“That was so delightful.”
Typical audience response to a serious play:
“Oh, that was shattering.”
Wallace Shawn is immediately recognizable from his many film and TV roles, including Manhattan, The Princess Bride, My Dinner with Andre, Clueless, the voice of Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story, The Cosby Show, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Shawn is also, according to Neil LaBute, “the most underrated playwright in America.”
Shawn’s plays are challenging in both form and content. The sexually explicit A Thought in Three Parts was described by David Hare as “the only successful piece of pornography in the modern theatre.” Shawn’s work ranges from political provocations to fable to the seemingly unstageable: an early work, The Hotel Play, requires “an apparently infinite” cast, and The Fever was performed by Shawn himself in the homes of friends. His new play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, depicts, over three and a half hours, a world that is heading toward catastrophe as scientific interference triggers a fight back from nature. It also vividly portrays an explicit love affair between a man and a cat.
During a season devoted to his work at the Royal Court Theatre in London, I was invited to interview Shawn onstage about his life, his plays, and his views on politics and on his new book of collected essays. The first part of the conversation took place on the main stage at the Royal Court Theatre in front of an audience, the second part weeks later, by phone, after Shawn had returned to New York.
The Believer: There seems to be a break between your early plays, Our Late Night and A Thought in Three Parts, for example, and your later, overtly political plays. Was there something that happened around that time that changed you?
Wallace Shawn: I did go through a kind of crisis, which you could say began when this play [Aunt Dan and Lemon] was previously done . I did go through a sort of crisis around that time, a little bit before it and a little bit after it. Somehow I developed an ability to realize what most people realize from childhood, probably, that the world could be quite different from what it is. It’s in motion. It’s not just a set on which the play of your own life is taking place, it’s actually moving, and you yourself are involved, and you are playing one role or another.
I came from a privileged background, and I played a role in the world as a member of the bourgeoisie of an imperialist country. I mean, it seems silly to say that, because you may think, Well, how could he not be aware of it? But I do think we all have different degrees of awareness, even of obvious things. I mean, we’re all aware that we’re economically unequal, that some people have more money and some have less money. And in a very, very vague way, probably most people who walk into the Royal Court have the opinion that there’s something wrong there, it’s not really appropriate. But you can have quite a wide range of vividness of awareness of this, ranging from a kind of bland, or somewhat cynical, acceptance of the fact that “that’s the way life is,” all the way to a feeling of desperation, thinking that this is so unjustifiable that it shouldn’t continue for another second and you can’t not do something about it. So I crawled along that spectrum from being what in American terms is called a “liberal,” meaning that you do believe that things should change but you can still talk about it in even an amusing, somewhat detached way, to being more “radical,” meaning that it’s something you feel more hysterical about. I mean, this is a shallow definition, but it’s not totally wrong either.
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