Interview: Wallace Shawn on Reading, Writing and Avoiding the TV

by |
09/02/2009 4:00 AM |

That doesn’t prevent a person from complaining. I have met, to be honest, famous movie stars who have complained about three or four other actors in the world who are paid more or get the first choice of parts.

World leaders are often bitter because they’ve reached the highest position in their country and still can’t control events. Bitterness or envy or feeling neglected happens a lot.

Obviously, it’s a different situation in London—there are eight important critics, you could say, rather than really having one newspaper in New York which has such extraordinary power. That’s a difference. Of course, the Royal Court Theatre, they only do rather serious, new plays. The audience who would arrive at that theatre and see a somewhat serious new play is not disappointed, or wishing there would be something different. I am prepared to make the bet that of the people who read a newspaper every day a higher proportion of them in London go to the theatre than in New York. In New York I would say most people who go to any individual play are people who are theatre fans. I would risk saying that theatre fans are, relatively speaking, a smaller part of the population than theatre fans in London. In London, most people who read a novel this year also went to a couple of plays.

How do you balance writing and acting? How do you balance political thoughts and creative life? The book is split down the middle, with one section called “Reality,” with writings on politics and ethics, and the other called “Dream-World,” which is about the arts.
I’m not self-aware enough to answer the question really. I sort of take my own life slightly for granted. Maybe if a friend told me that that was their life I would say ‘Wow, that’s really bizarre, how do you do that?’ When I was 20, I was a promising young man, to whom a lot of cash had been funneled to educate me and turn me into a respectable member of society. I was heading toward a career as a civil servant, studying history, politics, that type of thing. Than I became an imaginative writer, a playwright—I had the opportunity to be a voice of animals in cartoons. Most writers just don’t get that opportunity, so I took it. It seems to me quite natural. I’m reading my newspaper, I’m thinking about Afghanistan, and then I go to some strange building around Times Square and I go up in the elevator and I go into a little booth and pretend to be a plastic animal… That’s just my life and it seems quite normal to me.

You speak about writing as if it’s a form of laziness, but I interview many writers who say they hate to do it, it’s hard work.
You’re probably reporting something that is true or accurate but really, would they rather dig a ditch or work in a coal mine?
Of course I am very interested in the question of whether art can benefit humanity. Obviously I have a stake in the question. I’m crawling through the mud desperately trying to find justification for my own life. It’s not about whether one writer is making a contribution, because that you can never know, but if there were no writers at all would the world be the same, or would it be worse off?

There are two possible roles that art could play in the world: it can make people more intelligent, more sensitive… that’s a possibility. The other is that if people are interested in artistic things or the life of the imagination, that’s better than being obsessed with military or national greatness. If everybody were obsessed with music, let’s say, and that was their main interest, I think the world would be much better.
Of course artists can be envious, and want to be superior to other artists, but that is a far cry from wanting to rule other countries.

Why are there peaceful centuries? This is the mystery; I don’t know the answer. Why do some people go through an entire life not going through a barroom brawl and others don’t? If there are countries where centuries have gone by without any war, it’s not true that every human being must fight in at least one war.
>One of the things you reject over and over in this collection is the notion that art can be evaluated outside of a person’s experience of it. Is that a reaction to being [New Yorker editor] William Shawn’s son?
Obviously, I evaluate things all the time. One thing that I saw recently that I found great was the Théâtre du Soleil production of Ariane Mnouchkine [in the Lincoln Center Festival]. I know that that’s great acting. That it’s better than the acting that you see in a lot of other theatrical events.