Wallace Shawn is immediately recognizable from his many film and TV roles, including Manhattan, The Princess Bride, My Dinner with Andre, Clueless, the voice of Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story, The Cosby Show, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Shawn is also, according to Neil LaBute, “the most underrated playwright in America.”
Shawn’s plays are challenging in both form and content. The sexually explicit A Thought in Three Parts was described by David Hare as “the only successful piece of pornography in the modern theatre.” Shawn’s work ranges from political provocations to fable to the seemingly unstageable: an early work, The Hotel Play, requires “an apparently infinite” cast, and The Fever was performed by Shawn himself in the homes of friends. His new play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, depicts, over three and a half hours, a world that is heading toward catastrophe as scientific interference triggers a fight back from nature. It also vividly portrays an explicit love affair between a man and a cat.
During a season devoted to his work at the Royal Court Theatre in London, I was invited to interview Shawn onstage about his life, his plays, and his views on politics and on his new book of collected essays. The first part of the conversation took place on the main stage at the Royal Court Theatre in front of an audience, the second part weeks later, by phone, after Shawn had returned to New York.
I. A PROFESSIONALLY MADE OBJECT
THE BELIEVER: Do you feel more highly regarded in the U.K. than in the U.S.?
WALLACE SHAWN: Well, obviously we should strive not to care that much! It’s part of the genetic code, I suppose, that we want to be respected, liked, considered appealing. You could say, in the States, theater is not an important form. It’s a smaller part of the spectrum, I would say. It would be, I don’t know, like raising orchids—a hobby that certain people are very, very interested in, but not many people care about it. So there are more people who are interested in theater here in England, relatively, relative to the population. And all the plays they do at the Royal Court are new, so most of the people who come here are actually pleased to see something new that they can’t predict. In the States, theater is more a place to perhaps escape into a cozy, somewhat more predictable universe, and many people who go to the theater are nostalgic people who perhaps wish they were back in their childhood, watching a play at school. There’s quite a tradition of theater being more or less amusing in the United States, so people who are desperately trying to understand life probably don’t form the habit of going to the theater so much. They’d be more likely to be reading a book or, you know, a poem. So most of the people who come to the theater are not desperate for new understanding, let’s say, or to stretch their brains. So it can be a little depressing. Here in the U.K. there may be a higher percentage who are willing to make a bit of an effort. Certainly, the things I write, rightly or wrongly, you have to sort of take it on trust for a while and give yourself over to it. You might be disappointed, or you might not be, but you have to become involved yourself.
BLVR: Is that why you’ve done productions outside of theater buildings? You originally performed The Fever in people’s living rooms. The Designated Mourner you performed in an abandoned working-men’s club.
WS: It was actually a rich men’s club, rather than a working-men’s club. Yes, inevitably, I’ve always been interested in how to get people to not walk into a theater and immediately fall into a state of sleep or almost trance where very little comes in. Obviously, if people are in an unfamiliar environment, their theater expectations are broken, and that may be, in my experience, sometimes helpful. I mean, my plays may not be good, but if they are, you have to give yourself to them before you know that they are. It’s a bit like, I suppose, going on a date. If you go into that experience with total suspicion, it won’t end well. You have to initially trust the other person, and how do you get people to do that in the theater? It’s difficult. That’s why I mentioned the Royal Court as being a nice place for me to work, because most of the people who come here, their minds would be slightly open when they walked in the door. And they wouldn’t immediately be in a rage after two minutes if the play turned out to be slightly odd, because they may be expecting that.
BLVR: And I suppose if you’re performing in someone’s living room, they’re less likely to expect entertainment. It’s more like an intervention.
WS: Right. And also, for me, I don’t really draw much of a distinction between personal and professional life when it comes to artistic things. For me, it’s a personal experience. I’m a person. I’ve written something. That’s all, really. That’s the nice thing about fiction writers or playwrights or poets. You don’t have the expertise that an academic expert has in a particular field. You are simply a person. And so, I’m a person. I’ve written a play, and I’m trying to share that with a bunch of other people. In a living room it’s obvious that it’s a personal exchange and as in any conversation between two people who meet on a bus or an airplane, it could be anything. Whereas when people walk into a theater, they have certain expectations that you’re creating a professionally made object that they’re going to pay money to consume, and that includes a lot of expectations that are not helpful to the relationship.
