Wallace Shawn by Patrick McGrath

BOMB 59 Spring 1997
Issue 59 059  Spring 1997
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Wallace Shawn. Photo by Liam Daniel, courtesy of First Look Pictures.

Last summer Wally Shawn’s new play, The Designated Mourner opened for a short run in London’s Royal National Theatre. It was the talk of the town. It sold out every night. Mike Nichols, in his second only live performance in over thirty years, astonished and dazzled critics and punters alike. He was supported, brilliantly, by Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser. What perhaps was most startling was that the three actors never moved from their chairs. The entire play was performed at a long trestle table facing the audience.

It’s a disturbing, complex piece of work that takes place in an imagined country in the near future in which some sort of military junta is cracking down. The body politic is being eviscerated of its various organs of democracy—including the liberal intelligentsia. On one level the play explores what happens to left-leaning intellectuals when barbarians come to power. Central is the Nichols character, Jack, whose wife Judy (Richardson) is the daughter of Howard, a distinguished poet and thinker (de Keyser). As the three remember the events of those hideous transitional years, what emerges is both a murky Oedipal struggle and a sort of dying fall of the last of the liberals, from the wreckage of which only Jack, and at no small spiritual cost, manages to crawl away.

The play came down one Saturday night in early June. The following morning the cast assembled at Pinewood Studios. The Designated Mourner—the movie—was shot in three days, directed (as was the play) by David Hare. Earlier in the month, Mark Shivas, head of BBC films, had got it financed and greenlit in a morning’s work at Cannes. It is tentatively set for release in March.

Wallace Shawn is a stage and screen actor, a playwright, and a screen writer. His first play performed in New York, Our Late Night, won an Obie in 1975. Other works for the stage include: A Thought in Three Parts, Machiavelli’s The Mandrake (which he translated from the Italian), Marie and BruceAunt Dan and Lemon, and The Fever, which won an Obie in 1990-91. He has appeared in numerous movies, including My Dinner with André, which he wrote with André Gregory. I met him at the Franklin Station Cafe to discuss The Designated Mourner, just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and others of his works. He was courteous, voluble, charming, indignant, fussy, serious, and warm. He brushed aside all triviality and kept the focus tightly on the work.

Patrick McGrath The Designated Mourner opened at London’s National Theatre. Why did it begin life in England?

Wallace Shawn Well, the answer is obvious and not that interesting. Is there any way of saying this that is even slightly worth saying?

PM We can skip over it.

WS No, no, I’ll answer it. It’s just that I have done plays in America for many years—and this is not to pass a judgment—but I’ve reached the point that when I picture putting on a play in New York, I have a Pavlovian response of avoidance. The indifference and lack of interest from people in the audience in New York over a period of decades has been painful to me, so, like a rat in an experiment, I wanted to avoid that particular part of the maze. I just feared that I would experience more of the unhappiness of screaming my voice hoarsely into a group of people who were not that interested. This may be the narcissism and vanity of the writer, but there’s an awful disparity between what most people who go to the theater in New York want to receive and what I want to give.

PM And this is not the case in London.

WS I would argue that the London theater audience is a much broader cross-section of educated Londoners than the New York audience is of educated New Yorkers. Most New Yorkers I know would never go to a play and would never even read a review of a play. Whereas in London, I find there are very few people who have totally sworn off theater. They will go, and they are prepared to listen. They aren’t immediately angry as soon as the play has begun.

PM I’ll just say for the record that the term “designated mourner” refers to a member of a tribe who sees a particular clan or subgroup of that tribe die out. And because he has some knowledge of that clan, he’s the only one who can mourn its passing. I wonder how you describe the particular clan that is being mourned in The Designated Mourner?

WS I suppose there are two characteristics of the group that are heavily underlined in the play. On the one hand they read poetry, and on the other hand they are sympathetic to the suffering of the poor. And the poor are so suppressed in the world of the play that the people who aren’t poor hardly even mention them anymore, and their discontent, their suffering, seems to be almost entirely kept out of sight. And in this case the only one around who remembers the clan hardly even knows what they were talking about, probably because he’s from a different generation. He’s younger.

PM This is Jack, and he’s a curious fellow who is of the clan, but at the same time not of the clan, and much of the interest of the play is in watching him fall away from the values of the clan. That process is a horrific one, isn’t it? It culminates in some pretty grim action.

