Wallace Shawn is one of the most recognizable character actors of the last quarter century. From his memorable turn as the Great Vizzini ("Inconceivable!") in The Princess Bride to his voice work in countless animated features, the co-writer/star of My Dinner with Andre is as familiar a comic presence to a generation as his actual name isn't. But don't be fooled by the prolific commercial career—Shawn is a serious writer and thinker.
Much of the writing in his new collection, Essays, has the same cadence as the dialogue in his award-winning plays and screenplays—bold assertions, often provocative, that outrage and startle. When I first saw Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon in 1985 at the Public Theatre I became so angry I threw up (I was also coming down with stomach flu). The play includes a long, unrebutted monologue delivered by its sweet heroine, Lemon, in praise of the Nazis. I was furious. Why did I have to sit through twenty minutes of offensive ideology? That was not how a play should work. A few weeks later I found myself still arguing with Lemon in my head, still angry, countering her despicable ideas. That was how a play should work, I realized: provocation engendering thought.
Shawn's work continues to provoke ideas, as this past spring London's Royal Court Theatre produced an entire Shawn season, including Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and Grasses of a Thousand Colours. On top of that, his first collection of non-fiction writing, Essays, is being released by Haymarket books, and Shawn will give a series of book-signings and readings. I talked with him about the collection and his life as an actor and writer provocateur.
What made you want to do this collection now?
My friend Anthony Arnove, who is also a publisher, had the idea. I'm always looking for a way that perhaps I can make a contribution to the world rather than merely being a parasite. At least some of these essays deal with some important subjects.
My oldest essay, which I wrote in 1985, now called "Morality" in the book, I wrote when Aunt Dan and Lemon was done. The original version was published in the book with it, partly to explain my point of view about some of the issues that came up in the play. In all of the essays, I clarified things. There were many that I read and thought 'Oh, think I could put that a bit better because now I have a little distance and can express it better.'
Some of the writing about you in London connected to the Royal Court season described you as "marginalized" over here. Is that true? Do you think you are more popular in England?
The Royal Court Theatre in London has been very, very friendly to me, over a very long period. In New York, the New Group Theatre has been very, very friendly to me over the last five years or so. When Joe Papp was alive, the Public Theatre did my plays.
Obviously, many writers feel that their work is so outstanding that even a reasonably good reception is not enough; they're not satisfied! I myself may secretly fall into that category when I'm in a certain mood or talking to certain people or comparing myself to certain people. Compared to most people who write plays, I would say I've had very good luck! My plays have been performed by wonderful actors and directors and looked at. On a good day I feel I've been very lucky as a playwright. Certainly as a human being, I'm one of the luckiest people I've ever heard of.
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.
I certainly know that Louise Glück can write. I'm currently reading her book of poems A Village Life. I am not really one of those people who could do what my father could do, which was, you could independently present him with 100 pieces of writing and he could line them up. He could say this is the best and this is the least good… but in a funny way, at the New Yorker they were rather sincere in saying this is not for us. But yes, he definitely could read a piece of fiction and say that didn't work. My tendency would be to say it didn't work for me, I didn't enjoy it.
I can read a piece of writing and think this is a bit fake, because this is not like life, this is an imitation of some other play or book—but somehow I do think that it's more what a person needs when they pick up the book.
With the magic of the computer, I have had the experience of listening to fifteen different singers sing the same song. They all hit the right notes. They all worked hard on their interpretation. What would be the point of saying who was the best and the worst? Clearly there were some I felt that move me; that say something to me. There were others that I thought, 'Well, it's not for me, particularly.'
So do you read reviews, do you care about critical appraisals? I talk to a lot of theatre people who won't read them.
I care a lot! I get quite obsessed about reviews. I do read them, unfortunately. I grew up in a journalistic family. I always read the newspaper. I don't like people knowing things about me that I don't know. I don't like the idea that everybody else has read the horrible review and they're looking at me in a certain way and I don't what it said, so I do read them.
You seem almost to predict the internet in your 1985 essay "Morality," where you describe society as a "network of brains." Do you own a computer, and do you use it to network? I read that you don't own a television, is that true?
I do own a computer. I don't own a television. Everybody else seems to have 24 hours in a day, I seem to have two hours. I have a fantasy that it would be absolutely fascinating to get involved in social networking and chatting with people I don't know, but I really have no time. In the last couple of years, I have really hardly had time to go to the corner and buy a tube of toothpaste. That's the truth.
What's next for you, now that the collection is out?
I'm hoping that Grasses of a Thousand Colours might be able to be produced in New York. That is I hope in my future.
Essays is now available from Haymarket Books.
Wallace Shawn will also be reading at the following events: Oct. 7: MacNally Jackson, New York, NY Oct. 14: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA Oct. 15: City Arts and Lectures, San Francisco, CA Oct. 17: New Yorker Festival, New York, NY