How to Defeat These Thoughts: The Questions of Wallace Shawn

[This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2009/2010 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books. The Winter 2010/2011 issue has been published, so I'm now free to reprint this essay, and I'll also recommend the new issue to you, because in addition to the wide-ranging reviews of books, there are also good interviews with William Gibson and Lewis Hyde.]

ANDRE: Well, Wally, how do you think it affects an audience to put on one of these plays in which you show that people are totally isolated now, and they can't reach each other, and their lives are obsessive and driven and desperate?  Or how does it affect them to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and violence and terror?  Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? 
—Wallace Shawn & André Gregory, My Dinner with André

Wallace Shawn's most recent play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, is a dream and a provocation and a conundrum, but most of all, it is a culmination: if all of Shawn's previous plays were to sit down and write an autobiography, this is what it might look like.

Shawn's early work struggled to find an audience, partly because of its form, but especially because of its explicitly sexual content.  Our Late Night was his first script to reach a paying audience, in a production by André Gregory's Manhattan Project in 1975, and though it won an Obie award, it was not produced again until 1993.  A Thought in Three Parts received a workshop production at the Public Theatre in New York in 1976, but did not receive its U.S. premiere until 2007.  It did receive a production in London in 1977, which Irving Wardle, writing in the London Times, called "definitely a show to confirm any life-hater in his view of sex as a graceless and messy amusement, bringing out the worst in all concerned."  The play was discussed in the House of Lords as a reason for defunding arts programs, and legal prosecution was considered on obscenity grounds.

Grasses of a Thousand Colors returns to the explicitness of these early plays in its language, but it does not require the actors to simulate sex acts.  Instead, it mixes the open sexuality of the early plays with the political and moral explorations of Shawn's best-known works: Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and The Designated Mourner.

None of Shawn's plays are easy to stage.  At the least, most of them make tremendous demands on actors' abilities through long monologues -- indeed, The Fever is a one-person show in which a character becomes literally sick with liberal guilt.  The difficulty first in memorizing the lines and then in holding an audience's attention through these monologues is immense.  Some of Shawn's plays offer almost insurmountable challenges -- The Hotel Play, for instance, requires more than 75 actors.  Grasses of a Thousand Colors is closer to Aunt Dan and Lemon in the production difficulties it poses with fluid movement between many locations in memory and the play's reality, though Grasses adds a new element: a screen where characters and imagery appear on film.

The great challenge of Shawn's plays, though, lies not in their significant demands on designers, directors, and actors, but in their assault on audiences.

Shawn's first play to gain real notice was Marie and Bruce, which premiered in London in 1979 and the Public Theatre in 1980.  At first glance it seems like a traditional, relatively undemanding play, for though it has various sets, the script makes it clear there is no need for them to be realistically presented.  Though the playwright's notes state that the central party scene would be wonderful to stage with fifty actors, it's manageable with seven.  The words of the play are, from the first page, sharp, but by 1980 David Mamet had already made actors say worse on Broadway.  No, the shock of this script was how repulsive and abusive its characters were.  Sitting through the play is similar to sitting through an extended, unbridled psychotic tantrum.  It's simultaneously unsettling, funny, and tedious.

After Marie and Bruce, Shawn had begun the discussions with André Gregory that would lead to the script of the movie My Dinner with André.  Here, for the first time in his produced work, Shawn used monologues as the script's core feature.  The effect is to make storytelling a vital action within the narrative, highlighting the subjectivity of the characters and the difficulty of settling on any objective truth to the ideas they offer.  Shawn created characters based on himself and Gregory, shaping their actual conversations to highlight and exaggerate conflicts, discovering within the raw material a story about friendship and art, life and creation, meaning and existence, privilege and awareness.

