Aunt Dan and Lemon

by Wallace Shawn

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

Aunt Dan and Lemon examines the nature of evil, looking at how the most corrupt impulses arise in ordinary people, even in intelligent, educated, seemingly rational individuals. In “Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening,” the introduction to the published edition of the play, Wallace Shawn writes that most people consider themselves “the sort of people who can recognize evil when it presents itself . . . and immediately reject it if it ever should approach” them. Shawn’s didactic purpose is to shock his audience into acknowledging this capacity for evil within themselves. He does this by initially making Aunt Dan an admirably moral character. Dining with Lemon’s family, she thanks God for giving humans the ability to know that they are alive and the opportunity to appreciate the “splendors” of life. She offers a reasonable argument when she tells Lemon to respect the work and dignity of those who perform what the educated and the wealthy consider to be menial tasks.

Her defense of Kissinger begins along similar rational lines but gradually degenerates into hysterics. She admires Kissinger “for his ardent love of a country and a people that have offered him, and perhaps could still offer the entire world, the hope of a safe and decent future.” Then she tells Susie that if Kissinger does not stop North Vietnam “any country in the world will be free from now on to do anything they like, and we’ll be free to do nothing.” In her longest speech, Aunt Dan begins raving about the journalists, “these filthy, slimy worms,” who criticize Kissinger. She longs to see them encounter the North Vietnamese in the middle of a jungle: “I would love to be hiding behind a tree watching the little cowards screaming and bleeding and shitting in their pants!” Under the influence of such a person, there is a logical progression, according to Shawn, to the more extreme thinking exhibited by Lemon at the end of the play: “no society has ever considered the taking of life an unpardonable crime or even, really a major tragedy. It’s something that’s done when it has to be done, and it’s as simple as that.”

In this final monologue, Lemon attacks what she calls the cult of compassion and says that she likes the Nazis for having had the courage to question the existence of compassion. Shawn depicts a world in which compassion is on the decline. Aunt Dan and Lemon consider Susie weak for feeling compassionate. When Susie says that she wants Kissinger to cry for those who suffer as a result of his decisions, Aunt Dan only stares at her. Aunt Dan is attracted to Mindy because of her complete lack of human emotions; she is sexually excited by Mindy’s manipulativeness, ruthlessness, and insensitivity. (She is similarly drawn to Kissinger less for his ideas than for his power.) However, the dying Aunt Dan is touched by her nurse’s kindness, a point lost on Lemon. Lack of compassion, rather than right-wing politics, is Shawn’s primary target.

Shawn holds that all human thoughts and acts have unforeseen consequences. He finds frightening the capacity of civilized people to become indifferent to the fates of others. That the evil growing within Lemon can threaten an entire society is underscored by the play’s constant references to disease. Aunt Dan and Lemon presents a twentieth century civilization overburdened by selfishness and evasions of moral responsibility.

Shawn has been faulted for having his characters talk about important issues instead of finding means, with the exception of the murder performed by Mindy, of dramatizing his ideas. Some critics have also complained of lack of proportion in equating Adolf Hitler’s persecution of Jews with Kissinger’s advising Nixon about the bombing of North Vietnam. Others have said that the play is weakened by the ease with which its protagonists’ deluded arguments can be dismissed.

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