The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

My Dinner with André takes the form of a conversation between the work’s authors, playwright/actor Wallace Shawn and theater director André Gregory. Shawn’s interior monologue at the work’s beginning provides some biographical information about Gregory; during the subsequent conversation only their first names, “Wally” and “André,” identify the speakers. Even so, they clearly play themselves, for their conversation has to do exclusively with matters related to the theater, to aesthetics, and, frequently, to actual persons. Events to which they refer, though focused, highlighted, or slightly altered for purposes of their presentation, are basically factual. The play’s action proceeds without intervals and, except for brief interior monologues which attend Wally’s arrival and departure, is set entirely at the table of an exclusive New York City restaurant. The two men enjoy a fine meal as they talk.

Wally trudges along on his way to the restaurant as the work begins. He is thirty-six years old, though he looks older; he is a playwright, turned actor in order to eke out some form of living. It bothers him that his girlfriend Debby has to work three nights a week as a waitress to help support them. Routine errands, such as making telephone calls, buying envelopes, mailing copies of unproduced plays, and checking with his answering service in hope of some acting work have made his day more discouraging than usual. Worst of all, Wally is uneasy about his dinner engagement with André and wishes that instead he were on his way home to see Debby and eat a good dinner there.

André had been a close friend and colleague, had discovered Wally, and had directed Wally’s first play, but immediately after this had dropped out of sight. Wally has heard all sorts of strange tales about André’s doings: that André had become a devotee of Buddhism, that he had talked to trees, that he had appeared in odd parts of the world at unpredictable times, always traveling alone and for no ostensible purpose. In short, Wally worries for his old friend’s sanity and feels unprepared to cope with André’s problems in addition to his own. He is also quietly resentful that André appears to have the money to indulge these eccentricities.

These feelings exacerbate the awkwardness with which the evening begins. André appears almost immediately after Wally has arrived. Though the warmth of his greeting dispels some of Wally’s attempt at disengagement, Wally is still nervous. He wonders whether he will survive the meal and thinks that André looks “crazy.” The audience does not know what to think. André is painfully thin, looks vaguely haunted, and, though dressed neatly and with considerably more style than Wally (who wears a tie and poorly cut sports jacket), has nevertheless chosen to wear a shawl-collar sweater and open-neck shirt to an elegant restaurant.

André looks younger and more alive than Wally, though he is actually ten years older; however, to Wally’s pleasantry, “You look terrific,” he replies, “I feel terrible.”

André begins to talk even as Wally is having these negative thoughts. The audience hears only a phrase or two beneath Wally’s negativism, about an actual Polish director named Jerzy Grotowski who had dropped out of the theater, had returned to Poland, and had begun to run avant-garde workshops for actors there. Grotowski had invited André to participate in one of these, held in a forest from sunset to ten or eleven o’clock the next morning. A group of forty, none of whom spoke English, would sing, dance, and eat in a kind of living improvisation, then sleep from noon until the next sunset. André enjoyed these sessions immensely, though he also found them frightening because all plan and structure was absent. There was no security of routine,...

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My Dinner with André Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Though André’s experiences extend more than five years, his vivid recounting of them takes less than two hours. Conversation, or more precisely André’s narrative with Wally’s sometimes significant interjections, is the medium that gives My Dinner with André an Aristotelian triple unity of time, place, and action. Change occurs, for André is certainly different from the man Wally had known five years earlier, but Wally undergoes a more sudden and possibly more lasting change from hearing André’s experiences in a single evening. Wally arrives at the restaurant rumpled from the subway ride and worried about his career, his finances, and his life in general, but he returns home in a taxi, recalling the scenes of his youth and eager to tell his girlfriend all that he has heard.

Clearly, Wally serves as a conversational foil for André’s brilliance. Except for Wally’s interior monologue, delivered on his way to the restaurant, nearly all of his words are monosyllables that indicate agreement with what André says. This is not to imply that Wally is unimportant in the action. Wally is alternately pathetically and bathetically humorous: worried about affording the necessities of life, yet dining in a restaurant far beyond his means; a professional writer, yet filling his conversation with monosyllables and trite analogies; from New York City, yet a mere provincial when compared to André.

My Dinner with André lacks...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

My Dinner with André Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brewer, Gay. “He’s Still Falling: Wallace Shawn’s Problems of Mortality.” American Drama, Fall, 1992, 26-58.

Buford, Bill. “My Lunch with Wally.” Vogue 176 (January, 1986): 56.

Gingold, Alfred. “Shawn with the Wind.” New Republic, February 9, 1987, 10.

King, W. D. Writing Wrongs: The Work of Wallace Shawn. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Lahr, John. “Wallace Shawn.” In Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles. Woodstock, New York: Overlook, 2000.

Rose, Lloyd. “The Art of Conversation: Wallace Shawn.” Atlantic, November, 1985, 125.

Savran, David. “Wallace Shawn.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.