WS Don’t give away the plot, of course, but go on, yes.

PM What I am curious about is the way this particular clan that we’re talking about—who read poetry and sympathize with the poor—let’s say, the liberal intelligentsia—how your thinking about this clan has evolved in the course of your work. I’d suggest that in Aunt Dan and Lemon, which opened in London in 1985, we see them merely as a politically irresponsible element in society. Then in The Fever, published in 1991, the attitude of your narrator is much harsher and more severe, he sees them as impotent and hypocritical. But in The Designated Mourner, there is a sense that yes, they may be impotent, they may be irresponsible, they may be hypocritical, but at the same time when they go, everything of value goes with them. So they may be rotten but they’re all we’ve got. Would you agree with that?

WS Well, my dear fellow, I feel you’ve summarized my work so beautifully that I don’t need to say any more or write any more. But I couldn’t come out and say that myself because I make an effort to not know what I am saying when I am writing. I try to have some other criterion for what is right to be in a piece, and right to be not in it, other than consistency with a particular point of view. I try to not be aware of what kind of point of view I’m expressing, that’s up to somebody else to deduce. But that seems like an absolutely superb summary. It is true that in Aunt Dan and Lemon I am dimly aware that the very nice character of the mother, who is the liberal, and represents everything that is compassionate and decent in the world, that her position is somewhat weak and inadequate. In other words—and I don’t know how to put this in a way that would be interesting to people who don’t know the material—she believes that you should feel sympathy for other human beings. But she is also a beneficiary of the evil world system, and really, her actual role in the world is to enjoy the fruits of the exploitation of others. And to just talk about how she would like things to be better for people. By the time I wrote The Fever I was putting this much more bluntly, and really saying that these nice people, if they insisted on living the comfortable life, were responsible for the crimes committed in their name. The reason why right-wing regimes all over the world—supported by the United States—torture their rebellious citizens, and try to keep everyone in line, is basically so the status quo can be preserved and people like myself can be supported in their comfortable lifestyle. Because if every poor person on earth really woke up and realized how wrong the whole situation was—that these other people don’t actually deserve to have everything, while they have nothing—there would be big changes overnight, and people like that nice mother in Aunt Dan and Lemon would be thrown out of their houses and there’d be big problems for them. So The Fever was about a naive character who goes to a nude beach and hears some guy say the rich are all pigs, and in the course of the play he comes to see that he himself is included in that category, even though he is not riding around in a limousine. But in The Designated Mourner there is definitely a sympathy expressed for the decent liberals, who are the last ones among the comfortable class who actually care about their fellow humans, and there is a feeling that if they disappear, maybe the world will be in even bigger trouble than it is in today. Because even these weak liberals who don’t know what to do, who either lack the ideas or the courage to actually make anything of the sympathy that they feel for others—if you get rid of them, if they are actually removed from the world, the prospects could be even worse.

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Miranda Richardson as Judy in Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, directed by David Hare. Photo by Liam Daniel, courtesy of First Look Pictures.

PM Now if we are all implicated—in as much as we live comfortably in America—what is to be done?

WS There’s the question of what an individual should do, and there’s the question of could the world be changed? Obviously the question of the individual is not unanswerable as there are plenty of concerned individuals who decide to devote their life to making a contribution to others. It’s simply a matter of courage. Most people are not heroic and don’t have the courage to even think about it, but certainly there are people who instead of devoting their lives to making themselves comfortable, devote their lives to helping those who are suffering, whether by teaching, nursing, or risking their life in a refugee camp in Rwanda for the Red Cross.

PM Does it follow, as your narrator says in The Fever, that anyone who isn’t actively involved in the teaching, the nursing, the doctoring, is, therefore, “irredeemably corrupt,” and that their life has no justification?

WS Well, obviously we don’t want to think that that is true, and in The Designated Mournerthere’s a friendly word spoken for the bourgeois artist. There’s a hope. There’s a tentative belief that the liberal bourgeois artist is keeping a flame going that someday will benefit somebody. All the same, looking at it frankly, you have to say that the bourgeois liberal artist in New York is the beneficiary of the way the world is organized. His thoughts and feelings, and the paintings he paints, or the verse that he writes may contain friendly sentiments, but on the planet, his role is mostly that of a consumer and a beneficiary of the system. You can just say, well, maybe the thoughts that he has between meals, and maybe the hooks that he writes with the friendly sentiments—you know, there is a one-in-a-million chance that he would benefit people in the twenty-first century. He’s certainly not benefitting them today. He’s not literally helping anyone today, it’s just that in a very, very, very theoretical way he might hope that maybe, someday, those friendly sentiments may bear some fruit. Maybe, someday, that book will be read by somebody who really can do something about it, and maybe, someday, the recipe for that wonderful cake will be passed down and everyone on earth will be able to have a slice of it.