The struggle for a social vision that fills the conversations in My Dinner with André becomes dramatized in Aunt Dan and Lemon, a portrait of a woman's education toward fascism. All of Shawn's plays are, to some extent at least, about what the absence of love and empathy does to human beings, and Aunt Dan and Lemon brought the social and political implications of this absence to the foreground.  Shawn's inclination to use the stage as a site for provocation more than entertainment reaches a new level with Aunt Dan and Lemon, where he exploits more than his bourgeois audience's tolerance or intolerance for the discussion and representation of sex acts.  In this play, and in every play that followed it, he sought a broader, deeper target: the moral logic (or illogic) his audience members used to justify their lives.

Some editions of Aunt Dan and Lemon are prefaced with an essay titled "Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening", an essay not included in his new Haymarket Books collection Essays.  The collection does include a piece that appears as a postscript in most editions of Aunt Dan and Lemon, now titled "Morality", but "Notes in Justification..." is a strong statement about Shawn's goals, at least in the mid-1980s (remember Reagan, remember Iran-Contra):  "A play presents a self-enclosed little world for the audience to examine.  It's an opportunity to look objectively at a group of people, to assess them, to react to them, and to measure oneself against them, to ask 'Am I like that?'"  In the play, the character of Lemon uses the lessons of her life -- including the admiration of her mentor, Aunt Dan, for Henry Kissinger -- to bring her to a defense of Nazism and the conclusion that compassion is an unrealistic emotion, one she doubts anyone actually feels.

Some critics and audience members chastized Shawn for not providing an argument against Lemon (and more than that: Lemon's monologue is the end of the play, and so seconds after she finishes presenting all she has learned, the lights come up and the audience, because the etiquette of theatre-going requires it, applauds).  Shawn's response was that the play would be useless or, worse, falsely comforting if he provided a response to Lemon:
Perhaps I could have defeated Lemon's thoughts in the confines of the play, but this would have given the audience the impression that in my opinion those thoughts had been safely buried at least for the evening and everyone could go home and sleep in peace, whereas actually I don't believe that.  I actually believe that we all have to figure out how to defeat these thoughts, whether I defeat them in the play or not, and so in fact to defeat them in the play and give the play a satisfying ending would be, for me, a form of lying to the audience.
In 1990, Shawn extended his exploration of the morality of American privilege in The Fever, a monologue he began performing in his friends' apartments in New York.  The Acting Edition of the play includes a "Note on Performance" that states:
This piece was originally written with the idea that it could be performed on a sort of door-to-door basis in people's homes or apartments, perhaps for an audience of ten or twelve.  It can also be done in theatres -- small ones or even large ones.  Of course it has a very different effect in each of these different environments.
With The Fever, Shawn extends his concerns not only with politics, morality, and American life, but with the context and meaning of the theatrical event itself.  He is as interested in what it means to be an audience of particular sorts of stories, and the ideas promoted or endorsed by those stories, as he is interested in the stories or the performance of them.  In a country such as the United States, where theatre-going is a marginal activity primarily participated in by the most privileged people in society, Shawn's plays are some of the few that foreground the problem of their own existence within the culture.

The Fever presents a character (played in various production by either male or female actors, including Vanessa Redgrave in an unfortunately literal film) who visits a "poor country where my language isn't spoken" and becomes sick, tormented by conflicting thoughts about the luxury of his life, the benefits he receives from the circumstances of his birth, and the power of his own government to enforce those benefits and keep the poor majority of the world away from them.  It is, in one sense, a kind of liberal guilt, but it is much more than that -- as Aunt Dan and Lemon is about the education of Lemon and what leads her to so blithely accept the most repugnant ideas, so The Fever is about the education of the narrator; here the education is not toward repugnant ideas, but instead toward an awareness of the forces that allow and protect a certain way of life.  The question Shawn leaves the audience with at the end of The Fever is not so much "Am I like that?" as "What should I do with this knowledge?"

Knowledge and privilege continue to be interrogated in Shawn's next play, The Designated Mourner, which received its premier in 1996 in London (a production that later became, unlike The Fever, a powerful film).  The Designated Mourner develops the ideas of Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever to question the fundamental justifications not only of certain types of life, but of certain types of culture -- the foundations of what gets called "civilized life".  The main character of Jack is an exponent and beneficiary of that sort of "civilized life", and through the course of the play, as he becomes more aware of repressions within the government of his country, he struggles to justify and fortify his pleasures.

