Mr. Not So Frivolous
Wallace Shawn bares all about writing, why he does theatre, and that play he wrote with all the sex in it
"I suppose I'm obliged to say, as I do believe in the sacredness of facts, that the production in London wasn't raided by the vice squad." So dies theatrical mythology in an e-mail from Wallace Shawn to Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope of Rubber Repertory, the brave souls behind the belated American premiere of the playwright's A Thought in Three Parts. Rather more appropriately to the world as Shawn writes about it, the London theatre company and venue were threatened with loss of grant monies, so the run was simply not extended, brisk ticket sales be damned. Neither barring of theatre doors nor confrontation with police ultimately proved necessary, and one can't reasonably claim that the play was shut down. Nevertheless, threats were made and heeded, though official censorship evaded.
Written in 1975, A Thought in Three Parts consists of "Summer Evening," concerning a couple, a hotel room, and the savagery of small talk; "Mr. Frivolous," concerning a man, his breakfast, and the audience he addresses as a lover; and between them "The Youth Hostel," concerning two bedrooms, five young travelers, and a number of pornographically athletic tableaux that would keep the angry letters to the editor coming for years if I quoted stage directions. Obviously, "The Youth Hostel" causes the most trouble and has done the most to keep this play off the stage, perhaps as much for logistical as for moral concerns. And yet, somehow, the sex is the easy part.
Notorious for the intensity of their moral and emotional ambiguity, as well as their sometimes deeply profane cruelty, Shawn's plays couldn't be more at odds with the image he projects as a character actor (Mr. Hall in Clueless or the voice of Rex the Green Dinosaur in the Toy Story films). Whether positing a highly sympathetic fascist as the moral center of Aunt Dan and Lemon or humanizing an apologist for a cultural revolution that has wiped out precisely the sort of people who would attend a play by Wallace Shawn in The Designated Mourner, he can be very hard on an audience, no matter how benign a presence he projects. Perhaps his signature cameo in Manhattan best captures the disconnect: Playing the former lover whom Diane Keaton has repeatedly described as some kind of sexual dynamo, he is deemed a "homunculus" when Woody Allen finally meets him. It's as funny because of the surprise and contrast as it is for how obviously Allen is threatened by him.
It's strange but somehow just right for a writer so attuned to our (often deadly) contradictions. When I call merely to arrange an interview time, and he brightly asks whether talking in two or three minutes will work, I'm surprised, but I shouldn't be. So I ask for 15 to get my thoughts together.
Wallace Shawn: Well, it's been a little more than 15 minutes now, and I've got a friend who will be waiting to see me in about 20 minutes. Do you think that's enough time for your questions?
Austin Chronicle: I think that we can get through it. If we have to break off, do you think there's a chance we could talk again a little later?
AC: Well, let's just jump in with those stage directions. In the "Youth Hostel" section, they're pretty outrageous for being so straightforward. You could have written, "The universe splits in two, and the presence of God is felt in the hearts of the audience," and that would be difficult, but, you know, in rehearsal everybody would set to work and figure out how to do it. I mean, at the very least, the play seems to assume a certain superhuman athleticism.WS: [laughs] Yeah.
AC: But at the same time, it's not terribly surprising to me because I find your plays very direct and matter-of-fact, but then that directness is also what can be difficult or distressing about them.WS: Well, I assume [the actors] will be able to deal with it. I don't know if I would find it quite so challenging as you say. It is difficult, but so is Uncle Vanya. It definitely has its own special challenges, and some people wouldn't want to be involved, I suppose, but you know these actors wouldn't be doing it unless they felt that it wouldn't be enjoyable to do. They won't be getting rich off of it, so they must feel that there's something worthwhile about it.
But I don't know, most people have found me rather indirect, and I'm delighted to have found someone who finds me matter-of-fact.
AC: Well, that's strange to me, but perhaps I might be allowed to be pretty direct myself and to ask something potentially offensive. This is an interesting part of the play to me, because, to be quite frank, when it starts, and as it goes along for some time, I don't really like it. It seems a very stale sort of parody of a kind of 1950s optimistic earnestness, where you take something seemingly wholesome in this case, college students traveling the world and lay on a bunch of sex and dirtiness and irony because we know the truth of that experience isn't so sweet. Even though it's funny, it seems kind of glib and like a lot of other work that satirizes kitschy old sitcoms, so even though I knew you had written this before a lot of that kind of work became really popular in the Eighties, I was still disappointed. But then the play carries me along to this other place that's emotionally devastating, and it wouldn't be quite that way and as effective to me if it hadn't first been this thing that I didn't think I had to take seriously beyond the basic titillation and gags.
