The Fever by Wallace Shawn. “First performed, by the author, in January 1990 in an apartment near Seventh Avenue in New York City,” according to the published version of the play; first professional performance on 17 November 1990 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. Text: New York: Grove Press, 2004. A new production of The Fever opens on 24 January 2013 at La MaMa ETC. (Two videos from the play appear at the end of this post.)
A human being happens to be an unprotected little wriggling creature, a little raw creature without a shell or a hide or even any fur, just thrown out onto the earth like an eye that’s been pulled from its socket, like a shucked oyster that’s trying to crawl along the ground. We need to build our own shells … (45)
Wallace Shawn is the Arnold Schoenberg of contemporary American dramatists. Rigorous, disciplined, and uncompromising, his plays abandon the formal rules of 19th and 20th century American drama, finding passages of lyricism and sensuality that arise from a context of severe dissonance of perception. The long spans of time that separate Shawn’s individual plays belie the highly-wrought, densely-structured aesthetic and cultural perspective from which his drama emerges.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Fever, his most challenging and uncompromising work to date and perhaps, not to spin the comparison too thinly, Shawn’s Erwartung; after nearly 25 years it continues to appeal to performers, directors, and audiences, testimony to its continuing aesthetic and political challenges as well as its rewards. A journey through an individual’s physiological and political delirium, The Fever attempts to delineate the birth of a new metaphysical consciousness tied to the political realities of the 20th-century West. All of Shawn’s plays appear to take place in dreamscapes; The Fever is set in an individual blood-spattered nightmare of anxiety and guilt.
A narrator (called “The Traveler” in some productions of the play, including the 2004 film starring Vanessa Redgrave, but unidentified in the original text) finds himself sick and vomiting in a poor country in the early-morning hours. The narration is framed, though, by the Traveler’s awareness of an execution taking place in his own country that same morning: “And so now they come — they come for the man who lies on his cot, the cat-like man whose face is so large, so black, that the guards who open his cell are once again frightened, shaken.” (3) From here the delirium radiates outward, tracing the Traveler’s own status as a member of the cultured class in the first world as that status is undermined by his experiences among the third-world’s poor. He finds himself making several journeys overseas to these countries, without quite knowing why. A terrifying series of images from the Traveler’s childhood, his recent past, and his imagination lead him slowly to a recognition of his own culture’s dependence on the world’s tortured poor, progressing from a theoretical understanding of Marx and commodity fetishism to a far more bodied and sensual awareness of this class. Eventually his delirium ends:
Now the bathroom floor, the candle, flickering. I lift it, I stand up, I walk out of the bathroom.
Now I’m back in the bedroom, leaning against the wall. Put the candle down on a little table. A breeze comes from the open window. I draw a chair to the window and sit.
In the street, far away, a man cries out. The earth relaxes. The prisoner in the electric chair has suffered and died, and the guards have taken him out to his grave. And yes — there — there’s a wash of blue on the dark wall of the sky, a hint of dawn. (62)
But the end of the Traveler’s delirium promises no resolution to his anxiety — only an awareness of the condition of the world’s poor, which he will take back to the comfortable home with him and that he cannot escape.
Next week, home.
What will be home? My own bed. My night table. And on the table — what? On the table — what? — blood — death — a fragment of bone — a fragment — a piece — of a human brain — a severed hand. — Let everything filthy, everything vile, sit by my bed, where once I had my lamp and clock, books, letters, presents for my birthday, and left over from the presents bright-colored ribbons. Forgive me. Forgive me. I know you forgive me. I’m still falling. (67)
The dissonant repetitions, interruptions, and melodic line of this finale underscore the aesthetic debt that the play owes to Schoenberg; the presence of Shawn’s idiosyncratic lyricism infuses the play structurally in passages about the Traveler’s boyhood and his experience of city landscapes. While this conclusion notoriously provides no resolution to the anxiety produced by watching the play — it does not tell the audience, or the performer, what to do next — that is not the dramatist’s business. A playwright may find the fields of morality and ethics fertile sources for his inspiration, but he is not ultimately responsible for providing an instruction manual for fixing the world, a project that has proven beyond the greatest minds in human history, after all.
