells how that event informed the rest of his life.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1960, Mee moved to Greenwich Village and became a part of the Off-Off-Broadway scene. Between 1962 and 1964, his plays were presented at venues that included La MaMa E.T.C., Caffe Cino, Theatre Genesis, and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater.
In 1961 Mee began work at American Heritage publishing company and eventually became the editor of the hardback bi-monthly Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts. He was also the Advising Editor and then Contributing Editor of Tulane Drama Review – now called TDR and published from New York University – until 1964 and its Associate Editor from 1964 to 1965.
To support himself and his family, Mee turned from writing plays to writing books in 1965. Lorenzo De'Medici and the Renaissance, the first of his many nonfiction books, was published in 1969 by HarperCollins Juvenile Books. At the same time, he increasingly became caught up in anti-Vietnam War politics, campaigning for anti-war congressional candidates and writing anti-war polemics. He wouldn't return to writing for the theater for another 20 years.
In the 1970s, he became the co-founder and chairman of The National Committee on the Presidency, a grassroots organization which called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. His political activism led to his writing of political histories for the general public. Meeting at Potsdam (1975), about the 1945 Potsdam Conference, was chosen as a main selection of the Literary Guild, and was adapted for film and television by David Susskind. He went on to write other books on summit diplomacy, international power sharing, and American history, including The End of Order: Versailles 1919 (1980); The Marshall Plan: The Launching of Pax Americana (1987), and The Genius of the People (1987), about the 1787 Constitutional Convention;
A Visit to Haldeman and Other States of Mind (1976) was called "part autobiographical meditation, part elegiac crank letter to the American Republic, part confession and part essay on democratic politics" by Time.Greil Marcus, in 2002, claimed that it was one of the best books he had read about American patriotism. In 2017, Dwight Garner in his New York Times "American Beauties" column, about "undersung American books of the past 75 years," called the book "[o]ne of the finest and least-known books about Richard M. Nixon's presidency and the shrinking American soul..." Playing God: Seven Fateful Moments When Great Men Met to Change the World (1993) was Mee's final published work of history.
Mee returned to playwriting in 1985. His libretto for Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus was his first produced script since his Off-Off Broadway days. He continued working his day job as the editor-in-chief at consumer health publisher Rebus, Inc. and writing books as his plays began to be produced. Later, in 2002 Mee revised about a third of his Vienna: Lusthaus script. It was reprised as Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited). Clarke and Mee would collaborate again in Belle Époque (2004).
In 1988 Mee's daughter Erin B. Mee was invited to direct a production at HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art in SoHo. She chose to do The Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem, which received positive reviews from the Village Voice and The New York Times, and was picked up by Joseph Papp for a run at The Public Theatre. In 2000 Erin B. Mee staged another production of The Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem at The Market Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Another Person is a Foreign Country (1991) was the first of Mee's many collaborations with director Anne Bogart. The En Garde Arts site-specific performance took place in the courtyard of the decrepit Towers Nursing Home in New York City.
In 1992 Orestes was directed by Robert Woodruff at the University of California, San Diego and by Anne Bogart at the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI). In the summer of 1992, Tina Landau directed an En Garde Arts production as Orestes 2.0 on an abandoned pier on the Hudson River in Manhattan. The play was the first of ten plays that would use Greek texts as a basis upon which Mee would add his new fragments of text and then "throw the scaffolding away and call whatever remained the script." In 1996, The Constitutional Convention: A Sequel, was produced by Clubbed Thumb.
In 2001 Erin B. Mee staged the premiere of First Love, a play specifically written for her to direct, starring Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann of Mabou Mines, at New York Theatre Workshop. Erin Mee staged a second production in 2002 at The Magic Theatre in San Francisco with Joan Mankin and Robert Parnell.
In other plays, Mee explores twentieth-century American history and culture through the points-of-view of contemporary visual artists in: bobrauschenbergamerica (Robert Rauschenberg), Hotel Cassiopeia (Joseph Cornell), soot and spit (the musical) (James Castle), and Under Construction (Jason Rhoades and Norman Rockwell).
His comedies and romances, include Summertime, First Love, True Love, Big Love, Wintertime, Fetes de la Nuit, A Perfect Wedding, and Fire Island. As source material, Mee would use Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Molière, Anton Chekhov, René Magritte paintings, Bollywood musicals, and his own writing.
He is the only resident playwright of the theatre ensemble SITI Company, for whom he wrote Orestes, bobrauschenbergamerica, Hotel Cassiopeia, Under Construction, and soot and spit (the musical). Mee was the Signature Theatre Playwright-in-Residence for the 2007-2008 season.
