Wallace Shawn
Wallace Shawn; drawing by David Levine

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.”

Our Late Night, a short piece first performed under André Gregory’s direction at the Public Theater in New York in 1975, has four men and three women in a Manhattan apartment, their talk spiraling into ever more lurid descriptions of sexual frenzy. As an exercise in unsettling the audience it seems to have succeeded. The producer Joe Papp later recalled the reaction to a sequence in which one of the men describes the overwhelming lust that takes possession of him on a trip to the tropics: “The audience went crazy at that scene. Some were shouting and one man got up and walked around in a menacing way-they didn’t even know they were doing it. Wally was looking around the theater, very perplexed-he didn’t realize he had gotten rid of his own sexual mania and given it to everybody else.”

Shawn seemed to know what he was doing, for his use of pornography as an analogue for contemporary mores became even more explicit. The earliest of his works collected in Four Plays is the dramatic triptych A Thought in Three Parts, produced as a workshop for subscribers by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976, and staged by Joint Stock in London in 1977. The three short plays are connected only by the fact that the first takes place before sex, the second during, and the third after. The central sequence, The Youth Hostel, is a pastiche of porn movies. Three men and two women have sex with each other in various combinations and in groups, masturbate alone and together, and abuse each other verbally and physically. Their couplings are mechanical and perfunctory, leaving them cold, unsatisfied, and angry. They speak in terse, staccato phrases, alternating between foul-mouthed insults and bland, banal civilities. Hatred oozes from every line.

A Thought in Three Parts evoked the kind of political response that can mislead an artist into thinking that shocking an audience is in itself a radical political act. There were visits from the police, complaints in the House of Lords (Lord Nugent of Guildford called on the government to “protect the public against this sort of pollution”), and intimations that the charitable status of the theater where it was staged might be removed. Yet the play now seems more naive than shocking. In the theater, “explicit” is just another word for “literal-minded.” In its theatrical form a realistic enactment of five people having sex is just as conservative as the realistic enactment of five people having breakfast. A Thought in Three Parts now seems hopelessly innocent. In 1977 it may have been possible to believe that the body politic could benefit from shock therapy. In 1998, when shock jocks are running radio and respectable hotels offer cable porn channels as part of their regular service, it is obvious that it doesn’t. If the explicit depiction of hate-filled sex and intimate violence could rock the establishment, the system would surely have collapsed by now.

That Shawn was following an arid trail is obvious from Marie and Bruce, produced in London in 1979 and New York the following year. Though less literal than A Thought in Three Parts, it is no less brutal. It partly recounts and partly enacts the sadomasochistic relationship of the eponymous couple. The tone for Marie’s continual stream of invective against her passive husband is set in the first exchange between them, when she refers to him as “you God damned cheap God damned idiotic pig, you shit!” and informs him that she has thrown his typewriter out the window. For all the virtuosity of the vituperation, and the dark, twisted humor that is never far away, though, the play is actually rather less shocking than Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was an enormous success on Broadway eighteen years earlier. The established theatrical audience had long since been inoculated against that particular virus.

In the 1980 film My Dinner with André, André Gregory asks Shawn, “What kind of plays are appropriate today?” Gregory suggests that “if you put on serious contemporary plays by writers like yourself, you may only be helping to deaden the audience in a different way. I mean, there was a time when contemporary plays of a certain kind would have had a prophetic function and would have been warnings to people, but now I think there has been such a degeneration, and the world is so dark and cold, that even those works which once were outcries against the darkness can now only contribute to the deadening process.” This is, in fact, a brilliantly accurate description of Shawn’s plays of the 1970s. In the film, Shawn himself seems horrified by Gregory’s analysis. But the subsequent profound change in the nature of his plays implies that Shawn may have drawn some such conclusion himself.

In the six years between Marie and Bruce and his next play, Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn changed tack and found his voice. He stopped trying to shock the audience and began instead to address it. He discovered the theatrical power of precise understatement, of what is hinted at rather than shown. The shift was both formal and political. In theatrical form, he moved from the enactment of conflict to the telling of stories. His three plays since 1985-Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and The Designated Mourner-are all variations on the monologue. None of them asks its audience to suspend disbelief. Each acknowledges from the start what is going on: people have gathered in a room to see and hear actors. Those actors speak, not to each other, but to the audience.