But in my own mind, I was caught up in some very vivid message, rather like the founder of the Mormon religion had an angel come to him, and he wrote things down that he didn't know what it meant.
AC: Well, the way you deliver those messages makes it hard on your audiences. It's not just that the plays are confrontational that's easy but they never allow us to figure them out, become comfortable with our own reactions. There's actually a kind of politeness to so much supposedly confrontational work that tells us how to be confronted and who should be offended, and by what, and from there we know how we're supposed to react. Your stuff is too impolite even to confront us in the proper way.WS: I think that you're partly asking about ... my last answer taken by itself would suggest that I have no idea what I'm doing. At a certain point, it is really like that, but at a later stage, the mind sort of takes the raw material and with some conscious purpose shapes it, but still. I have never written poetry I mean, not since I was a teen but I know some poets, and I think it might work a little the way they work. They're working very hard to make the thing be what it's supposed to be, and yet they're not sure what it is. But somehow they use their intelligence to make it be the perfect version of itself.
As far as confronting people goes, that's not a word I would use, but I suppose ... the page doesn't interest me unless it affects me. If I just read a page of my writing, and I'm left completely indifferent emotionally, I don't find that a very exciting page, and I might work on it some more. Somehow if you're going to ask 100 people or 50 or 300 people to sit there and watch what you've written, and you're asking actors to memorize it and do it night after night, it better affect people.
AC: Well, regardless of stipulating nudity or sex acts onstage, you often ask very provocative questions about sex. It's been some 30 years since you wrote A Thought in Three Parts, which is extreme in a particular way, but how do you see it now fitting in with the rest of your work?WS: I'm sort of ... I'm not sure why. Obviously, this is something that interests a lot of people, certainly me, and I'm sort of wondering why I sort of haven't put it into more of my other plays. I mean, people talk about it. I'm not sure I can really answer the question. I mean, I don't particularly like the fact that everybody goes around wearing clothes anyway. I find that, to use your words, a disappointment, and I suppose there's obviously something refreshing about, say, a nude beach or a play where people are naked. There's something refreshing about it, and there's a sense in which a certain strain or tension is removed when you see people who are not worried about being naked.
I suppose there's a certain sense in which you couldn't write too many plays in which people performed sexual acts, because they're not really performing them, they're pretending to do so to some extent, and it's a kind of, well ... Well, for instance, Tom Stoppard has written a play over nine hours long. If "The Youth Hostel" was over nine hours long, it might become tiresome. But I don't know, my experience of having seen this play and I saw it in London only a couple of years ago it was very pleasant and agreeable, that particular aspect. Of course, I don't mean that the feelings of the characters are very pleasant, because some of them aren't.
Oh ... aha. Now I'm looking at my watch and seeing that our time nearly is up. Do you think that's enough, or do you have some more questions?
[I do have more questions, so we arrange to speak again, and Mr. Shawn gives a very cheerful goodbye, after which two hours pass, my phone rings, and I receive a very cheerful hello.]WS: So do you still have more questions?
AC: Well, I know this is strange, but I confess that I've been dwelling on how you told me that I'm one of the few people to find your writing direct and matter-of-fact. I mean, of course, the plays aren't just editorials or a kind of propaganda, but for me they come across with a kind of emotional clarity that ... ironically, is quite difficult for me to describe to you now. In The Fever, or The Designated Mourner, for instance, there's a frightening quality to how openly contradictory these people who speak to the audience are.WS: Well, thanks. I mean, I suppose, isn't that what writing is all about, as opposed to sort of mumbling? If that could be the two ends of the spectrum, trying to say something as clearly as possible rather than just fumbling in the direction of the thing that you want to say.
In some ways, I guess The Designated Mourner is rather indirect, because you have to find your own attitude toward the characters and what they represent. The author doesn't clarify his own stance towards those people. But I suppose each of them makes his points clearly. But I suppose Jack, the person who talks the most, is actually obfuscating. He's ... almost everything he says is, in a way, a form of lying or deception. Not that what he says isn't true, but he's pointing away from what he doesn't want you to see.