BLVR: It seems like a silly question, but in performing The Fever to friends and to friends of friends in their homes—essentially it’s a sermon about how people of privilege or certain wealth are implicated in global injustice. Did you lose friends performing it to those people?
WS: Well, as I say, I think in England people are more— and maybe this is no longer true, certainly I used to think it was true—but I always have had the impression that in England people enjoy having very precise opinions, and they’ll disagree if someone expresses a thought that obviously contradicts the opinion that they believe themselves to have. Whereas in the States, people are much more into agreeing, and politeness has a more important role in relationships, I think. Here in England, people will say, “That’s rubbish.” In the States that almost never happens. And if there are disagreements that are sharp enough, people just stay away from each other. The only way I would ever encounter someone who was a supporter of Bush, let’s say, would be through relatives or something. One might have a cousin… well, not even the cousin himself or herself but the cousin might have a friend who liked Bush. People who are against abortion, people who are—they don’t move in the same universe as the people who have the contrary opinion. So, no. There were friends who may have found me too serious at a certain point. I can think of a couple of people who might’ve thought, Well, he’s a little scary. He’s too serious, and he’s just not as much fun as he once was.
BLVR: You’ve said that when you were writing The Fever you wanted to make an intervention into people’s lives. Is that the same impulse with your essays?
WS: Obviously, with any writing, your dream is that it would mean something to somebody. And yes, the essays do have many passages where I’m trying to convince, in a way. Because sometimes you have to force people to recognize that they disagree with you, at least where I come from, because there’s so much of an impulse to smooth things over that sometimes you have to say, “Well, actually, I think that you think this and I think this and, see, they don’t go together.”
II. ONE CRITIC WRITING ONE REVIEW
BLVR: There seems to be a break between your early plays, Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts, for example, and your later, overtly political plays. Was there something that happened around that time that changed you?
WS: I did go through a kind of crisis, which you could say began when this play [Aunt Dan and Lemon] was previously done . I did go through a sort of crisis around that time, a little bit before it and a little bit after it. Somehow I developed an ability to realize what most people realize from childhood, probably, that the world could be quite different from what it is. It’s in motion. It’s not just a set on which the play of your own life is taking place, it’s actually moving, and you yourself are involved, and you are playing one role or another. I came from a privileged background, and I played a role in the world as a member of the bourgeoisie of an imperialist country. I mean, it seems silly to say that, because you may think, Well, how could he not be aware of it? But I do think we all have different degrees of awareness, even of obvious things. I mean, we’re all aware that we’re economically unequal, that some people have more money and some have less money. And in a very, very vague way, probably most people who walk into the Royal Court have the opinion that there’s something wrong there, it’s not really appropriate. But you can have quite a wide range of vividness of awareness of this, ranging from a kind of bland, or somewhat cynical, acceptance of the fact that “that’s the way life is,” all the way to a feeling of desperation, thinking that this is so unjustifiable that it shouldn’t continue for another second and you can’t not do something about it. So I crawled along that spectrum from being what in American terms is called a “liberal,” meaning that you do believe that things should change but you can still talk about it in even an amusing, somewhat detached way, to being more “radical,” meaning that it’s something you feel more hysterical about. I mean, this is a shallow definition, but it’s not totally wrong either.
BLVR: It doesn’t strike me as remarkable that you might not be aware of that, but it seems remarkable to me that you could write a play like Aunt Dan and Lemon without being aware of it yourself. It makes it sound like you’re not quite in control of the material or that the material is somehow more aware or more political, and certainly more left-wing than you were.
WS: Well, that is true. In my book of essays—I’m not advertising it, I’m just telling you because it’s true—there’s an interview with an American poet, Mark Strand, and I’m not quoting him 100 percent accurately, but he admits that he doesn’t fully understand some of his own poems and he couldn’t tell you what they mean. And he says at one point, “Well, if I had to fully understand all of my poems, they couldn’t be any smarter than I am.” But he wants them to be smarter than he is, he wants the poem to be ahead of what he would be like if you met him at a party. It may be wrong of me, but I have taken quite a bit of inspiration from ideas like that that I’ve heard from Mark and from other poets. There are things in my plays that I can’t fully explain. Mark, when he writes a poem, he knows what he’s doing. There’s nothing arbitrary or just chaotically thrown in. There’s some sense in which he knows this is the right word or the right line, and yet he can’t fully explain it. Certainly, that’s how I’ve gone about writing my plays. And some people, most people, would say, “Well, your plays aren’t that good. Maybe if you’d used a better method you’d have written better plays.” But I just have this kind of blind faith that eight hundred years after my death, someone is going to unearth an old library and find one of my plays and say it’s a good play.
