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My Conversation With Wally

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Playwright Wallace Shawn is one heady experience. Consider this: When his play "Aunt Dan and Lemon" premiered in 1985, he says it changed his life. Shawn is not talking about new trajectories in his career (and thus, by extension, his life), but, rather, shifts in his worldview thanks to his play. As he tells it, he became even more liberal than he was before (and he was left-leaning from the outset) and fully determined "to examine the fact that we [as a nation] are driven to crush everyone else and stand on top of them and plant a flag in their guts."

Shawn is further convinced that "Aunt Dan and Lemon," now enjoying a revival Off-Broadway at the Acorn Theater and slated to run until the end of March, has greater political resonance than ever. "The play is far more appropriate to Bush than Reagan," observes the 60-year-old New York City native, who meets with me in a Back Stage conference room. "After all, Reagan pretended to be friendly. His manner was gentle, whereas Bush is actually trying to be frightening. He wants to be known for being brutal. The brutality in the play has echoes."

"Aunt Dan and Lemon" is set in London during the war in Vietnam and tells the story of Lemon, an isolated and deeply troubled youngster, who is emotionally seduced by a glamorous American woman, Aunt Dan, who celebrates (passionately celebrates) powerful men in high places who can flex their muscles with impunity in the name of freedom. In the course of this twisted relationship, Lemon becomes increasingly vacant and devoid of all human feeling, and towards the end, argues that compassion is a pose at best and that the Nazis really weren't that bad, surely no worse than many others.

One of the more striking elements of the play is that these macho views are being voiced by women; indeed, in several of Shawn's plays—e.g. "Marie and Bruce" and "A Thought in Three Parts"—the distaff members seem, at least to this reader, the more virile gender.

Shawn acknowledges that using women as spokespersons for macho views—in "Aunt Dan," anyway—serves a useful purpose in that "we in the audience mirror the role of women in political life. Dan says at one point, 'It's only because there are tough guys out there using violence on our behalf that we can sit here and have a pleasant conversation.' Similarly, we in the audience are not invading Iraq. We go to the theatre and lead gentle lives. We're not the gangster, but rather the wife of the gangster, who doesn't kill anyone but enjoys the spoils."

Shawn adds, "New York audiences believe that they're more on top of things than the guy in Kansas because they read The New York Times and listen to NPR. But that's not true. The guy in Kansas understands—unless he's really dimwitted—that he has a limited view of the world. New York theatregoers live in a world of illusion, as I used to. But I've made strides, trying to find out the painful truths behind the propaganda."

Disappointed in Everything

Shawn is an educated man of strong convictions, boasting degrees from Harvard and Oxford and citing, in passing, such intellectual publications as The Nation, The Guardian, and books by Noam Chomsky (a professor of linguistics at Harvard known for his left-of-center politics). In addition, Shawn is fluent in Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, and German and is currently working on a new translation of Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera"; he is also starring in an André Gregory production of "The Master Builder," based on his (Shawn's) translation.

Shawn is perhaps best known for his collaboration with André Gregory in the cult classic flick "My Dinner With André." Shawn's film adaptation of his own play "Marie and Bruce" will be released this spring. Other writing credits include "The Designated Mourner" (play and film) and "The Fever" (a one-man piece). Among his acting credits: the timid literature teacher in "Clueless," the diabolical rationalist in "The Princess Bride," and, most recently, the sly little psychiatrist on the TV show "Crossing Jordan."

Physically suggesting a shorter, rounder, balder Bert Lahr, Shawn is an odd amalgam. He is earnest and, paradoxically, very amusing. He has a keen sense of the absurd, punctuated by an almost deadpan style. He is self-effacing. His modesty is almost an affectation. And it's not always easy to read him. Is he for real? Or is he performing?

