Interview: Wallace Shawn and his Royal Court retrospective

18th May 2009

Wallace Shawn: philosopher with a writer’s bent

His plays might be controversial, but Wallace Shawn says he’s just exploring what makes us tick. First published in the Daily Telegraph, May 18 2009.
Anyone who has seen Louis Malle’s film My Dinner with Andre would have formed a lasting impression of what the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn looks like: a short man with a large, balding head, at once boffin-like and sweetly baffled. They’d also have an idea of how he comes across in person: dry – not a little wry – and slowly deliberative. One of the most startlingly unusual films of the early Eighties, My Dinner with Andre sat Shawn opposite his theatre-director friend Andre Gregory in a mocked-up New York restaurant and recorded the fellow Americans in apparently unscripted conversation.

It was a buddy movie with a difference: the two friends bonded through their shared willingness to consider life in a detached, purposely intellectual fashion. Sitting opposite me in the Royal Court’s basement bar, Shawn, 65, explains that his plays, to which the Court is devoting a three-month season, are written in much the same spirit.

Discussing The Fever, which opened the festival, and Aunt Dan and Lemon, which will close it, his eyes half close in a squint of concentration: “They’re there to affect the audience in the same way that a serious conversation with a friend might. Let’s say you meet a friend who has been upset by what he has read in that day’s paper and asks, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ That’s more the model than, ‘I’m tired after a hard day and I’m going to turn on the TV in the hope that it will help me to fall asleep’. That’s what it means to say the writer is vaguely ambitious or – if you don’t like the writing – pretentious.”

Ever since 1975, when he had his first play, Our Late Night, produced in his native New York, Shawn has faced accusations of pretension.

As a screen actor – a line of work he fell into “by accident” after landing a bit-part in Woody Allen’s Manhattan 30 years ago – he has had a relatively easy ride. Aside from playing Uncle Vanya in Gregory’s theatre-workshop account of Chekhov’s masterpiece Vanya on 42nd Street, he has had odd jobs such as voicing jittery dinosaur Rex in Toy Story, and featuring as the Ferengi Grand Nagus Zek in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Few have been bothered by the inconsistencies of his acting career, but Shawn’s idiosyncratic approach to play-writing – his predilection for long monologues, sexual frankness and unpredictable action – has got some people’s goat. In the US, he says, “few people like what I do”.

In his defence, you can see why his work might be dismissed – not because it’s too obscure, but because it can be plain and unpalatable in its provocation. In The Fever (1990), an unnamed narrator, Western and pampered, describes being overcome by a wave of nausea “in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken”, and implicates the audience in her – or his – self-disgust: “The life I live is irredeemably corrupt.” In Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), the sickly twentysomething narrator, Lemon, recalls her formative childhood conversations with “Aunt Dan”, an Oxford academic whose seductive right-wing reasoning has led Lemon to take the view that the Nazis had something to offer: “They sort of had the nerve to say, ‘Well, what is this compassion? Because I don’t know really what it is’.”

Shawn admits to a long-standing suspicion of theatre’s middle-class cosiness, and underlying assumptions about its audiences’ essential worth. “It’s a human tendency to enjoy feeling superior to others,” he says. “It’s a tendency of playwrights to present characters who are transparently stupid, wrong, evil. The truth is that intelligent people can believe terrible things. It’s a mistake, for example, to feel that we are more intelligent than, say, people who lived in Thirties Germany. Henry Kissinger, who is discussed at length in Aunt Dan, is a very intelligent man. If I’m going to write a play about the American government, I could single out the stupidest person to mock, but that would be a pointless exercise. The question has to be: how can you answer the arguments of the most intelligent people who disagree with you?”

Grateful to the Royal Court for reviving his work, Shawn granted them the world premiere of his first play in 10 years, Grasses of a Thousand Colours. Now the centrepiece of the festival, the production, directed by Gregory, features the author on stage playing “a scientist and businessman”. Advance publicity – “animals don fancy costumes and welcome humans to a party” – suggests a piece every bit as disturbing and offbeat as his most controversial work to-date, A Thought in Three Parts, which depicted, in explicit detail, a casual orgy at a youth hostel, and caused an outcry in 1977.

“It definitely has the subject of sex,” Shawn says, “but sex is a word that covers an awful lot of the planet’s activities. The play has something to do with the mechanisms that make things happen in the universe. You could say that a person and a tiger have a lot in common. The political arrangements that humans have made take in the unconscious desire to subjugate other people. So I’m looking at the interplays between the conscious and the unconscious.”

His father was William Shawn, who edited the New Yorker magazine between 1952 and 1987, and it has been noted before that father and son could hardly be further at odds in their creative outputs. “If there’s rebellion in my work against the sexual prudery of the New Yorker, I’d say that’s unconscious, but certainly a lot of people have said, ‘It’s too much of a coincidence that your father’s magazine was so clean and your plays are so dirty’.”

British theatre’s enthusiasm for him has kept him going, he believes; but might its over-enthusiasm be the unmaking of him too? Doesn’t he worry about having so much attention lavished on his oeuvre? “Well, people might say the Royal Court have made fools of themselves for presenting a fraud so seriously.” He ponders this. “I wouldn’t take it too badly because in all periods there must be a lot of artists in order for some good art to be produced. Some of us must be fakes. I suppose if someone said, ‘It has been decided your writing has nothing to offer’, that would upset me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t accept that judgment as final because after my death, others might come along who disagree.”

Not so much a born optimist, as a philosopher to his bones.

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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