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Book Review: Essays by Wallace Shawn

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In his 1970 Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Tom Wolfe describes a now famous party at the home of Leonard Bernstein where an elite group of artists and intellectuals sipped cocktails and munched on Swedish meatballs and brie with assorted members of the radical elite: Black Panthers, Young Lords, etc. Readers of Wallace Shawn’s little collection of essays might well expect that he would have been right at home there. Although most famous as a playwright and actor (My Dinner With Andre, Aunt Dan and Lemon), the lion’s share of this book is devoted to essays on politics and society, essays which unabashedly take a markedly liberal, or to use the current sobriquet, progressive point of view. Shawn is about as Liberal as they come (the kind Rush Limbaugh likes to call the crazies on the left) and is refreshingly unapologetic about it.

In his introduction, he explains that he is dividing his book into two parts: the first concerned with reality, the second with the dream world. In the first he writes about things like the attack on the World Trade Center, the invasion of Iraq, and the Israeli attack on Gaza. In the second he describes how he came to write for the theater, the experience of reading plays, and writing about sex. In the first he includes an interview with Noam Chomsky; in the second, an interview with poet, Mark Strand.

His political views are made clear in his introduction. He understands that he is a member of a privileged class and relishes the variety of comforts that membership in that class affords him, from fine restaurants to the time and leisure to practice his art. Still, he also recognizes that those comforts are afforded him on the backs of good many others who are not members of that privileged class: everyone from waiters to cleaning women, peasants in oil rich sheikdoms to starving African natives. It is not strange then, he opines, that there comes a time when the have nots — and there are so many of them — begin to object and perhaps object very strenuously. From this point of view, can one blame the Palestinians for being “unhappy” with the Israelis, the World Trade Center terrorist from being “upset” with America? This chickens coming home analysis of the world situation may not sit well with all readers, but it is not something that hasn’t been said before.

Indeed, there is little new in these essays. When Shawn talks of the problems inherent in Nationalism, or as it is more often characterized, patriotism, one might well imagine one hears John Lennon humming in the background. When he points out that the country that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Napalm on Viet Nam villagers has little moral standing for criticizing terrorists, he is not exactly making a new point. He points out that too often such acts are the result of feelings of superiority of one group over another. Israelis, for example, value Israeli lives more than Palestinian. That is why they can justify the killing of one hundred Palestinians for the death of one Israeli. We, for example, value American lives more than Iraqi lives. Again, these are ideas that, while certainly controversial, are clearly not new. Still, since Shawn is a stylish writer and something of a wit, he makes his points with some force, although not ever enough to get anyone who doesn’t already agree with him to change their mind.

His views on the aesthetics of the theater are perhaps even more forceful, both because they are less controversial and because he speaks with the authority of a successful practitioner. The trouble is that they are not always consistent. In his essay on why he got into the theater which was originally published as the introduction to a 1997 collection of his plays, he differentiates between the theater, which he says is not an art, and music and poetry which are. “Can you,” he asks, “seriously claim that a play can be compared to a string quartet?” The distinction seems to be that the string quartet aims at a beauty of form in itself, while the play seeks truth in holding up mirrors: mimesis. Every once in awhile someone comes along and creates a work in the theater that is “formally beautiful,” that succeeds in “giving time a shape as a composer might.”

In his 2008 essay, “Aesthetics,” though, he seems to suggest that he has changed his mind: “For me, a play is a wonderful pile-up of bodies, lights, sets, gestures, clothes, nudity, music, dance, and running through it all and driving it all is a stream of words, sentences. Words and sentences are (to me) aesthetic materials, and a purpose that I think one would have to call aesthetic can certainly be the governing element in writing a play.” Aesthetics would seem to depend on the intention of the artist.

Throughout the essays, Shawn creates for himself a compelling voice. He never rants and raves. He rarely pontificates. He never sets himself up as holier than those around him. He recognizes his own addiction to the comforts of a materialist society. He recognizes that is only in a society where others are doing the kinds of necessary menial tasks can someone live the kind of life he is enjoying. He understands that aesthetic pleasures such as the theater may well not be possible when resources are more justly distributed. Still, as a man willing to stand up for what he believes, he seems willing to try. At the end of an essay on the prospective invasion of Iraq, he describes going into a “lousy” restaurant in a “shabby” neighborhood and eating a sandwich with stale bread and stiff lettuce. He concludes that he could survive some lousiness, some discomfort, if it would put him on the path of “increasing compassion, diminishing brutality, diminishing greed — I think it might actually feel wonderful to be alive.”

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About Jack Goodstein