Check this out. Asked which identity is more defining for him—writer or actor—Shawn's expression grows waxy. "Don't frighten me. The subject of identity is upsetting. I don't believe in identity. From the outside we look like one person. But in fact we are six or seven people bonded together in an individual body. It's too disturbing to brood upon, but I suppose I think of myself as a writer. If my building were burning down, I'd grab the notebook I was writing in before my pile of 8-by-10 glossies."

That said, he admits he makes the bulk of his living as an actor. He dubs his acting career "pitiful" and is not much more positive about his career as playwright.

"I still can't launch my career as a writer. I've been writing plays since 1967. The first five or six years I earned absolutely nothing. Except for maybe two years, my writing income has been way below $10,000. I've never had a commercial production. I find the idea entertaining and remarkable—the idea of not being a charity case. Maybe my plays will be profitable after my death. I never set goals for myself. If I did, I'd be a sad little man."

Nonetheless, the response to his plays has improved, he says, "although John Simon still feels that I've got no talent, nothing to offer, and got as far as I have because of my father [Shawn is the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn]. He also writes that I'm not physically attractive. But critics who are younger than I am give me the benefit of the doubt, not unlike the way some viewers may relate to a painter who paints triangular blobs. 'I don't like it,' they say, 'but if the artist has been doing it for 25 years, maybe there is something there.'

"I'm lucky that I'm no longer universally despised and mocked as a complete idiot," he continues, "but I'm not universally admired, either. So I still have the hunger of a young writer and that keeps me working. If I were universally admired, I'd be complacent and I wouldn't have to write anymore. Instead, I'd go from place to place receiving tributes and doing readings of my great works. I'd like to be respected and admired, but that wouldn't make me a better writer, although I'd like society better if they recognized true worth. Bush might put a medal on me."

A Bohemian Youth

Shawn grew up on the Upper East Side, attending Dalton, an elite and progressive private school. "The teachers were all bohemian and sympathetic to those of us who wanted to lead artistic lives," he recalls. "In those days, no one thought that you'd starve if you were in the arts. People thought you'd have an interesting life and that was valued."

His parents also reflected that sensibility. "My father regretted the fact that he spent his life going to an office every day in a three-piece suit. He felt stuck. He started life as a writer and composer—writing music for bohemian dancers in Greenwich Village. He felt, 'Thank God my sons are not going to be stuck in an office.' " Wallace's brother Allen is a composer.

In the late '60s, Shawn launched his playwriting career and studied acting at the HB Studio "to help me as a playwright. It never occurred to me—or my acting teachers—that I'd be working as an actor. I got my first acting job when director Wilford Leach wanted me to appear in his production of 'The Mandrake' [by Machiavelli], a play I had just translated for him."

Shawn says that he has come full circle. "As a kid, I wanted to work in theatre. Later, I found the arts self-indulgent and thought I'd be a bureaucrat. By the time I was 35, I was back in theatre. I didn't become more conservative with age. Sometimes the greatest sense of accomplishment comes from what you didn't do in the previous years."

Asked how he'd ideally want his career to evolve, Shawn doesn't miss a beat. "I don't think in those terms. If you asked me what would give me the greatest feeling of relief, I'd say, 'Doing a delightful part in a delightful sitcom that has only 12 episodes a year, all made in a clump, say January to March 15.' I'd make lots of money, more than enough to cover me for the year."

He adds that he can't imagine writing a wonderful part for himself. Indeed, he stresses, "I can't imagine writing something that would be a huge success. I don't know what that picture would look like. I can imagine having a brain operation and coming out of it to write that great Broadway comedy that everyone would love. Audiences would say, 'Oh, Wally, you're so funny, you have such an affirmative view of life.' And Bush would pin a medal on me. Only it wouldn't be me."

"Aunt Dan and Lemon," however, is ur-Shawn, he suggests, and he is hopeful that the play has the power to make people re-examine their values. "I'd be wildly optimistic if one person leaves the theatre determined to enlighten himself because the play has so upset him."

As noted, it certainly had that effect on the playwright himself.

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