Nov 03, 2009, 06:02AM

INTERVIEW: Wallace Shawn

The playwright and actor talks about his unique balance of commercial and avant garde work, the importance of having one's assumptions challenged, and his new book, Essays.

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It's been a good year for Wallace Shawn, and an odd one, in which his various guises have all been given their due in different ways. There's Wallace Shawn the well-known Hollywood character actor, who recently reentered megaplexes when the first two Toy Story films were released in 3-D in anticipation of the third film's 2010 opening. Shawn plays the neurotic dinosaur Rex in that series, one of many roles in which his indelibly frantic voice—recognizable from The Princess Bride and Clueless, as well as TV work on The Cosby Show, Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, and ER—has entered the public consciousness. Mainstream audiences also saw him in a cameo in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, out last month.

But Shawn's other career, as a provocative and more willfully non-commercial playwright, has attracted its own share of accolades, and Grasses of a Thousand Colors, his first play in 10 years, premiered in London this summer to laudatory reviews in both American and British publications. The play, like many of Shawn's previous ones, was directed by his longtime friend and collaborator Andre Gregory. Their great 1981 film My Dinner With Andre was also released this year as a two-disc deluxe DVD by the Criterion Collection.

And then, functioning simultaneously as a sort of Beginner's Guide to Wallace Shawn and a valedictory to these other achievements, Essays, his first work of nonfiction, was published in September by Haymarket Books. Essays balances Shawn's different concerns—there are pieces about the theater, but also ones with potentially wider appeal, whether about the Iraq invasion or the closing essay, "Writing About Sex"—while also summarizing some of the major themes from his last 25 years as a writer. Shawn, a New Yorker since birth and self-identifying "child of privilege," has an incredible talent for exploring the role of art in the world, and the duty of cultured, comfortable people in making the world a better place. I spoke to Shawn by phone, where his familiar voice is at times unsettlingly slow and he spells out his ideas with incredible deliberateness. But he was more than happy to answer questions about his odd career, his approach to contemporary media, and his acceptance of his own seemingly contradictory impulses.

ST: How did Essays come to be?

WS: I have a friend who is a publisher, Anthony Arnove, and I suppose his degree of respect for me just inched up slowly and crossed the line where he wanted to suggest that I collect my essays and put them in a book. I agreed to do that, and got them together and rewrote them.

ST: How much rewriting did you do? I assume you did more expanding than cutting down.

WS: Because I'm quite lazy, it seemed like a lot of work to me. I did some cutting and some clarifying, and I took out references that would be incomprehensible to many of the readers. Some of the essays in the original versions referred to plays that I had written, which readers of this book would probably never have heard of.

It's actually almost frightening how one's mind reaches again and again for the same metaphors and phrases, without you ever remembering that you used them before. So I cut a lot of those out, and clarified some things. Things that were hard to express, I had a chance to explain them better.

ST: That's interesting to hear you say, since a lot of your work, from the essays to My Dinner With Andre to plays like Aunt Dan and Lemon, deal with similar themes. There's a recurring focus on the way that privileged people live their lives, for example, and whether there's a responsible way for them to do so. How do the processes differ when you approach a similar topic in different media?

WS: I suppose that in an essay, I have not yet figured out how to express things that are irrational. And I'm expressing my own point of view. In plays, I'm expressing many different points of view, and none of them are mine. And my plays proceed by a sort of logic that's not rational. There are things in my plays that I don't even understand, but which seem very important to me, but in an essay I suppose I do understand everything I say.

ST: Do you find it easier, then, to take responsibility for everything, as in an essay, or to follow these irrational impulses? More simply, do you find it easier to write essays than plays?

WS: Well most of the plays I've written took about five years, and my most recent play took me 10 years. These are more ambitious pieces of writing than any essay that I've written, sure. So I guess you could say, yes, it's easier to write an essay, in the sense that there's more man-hours per page in a play. You're creating a world in a play, whereas an essay is commenting on the shared world.