This is also, though, a change of political strategy. Shawn implicitly acknowledged the failure of the political avant-garde theater from which he emerged. He dropped the pretense that those presenting the play are smarter, less compromised, less deeply implicated in the structures of injustice and exploitation, than those who have come to watch. In the plays which Shawn has written since the mid-1980s, both the writer and his audience are assumed to be participants in the Western bourgeois feast. The audience to be addressed is no longer “you.” It is “us.” As the narrator of The Fever relates:

I thought I was a person who was thinking about a party, who had so many complicated feelings about it, who liked some aspects of the party, but not others…. But no. No. I see it so clearly. I see myself with my little fork-I wasn’t a person who was thinking about a party. I was a person who was at a party, who sat at the table, drank the wine, and ate the fish.

What makes the Shawn of these three most recent plays a much more interesting writer is that their subject and their method is one and the same. They are, broadly, about complicity—the collusion of nice, liberal people in the oppression that underpins their freedom to be nice and liberal. And the plays work by establishing complicity, drawing the audience into the confidence of morally obnoxious characters, seeking its assent to the most repugnant propositions. The method is best understood if we remember Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago is perhaps the strongest example of how an audience’s moral impulses and its theatrical instincts can be set at odds with each other. Plays, for the audience, begin with utter ignorance. We need someone to draw us in, to tell us what is going on. A character who talks to us, who gives us confidential information, can earn our gratitude. Even when that character is, like Iago, telling us how he is going to destroy a good man, we are glad to see him whenever he appears. Within the plot, he is a monster. Outside it, talking to us, he is a charming, helpful presence.

In Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn’s Iago is Lemon, a young, sickly woman who provokes our sympathy from the start. She is weak. She is alone. She greets us with a brave “Hello, dear audience, dear good people…” She begins to talk to us about the Nazis and how polite they were at first to people arriving at the concentration camps so as to keep them calm and orderly until they were funneled to the gas chambers. The subject is, in the context, strange. But we lose track of it as Lemon starts to conjure her memories of childhood in England, and as her parents and other characters appear on stage. She introduces her mother’s friend Danielle, whom she called Aunt Dan and through whom she began to live vicariously. She, and we, are drawn into Aunt Dan’s sex life, her adventures and opinions. The whole of the Vietnam era-and by implication of Ronald Reagan’s then contemporary adventures in Nicaragua and El Salvador-is filtered through her perceptions. Gradually, we are made to share Aunt Dan’s obsession with Henry Kissinger, the man who does “what he does every day to make our lives possible.” Lemon, too, takes on the conviction that Kissinger is a great man, willing to face the necessity of inflicting horrors in order to preserve a way of life. She asks us, sweetly and reasonably, to be honest and accept that “we’re enjoying a certain way of life-and we’re actually living-due to the existence of certain other people who are willing to take the job of killing on their own backs.” The sweet reasonableness, of course, is like that of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which a case is argued all the way to a grotesque conclusion; here Lemon reminds us that the Nazis, too, were merely “trying to create a certain way of life.”

Shawn’s originality, though, is to suggest that what is truly grotesque is not the obscene but the obvious. Shawn’s early plays, like most drama, aimed to reveal the violence beneath the surface of civility. As he put it himself in his preface to the published version of My Dinner with André, he had, for the first decade of his playwrighting career, “generously shown on the stage my interior life as a raging beast, but my exterior life as a mediocre human being and dilettante of normal intelligence remained unchronicled.” With Aunt Dan and Lemon, he began to put the exteriors of normal, “civilized” life on stage. Instead of releasing the violence beneath the surface, he started to draw attention to the violence on the surface.

In The Fever, the narrator says that “Something-a part of myself-has been hidden from me, and I think it’s the part that’s there on the surface, what anyone in the world could see about me if they saw me out the window of a passing train.” He evokes, by way of explanation, Marx’s analysis of “the fetishism of commodities.” The narrator ruminates on the exploitative relationships wrapped up in consumer goods like a cup of coffee or a pornographic magazine:

The photograph contains its history—the moment the woman unbuttoned her shirt, how she felt, what the photographer said. The price of the magazine is a code that describes the relationships between all those people-the woman, the man, the publisher, the photographer-who commanded, who obeyed. The cup of coffee contains the history of the peasants who picked the beans, how some of them fainted in the heat of the sun, some were beaten, some were kicked.

