Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory (both of the film My Dinner With Andre) have returned to present Shawn’s masterpiece The Designated Mourner, his 1996 play about individual and group social accountability, elite power structures and oppressive regime change. The revival, currently at The Public Theater, stars Shawn as Jack, Deborah Eisenberg as Judy, and Larry Pine as the renowned poet (and father-in-law), Howard. The play is a series of monologues in a triptych led by the “designated mourner,” the phenomenally lively, cynical, witty, macabre, insidious Shawn/Jack, with laconic monotone additions by the excellent, “hollow” Eisenberg/Judy and equally excellent, “nonexistent” Pine/Howard.
Shawn’s Jack is a survivor and a storyteller. In flashback he relates the series of events that brought him to conduct this wake where he is the designated mourner, the only one left of his effete, arrogant, self-aggrandizing upper class tribe who locked themselves away in their ivory tower to theorize about John Donne and attend parties. This highbrow colony, including Jack’s wife and father-in-law, have been killed during a purge of intellectuals and artists by an unnamed fascist/totalitarian government that the intellectuals neither railed against, diluted with argument and logic, or even attempted to co-opt. Ignoring the signs, reveling in their lives which become less and less vital as the youthful underclasses gained momentum, they abdicated their social responsibility while allowinging brutish forces to usurp their power.
They pay for it with their lives, and Jack cannot even tell us if these intellectual artists were able to employ the tenets of John Donne to peacefully usher themselves to their deaths. Jack, at this point expediently anti-intellectual, loathes Donne. He can’t understand Donne’s sonnets and smiles at the fitting irony that he should be the one to mourn/celebrate the passing of these last of the Donne-lovers.
Shawn takes us on a hypnotic journey of self-revelation. By chilling degrees he shares how he was able to escape being swept up with the intelligentsia and killed. During his vibrant storytelling, the two ghosts, Judy and Howard, flit on and off stage adding their depressed, empty, unmemorable commentary about events and their relationships.
Jack is not sorrowful at the retelling of how he came to despise this group he once venerated and yearned to join. He is gleeful in part, matter-of-fact and forthright in the revelation of his weird devolution. He happily discusses how he renounced his sterile marriage, moved away from Judy and her father and took up with a girl from a lemonade stand for a time. To punctuate his anti-intellectual stance Jack triumphantly tells us that he emptied his bowels on the book of John Donne’s poetry. Now we understand the extent to which he has been subsumed into the bestial forces that have overtaken the society.
Ever adaptable, he finds a way to transition to a debased existence using porn. Eventually, he grows bored with that and finally is able to achieve a kind of nothingness where he can appreciate nature. He has survived, while the haunting ghosts of Judy and Howard, duly mourned by Jack, flit off never to return by the play’s end.
The playwright, Shawn, forces us to question our own motives, our social accountability, our ability to understand how we fit into the cultural big picture. Are we like Howard and Judy? For all our intellectual understanding and education, are we purposeless, ghostly, disengaged and disinterested in the plight of others in our culture? Have we missed partaking of our own humanity, which would allow us to share with others across the economic or intellectual class divide? And in this state, are we not blind, deaf and dumb to life’s true currents, unaware of how meaningless we’ve become? Is this not a death-state of denial and self-abnegation, no better than Jack’s who has submerged himself with the lowbrows to survive a nonthinking, numbed existence?
Socrates suggested that an unexamined life is not worth living. Certainly, Jack exemplifies this at the end, but he is too numb to realize this wisdom. He has survived, but he is not living a life of purpose. On the other hand, the kind of examination and intellectual fermentation bubbling in the Judy/Howard colony of artists produces no wine for the masses to drink and refresh themselves. What indeed is the point of their solipsistic lives?
Judy, Jack and Howard each represent a devolved, morbid humanity. Is it any wonder that a repressive, brutish, fascist/totalitarian power structure takes over? Shawn suggests these representative individuals provide a breeding ground, not for dissent, but for an ultimate dissolution that youthful fascism and tyranny can feed upon, growing fat, destructive, lethal. The play is filled with warnings. Are we listening?
The Designated Mourner directed by David Hare was first performed at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain on April 16, 1996 in the Cottesloe Auditorium. It premiered in NYC in the Wall Street area in 2000 with the same cast: Wallace Shawn as Jack, published writer Deborah Eisenberg as Judy ,and Larry Pine as Howard.
The Designated Mourner was made into a film (1996) directed by David Hare and starring Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson.
This engagement by Theater for a New Audience is co-produced with The Public Theater. It runs until August 25, 2013.