On the late lamented television show Murphy Brown, Wallace Shawn occasionally guest-starred in the role of Stuart Best, a former newsman who was occasionally invited to deliver short, whimsical, observational essays in the high-pitched whine for which Shawn is perhaps best known. His vacuous, folksy, cheery commentaries, utterly devoid of content and which always ended with a broad smile, shrug and the cheery admission “That’s all’s I know!” would eventually drive Murphy into homicidal furies that would almost lead to her leaping across the desk to strangle him.
Shawn’s own commentaries in Essays, written over a twenty year period and recently collected between hard covers, are not as bad as all that. His meditations here on politics in the first half of the book and theatre in the second are deeply-felt considerations of the intersections between public and private morality, and Shawn makes few concessions even when he considers his own capacity for violence and injustice. But, like David Mamet’s prose style in Theatre, it partakes (like Shawn’s style in dialogue) in that faux-naïf quality that I identified as a failing of American writing about theatre in general:
Our family was privileged, but it was carefully explained to me that we were not rich, only “middle class,” and so, oddly, I would need to “work for my living” rather than just receiving it automatically — in other words, the little package that was the life I’d evitably possess would be waiting for me in the baggage room with my name written on it, but, annoyingly, it wouldn’t be delivered to the house, I’d have to get into a taxi and go get it.
Despite this, I grew up lazy, and I’ve stayed lazy. I’ve always like to eat ice cream and cake, and the line of least resistance for me has always been close to the border of sleep. What I was nine or ten, I kept an enormous mound of comic books on the floor of my bedroom, and my favorite thing was to burrow into my mound, find myself a comfortable position there, and in this wonderful swamp, which was also readable, I would reach a state that fell exactly midway between reading and napping.
This excerpt is selected almost at random from the first half of the book, on politics, in which the policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations are excoriated for their global brutality, and Shawn’s honesty in confronting his status as a member of the leisure class in an advanced Western democracy is entirely welcome. But because the stakes he discusses are so high, this “that’s all’s I know” quality becomes, at times, problematic. Charles McNulty in his Los Angeles Times review of the book, called Shawn’s tone “Pollyannaish,” but that’s not the worst of it: “[C]omplicated questions are approached with a simplicity that strips the conventional barnacles from the search for truth. There’s something bracing about this when it works. But when it doesn’t — which is about one-third of the time in this collection … — it can seem as though reductive cliches are being replaced with tendentious caricatures.” Perhaps McNulty had this passage about Bush in mind:
The love of killing is inside each one of us, and we can never be sure that it won’t come out. We have to be grateful if it doesn’t come out. In fact, it is utterly wrong for me to imagine that Bush is violent and I am not, that Bush is cruel and I am not. I am potentially just as much of a killer as he is. … But we can’t deny that Bush and his men, for whatever reason, are under the sway of the less peaceful side of their natures. From the first days after the World Trade Center fell, you could see in their faces that, however scary it might be to be holding the jobs they held, however heavy the responsibility might be for steering the ship of state in such troubled times, they were in fact loving it. Those faces glowed. …
Which, for all’s I know, might be true. But it’s just this tendentiousness that makes the first half of the book sometimes grating reading, even when you agree with the man. Because those stakes are higher, so should be the discourse: the reader balks that things might not be as simple as all that, an observation with which Noam Chomsky (whose interview with Shawn appears in this volume) famously trounced William F. Buckley in a 1969 debate.
Shawn is much better in the second half of Essays when he discusses the art form to which he has devoted his life, the theatre. Like David Mamet (the anti-Shawn, perhaps), Shawn has created a body of work unique in the American theatre as well: plays which explore and examine the nexus of morality and amorality in both the public and private spheres. Human viciousness emerges in a variety of characters and private situations, especially those that are most intimate: a bickering married couple (Marie and Bruce, which will be revived this winter by The New Group); the personal and almost erotic relationship between an older woman who defends America’s right to bomb Cambodia and an impressionable, innocent younger woman (Aunt Dan and Lemon); and especially Shawn’s masterpiece to date, The Designated Mourner, an elegy for the decline of culture in the midst of barbarism and that culture’s responsibility for it. In this play as well as in his most recent, Grasses of a Thousand Colors (which regrettably does not have a New York premiere date yet), Shawn eases his characters and thoughts into a dystopia of the near future, narrated from the distance of time by those responsible for those dystopias; their monologues, which crawl and twine back upon themselves, say far more about our oral culture of rationalization than any other plays of our time.
And, as Mamet has his own theories on the status and decline of American theatre in his time, so does Shawn. Shawn’s diagnosis is perhaps more persuasive because more broad-reaching:
… the people who would ultimately hear what I had to say were the theatre-goers. And who were the theatre-goers? In my country they were a small group, altogether, because theatre in the United States has simply never caught on in the way it has in England or on the European continent, for example. … The habit simply had never been formed. For most people in the United States, the issue of theatre simply didn’t arise. And as for those who, somehow, had gone to see a play or two — well, the experience had left most of them rather nonplussed. …
So the theatre-goers in the United States — the loyal followers of theatre, the ones who, despite everything, loved the theatre — the theatre-goers were an odd little circle, a funny old group. Not the sophisticates, one would have to say. Not people who listened to Hugo Wolf or George Crumb or Charlie Parker on their evenings off from the theatre. Not the aesthetes, with their well-worn copies of Kawabata and George Herbert. And, of course, not anyone who was poor or desperate or hungry or oppressed, because theatre is only for the middle class. …
No one would reward me, and no one would punish me, if I followed the conventions of nineteenth-century theatre or rejected them, if I wrote in a more naturalistic style or in a more surrealistic style. In writing a play, should I draw my inspiration from George Balanchine’s ballets? Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries? The verses of James Merrill, Fra Angelico’s frescoes, the songs on the radio, the day’s newspaper, my own life? No one cared.
In the corner of the universe where I’d be writing, there’d been a breakdown in the system of rewards and punishments that behaviorists would consider the only possible system of teaching a dog or a writer how to do a task well. And yet the breakdown meant I was totally free.
I quote at length like this because Shawn’s prose style, like his monologues, turns back on itself and reveals, deliberately, more than the surface intends, and this takes time (both The Designated Mourner and Grasses clock in at two-and-a-half hours or longer). Shawn’s drama draws in his interests in aesthetics and philosophy and recapitulates them as detail in the turn of a phrase.
As also suspected, Shawn is at his best in writing about sex in the theatre, particularly his own. Like Mamet, he saves the best for last, and in “Writing About Sex,” the final essay of the volume, he reveals the power of sex and drama to provide an exemplar of contemplation and self-invention in the midst of a growing authoritarian culture. “Sex seems capable of creating anarchy,” he writes, “and those who are committed to predictability and order find themselves inevitably either standing in opposition to it, or occasionally trying to pretend to themselves that it doesn’t even exist. My local newspaper, the New York Times, for example, does not include images of naked people … because if it contained such images it couldn’t be the New York Times, it couldn’t present the portrait of a normal, stable, adequate world … which it’s the function of the New York Times to present every day. … The contemplation of nudity or sex could tend to bring up the alarming idea that at any moment human passions might rise up and topple the world we know. … [Sex is] a symbol of the possibility that we might all defect for one reason or another from the obedient columns in which we march.”
Like David Mamet’s Theatre, Shawn’s Essays is also a maddening and enlivening read: for many different reasons, perhaps. But it too defines a lack of a certain concept for drama on the American stage, and the centrality of this drama to the culture in which it’s produced (or unproduced, as the case may be). Between these two books can be gleaned a shimmer of those ideas and experiences that remain absent from the American art of the theatre.