More than a decade after The Designated Mourner, Grasses of a Thousand Colors received its world premiere in London (a city that has been more hospitable to Shawn's plays than any other).  Soon after, Essays was published, collecting, in fewer than 200 pages, more than twenty years of occasional writings, including interviews with the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky and the poet Mark Strand.  Shawn breaks his essays into two groups: "Reality" (mostly political commentary) and "Dream-World" (commentary on the arts), and these twin realms could apply as easily to Grasses of a Thousand Colors, wherein a wealthy and successful scientist begins by reading from his memoir (in which he justifies the work that, we soon realize, destroyed the Earth's food chain), continues by talking about his high regard for his penis, moves into a surreal and erotic variation on elements from the old story of "The White Cat" by Madame d'Aulnoy, and ends with the borders between the dream-world and reality unclear.  The scientist, named alternately in the Theatre Communications Group edition of the script as The Memoirist, Ben, and He, is as unreliable a narrator of his life as any of Shawn's other characters, though perhaps more obviously compromised in his morality -- he did, after all, intentionally develop a way for animals to benefit from cannibalism.  That an apocalypse of the world's digestive tracts was an unintended result is little consolation.

Food has long been a motif in Shawn's work, and the ability to gain nutrition from food or not is at least a momentary subject in almost all of his plays.  Vomiting is, in fact, a common topic of conversation among his characters, as if their bodies recognize the repugnance of their thoughts and actions more than their conscious minds do.  Food is related not only to sustenance, but to desire, much like sex, and Grasses of a Thousand Colors links the two appetites vividly.

What Grasses of a Thousand Colors seeks to do to its audience is less clear than in any of Shawn's plays since A Thought in Three Parts.  In their relentless critique of the justifications we employ to maintain an image of ourselves as good and moral people, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and The Designated Mourner felt in some ways like dramatizations of utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer's essays, but Grasses poses fewer clear questions and instead returns the audience to an environment in which we wonder both "Am I like these people?" and "What are these people like?"

It's notable that Shawn has once again brought sex to the center of his work.  The final piece in Essays is "Writing About Sex", which originally appeared as an afterword to TCG's 2008 edition of Our Late Night & A Thought in Three Parts.  In it, Shawn declares one of his reasons for writing about sex to be that it still has the power to shock by reminding us that we are animals: "Writing about sex is really a variant of what Wordsworth did, that is, it's a variant of writing about nature, or as we call it now, 'the environment.'  Sex is 'the environment' coming inside, coming into our home or apartment and taking root inside our own minds."  In addition to food, sex, and politics, nature is often a topic in Shawn's work.  The Designated Mourner ends with Jack declaring "the sweet, ever-changing caress of an early evening breeze" to be "maybe the greatest pleasure we can know on this earth."  Grasses of a Thousand Colors unifies these topics, motifs, themes, and concerns in its narrative, but the play seems to be asking the audience to experience it all less as a story than an emotional landscape, one rich with dreams and portents, yearning, sadness, fear, disgust, and some inchoate form of beauty, perhaps lost to the characters more than to us.

Think of King Lear: Gloucester, his eyes torn out, his soul crushed with shame, succeeds in smelling his way to Dover, but he doesn't know what to make of all he experiences along the way.  The Memoirist ends by curling up in a "very pleasant mossy spot" and waiting to die.  Gloucester, ready at last for his life and sufferings to end, proclaims he will go no further, but Edgar refuses this idea:
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on.
To which Gloucester replies, "And that's true too," and then exits, never to be heard from again.

Who is right?  The Memoirist?  Gloucester?  Edgar?

We end up, once again, with the question, "Am I like that?"

And also the question that follows our answer: "What should I do with this knowledge?"

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