AC: Well, I think a lot of people have a certain uneasiness about characters lying, especially to the audience.WS: I suppose I made use of that natural tendency, and some of my narrators are persuasive and convincing, but actually they're directing your attention away from things that they'd rather you didn't think about.
AC: Maybe that way in which the characters try to direct our attention without giving a simple authorial stance toward them is what I find so direct. That we're presented these people without that usual filter, so we have to experience them and make up our minds about them if it's going to make any sense. Which is uncomfortable.WS: Well, I suppose I've always trusted that the unconscious knows what it's doing. I guess I've always taken that on faith. And so A Thought in Three Parts is, you could say, the most trusting of anything I've written. I've just ... it's, you know ... I don't know ... it's got a lot of mystery in it, even for me, and as I say, I've known some poets in my day, and some of them swear they can't translate what they've written into the normal speech of the daily newspaper. They can't tell you in completely normal prose what their poem is about or aiming at exactly.
Obviously for me, it was the three pieces of it together that I was most fascinated by. It is like a triptych in painting, and it's up to the viewer to put those three pieces together.
AC: It seems for that kind of thing to really work, you have to have a pretty intimate relationship with your audience.WS: Well, that is the magic of theatre. For me, it's something more intimate. I don't get theatre in big theatres. I actually don't appreciate it. If I go to a big theatre, I have to sit so close that it's like sitting in a small theatre. Once I get past row G, I just can't understand it and get involved. In a funny way, that's a horrifying admission for a quote-unquote man of the theatre, and that might explain why my work isn't done that much, and a lot of theatre people don't appreciate it particularly. I just don't understand plays if I'm sitting too far away from them.
AC: Often, you have your work performed in spaces that aren't theatres, like in the homes of friends.WS: Well, I've never really written a play where the pretense of being in the room with characters is very strong. In other words, I've always had people talking to the audience, and when they talk to the audience of course, you know that it's in a theatre, in a room that's built on a stage. They're not really alone in that room, and there's an audience present and they're talking to us. So I've really never written a play where you believe that room is real, and they walk in and talk to each other as if you weren't there. There is that in all of my plays, but usually they turn around and talk to people in the audience.
So it does feel very different, because when you're in the theatre and you're in the audience and watching a play, you can say, "Well, the category that this is in for me is entertainment, and the category that it's in for the performer is this is his profession, and he's doing the job that he's paid for." If you have the same performance being done in somebody's living room, it gets more confusing. And the people in the audience get into a question of, "Is this an experience in my life, or is it entertainment?," and maybe it is entertainment, but it's actually more like going to dinner and somebody says something. And the actor, is he a professional? Is this his job, or is it his personal life? It gets blurry.
AC: And what's exciting to you about this blurry place?WS: I don't know. There was a friend of my parents who was interested in theatre, and a friend was always saying about certain people, "He's a real professional," or in some cases, "Oh, he's not a professional." And from the time I was a boy, I knew there was something about that that I didn't care for because if the people are professional, it sort of implies that it's something they're doing competently, but they don't really care about it that much, and when they go home they can forget about it, and I suppose that's the feeling I had. And I'm not sure that's worth my time as an audience member. If I'm going to spend an evening watching some people, I want to see their soul. I want to see something that's terribly important at least to them. If it isn't that important, just a job, why should I go out and watch them?
I'd say I saw the theatre as a place where revelation was being offered. Some sort of transcendent experiences were being offered that would change people and have an effect on them. I suppose the word entertainment implies that it's a trivial experience that is just diverting or passes the time, and then when it's over it leaves no effect. I don't think I would be content if that was all that it did.
You know, it goes without saying that I'm a little bit vain. I take my time seriously.
AC: Well then, thank you for taking your time to talk to me!WS: I sort of feel that a person's conversation is how much time it's worth, whether I can provide what you need, I don't know. But the thing I love about writing is you can put in an incredible amount of time compared to the time a person spends receiving it, and you're adding value to the object during that time that you put in. So you know you can create something worthwhile.
A Thought in Three Parts runs through May 26, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. For more information, call 478-LAVA or visit www.vortexrep.org.