PM Marx would seem relevant here. The narrator of The Fever toys with Marxism for a few days—sees commodity fetishism everywhere—is numbed, loses his sense of pleasure in the good life he enjoys—but it goes no further.

WS Well, I don’t claim to be an expert on Marx. He’s written so much, and I’m a slow reader. But he doesn’t offer a plan to change things. Actually, on the contrary, he thought things would change themselves, and he didn’t write as though he was involved in politics, although in fact he was. He didn’t tell you how to apply his ideas to the world of today, so to say that you’re a Marxist today is inadequate.

PM But he did have a political program, he said we must organize and create a revolution.

WS That part is a little bit less detailed. His plan for the future was a few pages. His analysis of the present and past was thousands of pages. In other words, you can get behind the analysis a hundred percent, but he didn’t raise the question of, how do you organize a revolution so that it doesn’t end up in the hands of someone like Joseph Stalin? But if you’re asking me the question, “Can the world be improved?” I think it can, but the confidence that people felt in communism as a solution is shaken. In, say, the thirties, if you felt that really the poor people were not being given a fair chance, and the world was unjust, and run in a wrong way, then the logical solution was to become a communist or a socialist. Now, in this particular period that we are living in, there are very few people who feel that they know how the world should be fixed, because the problems of communism were so graphically demonstrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. People might still believe in some kind of socialism, but there’s a lack of confidence about it, and how do you get there? But do I think that this — the way things are now — is the only way the world can be run? No, I don’t. There could be other ways and there should be. It shouldn’t be dog-eat-dog capitalism in which a tiny number of people get more and more and everybody else gets less and less. That’s not the only possible thing that could exist, I don’t think.

PM There’s a part of The Fever where the narrator says in effect, that this is our history: first of all we have the great struggle and the fields run with blood. Eventually the strong triumph over the weak and enjoy the best of what resources there are, and the poor, of course, have nothing. The poor then say, this is unfair, and the ones in power at that point have three messages for them. The first is, we must have no more violence, we must have gradual change. The second is, we must have the rule of law. And the third is, we must have morality. And I was struck to see that morality had become in the The Fever an ideological tool of the powerful, when in Aunt Dan and Lemon, in your appendix, written some years earlier, morality was the one single force for good that was going to save each of us individually, and all of us collectively, from barbarity. There you were saying, without morality what would prevent me from murdering everybody? So I take it some sense of disillusionment with the idea of morality has occurred.

WS Yes, I felt that morality was about the favors that the powerful were going to do for the weak, and it was based on the assumption that the weak would just wait happily for whatever favors the powerful wanted to pass along to them. But why should the poor and the weak wait for the rich and the powerful to do them favors? Why shouldn’t they just take what’s rightfully theirs? Quite honestly, the rich and the privileged rarely get around to doing anyone favors. They couldn’t give the poor a fair share because if they did they wouldn’t be rich and privileged anymore! Everyone knows they’ll never give them a fair share, but they actually won’t even give them a little crumb! Morality for the poor means, we may be trampling on you but don’t stick pins in our feet. That’s not nice. It’s immoral. And morality for the rich means, give them a crumb and when you’re trampling on them wear rubber-soled shoes.

PM In The Designated Mourner, the character Howard speaks of his friend Eddie’s favorite subject, morality. And he compares it to a “worthy old urn.” It’s all wrapped up in towels and sits in the back of his closet, and it doesn’t go with anything else in the house, so he can never bring it out of the closet, but there it is, and ten times a day he calls it his most treasured possession.

WS Howard also points out that when horrible things happen everybody loves to talk about morality. Everybody loves to say, “Oh, it’s so wrong what was done. It’s so evil.” — rather than trying to figure out why the thing happened. It makes us feel good to say other people are bad, and we always pretend that we never would do such bad things, but that doesn’t get you any closer to understanding what happened. I mean, people talk about the Holocaust, or the crimes of Stalin, or the serial killer, or the child molester. The judge says, “This is the most savage, evil crime. You are an animal. You don’t deserve to live among us.” It’s just self-aggrandizing nonsense which doesn’t help you to understand why the person committed the crime! Why did Nazism occur? How is it possible that Stalin was able to do what he did? It’s a way of avoiding all that.

