Shawn’s plays preceding Aunt Dan and Lemon represent quite different approaches to challenging audiences. In Three Short Plays: Summer Evening, The Youth Hostel, Mr. Frivolous (pr. 1976), an exploration of sexuality, several couples simulate sexual intercourse and engage in group masturbation. In Marie and Bruce (pr. 1979), a woman pours an endless stream of scatological abuse upon her passive husband. More concerned with humiliation and bodily functions than politics, these early plays, in Shawn’s words, are full of “weeping and vomiting.” The Mindy scenes of Aunt Dan and Lemon recall these plays, and Aunt Dan and Lemon is also like them in having seemingly well-mannered people say unsettling things.
Aunt Dan and Lemon resembles My Dinner with André (pr. 1980), written with André Gregory, in being a play of ideas. In the latter work, the title character’s windy accounts of his search for selfhood prefigure the monologues of Aunt Dan and Lemon, but another character is present to puncture his pomposity. While My Dinner with André is a thoughtful but comfortable entertainment, full of common sense and humor, Aunt Dan and Lemon is deliberately humorless, never swerving from its dark irony. As with his sexual dramas, Shawn, writing in the tradition of George Bernard Shaw’s “unpleasant” plays, wants to shock his audiences out of their complacency—a complacency he sees as creating the horrors of war, prejudice, and persecution. Aunt Dan and Lemon won an Obie Award in 1991 for Best New American play.
In being politically provocative, Aunt Dan and Lemon resembles among 1980’s dramas less the plays of Shawn’s countrymen than the works of such British playwrights as Caryl Churchill and David Hare, especially the latter’s A Map of the World (pr., pb. 1983), which also gives the right wing an ironic soapbox. Shawn stands out in the American theater for courting controversy.