Wallace Shawn Essay - Critical Essays


Wallace Shawn’s major plays exhibit a concern with vivid images of violence, whether political or sexual, as they are manifested in the imaginations and behavior of his contemporary characters. These images connect Shawn’s work with the traditional themes of Surrealism, yet the apparently harmless characters and situations in the plays’ narrative structures cause a kind of contradictory tension between the force of obsessive imagination and the ordinary experience of daily life. Shawn has consistently improved his ability to express this juxtaposition of qualities, while emphasizing the immediate importance of his major themes.

Shawn’s most important works, such as My Dinner with André and Marie and Bruce, tend to proceed from a narrative framework into a carefully constructed series of dialogues and monologues, arriving finally at a kind of stillness in resolution. Shawn’s strengths as a playwright include an unusual flair for formal innovation, in plays as different as The Hotel Play, with its innumerable sets and characters, and The Fever, almost minimalist in its simple theatricality. He also writes dialogue of enormous sophistication, allowing him to represent the language of intellectuals by credibly imitating rather than satirizing their discourse. His most remarkable quality as a writer, however, comes in his persistent posing of difficult, even painful, questions about contemporary life. Given the temptations of the commercial marketplace, Shawn could easily use his comic skills to write successful teleplays or screenplays. Nevertheless, he has sustained his commitment to the theatrical exploration of obsessive, subconscious desire and the way it shapes human experience, not only in daily life but also in the broader perspectives of the appreciation of history and the value of human culture.

Our Late Night

Shawn’s first play to receive a major production, Our Late Night, raised the eyebrows of critics with its simultaneously scatological and intelligent style. The situation involves a young couple and their party guests and proceeds anecdotally from the final preparations of the couple through the recitations of their guests’ unusual feelings and experiences to the empty moments after the party ends. The play’s action—or what there is of action in the play—concerns the lust of the partygoers for one another in combination with their visceral reactions to what gets said (and eaten). The longest, most memorable monologue is an impassioned shaggy-dog story about one single-minded male guest’s sexual exploits in the tropics.

The language of the play reveals one of Shawn’s characteristic devices: the polite utterance of unconscionably rude sentiments. Obscenity begins to flow so freely that it becomes the normal discourse of the play, along with the frequent use of proper names, salutations, and other conventionally respectful phrases. The language becomes the stylistic equivalent of the characters themselves: well-dressed and pleasant-seeming, but sexually obsessed at the core. The final effect of the play, in the right sort of sophisticated performance situation, is not obscene but satirical, exposing the thin veneer of manners that strains to hold back the force of human desire.

Three Short Plays

Shawn’s second professional production raised more than eyebrows. The London production of Three Short Plays provoked antiobscenity complaints that resulted in a government investigation of the theater and an initiative to rewrite British obscenity laws. Of the three plays that constituted the production, the objectionable material was contained in The Youth Hostel. The play is unique for Shawn because the actors do not merely talk about their fantasies, they enact the fulfillment of their sexual desires onstage. Yet stylistically, the play has passages very similar to the successful satire of Our Late Night. Characters copulate, masturbate, and have violent fistfights, but they continue to express themselves in the polite, matter-of-fact idiom of contemporary young Americans.

The other two plays in the trilogy are less likely to offend audiences than The Youth Hostel, but they address the same themes. In Summer Evening, a young couple in a foreign hotel pass the time between meals by trying on clothes, discussing the mundane details of their vacation, and snacking. Yet lurking under the surface of the action, which Shawn suggests should have an extremely quick, unrealistic pace, are the desires of the man to possess the woman to the point of death, and the woman’s fears of the injury that could come with her submission. The language, dotted with interruptions to encourage the tempo, remains oddly formal and polite, even while the intimacy of the characters’ revelations gradually leads them to make love at the play’s end. The last play of the set, a monologue titled Mr. Frivolous, features the eponymous character at breakfast, fantasizing about companionship and sexual pleasure. The title suggests the principal theme: Despite the intimacy and even the quaintness of his recitation, the young man is vacuous to the point of complete superfluity.

Marie and Bruce

In Marie and Bruce, Shawn combines his stylistic habits with his psychological thematic concerns to create an elegantly crafted, if sometimes painful, portrait of a woman’s life. Marie narrates the action, a typical day that includes abusing her husband at breakfast, going about her housework, taking a walk, going to a party with her husband, and then abusing him again over dinner....

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