BLVR: How does an American audience respond to a political play like Aunt Dan and Lemon?
WS: Well, I had pretty good fortune with that play in America, really, compared to my other plays. In New York—this is in a way boring and in a way it’s not that boring—in New York there’s one newspaper that has overwhelming power over the theater, and that really means that one critic can determine the fate of a play in the United States more or less permanently. If the critic of that paper dislikes the play, it probably will not be performed in any other city. Even if the people of any given city don’t read that newspaper, the theater manager does. So that one critic writing that one review really determines the future of the play. And the guy who happened to be the critic at that particular moment when that particular play was done, he liked it. He wrote intelligently about it and quite a few people came to it. The next one I wrote, he didn’t like it, and it didn’t have that much of a life.
III. GET INTO A BIG PILE WITH THE NAKED ACTORS
A few weeks later I spoke to Shawn on the phone. The season at the Royal Court was over and he was back in New York.
BLVR: Hi, Wally. Are you settling in?
WS: I’ve returned to normal life now. I’m no longer the great author. I’m now just an unemployed cartoon animal-voice actor. But I hope to do a cat voice in another couple of weeks.
BLVR: You’ve said before that writing for you is like listening to voices coming in through the window. Do you think about the world of the play, the characters, the story, or do you just wait faithfully for the right sentences to come to you?
WS: Well, I mean, for me there is a certain point when I do begin applying my conscious mind to the material. Pretty much in everything I’ve written there’s a certain point where I’ve thought, Yes, I see, well, it says here that he got up at eleven o’clock in the morning, so that must mean he was asleep before that. So he either had a very long sleep or he went to bed very late. Which was it and why? And there’s a certain point where I’ve turned the material into something more like a play.
BLVR: It sounds similar to what Pinter describes in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Art, Truth, and Politics,” that he starts with characters named A, B, and C, until one of them calls the other one Dad or calls the other by a name. And it surprises him and he thinks, Right, so that’s the relationship between these two characters. With Old Times he knew the first line was “Dark”; with The Homecoming it was “What have you done with the scissors?” He just wrote, letting his subconscious do the work and not trying to filter it too much. I was struck by the sentiment at the recent Pinter Memorial that in art nothing can ever be completely “known,” even to the person who made it, while in politics there are truths and untruths.
WS: I think in Pinter’s work there are contradictory suggestions about the facts, in some of his plays. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I’m pretty sure that in Old Times there are indications that somebody was in the room during a particular episode, and then there are indications that they were not in the room. Or they had a certain experience ten years ago, but then there’s some evidence that they didn’t have that experience. And so he’s either exploring the nature of reality or the nature of memory or both. But that doesn’t come up in my plays.
BLVR: What I took from the memorial is how you never quite know how to understand your own work, that there will always be something elusive, something bigger about your work that, even as the author, you’ll never be able to quite put your finger on.
WS: Well, you can’t necessarily summarize what a play means or what it’s about. I think I totally would share Pinter’s feeling on that. In my early plays, for instance Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts, no one would have taken me seriously enough when I wrote those to even ask me what they were about or what I was trying to say or what they meant. So it didn’t come up, in a funny way. But then when I wrote The Fever and Aunt Dan and Lemon, I had a period where at least a few people took me seriously and asked me those questions, and I talked quite a bit and gave my opinion on what was being said in those plays. With Grasses, no one has really asked me, except friends. With this one I would not be able to discourse or speak at length in the way I could about The Fever or Aunt Dan and Lemon. I would just say that this is a story that I find very meaningful but I can’t say what the meaning of it is.
BLVR: When it received its premiere in London, A Thought in Three Parts was investigated by the vice squad and questions were asked about it in the House of Commons. Were you really surprised at people’s reactions to it?
