Issue 201, Summer 2012
On the set of The Designated Mourner in 2000, with Larry Pine, Deborah Eisenberg, and director André Gregory.
Wallace Shawn is recognizable to most of the world as a character actor: he made a memorable debut in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) and, since then, has appeared in movies as diverse as The Bostonians and The Princess Bride and on the popular television series Gossip Girl. He has also starred in two films made with his longtime collaborator, André Gregory: My Dinner with André (1981) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which were directed by Louis Malle.
It is as a writer, however, that Shawn has most influenced the American stage. Perhaps the noted young playwright Rebecca Gilman, citing Shawn as an influence, put it best when she said of his work, “He’s the only writer who writes about intellectuals in a complicated and even contradictory way. He’s really funny, too.” Shawn has written in other genres as well. His latest book, Essays (2009), is just that, a collection of first-person nonfiction that reflects, among other things, his political activism and his interest in other writers (it includes, for instance, an interview with poet Mark Strand that he conducted in 1998 for The Paris Review).
Shawn was born in New York City in 1943. His father, William Shawn, was, for nearly thirty-six years, the editor of The New Yorker; his mother, Cecille, worked for many years as a journalist. His younger brother, Allen, is a composer (they collaborated on the opera The Music Teacher, which had its New York premiere in 2006). Wallace—or Wally, as he is known to family and friends—graduated with an A.B. in history from Harvard in 1965; that same year, he traveled as a Fulbright scholar to India, where he taught English, and then spent two years at Oxford studying philosophy and economics. He returned to New York in 1970 and has lived there ever since.
Shawn’s first play, Four Meals in May (1967), was written when he was still at Oxford. He continued to write when he came back to New York, supporting himself at different times as a copier in a copy center, a runner in the garment district, and a schoolteacher. Following a trio of early works—The Family Play (1970), The Hotel Play (1970), The Hospital Play (1971)—Shawn’s first professional production came in 1975 with Our Late Night, directed by Gregory. Since then, he has written six plays: A Thought in Three Parts (1976), Marie and Bruce(1978), Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), The Fever (1990), The Designated Mourner (1997), and Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2008). He has also adapted Machiavelli’s The Mandrake(1977) and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (2006), Shawn’s first work to reach Broadway.
Our conversation took place in the offices of The Paris Review over a period of three months in 2009 and 2010, during which time it always seemed to be snowing. Shawn’s distinctive voice, thoughtful and deliberate, turned a number of his interlocutor’s questions inside out, which lead to many interesting digressions and further meditations on Shawn’s big subject: the nature of speech and what we mean when we try to say anything at all.
Why did you choose to leave the theater to perform The Fever?
Because there was something I actually wanted to say. The Fever is a one-person play. I decided I would perform it myself, and I decided I would not perform it in theaters, because the character in the play says certain things that I meant. I thought, I’m not just trying to entertain somebody, I’m trying to tell somebody something that I mean. And you can’t do that in a theater, because if you put a person on a stage in a theater, that person will be interpreted as a character in a story. No matter what happens on that stage, it will be interpreted by everybody as a form of entertainment.
What would be wrong with that? Are you against entertainment?
That’s like saying, Are you against pumpkin pie? Pumpkin pie is enjoyable and people enjoy it, but it’s in a different category from, for example, penicillin. Enjoyment is important, and pie is important, but pie is not the only thing we need.
I didn’t want The Fever to be seen as just another “disturbing” play—“disturbing” being a term of praise for a certain kind of enjoyable or entertaining evening. In an amusement park, you can go on a roller coaster that carries you up and down, or you can go on another kind of ride that whirls you around in a circle. Similarly, there are different sorts of entertaining experiences in the theater. You can go to a play that is enjoyable because it’s funny, and then on the next night you can go to a play that’s enjoyable because it’s “disturbing.” For example, in the sixties, there were plays inspired by the black power movement where a guy would come to the front of the stage and yell at the audience, “You are pigs, we are going to get you.” And the drama critic would say, “My favorite part of the evening was the thrilling moment when that guy approached the audience and said ‘You are pigs. We are going to get you.’ ” To that drama critic, that was an exciting moment of theater. To the writer of the play—well, he might have meant it. But the critic watching the play didn’t really feel threatened, he just thought it was great theater.
