The Playwright Nobody (and Everybody) Knows

The face and the voice are ubiquitous. Wallace Shawn's plays are another matter.

By Don Shewey

Among living American writers for the theatre today, Wallace Shawn is among those most respected by his peers and championed by serious critics. Yet many regular theatregoers, including people who work in the theatre, have never seen any of his plays performed. For one thing, he’s not especially prolific. His reputation rests primarily on half a dozen original works composed over the course of 35 years: Our Late Night, A Thought in Three Parts, Marie and Bruce, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever and The Designated Mourner. (Seven if you count his screenplay, co-written with Andre Gregory, for My Dinner with Andre, first performed on stage in London but much better known from the film version; both versions were directed by the late Louis Malle.) The plays have not been widely produced because, well, they’re rather scary for theatres to undertake.

Related Links:
Andre Gregory Sees the Light by Todd London (American Theatre)
Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts by Wallace Shawn (TCG Books)
In Their Own Words by David Savran includes an interview with Wallace Shawn (TCG Books)

The reasons are twofold. The early plays especially deal very frankly with the life of the body. You don’t necessarily see the actors fucking, shitting or vomiting, but they speak about these things the way they naturally occur in life, though rarely if ever in the theatre. On top of that, Shawn’s plays are literary works that stir up provocative moral and existential questions while aggressively declining to provide answers. Indeed, their beguiling yet unreliable narrators often make a persuasive case for attitudes which, if received passively, are downright toxic. That can leave audiences feeling baffled, uneasy, even enraged.

For his admirers, though, Shawn’s plays are everything you dream of theatre being—really smart, stimulating, unsettling, hilarious and truthful. The quality of his writing places Shawn in the company of heavyweight playwright-thinkers like Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill. Like them, he has embraced the role of artist-as-citizen, speaking out, writing political essays for The Nation, even publishing a one-issue political journal driven by his outrage at the war in Iraq and especially at the abuse of prisoners conducted in the name of the American people. (He is, after all, the son of William Shawn, who as editor of the New Yorker for several decades oversaw that magazine’s superior political reporting and cultural commentary.) Yet the more-talked-about-than-seen aspect of his plays make him a kindred spirit to the likes of the Wooster Group’s Elizabeth LeCompte and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s Richard Foreman, avant-garde theatremakers considered masters inside the field but virtually unknown to mainstream audiences.

In any case, many people, including myself, consider The Designated Mourner to be one of the most profound pieces of writing created for any medium in the last 20 years. It is a bleak, dread-inducing meditation on the decline of Western civilization delivered through monologues by three inhabitants of a politically repressive country where intellectual freedom has effectively been persecuted out of existence. To indulge in Wally Shawn–like hyperbole, I would go so far as to say that the world would be a better, though not necessarily happier, place if all students, teachers, politicians, fornicators and watchers of Oprah put down their magazines, turned off their cell phones and TV sets, and read, reread, studied and discussed The Designated Mourner for the next year. It has been produced in Cleveland, Chicago and Austin, in Germany and Sweden and Greece and Australia. David Hare staged its premiere in London in 1996 with three actors sitting at a bare table and filmed that production, which featured Mike Nichols in the title role. And yet in New York, the play ran for a few months in 2000 at a 30-seat theatre in a disused gentlemen’s club in the Wall Street area, exquisitely directed by Andre Gregory and performed by Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg (extraordinary writer and Shawn’s longtime companion) and Larry Pine. It was one of the most spectacular and disturbing performances I’ve ever seen. It came and it went, nobody talks about it, but nobody who saw it will forget it. (You can listen to the radio play version online at www.wnyc.org/arts/articles/62329.)