WS: Well, you know, the ’60s had been such a wild period. Incomparably wilder than the life that people today live. I mean, in the Living Theatre’s plays they not only took off their clothes but they invited the audience to take off its clothes and climb onto the stage and get into a big pile with the naked actors. So I suppose I was surprised that a to-do was made of my plays in the late ’70s. It was actually in the House of Lords that they discussed my play. And I don’t know if there exactly was a vice squad, but the attorney general considered the possibility that he should prosecute the play. I think he considered the possibility because a member of the public had suggested it.
IV. THE REMARK IS NOT THERE JUST FOR AMUSEMENT.
BLVR: A Thought in Three Parts finally got its U.S. premiere in 2007.
WS: Yes. It was in a way done publicly, for the critics, as an actual opening for the first time in the States, in Austin, Texas.
BLVR: And seeing it premiere, what—thirty years after it was written? Was it more shocking to people now, do you think? Has America become more prudish?
WS: Well, a large part of my life has to do with looking for the right audience for what I do. When it was done as a “workshop” in New York in 1976, the people who saw it were the subscribers to the Public Theater, Joe Papp’s theater. And they were mostly elderly, rather conservative people who didn’t enjoy it at all. For them it was just an awful experience. Whereas in Austin it was a very lively group of people in their twenties and thirties who were looking for something interesting that had something to do with their own lives. It was done by a group called the Rubber Repertory Company, which had previously done The Designated Mourner and The Fever, and they are people in their twenties and thirties who had found and cultivated an audience of people who wanted to see the kind of plays that they wanted to do.
BLVR: So there’s always an adventurous audience ready to be challenged.
WS: I do think that there are people who would find what I do interesting, and I want to find those people and make them come to the plays. And then there are other people about whom I’d have to say that I’d rather they didn’t come, because they don’t find my plays interesting, and they don’t have the desire to open themselves up to them and see what they can get out of them. Now, I’m not very sensitive to painting, for example, and to come to understand different artists takes me literally decades. I hope that I’m going to catch up with all the great artists somehow. I hope that my pace is going to quicken before I die; otherwise I’m going to miss out on so many. But when I first looked at the work of Rembrandt, I thought, Well, everyone said this guy is great and I believe it. But I don’t quite see it yet. If it were just me on my own I probably would just say, “Well, these paintings are a little dull, let’s say, compared to the work of, I don’t know, Gauguin. So I think I’ll go to the Gauguin gallery.” But in fact, even though I don’t quite get what’s so great about some of these paintings, I still stand in front of them for quite a long time, just studying them and looking at them with the idea that over time it will eventually get through to me. And that approach does work for me. But it can take several decades. But my point is, in contrast to theater, each of my visits to these paintings just took five minutes. So I could be sort of making an effort and opening myself up to this artist, but still it only took five minutes. Whereas someone going to a play that they don’t like—I don’t know, three hours is a long time, and, in a way, it seems that there are a lot of people who are never going to like it and it would be better if they never went to it.
BLVR: Do you get exasperated by theater’s limitations and the limitations of reaching an audience? In My Dinner with Andre, your collaborator, the director Andre Gregory, describes his loss of faith in theater. It seems that for you, too, there have been moments where you’ve challenged what theater can be and maybe lost faith in it. Perhaps that’s wrong.
WS: Well, no, certainly in the late ’80s when I was writing what eventually turned into The Fever, I was thinking, I have had it with theater and may not do it anymore. I was almost obsessed with the fact that anything you put on a stage was interpreted by the audience as an attempt to divert or amuse them in one way or another. A musical was diverting and amusing in a very direct way, so that people would walk out and say, “That was so delightful,” and a serious play was amusing and diverting in a slightly more indirect way, so that people would walk out and say, “Oh, that was shattering,” or “That was so disturbing.” But really, shatteringness or disturbingness were simply other forms of amusement. Being tickled on your toes rather than being tickled in your stomach. It was a just different form of amusement. Whereas what I wanted was something else, maybe something more like the communication between friends or lovers, something more intimate, so that, for example, if a friend or lover says to you, “For god’s sake, could you carry that bag of garbage into the street?” you don’t react by saying, “That was a very amusing remark,” you react by saying, “Yes, I will do that,” or “No, I won’t do that.” The remark is not there just for amusement. I suppose I wanted something more like that.
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