UPDATE: It would be remiss of me not to link to several very good conversations with Wallace Shawn that have run in the Gothamist over the past few years. There are three: this from March 17, 2011; this from September 10, 2009; and this from April 3, 2008. The interviewer in all three articles is John Del Signore.
In a 1997 interview, Wallace Shawn said of the New York response to his work:
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.
That was a long time ago. In the past ten years New York audiences have been treated to revivals and new productions of many Shawn plays, mostly through The New Group: off the top of my head, I can think of The Music Teacher (my 2006 review of this production for nytheatre.com is here), The Threepenny Opera, Aunt Dan and Lemon, and Marie and Bruce, which is not a bad track record of productions for a writer with fewer than a dozen plays to his credit since his first professional production (Our Late Night at the Public Theater) in 1975. It is perhaps true that Europe has been more welcoming to his plays, the world premieres of many of which have taken place in London, and in 2009 the Royal Court Theatre featured a season of his plays, including a reading of his 1976 A Thought in Three Parts (the first play of Shawn’s I read) directed by Caryl Churchill.
As I posted yesterday, Grasses of a Thousand Colors will make its New York premiere late next year; for those unfamiliar with this dramatist’s unique body of work, there is time to begin reviewing his career. Three of Shawn’s plays have been made into films which are more or less generally available on DVD: David Hare’s film of The Designated Mourner, Marie and Bruce directed by Tom Cairns (who will direct the National Theatre production of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution this fall), and Carlo Gabriel Nero’s The Fever with Vanessa Redgrave. The only book-length study of Shawn’s drama to date is my friend William Davies King’s Writing Wrongs, which covers Shawn’s career only until 1997 but which is still available from amazon.com. Those who prefer to start with online resources can read novelist Patrick McGrath’s interview with Shawn for BOMB Magazine from Spring 1997, “At Home in the Dark,” a Guardian profile from 2009, or Gwen Orel’s interview with Shawn for L Magazine from 2009. I reviewed Shawn’s book of Essays in 2010 here.