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 speak.”
Shawn is hardly the first writer to notice the vertiginous interplay of horror and entertainment in current culture. Nor is he a particularly original analyst of contemporary malaise. His most recent plays, The Fever (1991) and The Designated Mourner, are full of a familiar absurdism. The world has been abandoned by God. There is the Kafkaesque sense of nightmarish metamorphosis-in The Fever, the speaker lies on a bathroom floor, watching a large insect: “And in a second it’s crossed behind the sink, and it’s slipping itself into a hole too small for it to fit in, but it fits-in-it fits-it’s gone. And I see myself. I see myself. A moment of insight.” There is Beckett’s (and Jean-Paul Sartre’s) nauseous feeling of being trapped in an endless present tense where the idea of being the same self from day to day has collapsed. In The Designated Mourner, Jack asks, “What is it supposed to mean to me if someone tells me that the trousers I’m wearing were worn ‘yesterday’ by a man with my name, a man who did this, a man who did that, or that they’ll be worn ‘tomorrow’ by a man who is going to be doing something or other?”
Even if Shawn has made political use of these notions yet more explicitly than Harold Pinter has done in his later plays, much of what he has to say is broadly similar to the currents of thought that sprang from the New Left thirty years ago. What matters in Shawn’s work, though, is that he has found a way of giving those concerns dramatic immediacy. He has developed a mode of addressing an audience in the theater that is all his own, a precise, rhythmic prose that, without action or direct conflict, commands attention. And he has a clearer sense of who makes up that audience than almost anyone else now writing for the stage. He refuses to place a distance between himself and the society he attacks. He writes, consciously and with a wonderfully insidious honesty, from inside the well-fed, well-educated elite that, for the most part, constitutes the audience for off-Broadway plays.
Wallace Shawn, his father, and his grandfather could be the subject of a trilogy of novels, telling the story of America from the thrusting energy of the self-made man in the first generation to the absorption into the East Coast establishment in the next and finally to the rage, disgust, and disillusionment of the third. His grandfather, Benjamin Chon, known as Jackknife Ben, was an embodiment of the immigrant drive for material success. The child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he set up as a street peddler, sold knives and later jewelry in the Chicago stockyards, and made a small fortune.1 His children grew up in a house with servants and a billiard room, and were triumphantly assimilated into the American upper middle class. His son William, his surname safely Anglicized, became, as the revered, long-serving, and famously fastidious editor of The New Yorker, one of the presiding figures of the postwar liberal literary establishment. And then along comes his son Wallace, haunted by the conviction that to be born into American abundance is to have a soul marked with original sin. Guilt, not gratitude, is the keynote of Wallace Shawn’s reflections on the luxury of his childhood. In his opening monologue in Louis Malle’s film My Dinner with André, in which he plays himself in a long conversation with the director André Gregory, Shawn recalls his privileged childhood in Manhattan, where he was born in 1943:
I grew up on the Upper East Side, and when I was ten years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music.
In his theatrical monologue The Fever (first performed by the author in a New York apartment in 1990) there is an indication that this recognition of privilege was accompanied by the uncomfortable awareness that he belonged to an elite. Shawn carefully avoids any indication of the age, sex, or nationality of the speaker in the play, and it would be crude to conclude from the fact that he performed it himself in the apartments of his friends that it is straightforwardly autobiographical. There are, nevertheless, clear parallels with his own life, and it is hard to mistake the crippling consciousness of having been both blessed and cursed by gratuitous advantage:
I was born into the mind. Lamplight. The warm living room. My father, in an armchair, reading about China. My mother with the newspaper on a long sofa. Orange juice on a table in a glass pitcher….
And my friends and I were the delicate, precious, breakable children, and we always knew it. We knew it because of the way we were wrapped-because of the soft underwear laid out on our beds, soft socks to protect our feet.
And I remember that my darling mother, my beautiful mother, my innocent mother, would say to me and my friends, when we were nine or ten, “Now be very careful, don’t go near First Avenue. That’s a bad neighborhood. There are tough kids there.”
Precisely what caused Wallace Shawn to become detached from that world is his own business, but it is now a matter of public record that he had a peculiarly personal revelation of the untrustworthiness of its apparent innocence. In her recently published memoir Here But Not Here, his father’s longtime lover Lillian Ross claims that Wallace and his brother Allen “came to hear about us from other people” and “had no discussion with their parents about us…. They asked no questions of their father.” If this is true, whatever the personal effects of such unspoken secrets on the young Wallace Shawn, the discovery that all is not as it seems is often the first step in the making of a writer. Whatever the source, a fascination with the power of sexual impulses and a deep sense of the fragility of cultivated exteriors is pervasive in his later writings. In his plays, sex is an elemental, irrational force. The pleasant familiarities of well-to-do existence turn out to be lies. Shawn is, nevertheless, much more than a poor little rich kid kicking against his origins. His early writing does have the brazen self-indulgence, the insufferable sense of superiority, that often marks the rebellious scion of privilege. In the handful of plays he has produced since the mid-1980s, though, there is a brave, complex, and immensely skillful reflection on the morality of comfort.
Shawn’s early plays are remarkably intimate exercises in misanthropy. Produced by radical theater groups on both sides of the Atlantic-Joint Stock in London, La Mama and the Public Theater in New York-they present an extreme version of a strategy employed by much of the left-wing theater of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The dilemma of those who saw theater as a way of changing the world was that they were virtually certain to have the wrong audience. Almost by definition, those who attended the theater were not those who might rise up and destroy the corrupt status quo. The wretched of the earth had more urgent concerns than sitting on hard benches in rough, fashionable black box theaters. There were, in essence, two ways of dealing with this reality. One, tried by groups like the Living Theatre and the Bread and Puppet Theatre, was to develop new, nonliterary forms of drama and to take them on the road, attempting to meet the masses on their own ground. The other, which the Living Theatre also tried, was to take the bourgeois audience as it came and to shock it into realizing just how contemptible it really was. This, essentially, is what Shawn’s early work attempts to achieve.
The first four of his plays to have been staged are demonstrations of the vileness of supposedly polite society.2 In The Hotel Play, written in 1970 but given its only outing at La Mama in 1981, he seemed intent on putting virtually the entire bourgeoisie on stage—there was a cast of seventy-six, one of the largest ever assembled in New York. The characters on vacation in the Grand Hotel-“Hate-Filled Husband in Pink,” “Woman Who Has Lost Pocketbook,” “Man With Quivering Chest”-reveal, in a series of vignettes, their sex-crazed, pathetic, and sadistic selves.3 Shawn himself played a man lashing his beautiful wife with increasingly vicious insults. When she threatens to kill herself, he replies that “I don’t fear in the slightest the sight of your dead body.”
Ved Mehta describes the Shawn family background in his recent book Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing (Overlook Press, 1998).↩
Shawn also wrote a number of unproduced plays, among them Four Meals in May, The Old Man, The Hospital Play, and The Family Play. Though unpublished, they are discussed in W.D. King's Writing Wrongs: The Work of Wallace Shawn (Temple University Press, 1997), a lucid and stimulating exploration of Shawn's career in the theater.↩
Wallace Shawn, The Hotel Play (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1982).↩
Ved Mehta describes the Shawn family background in his recent book Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing (Overlook Press, 1998).↩
Shawn also wrote a number of unproduced plays, among them Four Meals in May, The Old Man, The Hospital Play, and The Family Play. Though unpublished, they are discussed in W.D. King’s Writing Wrongs: The Work of Wallace Shawn (Temple University Press, 1997), a lucid and stimulating exploration of Shawn’s career in the theater.↩
Wallace Shawn, The Hotel Play (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1982).↩