Meanwhile, of course, the irony is that Wally Shawn’s face is recognizable to every other person on the street anywhere in America as a result of his frequent appearances as a character actor in extremely popular movies (The Princess Bride) and TV shows (“Desperate Housewives”). And few children have not been exposed to his reedy comic voice in animated features such as Toy Story and The Incredibles. “Yes, I gave up the idea of seeing myself as ‘one person’ a long time ago,” Shawn told an interviewer recently, with a characteristic placid pointedness. “But there’s a disconnect between Bush when he kisses his wife, Bush when he orders the bombers to attack and Bush when he brushes his teeth.”

In the past five years, Shawn’s visibility as a playwright has increased exponentially through his association with Scott Elliott, artistic director of Off Broadway’s adventurous company the New Group. Since 2004, Elliott has staged well-received revivals of Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever, cast Shawn in a hit revival of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, produced the world premiere of The Music Teacher (a play with music composed by Allen Shawn, the playwright’s brother), and commissioned a new adaptation of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera for the Roundabout Theatre Company, which in 2006 became Shawn’s de facto Broadway debut.

With Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts appearing in book form for the first time (published by TCG Books next month), a film version of Marie and Bruce (starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick) completed and awaiting distribution, a 10-year-long collaboration with Andre Gregory on Ibsen’s The Master Builder still cooking, and a new play on the horizon, Shawn sat down with American Theatre for a lively, free-wheeling conversation.

DON SHEWEY: Tell me about your new play.

WALLACE SHAWN: Oh, I don’t want to say much about it, but I’ll just say that, yeah, I’ve been working on a new play for 10 years, I’ve finally finished it, and I’ll even say what it’s called, which takes nerve on my part. It’s called Grasses of a Thousand Colors. I’m not going to say anything about it except that my function in life, if I have one, would be as some kind of…well, when I was a kid I knew a man from Czechoslovakia who had a passport that described him as a “literary writer,” which I always thought was fascinating. I’ve always thought that probably the best use of my talent would be as a literary writer. It would be a fantastic thing to have an impact on some specific problem in society—to write a play that would have an influence on the debate about capital punishment in this country. But I’ve sort of decided I’m not going to organize my life that way. And I’m going to follow this strange, somewhat old-fashioned belief in the idea of inspiration and that your subject picks you. You don’t pick the subject. When I started writing, I had no clear political opinions. Now I have some, but up until now I have stuck with the idea of seeing what happens.

Were you surprised at where the new play took you?

Yes. Yes. I’ll only say that. Yes, it’s certainly not something that I would have planned or that anyone could plan.

How many characters?

Four.

Is there a timetable of when it’s going to be produced?

I’m just going to say I’m in high-level discussion with top world leaders, and in due course the plans will be revealed. But it won’t be done before 2009.

New York or London?

I won’t say. But everybody knows the realities in New York. There’s one important review per play, and in London there are eight. Now which sounds more welcoming, you know? And in New York the one review is actually more influential than all eight combined in England. People in New York are more guided by criticism than people in England are, because people go to more plays over there. The other thing is that here the goal is, for me at any rate, to try to convince people who don’t go to plays to go to my plays. And that’s hard to do. Most people who go to plays are people who love theatre, which means people who love theatre the way it is right now, which in a way doesn’t include me. I wouldn’t really say that I’m someone who loves theatre the way it is right now.

But when you go to the theatre, you go with a hope that it’ll be different from the status quo or something that appeals to you, right?

Well, I have two identities, really, as a theatregoer. If I’m going as the guy who writes the plays, I’m somewhere between critical and appalled by most of what I might see. But the reality is that I have the theatre gene. I really like going to plays. And I really love watching actors. If there are five people on stage and one of them is giving a wonderful performance, I’m pretty happy.

So the writer in you and the actor in you have very different responses to what you see?

I wouldn’t put it that clearly. If I were to write an article in which I would discuss an entire season in New York, I would probably feel that the institution of theatre as a whole was not offering what I wish it would be offering. I know all too many people who came to New York with the high hope of going to a lot of theatre, they went to three or four things, and they thought, “Well, these are rather stupid, and I don’t have time to watch them, so I’m not going to go to any more plays.” On the other hand, if I myself go to the theatre, I frequently enjoy the texts in some way. And even if I don’t enjoy the texts, I enjoy some of the actors. I enjoy sitting in the theatre and watching a play.

