More often than not, newspaper and magazine stories about Wallace Shawn begin with the notion that he is really two people. One is a familiar if quirky presence in American popular culture, an actor whose distinctive looks, wry demeanor, and lisping, querulous voice fade in and out of prime time television and popular movies. He has been a recurring character in sitcoms such as Taxi and The Cosby Show. He played Candice Bergen’s unbearable former colleague in Murphy Brown and Mr. Hall, the lovelorn high school teacher, in both the movie Clueless and the television series it spawned. He was Zek the Grand Magus in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In movies, he has played a mad scientist, a man from outer space, a creepy arms dealer, a small-time crook. He was the Masked Avenger in Woody Allen’s Radio Days and the voice of Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story. As the narrator of Shawn’s own one-actor play The Fever puts it: “There’s never enough solace, never enough consolation. I’m doing whatever I possibly can. I try to be nice. I try to be lighthearted, entertaining, funny. I tell entertaining stories to people.”
The other Wallace Shawn, the playwright, is a dark figure glowering on the margins of American consumer culture, muttering about blood and sex and torture. The two aspects of his public persona seem absurdly incompatible, almost as if Samuel Beckett had made regular guest appearances on The Brady Bunch or The Lone Ranger. It would be easy to suggest a complete contradiction, to use Shawn as a case study of the ways dissident artists are used by or make themselves useful to the mass media. This would be wrong. Shawn’s whole point is that the darkness is inextricable from the popular entertainment, that wrapped up in the smooth consolations of prime time is a core of utter cruelty.
The dizzying kaleidoscope of television itself-the way we flick from Seinfeld to a news report on Bosnia to an ad for perfume-is summoned in Shawn’s mature plays as a witness to the dazed condition of contemporary civilization. In his best and most recent work, The Designated Mourner, which had its stage premiere at the National Theatre in London in 1996 and was recreated on film by David Hare the following year, there is an evocation of television’s mesmeric power. Even while the world around him is collapsing into barbarity, the dominant character, Jack, is drawn toward
a familiar framed screen which held inside it colors, songs, characters, drunkenness, love-beauty—And the faces that waited inside that blank face pulled me toward them, pulled my hand toward the knob to turn on the screen, and then toward my lamp to turn out the light.
In the play, when violence erupts on the streets, it announces itself as “shooting like you’d hear on the evening news, a sound that in spite of everything we never thought we’d hear ‘live,’ so to …