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

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09/02/2009 4:00 AM |

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.