PM Do you think the very idea of evil is a way of avoiding?

WS I’ve met a few heroic people in my life. People who actually risked being tortured and killed for their beliefs. And if they referred to those who were trying to kill them as evil, it wouldn’t bother me that much. I wouldn’t necessarily share that way of looking at the world, but I wouldn’t be annoyed. But for people who’ve never been put to the test to sit around calling other people evil, that repels me.

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Mike Nichols as Jack in Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, directed by David Hare. Photo by Liam Daniel, courtesy of First Look Pictures.

PM Without giving too much of the story away, we do have this character, Jack, in The Designated Mourner who survives while others don’t, and it’s not really to his credit that he survives. He survives really as a function of various moral weaknesses, and I’m interested in the point at which Jack repudiates his own self. It happens very dramatically, rather like the death of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and it happens because he’s so fed up with what he calls his “idiotic arpeggios of self-approbation.” So we get this sustained denunciation of self, or of self-centered subjectivity, but on the other hand, once the self is dead and gone, Jack regresses rather quickly, and we see that the self, whatever else it may be, is at least a site of value, the place where sympathy, decency, civility all originate.

WS I do feel that ambivalence myself. I do feel that there’s something unbearably tedious and ridiculous about the fact that we’ve each been assigned our own little self to care about, and you get up every day and worry about Patrick, and I get up every day and worry about Wally, and I’m terribly concerned about whether anybody has bought my book, and you’re concerned about whether they’ve bought your book, and what’s it all for? I mean, why? Do I have to get up and worry about that? Is it sincere? Do I really care? Or couldn’t I just say, “Forget it. I don’t care. I don’t have to worry about what happens to Wally. I don’t have to care because it’s idiotic.”

Waitress Let me take this off for you. You’ll have more room that’s all.

WS Well, okay. But then, maybe you could bring me an Earl Grey tea.

Waitress Earl Grey tea?

WS Yeah.

Waitress Okay.

WS Because breakfast is over now. It’s lunch.

Waitress Okay. You want me to take off the breakfast tea?

WS No. I’m going to keep as much as you’ll let me keep.

Waitress Okay. Do you want to keep this too?

WS No, you can take it. I have to give you something.

PM I’ll have a coffee, please.

WS I mean, when you think of this city of eight million people all getting up and each one saying, “I am great, the others are jerks,” — that’s absurd. On the other hand, if you would ever really allow yourself to be a different person every day, that would be dangerous, and you wouldn’t be responsible for what you’d done yesterday. I guess I’m sort of obsessed with that scene in Shoah. The filmmaker goes to a restaurant, I think in Munich. He goes into the kitchen with his camera. He confronts a guy who’s working as a cook, at least this is how I remember it. He shows the cook a photograph, and he says, “This is you, isn’t it?” He shows the cook a photograph of himself when he was 20 as an SS officer who committed some horrible crimes in World War II. So this is about 45 years later. The guy who was at the time 20 is now 60 or 65. And the filmmaker says, “You’re the one. You committed these crimes.” I just don’t know what that means, personally. Maybe that just means I’m not human. I can’t feel that way.

PM How do you mean?

WS I don’t understand what it means to say that that 65-year-old cook should be held accountable for what that 20-year-old soldier had done 40 years ago. I don’t understand it and I wouldn’t find it in my heart to go and look him up in the restaurant and confront him and denounce him. I don’t know. This may just mean I’m not a person. I’m not human. I’m nuts. I don’t know.

PM Can I move over to a more technical sort of question? André Gregory said something in the movie My Dinner with André as to why he was giving up theater. He said, “Performance in life is so complete that theater is unnecessary.” When I think about the way that you’ve staged your plays, I wonder if what you’re trying to do is break away from a conventional form of theater so as to make people confront new ideas with a directness that they wouldn’t if they were getting a more traditional theatrical form. I’m thinking of The Fever being read in people’s living rooms and the way that The Designated Mourner is staged with the three characters directly addressing the audience.

