Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Wallace Shawn on Art and Politics, More or Less

Transcribed from introductory remarks at a signing/Q&A/screening of My Dinner with Andre at the Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. Wallace Shawn, one of my intellectual heros (am I an asshole for using that phrase?), addresses the topic, more or less, of how his writing became political.

Well basically, and by the way, if you don’t care, I understand that. In other words, why should you, in a way, except for some reason you’ve chosen to come here and so the topic of me is, in a way, inevitable.

Basically after My Dinner With Andre...My Dinner With Andre was basically a success. A large number of people liked that movie, and I’d never done anything successful before and it was much more successful than anything I’ve done subsequently. So, I suppose the mere fact of having done something that was a little bit successful or well-liked maybe took a bit of the pressure off of me and led to the later thoughts that I had, in a certain way.

So I wrote a play* about five years later and it was being done in London. And the director was having a very hard time making the play work in rehearsal. And he basically said to me words to the effect that "I don’t think this is going to work. I think it’s going to be, well, terribly boring for the audience and basically unbearable." And I had a strange reaction to that.

I thought: hm. I guess I don’t have talent, but I wonder why I ever thought that I did. And I thought: well, I think that’s because my teachers in school always made a fuss over me. But if I had no special ability, why did they do that? Well, it must be because I went to a very nice private school and they were paid to flatter the students. And somehow that thought carried me down some kind of a path where I began questioning certain things about myself and my own cheerful complacency about life, and I had other thoughts about my childhood in my private school and the very privileged neighborhood that school was in.

And I realized that, well...I’d asked my parents when I’d seen a group of children in the park who weren’t dressed the way I was dressed, and they seemed dirty, and they looked sort of thin and blotchy. I sort of said who are those children? What’s their problem? What’s going on? And my parents said something to the effect of “well, I mean, they’re poor!” And I thought: oh, what is that, I wonder?

And I suppose that parents, if they are raising children in a privileged way and the child asks why are other children poor, I suppose the parent has to either say “well, it’s because the world is very, very unjust and people like us are unfairly advantaged, basically because, you know, our ancestors somehow managed to steal and we got to keep what they stole, and others are disadvantaged and oppressed,” or they can say, in effect, “well, some people are, you know, so terrific that they actually deserve a bit more and others have something a little bit wrong with them so they deserve a little bit less.” Because those are really the only two answers to that question, and of course most parents don’t want to go near it. And mine didn’t really answer me.

But the implicit answer was the second one, really. Because what else is a kid supposed to think? Unless he’s told that it’s a crime, and is unjust, he’s going to believe that probably he deserves it, and that must be because he’s a little bit superior and other people are a little bit inferior.

And now I don’t believe that anymore. And so I’ve gone in the direction of identifying with the people who are poor, crushed, less privileged. And I do think that the reason that I am privileged is basically because of theft, because I don’t really, I don’t actually believe in any of the justifications for inequality such as, you know, well, I worked harder.

Because I don’t say that I’ve never worked a day in my life, although some people could say that, in a way. Because writing and acting are quite enjoyable. But, I mean, compared to actual work, where you’re working in a coal mine or even in a bank...but, I know I don’t work any harder than somebody who does work in a coal mine and yet somehow it’s worked out so that I get paid more than the guy in the coal mine. And the people in the coal mines actually don’t think it’s fair. They might rebel, and so they’re kept in their place by force, violence, torture, what have you.

Anyway, this is the journey that I’ve taken that led me basically into writing my essays and those of you who belong to the tiny cult of people who follow theater, I also write plays, and some of my plays deal with these topics. And you can see weird roots of it in the movie. And Andre of course is encouraging me to, you know, not be so contented really.

*timing-wise, I'd say this would have to be Aunt Dan and Lemon which is from 1985.

Extra Credit: The internet has everything, as usual! Need a webpage listing scenes in movies where people eat soup? There's an app for that! Fortunately, no reference to the worst line in any opera libretto ever, which also involved soup. I guess HD moviecasts don't count. If you do can't guess how I got to this page, you are not a real Wallace Shawn fan and cannot be part of my fan club.


manprano said...

Ach! A primary source of Maury's influence. Now it all makes sense. ;)

Maury D'annato said...

It's true, and thank you for commenting on this entry, which was feeling unloved.

squirrel said...

i felt bad that nobody was loving this entry

i liked wallace shawn in manhattan, but that's pretty much the extent of it.

Anonymous said...

The most vivid memory I have of Wallace Shawn was seeing him eons ago in a play at the Public Theater.

It was an adaptation of the Russian novel "The Master and Margarita". He played a cat which was in service to the devil.

His costume was a full-body baggy cat outfit with just his face peering out. Kind of like footy-pajamas with a hood, tail and pointy ears.

It made that later Star Trek stuff seem practically sane.

-- RDaggle

Maury D'annato said...

Aw, you guys are sweet to rescue my unloved entry.

Squirrel: as far as his acting goes, have you ever seen Vanya on 42nd Street? He's wonderful. And they filmed his play The Designated Mourner with a magnificent performance in the Wallace Shawn role (the one he played onstage) by fellow genius Mike Nichols.

RDaggle: wow, I'm pretty sure W. Shawn talks about that production in My Dinner with Andre.

squirrel said...

I did see Vanya on 42nd Street! Years ago. I don't think I had a full capacity to appreciate it at the time. Ii'll try again.

Jack Johnson said...

"The Designated Mourner" was made into a film? How did I miss or forget this? In addition to the altogether genius of "Vanya," let's not forget Wallace Shawn in "The Princess Bride," where he delivered one of my favorite lines: "You know how smart I am? Have you heard of Plato, Socrates? Morons ..."

I disagree with a lot of what he says and presumes in his political comments, mostly because he seems to divide the world into a false binary: people who inherit into wealth, education, etc. (through "theft") and those who are doomed to disadvantage (by the thieves).

But I won't digress. Even if he were an avowed supporter of a Sarah Palin or a Hugo Chavez, I'd deeply admire him as an artist.

Will said...

Maury, you remind me that I've never seen My Dinner with Andre and that I need to correct that via Netflix.

Maury D'annato said...

Jack: his argument is writ a few points too large, but I don't disagree with the substance of it.

Designated Mourner was filmed, yeah. It features devastating performances from Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson.

Maury D'annato said...

Will: truth to tell, Andre is by turns inspiring and tedious. It's wonderful that it exists, because I guess maybe nobody had ever made such a purely intellectual movie, but I wonder if some of it just hasn't aged very well. I guarantee there will be points where you want to crawl into the DVD and slug Andre Gregory.

George Welsey said...

I find the writings of his long-time partner, Deborah Eisenberg, far more interesting and intelligent. In fact, she runs rings around him, able to say more in 30 pages than he can in a hundred, but he's better-known.