Wallace Shawn is famous for his career as an actor, but over the past four decades he has written a handful of plays that are intellectually demanding and rarely produced. His characters tell stories in monologues, rather than acting them out onstage, and they use cascades of words to make dizzying arguments.
His work is being showcased at New York's Public Theater this season. A revival of The Designated Mourner opened July 21 and the American premier of another Shawn play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, will open this fall.
Highbrow Versus Lowbrow
The Designated Mourner is about the dissolution of culture, along with the dissolution of a marriage. Shawn plays its central character, Jack, the designated mourner for the last intellectual who could still understand John Donne's metaphysical poetry, which Jack himself doesn't comprehend.
"A Highbrow was someone who liked the finer things, you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby," the character explains, "while a Lowbrow was someone who liked to take the easy way in the cultural sphere — the funny papers, pinups. You know, cheap entertainment."
For Shawn, it's a tragedy to not spend time with the work of the great writers.
"That's like saying, 'I could have dinner with a wise, brilliant person whose thoughts are consciousness-expanding,' " Shawn says, " 'but unfortunately, I can only really enjoy hanging out with incredibly shallow people who only want to gossip about the latest problems of unfortunate, mentally disturbed celebrities.' "
'A Poet Of The Theater'
Shawn's best-known piece of writing is a two-hour, scripted conversation with a brilliant eccentric — theater director Andre Gregory. The 1981 film My Dinner With Andre, directed by Louis Malle, shows Shawn and Gregory eating, and talking.
Gregory made his name in the 1960s as the head of the experimental Manhattan Project Company. Now he's 79 years old and has been directing Shawn's plays for 40 years. It's one of the longest collaborations in the history of the American theater.
"I happen to feel he's the greatest writer in the American theater," Gregory says. "He's a poet of the theater; he's socially engaged. There's such a thing as a 'passive culture' and 'active culture.' A passive culture is a culture that tells you what to think, how to feel. An active culture is one that tries to wake up the audience to think, to feel and to confront themselves. And probably the main theme of My Dinner With Andre is: wake up."
Making A Living As The Downtrodden Nebbish
Here's where we get to the contradiction in Shawn's life and work. He's the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn. He studied history at Harvard and philosophy at Oxford, so naturally he understands highbrow culture and great writers. But he's made his living doing quite the opposite.
In the Toy Story movies, Shawn is the voice of Rex, the green dinosaur. He made his debut as a screen actor in 1979 in Woody Allen's Manhattan and has appeared in hundreds of roles since, usually as the comic, downtrodden nebbish.
"I think it's rather fun that compared to Dostoyevsky or many other writers, I appear in cartoons," Shawn explains. "I sort of enjoy the fact that I have made a living in an innocent way. And because I found a way to make a living, I didn't face a temptation to write in a way that would be popular."
Shawn could afford to spend 10 years writing his newest play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which opens at the Public in October. In it, Shawn appears as a scientist who has figured out a way to solve world hunger by having species eat their own dead. In the opening scene, the scientist recites the epigraph to his memoir, which hints at the violence and poetry to follow:
"It was just after dawn, the air was cold and the ground was damp with my own blood. As I wondered what circumstances could have brought me here, I looked across the vast expanse of the plain on which I lay and it seemed that I could see grasses of a thousand colors."
A Love-Hate Reception
Shawn's longtime companion, Deborah Eisenberg, is one of three actors in the cast of The Designated Mourner. She's also a short-story writer who won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Eisenberg says Shawn's writing is provocative and demanding.
"It tends to be so intense that people are either drawn in, whether they want to be or not, or they just drop off quite fast," she explains. "But you can't really be neutral towards it. Either you accept it completely — it overwhelms you — or you flee from it."
A case in point: When Grasses of a Thousand Colors had its world premiere four years ago in London, there was a line outside The Royal Court Theatre of people waiting to take the seats of ticketholders who walked out during intermission.
"It's probably bad luck to refer on the radio to the people who hate the play, or are in agony," Shawn says. "Obviously if there are too many of them, it's much harder to perform. So if you're listening to this and you think you might be one of those people, don't come!"
Shawn says that at his age, 69, he's not looking ahead to any new projects after this season at the Public Theater.
"If we get through this, it's going to be Florida all the way," he jokes. "You know, sitting under the palm tree with the Mai Tais. That's it."