WS With The Fever I did feel that I had certain ideas that I wanted to express, but The Designated Mourner is in a different category. I was in a state of great clarity when I wrote The Fever, and subsequently I decided I would write something that was more like a dream and let others think about it. But I would love to write something more conventional, in the sense that I absolutely love realism, it’s just that first of all I may not have the talent, second of all, I’ve only seen a few plays of the kind where you’re supposed to really believe that the people are in the drawing room or whatever, and somebody comes in, stamps their feet so that the snow comes off their boots etcetera—I’ve only seen a few plays of that type which didn’t bother me, where I didn’t think it was awfully idiotic for grown people to try to pretend to each other that they have actually come in from the snow and are stamping the snow off their boots, when we know that the stage manager poured the snow onto the boots—it’s just too laborious! Well, anyway, I love realism in many ways but I don’t know a lot about it. I mean I don’t know a lot about real life and I don’t know how you get into realism. I don’t know that much about that many types of people. I’ve led a very sheltered life. Also I get very vain when I write, and I feel that I’m doing something more than just playing like a child who half-heartedly pretends, “Okay, now we’re in Russia and it’s snowing and when you come in you’re going to stamp your feet and the snow will come off your boots.” I take myself seriously when I write, I think I’m doing something more than that, and so when I go to the theater that’s probably not my favorite part.

PM So you find it hard to swallow theatrical illusion.

WS Well, but my plays are also illusory. There’s a pretense that someone comes out and talks to you, but of course it’s an actor’s memorized text, and they’re pretending that they’re just making up these ideas on the spot, so I don’t know what the difference is really. It’s just one layer less. I suppose with an opera you could say it’s so taken away from reality that you’re not even being asked to believe it’s real when someone walks into a room and sings and a mysterious orchestra suddenly appears. The part about the boots and the snow is just one extra layer of stuff.

Waitress Can I take this?

PM How do you feel about the film of The Designated Mourner? Was much changed? You wrote the screenplay. Did you have to amend the play very much?

WS Yes, it is quite different from the play. It seems quite different to me. It’s probably fifteen minutes shorter than the play was, and it goes about certain things a little bit differently, and it’s a movie.

PM Yeah.

WS Ideally when you’re looking at it you wouldn’t know that it had ever been a play.

PM No, I didn’t feel that. It occurred to me actually that it was diametrically opposed to most of the films that we see, in the sense that in most movies there’s a great deal of physical action and very little thought, whereas yours has very little physical action but a great deal of thought. It’s an action movie for brainy people. I mentioned to you there was a moment where David de Keyser’s forehead was lit and very little else. He watched us for a second or two and then he frowned. It was very dynamic visually, to see his forehead corrugate, and extraordinary that so small a thing could be so powerful. There’s an important cinematic lesson here to do with visual interest being sustained without exploding helicopters.

WS I don’t know, there are people who have feelings about what a film should be and what a play should be, but I never thought about those things, so sue me. I shouldn’t be defiant or boastful about ignorance, but factually speaking, I’ve never thought about those questions.

PM Is there anything we haven’t talked about that we should have talked about?

WS Well, we could ask Betsy, but she’s not here.

PM There’s probably several of your plays that I haven’t read, Bruce and Marie being one. What’s that about?

WS Well, it’s about a couple. Marie and Bruce. Faber is bringing out a collection of my plays, and by God, I’ll get you a copy.

PM All right, I’ll look forward to that.

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Far away from any coastline. Where the wind strikes the water for the first time. Where waves start to grow. A young wave stretches its quivering back, reaching for the wind.

Philip Glahn’s Bertolt Brecht by Richard Foreman
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While the now-accepted wisdom is that Bertolt Brecht was one of the major dramatists of the past century, this same acceptance often tends to obscure the most unique aspect of his work, namely: his struggle through the decades to find new ways to present his deep political and social commitment—not just in his subject matter, but, equally, in the formal strategies of his distinctive theatrical form.

Martin McDonagh by Fintan O'Toole
Mcdonagh 01 Body

Fairy tales do come true if playwright Martin McDonagh’s meteoric rise in London, with four productions staged in the same season, is any indication. His plays are Irish tales told with all the violence, humor and magic of a banshee.

Originally published in

BOMB 59, Spring 1997

Featuring interviews with Tim Roth, Amy Hempel, Emmylou Harris, Matthew Ritchie, Wallace Shawn, Christian Wolff, Gilles Peress, Kendall Thomas, and George Walker.

Read the issue
Issue 59 059  Spring 1997