In 2014 Mee co-wrote This Is Not A Theatre Company's Pool Play. Audiences sat at the edge of the pool with their feet in the water for an exploration of America's long, joyful, and complicated relationship with the swimming pool that included synchronized swimming, an existential boatman, musical numbers, and a snarky fish along with stories about segregated pools, and a meditation on pollution. Sarah Lucie of Show Business Weekly said: "The entirety of the play is well executed, featuring a strong ensemble that has absolutely no fear of diving into whatever quirky material is presented to them. Their playfulness is contagious, ultimately creating an uplifting theatrical experience that leaves the audience joyous and refreshed--and maybe a little wet. Pool Play, while undeniably light-hearted, manages to communicate some profound and political themes to those who choose to pay attention."Theatre is Easy wrote: "Pool Play...is definitely worth the trip...The entire ensemble showed moments of skill, wit, and brevity far beyond their years. Erin B. Mee does a superb job directing this young group of artists to create a cohesive look at our fascination with the water, entertaining and engaging the audience along the way."
In Fall 2015 Mee co-wrote Versailles 2015, a site-specific play for an NYC apartment, conceived and directed by Erin B. Mee. Theatre Is Easy noted that "Versailles 2015 is over far too quickly. It is an hors d'oeuvre plate of scenes that collectively...have a message about elitism and the vanity of apathy...Brief and poignant, Versailles 2015 will linger in your mind long after you see it." Courtney Escoyne of Thoughts from a Ballet Nerd wrote: "Versailles 2015 is a meditation upon privilege...It blurred the lines between audience and performer, ignored entirely the idea of a fourth wall, and managed to fit in some wonderfully crafted dialogue." Finally, Stephen Kaplan of Theatre Is Easy said: "Delightful and provocative...Amidst the countless atrocities that confront us every day, at our core we are all struggling to find the naked honesty in our own lives... Versailles 2015 allows us the time to contemplate this in its characters and in ourselves."
Mee's play The Glory of The World, about Thomas Merton, directed by Les Waters, opened at The Actor's Theatre of Louisville in spring 2015, and transferred to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February 2016.
On Mee's website, the (re)making project, he says "There is no such thing as an original play." and that his plays are "composed in the way that Max Ernst made his Fatagaga pieces toward the end of World War I: texts have often been taken from, or inspired by, other texts."  An interview with Mee about his work by Erin B. Mee, along with a manifesto and other material, was published in TDR 46:3 (T175).
Mee began using the internet as a textual source for composing his pieces in the early 1990s. He first began making his own work freely available by posting three of his plays on Carnegie Mellon's humanities gopher/ftp/telnet English Server in the mid 1990s. By 1996, with the help of his friend Tom Damrauer, the (re)making project, a web site 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 such a large body of theatre work available on the internet.
This was not viewed by Mee as a challenge to the current copyright law or a vehicle 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." It also represented "Mee's Golden Rule: of do unto my writing as I have done unto the writing of others."
Writer Jonathan Lethem credited Mee as one of the inspirations for his "Promiscuous Project" in which he made a selection of his stories available for filmmakers or dramatists to adapt at a dollar apiece.
In an explanation about the (re)making project on his current web site, 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 1998, Mee's friend, former chairman of Morgan Stanley and philanthropist Richard B. Fisher and his wife, Jeanne Donovan Fisher, offered to provide Mee with enough money to support himself. The rare arrangement imposed no stipulations or conditions upon Mee or his writing nor did it specify how long the relationship would last. Although Richard B. Fisher died in 2004, Jeanne Donovan Fisher continues to support Mee and his work. The Fishers patronage has been hailed as one "without parallel or precedent in American theatrical philanthropy."
Sometime in 2013, concurrent with the launch of a redesigned website, the language regarding patronage changed to the past tense: "Charles Mee's work has been made possible by the support of Richard B. Fisher and Jeanne Donovan Fisher." It is now possible to directly support the project.
Among other awards, Charles Mee is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award in drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two Obie Awards, for Vienna: Lusthaus (1986) and Big Love (2002), PEN/Laura Pels Theater Award for a playwright in mid-career, and the Fisher Award given by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
(Note: Charles Mee's complete scripts are freely available on his web site, the (re)making project. Dates listed are provided by Scott T. Cummings. They do not reflect when the work was actually written. Mee often writes the plays a year or more before they are produced. The play categories are Mee's own. He also makes his unproduced (undated) plays available on the (re)making project.)