The problem for me as a writer is that, in order to benefit from seeing one of my plays, there has to be a very active engagement on the part of the audience member. You can’t just sort of lie there half-asleep. It won’t affect you. I’d like to get some of those people who gave up a long time ago to come see my plays, and that’s hard to do.

Tell me about the impact of Scott Elliott’s taking an interest in your work and pulling you into the New Group orbit.

Well, it’s changed my life, really, that this one individual has decided that he’s interested in my writing. It’s quite surprising. There are thousands of people involved in the American theatre, many of them reading this magazine. But I don’t have anything to do with the American theatre. I am only involved in a weird, avant-garde thing that Andre Gregory and I do, which is not really part of the mainstream of American theatre. Scott Elliott is actually a significant leader in the American theatre, in the center of it all really, even though by temperament he’s an angry young man. I don’t know what made him take an interest in me, and I wouldn’t ask him. But I’ve derived enormous energy, strength, and pleasure from the fact of his enthusiasm and the fact that he’s put on so much of my work. He’s an inspired director. He has that very, very specific talent for theatrical combustion, for doing things that live on the stage.

Does the context of the New Group and the kind of plays that Scott produces there create the relationship with the audience that you dream of?

Well, he has definitely created a group of people who know that they certainly will not be snoozing when they go to his theatre. But you know, to bring everybody that I would like to come is terribly, terribly, terribly hard.

Who would you like to come?

Well, for instance, I went to a reading at the Society for Ethical Culture where Naomi Klein was launching her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It was an auditorium; people were sitting in seats, looking at the stage. But the brains were on fire. The people in the audience were like hungry dogs being thrown meat by Naomi Klein. They were leaning forward so far they were practically on the stage. And they were responding to every word that she said. And they were just very, very, very alive. I wanted to stand up and say, “Hey, I’m doing a play tomorrow, why don’t you all come to it, I’ll give you free tickets!” Because I can tell you, a lot of the people who were there, I’m going to bet that they go to between zero and one play a year. Closer to zero. Of course, a lot of them were rather young. And there’s a physical restlessness related to being young, and an intellectual restlessness. It’s not unrelated to the way old, old people feel, which is: Is this worth my time? Because I don’t have that much time. Which is a good standard.

TCG is bringing out a book of Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts, two plays that are hardly ever performed.

Our Late Night has been around now for, let’s see, 35 years, and it’s had, I think, four productions. Caryl Churchill directed it in England, at the Royal Court in 1999. Steppenwolf did it in 1977, when John Malkovich was 19. I couldn’t afford to go and see it, and everybody warned me that it was gonna be a terrible experience if I did go. Of course, now I think I was insane. I should have borrowed or stolen money or done anything to see it.

A Thought in Three Parts has been done twice in England, and in this country it was done as a workshop by Joe Papp but never opened. The American premiere really only took place last year in Austin. Rubber Repertory did an unbelievably beautiful production of the play, and I hope they’ll bring it to New York. They’re a fantastic company run by these two guys, Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope. They had done The Fever and The Designated Mourner . They came to New York to see The Music Teacher , and they came up to me and said, “We want to do A Thought in Three Parts.” And I said, “Well, you want to do it, but I don’t think you’ll really do it, because nobody’s ever really done it. Why would you do it?” Lo and behold, I got a message they were actually doing it. So I went to Texas and saw it. They did it, and the audience totally gobbled it up. It was beautifully directed, beautifully acted.

And you know, in a way, I’m bitter, angry, whatever. On the other hand, when something like that happens, I’m unbelievably humbled. It’s mind-boggling really. Because nobody made them do it. I didn’t convince them to do it. They didn’t know me. They just read these words on a page and said, “We’d like to do this.”

Author and critic Don Shewey lives in New York City.