ST: But it's not as if your plays take place in some completely made-up fantasy world. A lot of your non-essay work still engages our political and cultural world.

WS: I mean, the same person wrote them and the same person lives in the same place and has read the same things, so there's bound to be a bit of an overlap. But I don't plan to write about the subjects that I write about, I sort of find these things in a notebook and try to figure them out.

ST: Let's talk about the interview with Mark Strand, who talks about the craft of poetry but obviously approaches that medium as something to be read from a book. He considers himself to be, in his words, "responsible to the language," and he says that the only way to understand a poem is to reread and reread it. You seem compelled by this idea, yet except for Essays, all of your writing is meant to be spoken out loud, whether onstage or on camera. What appeals to you about the Strand model of writing, since your modes of communication are so different?

WS: To the extent that it was a selfish desire to talk with Mark Strand, I was quite attracted to the possibility of writing plays that would be allowed to include some of the premises of poetry. It's like if you were contemplating doing something immoral, and you wanted to talk with someone else who's already done it. Suppose you were a therapist and you're tempted to have a love affair with one of your patients. There's no therapist to whom you can turn and get a positive answer, but you could turn to, maybe, a teacher who's had an affair with one of his students. And you talk to that teacher, and he says, "Well it didn't turn out too badly. No one suffered any consequences and it was all absolutely great."

And I've always been very drawn to the idea that there might be more than one way to write a play. The conventional idea of writing a play is that every single word of it should be comprehensible on one hearing, and you should never expect that anyone would go back to your play a second time. And I must say, I rather enjoyed listening to Mark Strand say that a poem might be incomprehensible, even to the writer to some extent, and it wouldn't even be inappropriate for people to reread the poem dozens of times. Because to me, there are some interesting things you could put in a play if you went on the assumption that maybe some people would see it a second time.

ST: And you contend in the interview that acting in a play is not unlike reading a play in the manner Strand describes. It's an act of repetition and immersion.

WS: It's repetition, but you're learning more about the thing you're reading. It doesn't feel like repetition. I mean, you can rehearse a scene countless times without it ever feeling like something you've done before. On the contrary. You may be more surprised after you've done it a few dozen times than you were when you began.

ST: Do you do a lot of acting in other people's plays?

WS: No. I have done some. I did Uncle Vanya with Andre Gregory for years.

ST: So do television and film acting afford that same experience?

WS: In a film or television, you're really rehearsing on camera. I mean, if you do five takes in a row, that's basically your rehearsal. And of course you're only going over a bit of the text that's maybe 30 seconds long. It's just a completely different way to rehearse, but it's not necessarily shorter than rehearsing a play. It's just organized in a completely different way. And of course it's much, much less time than working, say, on one of Andre Gregory's plays.

ST: Have you had artistically edifying experiences this way that equal theater work?

WS: Yes. Television is often very improvisational and rather spontaneous. Certainly being on Bill Cosby's television program was one of the more enjoyable experiences that one could have, because he was improvising and throwing you what you didn't expect, and you had to react quickly.

ST: Who would you consider to be your influences? I don't know of many people that balance your kind of acting work with your kind of playwriting.

WS: If I'm allowed to mention geniuses, Noël Coward. I mean, I'm a kind of bizarre freak out of the avant garde and he was the most beloved figure of his day, but he was someone who worked as a playwright and also as an actor, and he acted in his own plays. But as I say, he's a genius and was enormously beloved, whereas most who have encountered my plays have been repelled. So I wouldn't go too far in comparing us.

And of course many of the playwrights who one has heard of, where it's Moliere or Mamet or Pinter, have done a certain amount of acting in their day. But Pinter and Mamet did it semi-occasionally.

ST: Whereas I assume you probably do more acting work than writing work at this point.