If this were merely a restatement of Marxist positions, it would hardly make for engaging theater. But it is in fact also the key to Shawn’s theatrical method. His best plays are startling because they jettison almost everything that normally creates drama on stage-conflict, emotion, revelation. Nothing happens between the actors; everything happens between the actors and the audience. We don’t overhear, we just listen. We don’t guess, or imagine, or realize; we are told. Nothing is enacted, everything is stated. There is no drama, just the simplest, most basic kind of theater. But The Designated Mourner in particular shows what extraordinary subtlety Shawn brings to that simplicity. It combines an insidious narrator like Lemon with an overpowering sense of the violence that is woven into everyday affluence. The play is a kind of science fiction, except that the imagined world is much more familiar than most visions of the future.

Shawn’s conceit is to imagine the contemporary United States as if it were Chile under Pinochet or Argentina in the time of the Generals. In less talented hands, of course, this would be a preposterous analogy. It is owing to Shawn’s brilliance, though, that he does not make it an analogy at all. No places are mentioned, no similes are constructed, no parallels proposed. Unlike Brecht, Shawn does not frame an exotic story in a setting that invites the audience to see its meaning for its own society. He simply presents three people who are very like well-to-do North Americans in their speech and manners, and places them in an unnamed country ruled by a “very amusing and extraordinarily long-lived President,” where people disappear into torture chambers. He exploits the most basic advantage of narrative over drama-that the audience has no choice but to believe what it is told.

With no realistic stage setting, no action, none of the trappings and conventions that invite us to place our faith in the credibility of the world the playwright has invented for us, we are like children listening to a fairy tale. We can either take the story or leave it, but we can’t test it against a known reality. Instead of asking whether the society described by the three characters is like the one we inhabit, we experience a giddy, nauseous merging of familiar comforts and awful terrors.

The character who does most of the talking, and with whom we are therefore forced to identify, is Jack, an affable middle-aged man who describes himself early in the play as “a former student of English literature who… went downhill from there.” We learn that he married Judy, the daughter of Howard, a writer from an elite family who once wrote a vaguely dissenting essay. Judy and Howard talk to us from time to time, but in a distant, somewhat distracted way. It is Jack on whom we rely for information, through whose eyes we see the others. Howard’s subsequent decision to write only oblique and apparently nonpolitical poetry has allowed him to survive, but his youthful act of rebellion has not been forgotten.

As unrest begins to stir, and doom closes in on Howard and Judy, Jack slips away, withdrawing, he tells us, into the privacies of resentment, pornography, and tangible pleasures, learning to live “in the quiet shade of a nice square of chocolate, a nice slice of cake.” As the regime imprisons and eventually kills Howard and Judy, he gets a job writing a column on sex for a daily newspaper. It dawns on us that our friendly, trusted informant is on the side of the torturers. It strikes us, too, that his cruelty is simply a clear-eyed realization of where his interests lie. He is not a monster, just a likable man who, like the rest of us, looks at photographs of executions in the newspaper and declines to get involved.

What Shawn achieves in The Designated Mourner is something quite unusual-a way of making political theater that does not depend on the assumption that the writer is morally superior to the audience or on the messianic conceit that, if the play works, the revolution will start as the curtain comes down. More effectively than any other contemporary political playwright, Shawn grapples with the problem of an audience that already knows all about exploitation and violence but that needs, for its own well-being, to maintain a civilized distance from that knowledge. He comes up with an idiosyncratic but convincing answer to the question whether political plays are possible at all in a culture that has such a stake in the preservation of its own privilege. His answer is a theater of recognition rather than of revelation, in which we are asked not to gasp as strange truths are unveiled, but merely to acknowledge the meaning of what we see on television every night. The playwright becomes neither Grand Magus nor Masked Avenger but an odd, querulous voice asking us to pay attention to what is before our eyes.

This Issue

August 13, 1998