At the worst, a few people will conclude that it’s worthless. And I will have spent 10 years doing something ridiculous. But I’ve decided to take a bet on my subconscious. Isn’t all writing to some extent about trying to get through the layers of propaganda and false interpretations and received ideas and clichés that prevent us from seeing what’s going on? I think that’s the enterprise.
Wallace Shawn 
Issues of power, and more specifically hegemony, and how they are writ in both the broader cultural and more private landscapes of human relationships have always been at the center of Wallace Shawn’s plays. His dramatic voice, also, is unique and unmistakable. In both these senses he is an American equivalent to Harold Pinter. The seemingly intimate disclosures, emotional violence and manipulations of Shawn’s early plays like Our Late Night (1975) and Marie and Bruce (1978; this play is being revived next month by New York’s The New Group) became more and more politically and culturally acute, without losing the sense of sexual dynamics and hostility, through the 1980s with Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985, which explored how political hegemony is exploited in the personal realm through the relationship between a girl and a family friend) and, especially, The Fever (1990, a monologue about a Western traveler in a foreign country under siege) and The Designated Mourner (about the role of intellectuals in an increasingly authoritarian Western culture, 1997, perhaps Shawn’s masterpiece to date). As the dates here indicate, many years separate one Shawn play from another, and in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001 Shawn expressed his concerns about changing American culture not on the stage but through editing Final Edition (2004), a single-issue periodical which included Shawn’s interview with Noam Chomsky, essays by himself and Jonathan Schell, and fiction by Mark Strand and Deborah Eisenberg.
There is no mention of 11 September nor, indeed, of the United States in Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which opened two years ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre. The geographical setting of the play itself may indeed be Great Britain (placenames in the text include the British-tinged “Pushbroom Lane” and “Apple Street”), and chronologically the play is set somewhat in the future, not the past. But at its center, the drama is about the unconscious play of technological and emotional hegemony through fantasy and contemporary sexual relationships. The three-act play is, at the outset, presented as a reading from a memoir: Ben, a scientist who has achieved a certain level of celebrity, begins to read from his autobiography, Loaves, with Fishes, for Dinner, a title with a Biblical undertone. Ben is a distinctly American pragmatist and optimist, he admits:
You see, I’m an optimist — I come from an optimistic generation. Everyone I know from my generation — we’re fixers, improvers. That’s what we are. We were born that way, apparently. Do you have a problem? Fine. Problems can be solved. Are you dissatisfied with how fast you can run? Are you dissatisfied with how fast you can think? These are problems that can be solved. So if something isn’t right, for God’s sake, fix it. (10)
The problem that scientist Ben has apparently fixed is the problem of world hunger, and he has done so by genetically changing the nature of the world itself. He explains:
There was, on the one hand, an enormous crowd of entities — ourselves and others — roaming the planet, trying to sustain themselves, or in other words, looking for something to eat; and on the other hand, there was a tiny, inadequate crowd of entities available on the planet to be eaten. So it was a problem of food. It was all about food. There wasn’t enough food. So, as a generation, working really across all the nationalities and all the continents, we figured out ways to create food where there’d been no food — whether it was by giving a certain frog a simple injection so that he and his friends could live off the corpses of other frogs, when, formerly, a dead frog would have worked as a poison in the body of a frog, or by forcing certain substances into the upper atmosphere, so that an odd sort of rain would sprinkle down onto fields full of cows, so that cows who formerly could only live off grass could happily live off skunks and rats and foxes instead … that was the work of our generation. And, in the way of things, we ended up deriving some benefit ourselves from that, through various ridiculous instrumentalities we call salaries, stocks, investments, what have you. …
[Showing a photograph of himself and a dog] This was one of our earliest successes, because my good friend Rufus here was the very first large mammal ever to be raised entirely on the meat of members of his own species. … (11-12)
The American expression of capitalistic competition, “dog eat dog,” indeed — and problem solved, evidently, until the genetic mutations that Ben has introduced mutate beyond the control of science, turning meat (and eventually vegetation) not only inedible but poisonous to human beings. (So much, too, for “man’s best friend.”) It soon becomes clear that this has catastrophic implications for the future of the human race; in changing life to solve life’s own problems, technocratic rationalism has signed its own death sentence.
Ben is interrupted by a memory of his first wife, Cerise, who appears to introduce a second metaphor of the animal kingdom, one which will grow to control the unconscious lives of all the characters and the structure of Grasses of a Thousand Colors itself. “I’m going to be very frank with you and tell you something true rather than being euphemistic about it,” she tells the audience:
Cats like to tease mice. They like to play with them a little. … Cats like to tease mice. In other words, I’m saying, it’s not something that happens by accident when they’re pursuing some other more respectable purpose. No. They like to do it. … And of course everyone knows that cats punish mice. They inflict many different types of punishment on mice — they can inflict capital punishment, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and many other sorts of punishments. So they tease mice, they play with them, and they punish them. They pummel them, and they eat them. But what’s not generally known is that cats also sometimes protect mice. They protect them, they pardon them, and sometimes they reward them, way beyond what any person would think they deserve.
Oh yes, and there’s one other thing I know about cats which is not generally known, and that is the interesting fact that cats mate for life. That’s right. You heard me. They mate for life. Like humans. (17)
Ben’s professional and personal life is the content of the first act of the play; however, the metaphors of the animal world soon mutate themselves into a picture of the unconscious sexual life of all three characters, mutating this sexual life as well into a series of pornographic fairy tales about the animal kingdom that reflect the irrationalism that lies beneath technocratic rationalism and ultimately determines the direction of its hegemony and cultural force. This direction allows for the freer play of the arbitrary and capricious love, hate and emotional devastation of intimate human relationships. This irrationalism also bursts out in the most casual of human relationships, as Ben’s genetic mutations poison the food upon which the human race needs to survive.
