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Book Review: Essays by Wallace Shawn

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Wallace Shawn is known for a number of things. He’s a playwright, having penned works like Marie and Bruce and Aunt Dan and Lemon. He’s an actor, having made his film debut in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. And he’s a voice actor, perhaps most famously appearing as the voice of Rex in the Toy Story films. He’s also one hell of a writer and interviewer as Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre illustrates.

So here is Essays, a compilation of Shawn’s writing that, in his estimation, carries with it a “schizophrenic nature.” The essays in the book are neat, clean and succinct. His writing runs with purity and compassion. Every turn of phrase is not from skill but from passion. The writing comes like breath, sometimes tinged with cold mist and other times hot with spice and fury.

The essays run through a number of subjects, but they are all linked by the author’s humanity. Whether he talks about theatre, writing, politics, or social issues, he is present and wise with every word. Shawn writes without airs, avoiding floral navel-gazing in favour of practical, incisive thoughts.

In the introduction, he notes that, like the book, he’s been “divided.” This division comes through not only in the nature of the essays but in the nature of the man writing them. He does not hide the idea that he lives a privileged life and wonders, often, about how to mesh such a luxurious existence with the things he clearly cares about. How does Wallace Shawn give a shit, in other words, about the “less privileged” among us? Further, how do we?

Essays concerns itself largely with that question, but it doesn’t answer it completely. There are fragments, such as Shawn’s wrestling with “Morality,” but what we’re treated to is an extension of the author’s conflict. Like all human beings, saying and doing and thinking are separate entities. Getting them to collaborate on anything can be trying.

The aforementioned “Morality” is a modern classic. Shawn’s contention that we are but a few thoughts away from, say, the madness of Hitler is hard to take but the case is clear. We are a “network of brains,” in his estimation, and the conception of absolute privacy is a clever myth. “The fragility of my own thoughts is the fragility of the world,” he notes.

Shawn’s brief word about “Patriotism” is wonderful, too. He asks the right questions, wondering about the nobility of putting one’s own country ahead of another.

There’s a 2004 interview with Noam Chomsky in the first portion of the book. This showcases Shawn’s ability to ask questions that are beyond the script. Even though it is in written form, the words leap off the page and the considerations are vocalized.

The second half of the book is concerned with theatre. This is punctuated by a fascinating, beautiful interview with poet Mark Strand. Strand converse eloquently and the structure is that of a natural dialogue. Shawn wonders, for instance, why people avoid reading poetry.

Also of note is “Reading Plays,” an essay that first appeared as the author’s note in Four Plays. This illustrates a thought I’ve long held about how “good” or “bad” something can be. Shawn wonders, rightly, if it isn’t better to determine that there is a “nutritional” component to artistic work. “As writers, we can’t predict who might come along who might find our offerings valuable,” he says. “But because we’ve all been readers, we know what the experience is like, and we hope that what certain writers have given to us, we will give to someone.”

With Essays, Wallace Shawn gives us his careful and not-so-careful considerations. Reading these works is like sitting quietly with an old friend and wondering about life, love, sex, theatre, politics, and the delicate conflict in it all.

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About Jordan Richardson