The idea that people might react like that to The Fever was nauseating to me. I didn’t want to give someone an agreeable feeling of agitation. I was trying to speak as a friend to a friend, from one human being to another. And that isn’t possible in a theater, because in a theater, even if an actor has a heart attack and dies onstage, the audience always interprets it as part of the show.
Where else could you stage it?
I decided to do The Fever in apartments, in private homes. In a way, the play was a kind of declaration to my own friends, first of all, and then to my class, the bourgeois class. I was telling my own group that I no longer believed in the various justifications for our existence that I’d formerly found convincing. It was like a secret meeting of the bourgeois class, in which I would speak frankly about what we were.
But eventually you did perform the piece in a theater.
Eventually I thought, I can’t keep doing this play for twelve people at a time. I love doing it like that, but I’ve done it now a hundred times, and only twelve hundred people have seen it! If I could only do it in one of those rooms where there are a lot of seats cleverly arranged, a hundred people could see it at once! So I went back to theater, although I did do the piece in a slightly nontraditional way—I mingled with the audience before the play, I didn’t have theatrical lighting or a set or a program, et cetera. Unfortunately, it was pretty brutally denounced.
Yes. It was described as something that was almost without any value—a ludicrous display of pomposity.
What did you make of that?
Public humiliation is always quite painful, obviously, because you do feel that everyone on the street has read about you and believed what they’ve read, and they’re all thinking, Ah yes, there’s that pitiful fraud I read about. But mainly I was shattered to realize that The Feverwould not become part of a public conversation, would not stretch out across the United States and beyond and have the chance to affect people. I was trying to explain to all the nice people out there how it could be possible that from our own point of view we’re so nice, and we’re so lovable, and we’re so cute, and so sensitive, and yet from the point of view of people who are weak and powerless we are an implacable, vicious enemy. I’d found what I knew were the best words I could ever find to say what I wanted to say, and I realized that because of the negative criticism, those words would be heard only by a handful of odd theater fans, not by society as a whole.
Do you enjoy going to the theater?
I love going to plays. There’s a subconscious side to it, obviously—some people like to be spanked for XYZ psychological reasons, and I like to go to plays, and I can’t entirely explain why. But on the more conscious level, I simply love watching actors act. And I suppose my favorite plays to see are very realistic plays—naturalistic plays in which the actors are able to make me believe that they really are those people and that I’m looking at life. I have an enormous appetite to see life as I know it presented in front of my eyes.
That seems strange—after all, why don’t I just walk out into the street? But the thing is that you can’t really look at things out in the street, much less in your own apartment or in your friends’ apartments. You can look in the theater in a completely different way from the way you can look in life. You’re allowed to really look at a play—even stare.
In life, you are a character in the scene. When you’re a character in the scene, you can’t really look at the scene. If someone’s talking to you, you must respond appropriately. You can’t just stare at the person. You can’t look at life with the degree of attention and focus that you can employ when you look at a play, because you have to participate. And the people you’re staring at would find it rude. But if you’re sitting in an audience watching a scene, you can focus your entire being on looking at that scene. It’s a very special privilege.
I wish there were more plays about a life that is exactly like mine. I would love that! If the program says, “An apartment in Manhattan today,” I’m thrilled! And if it says, “An apartment in Chelsea, in Manhattan, today,” where I live, I’d be even more thrilled. I’m amazed if I can see an actor imitate someone with a French accent—that’s fantastic—and I’m even more excited if an actor can illuminate the psychological state of a person similar to me and the people I know. So I do like naturalistic theater. But I like many kinds of theater.