WALLACE SHAWN: The Playwright Nobody (and Everybody) Knows

Among living American writers for the theater today, Wallace Shawn is among those most respected by his peers and championed by serious critics. Yet many regular theatergoers, including people who work in the theater, have never seen any of his plays performed. For one thing, heís 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 for My Dinner with Andre, first performed onstage in London but much better known from the film version, both directed by the late Louis Malle.) The plays have not been widely produced because, well, theyíre rather scary for theaters to undertake.

The reasons are twofold. The early plays especially deal very frankly with the life of the body. You donít necessarily see the actors fucking, shitting, or vomiting but they speak about these things the way they naturally occur in life, although rarely if ever in the theater. On top of that, Shawnís 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, Shawnís plays are everything you dream of theater being Ė 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 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 magazineís 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 Groupís Elizabeth LeCompte and the Ontological-Hysteric Theaterís Richard Foreman, avant-garde theatermakers considered masters inside the field but virtually unknown to mainstream audiences. 

For instance, some 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 cel phones and TV sets, and read, re-read, studied and discussed The Designated Mourner for the next year. It has been produced in Chicago and Austin, in Germany and Sweden and Greece and Australia. David Hare staged it in London 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 at a 30-seat theater in a disused gentlemenís club in the Wall Street area, exquisitely directed by Andre Gregory and performed by Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg (extraordinary writer and Shawnís longtime companion), and Larry Pine. It was one of the most spectacular and disturbing performances Iíve 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 here: http://www.wnyc.org/arts/articles/62329.) 

Meanwhile, of course, the irony is that Wally Shawnís 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. ďYes, I gave up the idea of seeing myself as Ďone personí a long time ago,Ē Shawn told an interviewer recently, with a characteristic placid pointedness. ďBut 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.Ē

In the last five years, Shawnís visibility as a playwright has increased exponentially through his association with Scott Elliott, artistic director of Off-Broadwayís 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 Rabeís Hurlyburly, produced the world premiere of The Music Teacher (a play with music composed by Allen Shawn, the playwrightís brother), and commissioned a new adaptation of Brecht and Weillís Threepenny Opera for the Roundabout Theater Company, which became Shawnís de facto Broadway debut. 

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

Tell me about your new play.
Oh, I donít want to say much about it, but Iíll just say that, yeah, Iíve been working on a new play for ten years, Iíve finally finished it, and Iíll even say what itís called, which takes nerve on my part. Itís called Grasses of a Thousand Colors. Iím not going to say anything about it except that my function in life, if I have one, would be as some kind ofÖwell, when I was a kid I knew a man from Czechoslovakia who had a passport that described him as a ďliterary writer,Ē which I always thought was fascinating. Iíve 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 Iíve sort of decided Iím not going to organize my life that way. And Iím going to follow this strange, somewhat old-fashioned belief in the idea of inspiration and that your subject picks you. You donít 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. Iíll only say that. Yes, itís certainly not something that I would have planned or that anyone could plan. 

How many characters?

Is there a timetable of when itís going to be produced?
Iím just going to say Iím in high-level discussion with top world leaders, and in due course the plans will be revealed. But it wonít be done before 2009. 

New York or London? 
I wonít say. But everybody knows the realities in New York. Thereís 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 donít go to plays to go to my plays. And thatís hard to do. Most people who go to plays are people who love theater, which means people who love theater the way it is right now, which in a way doesnít include me. I wouldnít really say that Iím someone who loves theater the way it is right now. 

But when you go to the theater, you go with a hope that itíll be different from the status quo or something that appeals to you, right?
Well, I have two identities, really, as a theatergoer. If Iím going as the guy who writes the plays, Iím somewhere between critical and appalled by most of what I might see. But the reality is that I have the theater gene. I really like going to plays. And I really love watching actors. If there are five people onstage and one of them is giving a wonderful performance, Iím pretty happy. 

So the writer in you and the actor in you have very different responses to what you see?
I wouldnít 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 theater 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 theater, they went to three or four things, and they thought, ďWell, these are rather stupid, and I donít have time to watch them, so Iím not going to go to any more plays.Ē On the other hand, if I myself go to the theater, I frequently enjoy the texts in some way. And even if I donít enjoy the texts, I enjoy some of the actors. I enjoy sitting in the theater 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 canít just sort of lie there half-asleep. It wonít affect you. Iíd like to get some of those people who gave up a long time ago to come see my plays, and thatís hard to do. 

Tell me about the impact of Scott Elliottís taking an interest in your work and pulling you into the New Group orbit.
Well, itís changed my life, really, that this one individual has decided that heís interested in my writing. Itís quite surprising. There are thousands of people involved in the American theater, many of them reading this magazine. But I donít have anything to do with the American theater. 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 theater. Scott Elliott is actually a significant leader in the American theater, in the center of it all really, even though by temperament heís an angry young man. I donít know what made him take an interest in me, and I wouldnít ask him. But Iíve derived enormous energy, strength, and pleasure from the fact of his enthusiasm and the fact that heís put on so much of my work. Heís 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 theater. 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, ďHey, Iím doing a play tomorrow, why donít you all come to it, Iíll give you free tickets!Ē Because I can tell you, a lot of the people who were there, Iím 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 thereís a physical restlessness related to being young, and an intellectual restlessness. Itís not unrelated to the way old, old people feel, which is: is this worth my time? Because I donít 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, letís see, 35 years, and itís had, I think, four productions. Caryl Churchill directed it in England, at the Royal Court in 1999. Steppenwolf did it in 1975, when John Malkovich was 19. I couldnít 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. The Rubber Repertory Company did an unbelievably beautiful production of the play, and I hope theyíll bring it to New York. Theyíre 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, ďWe want to do A Thought in Three Parts.Ē And I said, ďWell, you want to do it, but I donít think youíll really do it, because nobodyís ever really done it. Why would you do it?Ē 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, Iím bitter, angry, whatever. On the other hand, when something like that happens, Iím unbelievably humbled. Itís mind-boggling really. Because nobody made them do it. I didnít convince them to do it. They didnít know me. They just read these words on a page and said weíd like to do this. 

American Theatre, April 2008

To see the complete transcript of this interview, click here.

see also:
"Wally Shawn's Grandstand Play"
"The Secret Life of Wally Shawn"