WS: Well, as an actor, I've had good years and bad years. And people don't usually get more work as they get older. I think you'll find that most of the stories told in film and television are about younger people, and older people function merely as odd background to the adventures of the younger people. If there's a teenager in trouble, he must eventually go before a judge, but there are more parts for teenagers than for judges. And, you know, I've never been so successful as an actor that it's been any kind of serious drain on my time. Most of the parts I've played, I can do them in a couple of days, maybe weeks. It's the leading men who have the most work.

ST: You said you consider yourself to have come from an avant garde line of playwriting, but most of your acting has been for more commercially-minded things. Is there any difficulty in the balance there?

WS: Well, I'm not in a contest of any sort to have a unified life, without any source of contradictions.

ST: I don't even necessarily find it contradictory that you would do both—

WS: It doesn't bother me that the aesthetic of The Cosby Show is different from, let's say, the aesthetic of my play The Fever. If I have the sense that a script of a film or a television program conflicts with my political principles, or what could be called my beliefs about how people live—if that script teaches something that I find repellent, then I stay away from that.

ST: Is it correct to say that living in New York has helped you bridge that gap, though? Two of your earliest film performances, Manhattan and All That Jazz, for example, are both fairly commercial, yet the worlds therein likely didn't seem very foreign to you, even though you feel more in line with an avant garde tradition.

WS: You mean because they take place in a sort of New York intellectual, or bourgeois milieu?

ST: To the extent that you identify with and use those terms in Essays, perhaps. But mainly just that the experimental theater world might overlap with the worlds in those films. Certainly All That Jazz, which takes place in the theatrical world, would overlap.

WS: [long pause] I don't think it really occurred to me, until you just said it, that the world of Bob Fosse or the world of Manhattan had anything to do with what I knew about. I got involved with them through casting directors.

New York is divided into very small quadrants. I suppose I grew up in the milieu of the New Yorker magazine, and if you had said, "Oh yes, you grew up in the magazine world, the world of The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post," the New Yorker people would have thought you were crazy. They didn't really see the connection between their world and the other. As if you said "I grew up in the world of 1950s writers, like John Cheever and Charles Bukowski." These worlds are obviously related to each other, but one would hardly recognize the other.

ST: Well that's exactly what I mean. You've kind of had dual careers, one as a commercial film and television actor, and one as a more challenging, less commercial playwright. And while these worlds might not overlap, they certainly, in New York, both coexist quite close to one another.

WS: I guess what I'm saying is that they don't perceive themselves to be coexisting. I don't really know of anybody that has gone back and forth in that kind of way. There are a few. Larry Pine, for example, is appearing on Broadway right now, in a comedy written I think by George S. Kaufmann and Edna Ferber. And he also works with Andre Gregory. But in general, those worlds just don't overlap.

ST: So how have you made them overlap in your own life? What was the impulse behind that?

WS: Expressing yourself in front of other people, or playing characters—there's a kind of expression that's all quite similar. Take, for example, The Threepenny Opera, which I had the fascinating experience of immersing myself in for three years while translating. On the one hand it's incredibly refined, and on the other it's incredibly rough, and exuberant. It has a kind of wild humor. For me, if I see Roseanne Barr on television, or Gertrude Berg on television, or Jackie Gleason, these are people who practice the same art as, say, Gena Rowlands. She often plays more serious parts, and these people play funny parts, but they're doing the same thing. And they're masters of theater, the same way Noël Coward was.

I suppose I tend to revolt against the fact that there are these different, self-enclosed worlds in theater.

ST: That impulse is evident in Essays, too. If there's a theme that unites the political pieces and the more artistically-minded ones, it's a kind of mistrust of basic assumptions. Not sure if that was a conscious choice for you.

WS: Well I do think that it's a function of writers to look at unexamined presumptions if you think you've seen any. And not to be pretentious, but I did very much enjoy studying philosophy when I was a student, and that was all about reading the newspaper or listening to someone at a dinner party and asking yourself, "What are the assumptions that underlie what this person just said, and do I share those assumptions?"

ST: With that in mind, what media outlets do you read or listen to nowadays?