The Fever presents, in addition, a variety of themes with which Shawn has been obsessed since his early plays and recur again in his work after The Fever, not the least of which is the role of physical and sensual sensation and how these sensations color the perception of the world outside of us and how we relate to that world and the other individuals in it. He is first introduced to Karl Marx by an acquaintance at a nude beach, and first reads Das Kapital “naked in bed” (19); the Traveler is rendered susceptible to the suffering of the poor by recognizing his own biological identity with other suffering individuals, his clothes shed and his skin unprotected. Shawn reserves his most caustic satire for his depiction of the consumers of high culture in New York.  In the following passage, he emphasizes the inadequacy of Chekhovian realism as usually produced in the elitist American theatre,  and perhaps the most prevalent form of contemporary American drama, to his own growing political consciousness:
I went to a play with a group of friends — a legendary actress in a great role. We stared at the stage. Moment after moment the character’s downfall crept closer. Her childhood home would at last be sold, her beloved cherry trees chopped down. Under the bright lights, the actress showed anger, bravado, the stage rang with her youthful laughter, which expressed self-deception. She would be forced to live in an apartment in Paris, not on the estate she’d formerly owned. A man whose father had once worked there as a serf would now buy the estate. It was her old brother’s sympathetic grief that finally coaxed tears from the large man in the heavy coat who sat beside me. But my problem was that somehow, suddenly, I was not myself. I was disconcerted. Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping? This person would no longer own the estate she’d once owned … She would have to live in an apartment instead … I couldn’t remember why I was supposed to be weeping.
Riding in a taxi home from the play, my friends were critical of one of the actors. His performance had been slack, inadequate, not thought through. If the character he played behaved in such a fashion in the First Act, his later actions could not be explained. I stared, frozen, out the taxi window. (26-27)
The high culture which the Traveler professes to love, and the beauty it represents, have become commodities themselves, the treasure of the leisure class and no one else; it has, itself, become fetishized. “You see, I like Beethoven,” he explains. “I like to hear the bow of the violin cut into the string. I like to follow the phrase of the violin as it goes on and on, like a deep-rooted orgasm squeezed out into a rope of sound.” (10) The concept of beauty, removed from the concert hall and into the street, however, becomes far more dangerous, far less benign. “Your love of beauty could actually kill you,” he later says, discussing the “seductive, luminous” beauty he finds in the face of a beggar. (38)
The Fever is also Shawn’s most meta-theatrical play to date, though among his work it is the play that seems to translate most readily into other media, including a sound recording and a television film. The monologue itself was originally designed for presentation in small spaces or apartments, before audiences of only ten or twenty individuals. Though it’s been performed by a variety of actors and actresses, Shawn’s performance of the monologue, in both its original 1990 productions and its 2007 revival at the New Group, exploits Shawn’s own minor celebrity as a likable character actor in films like Manhattan and The Princess Bride, playing upon the anxious nature of celebrity in the Culture Industry and the exploitation which supports the dissemination of the products of that industry.
The play is a densely-patterned work, themes and images (such as an imaginary book of the Traveler’s life) recurring again and again, each time within different contexts and pointed towards a variety of aesthetic and political ends — a highly-wrought object which can’t escape its own fetishization, as the Traveler cannot escape his own status and condition. It remains, however, a work of astonishing beauty — a beauty, perhaps, that could kill you. 
Below, Simona Maicanescu performs The Fever in an excerpt from the upcoming La MaMa ETC production of the play:
And below, Wallace Shawn himself reads from the play in 1999:
- Though as in all of Shawn’s work there’s a vein of humor that runs through the play, this humor is not a relief but underscores the suffering of those whom the Traveler visits. It is not one of those “serious” American plays of which, like many, it could be said, “And of course it’s very funny” — a construction and concept which may be the “I was only following orders” of contemporary American drama. [↩]
- Though it must be emphasized that Shawn is drawn to both Chekhov and Ibsen at least as a performer, famously in Vanya on 42nd Street and more recently in his current work with Andre Gregory on The Master Builder, though at least the first is far from a naturalistic production of Uncle Vanya. [↩]
- There is more on The Fever — including a brief, grimly amusing history of the critical obtuseness which greeted the play upon its professional premiere in 1990 — in W.D. King’s book on Shawn and his plays, Writing Wrongs. [↩]