Before long, however, the monologue becomes a memory play populated by three women from Ben’s past, his first wife Cerise, his midlife partner Robin, and finally his latelife lover Rose; as Ben grows older, his successive loves grow younger. As the global catastrophe engendered by Ben’s work begins, however, the play makes a sharp shift in the second act to an extended eruption of bestial pornography involving cats and donkeys — an unconscious eruption seemingly shared by all of the characters in the drama. The site for this fantasy is a secluded house in which Ben finds sexual comfort with a large cat, Blanche (who in the third act is transformed into a memory of Cerise), while Robin finds herself disturbed in a presentation of male sexuality exhibited by donkeys. The gross deliberate obscenity of the monologues of the second act — which turns Victorian-style children’s literature and erotica upside-down — is emphasized through its hour-long length as Ben finds his penis (with which he has what he describes as “a love affair”) an evocation of aggressive male sexuality, which yet desires to be teased and comforted by his new feline companions.
Ben’s misogynistic aggression — and the global crisis that his research has engendered — becomes more complex with the third act of the play, which combines the more realistic tone of the first with the fantastic of the second. The three women — ex-wife Cerise and mistresses Robin and Rose — form a triumvirate for mutual support even as the world is crashing down. Ben is subjected to the emotional manipulations of Robin (who uses the threat of suicide as a means of revenging herself against Ben’s abuse). At the same time the human world is quickly coming to an end outside of the increasing solitudes of all four characters; the human body reacts to the genetic mutations with vomiting, first occasionally, then frequently, then finally, as Ben puts it, “the typical end of life which everyone knows they can look forward to now, the moment when the vomiting doesn’t stop.” (78) Death comes as a release from this cultural and environmental catastrophe, and eventually Ben becomes a victim of his own hegemony over nature. ” … while vomiting was awful, and suffering was awful, death in itself was a trivial process, the fearsomeness of which had been ridiculously inflated by generations of people who apparently had had nothing else to talk about.” The play concludes with his own:
Quote unquote “death” will actually feel no different from a dreamless sleep — although everyone else will notice that you’re not waking up. Well, this was all in a certain way a little bit more than I needed to know at that particular moment — but I still suppose maybe it did sort of put me into the right frame of mind as Blanche set me off on my way across the meadow. As you might have guessed, it was just the time of day in which the direct sun on one’s face was totally agreeable and not at all too hot, and, sure enough, by the time I was halfway across the meadow I desperately wanted to lie down and fall asleep. So I found a very pleasant mossy spot and — you know — what can I say? — I mean, don’t be envious about it — I have to admit, it felt quite nice. (88)
The extremes of sexuality and violence in Shawn’s play are comically undermined by a satire of popular culture, in which sexuality and violence themselves become trivialized to the extent of becoming merely another gesture of public identity. “So you see, for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing — I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines and newspapers — I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha! I can’t get over the way in interviews, not just actors but even politicians mention genitals so freely — ‘my vagina,’ ‘my penis’ — and of course all the plays, the films, whatever — well, it’s all changed so much,” Ben observes (perhaps several decades after Bill Clinton leaves semen stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress and Lady Gaga repurposes transgressive sexuality for commercial purposes) (23). And, in this near future, Rose gives out business cards with a picture of her vagina on them (57). But the ease with which the intimate secrets of sex have entered public discourse does not alleviate, nor reveal, the power of the darker urges expressed in intimate relationships. It is a means of titillation, with which everyone eventually grows bored.
Shawn shares with Howard Barker a sense of how cultural and historic crisis can give rise to expressions of transgressive sexuality, sexualities which may serve to reconstruct the self. As in Barker’s plays, however, political power issues in Shawn’s plays do not guarantee any kind of redemption; indeed, they may make this individual valorization impossible and drive those in power, like Ben, to ever more violent disruptions of both the psyche and the body. Though they are, like Barker’s plays, often witty and very funny, they are not hopeful.
If Grasses of a Thousand Colors concludes with the end of the world, it leaves open the question of whether the world, and the people who inhabit it, are capable of saving themselves. That some human and natural traits remain unaddressable through rationalism, or because of the irrationalism of the human spirit, is neither misanthropic or pessimistic, terms which have been associated with Shawn’s plays as well as those of Barker and another dramatist to come under consideration here soon, Neil LaBute: it may be merely a statement of fact. By repudiating any attempt to analyze or explain the emotional and physical extremes his characters seek, Shawn leaves to the spectator the question of what it means to be a human being and a citizen in a world which is becoming more thoroughly administered, militarized and delusional that these problems are soluble, especially through science and political administration. For a play which remains resolutely without reference to contemporary events, Grasses of a Thousand Colors demonstrates that Shawn may have his finger more sensitively upon the pulse of America at the beginning of the 21st century than any other American dramatist.
Below is a short interview with the dramatist, conducted by Royal Court Associate Ola Animashawun in June 2009; below the video are links to a few other references:
- Superfluities Redux review of Wallace Shawn’s Essays
- John Lahr’s review in the 1 June 2009 New Yorker (those who care about such things will be amused to note that Shawn portrayed Lahr in the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears)
- Brief notice by Ben Brantley in The New York Times, 26 June 2009
- Charles Spencer’s negative review in The Telegraph, 19 May 2009 (“dirty-minded and supremely self-indulgent … sickening”)