WS: I listen very regularly, almost religiously, to Democracy Now. And I would never miss an issue of The Nation. I'm a very slow reader and I can't say there are too many publications I read every word of. At times, I've read The Guardian every day, and The New York Review of Books. And there are great articles on Tom Dispatch on the web, and I'm a subscriber to Left Business Observer. CounterPunch. I wish I were one of those people who could read everything, but I'm not.

ST: To what extent do you worry, as I do, that your opinions aren't getting challenged enough when you pick your media so specifically? Do you worry about only reading the opinions of people who more or less agree with your assumptions?

WS: I don't worry about it at all. I mean, I've struggled to understand the world a little bit. I've gone, in the course of my life, from being more of a centrist to a leftist. For instance, I've already made up my mind on the question of whether it's worth fighting a war in order to preserve the oil that allows us to have good air conditioning in the summer. I've thought it through, and I like air conditioning. But I've made up my mind. I don't think a war should be fought in order to keep it. And in a way, I don't need to hear the arguments in favor of fighting the war. In the limited time at my disposal, I already know I don't need to hear that.

Now, if it's a question like, "How did the economy collapse?" or "How should the world be improved?" those are questions that people are very puzzled and divided about. And I'm desperately looking for answers to those questions, so as far as that is concerned, I wouldn't want to just read magazines or newspapers where everyone complacently repeated a given point of view. Because I don't know what the right point of view is. However, the intelligent people whom I read and listen to are for the most part also desperately searching. They're not particularly complacent people who have some point of view that they're selling.

How will Africa go from being what it is to a place where everyone lives happily and prosperously and not under dictatorial regimes? Do you think Amy Goodman has a rigidly fixed answer to that question? I don't think so. My guess is that she too is wondering what we can do, what should be done. So I'm not worried about it. I mean, if you said to me, "Look, there's a newspaper that is just coming out that actually has profound insights into the world and they're all surprising insights that no one has ever thought of before," then I suppose I'd be interested in looking at it.

ST: And I guess the variety of available opinions is so great right now that, even if you decide to only read people you basically agree with, you can still pick and choose between those who are intellectually rigorous and those who aren't.

WS: Of course. One doesn't have the time to read everything, and for all I know, if I read right-wing magazines I might fall upon a sentence that I find interesting or thought provoking. But I know that I don't share their assumptions, so I would be reading hundreds of sentences that wouldn't be thought provoking. For instance, I don't believe that if certain people don't have health insurance it's because they're lazy and they don't want to work and they shouldn't have insurance. That's just not something that I'm ever going to believe, and if that's the assumption of somebody who wrote an article about health care, that's wasting my time.

Noam Chomsky, in a way, has a known point of view, but the funny thing is that even though he has a known point of view, every time I read three pages by Chomsky I think, "Whoa! There's a surprising thought." Because within the universe of certain assumptions that he has about what's important, he comes up with new thoughts.

ST: I like that caveat, "Within a certain set of assumptions..." Even if you only read people you agree with, there are ways of challenging yourself.

WS: Like, I've already decided that when people say, "We've got to save American jobs, we're giving jobs to other countries that we should save for ourselves"I don't feel that. I'm not really a nationalist in that way. I don't really think that I want Americans to do well and other people to do less well than Americans. So if that's the assumption of an article in The National Review or something, why would I read that? Life is too short. I don't even really want to believe that. I've examined that issue, I've thought about it at one time and I came to a conclusion about how I feel, and I'm prepared to go on to the next issue.

ST: What's that issue for you now? What's something you don't have your mind made up about?

WS: Well, I haven't made up my mind about the most important issue, which is how exactly the world should get from where it is to some place better. I find that very difficult. In the 1930s, many people who thought that the status quo was unjust became communists. They thought that what was required was a dictatorship of the proletariat, and they struggled to achieve that. I don't really buy that, but what are the steps to a better world? That's very hard to answer.

  • Great interview with an interesting writer and actor. But I have to confess to not knowing what "bourgeois milieu" means. But I think it would taste great on a cracker with Cheez-Whiz.

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