Ambrose Bierce’s Honest Engine


Set alongside other fiction about the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce’s stories can seem brutal and terse, mocking the culture that romanticized the conflict and grew fat with pride. “Death upon a field of honor, yes,” he writes in “One Kind of Officer,” “but the field of honor was so very wet! It makes a difference.” It was a difference Bierce never tired of pointing out—between heroism and panic, rhetoric and reportage, picturesque sacrifice and real suffering. The passion for precision was born of Bierce’s own wartime experience—he was a battlefield cartographer—and it sustained him long after his war stories were published, especially in The Devil’s Dictionary, where with acid humor he exposed the true meanings of his era’s pieties. In the process of stepping back from those ideas, and from the hallowed sites he mapped, he stepped out of the mythology they served.

Yet it would be wrong to mythologize Bierce’s outsiderhood. As shown in his tales of men in extremis, registering every nuance of what they fear, Bierce knows from the inside the illusions he discredits. That same patience with the desolation that often precedes self-deception also informs Mac Wellman’s Bitter Bierce, among the playwright’s most direct and affecting works. The subtitle—The Friction We Call Grief—cautions those who expect to see in this Bierce simply the satirist or curmudgeon. Like a sudden chill, the protagonist interrupts his feverish denunciations of chicanery, hypocrisy, and other corruptions of public life to acknowledge private sorrow. Its sources are manifold—the agony of soldier friends, witnessed at close range; his estrangement from his wife; the deaths of two children, one a suicide, the other freezing after a drinking binge. Wellman’s Bierce doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of these losses. His credo as a writer—”see things as they are, not as they ought to be”—controls his response even to what resists translation into prose. Yet despite his commitment to honesty, he never exaggerates its benefits. After one story, he says, “futile, futile, futile,” the word clanging like a funeral bell.

Rich in quotations from Bierce, the play invites us to reread Wellman’s earlier work with an eye to the emotional turmoil beneath its own surface. The points of contact between the two men are obvious: The author of “The Theater of Good Intentions” has long been venting his own impatience with cowardice, and his drama affirms Bierce’s belief that “we think in words.” Less obvious is the part of Wellman that may have absorbed Bierce’s history of disappointment, as well as his unbroken faith that decency and clarity are the prerequisites for happiness—”the only thing,” says Bierce, “worth having.” One sees this contradiction everywhere on the P.S.122 stage. A typically fine Stephen Mellor, as Bierce, alternately stiffens with righteousness and sags with confusion. Behind him hang large drawings of patents registered between 1878 and 1902 by Samuel Wellman, the playwright’s great-grandfather, whose own, possibly similar history can be inferred from the way his signature changes over time—confident, even florid at the start, then subdued, and then, finally, realistic.