The Guilted Age
By Wallace Shawn
Haymarket Books, 161 pages, $18.95.
Reading Wallace Shawn’s new collection of essays, it’s hard not to hear his distinctive nasal chirp declaiming aloud in the mind’s ear. This is particularly true because, in an unusual move for the actor and playwright, the essays are written in Shawn’s own voice. “Perhaps it’s disturbing or frightening how easy it is to become ‘someone else,’ to say the words of ‘someone else.’ It really doesn’t feel odd at all, I have to tell you,” he admits in the book’s introduction. While the ability to embody fictional characters has served Shawn well in his dramatic work, in this case he has discarded his various personae in favor of his own unmediated thoughts.
Despite the professed departure, Shawn’s essays share many of the ideas that have made his plays some of the most controversial works of American theater in the past half-century. As an actor, Shawn is probably best known for such roles as the evil Vizzini in “The Princess Bride” and Grand Nagus Zek in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” His screen credits also include the cult films “My Dinner With Andre” and “Vanya on 42nd Street.” But the famously short and bald actor is also an accomplished, if not universally celebrated, playwright.
Shawn’s early works drew fire for their absurdist sexuality, while later pieces, such as “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” “The Fever” and “The Designated Mourner,” tackled the evils of American-supported dictatorships and the poverty inflicted on large swaths of the world by wealthy nations. Shawn’s essays are similarly awash in what might be termed “liberal guilt,” although he takes the notion to unprecedented extremes. “Everything visible around me may be perfect and serene, but inside, there is this voice that never stops denouncing me,” he confesses in “Morality,” an essay that originally appeared in 1985 as an appendix to “Aunt Dan and Lemon.”
As the son of the famous New Yorker editor William Shawn and the journalist Cecille Shawn, parents whom he identifies as “completely (some might say excessively) assimilated American Jews,” Shawn grew up in a position of genteel affluence, a fact that has become a source of constant torment for him. “I am what people call a ‘child of privilege.’ This is the defining fact about me, and it always will be,” he writes in an autobiographical essay titled “Myself and How I Got Into the Theatre.”
The collection, which includes new pieces as well as some that have been published previously, is split into two sections — “Reality” and “Dream World.” While the first part is ostensibly about politics and the second about art, the two subjects bleed easily into each other, with Shawn scrutinizing his role as an artist in alleviating, or possibly contributing to, the injustices of the world.
Though Shawn proposes that art might improve the world by persuading people to be more moral, he also suspects that his vocation is merely a self-serving, middle-class pastime. “To lie in bed and watch words bump together until they become sentences is a form of hedonism, whether the words and sentences glorify society and the status quo or denounce them,” he observes.
Such statements make it hard to accuse Shawn of being just another well-off, well-intentioned liberal, simply because it’s hard to accuse him of anything of which he hasn’t already accused himself. But while his self-scrutiny is refreshing, it has its limits. There may be nothing wrong with a tortured conscience, per se, but Shawn presents anything less than self-torture as a grievous moral failing. And without any concrete suggestions as to how to better the world, his self-condemnation becomes an exercise of dubious merit.
More disturbingly, Shawn’s arguments are riddled with gross simplifications and caricatures. There is plenty about the Bush administration to criticize, for example, without calling its members “men… who have a sick need to set fire to cities, wear enormous crowns, and march across crowds of prostrate people.” Moreover, Shawn’s assumptions about his opponents’ motives undermine the humility he displays elsewhere.
Similarly, in an essay titled “Israel Attacks Gaza” (originally published December 2008, in The Nation), Shawn assumes that the recent conflict in Gaza was nothing but an act of retaliation for the loss of Jewish life, without considering any other possible reasons for the attack. His reading of Israeli history is equally reductive. According to Shawn, the world simply gave Palestine to the Jews after the Holocaust, and neither the history of Jewish habitation in Palestine nor the efforts of the Zionist movement (including its resistance to the British Mandate) figures into his account.
Worst of all, Shawn falls into the trap of thinking that when an opposing party or ideology triumphs, it means that democracy itself has failed. Proponents of an American “nationalistic fantasy” are like people who have been drugged, he claims, and are therefore unfit to vote. “To paralyze a listener’s brain with fantasy — whether injected by a needle through the skull or poured into the ears through the spoken word — is not a form of rational argument, nor any basis for… ‘democracy,’” he writes.
Such views are a shame, because they overshadow more thoughtful observations about art, criticism and the state of the theater in America, as well as the illuminating reflections on Shawn’s own life and career. For example, Shawn posits that in contrast with music, theater suffers from a lack of strict genre boundaries. Though superficial categorization might usually seem like a bad thing, its absence is actually a problem for audiences who can never be sure what they might see. It’s “as if restaurants had been forbidden by law from announcing the type of food they served, and spaghetti-seekers had no choice but to try every restaurant in town until they hit on one with an Italian chef,” Shawn remarks.
While these latter insights are undoubtedly worth reading, those who would really like to experience a fair representation of Shawn’s writing should read, or, if possible, see his dramatic works.
Shawn’s plays are just as politically charged as his essays, but their multiple voices, characters and ideas allow the audience to confront the issues they pose while still appreciating them for their dramatic qualities. Characters in a play, no matter how much you may agree or disagree with them, are still just characters in a play. In the case of Shawn’s essays, however, such detachment is unfortunately not an option.
Ezra Glinter is a frequent contributor to the Forward.