Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957
Wallace Shawn’s upbringing was without question a privileged one. His father, William Shawn, was the editor of The New Yorker for several decades, and Shawn grew up in the atmosphere of the Manhattan literary society. His education was extensive, including the best schools in the English-speaking world. From the Dalton School (1948-1957) and Putney School (1958-1961), Shawn went on to take a B.A. in history from Harvard (1965). He then took additional degrees at Magdalen College, Oxford: a B.A. in philosophy, politics, and economics (1968) and an M.A. in Latin under G. J. Warnock (1968). The time between universities was spent teaching English on a Fulbright scholarship at Indore Christian College, India.
Shawn’s dramatic talents were encouraged by his parents, who provided him with creative tools such as a toy theater and a motion-picture camera. His childhood theatrics included the composition and performance of lurid murder mysteries with his younger brother Allen. Shawn recalls that an important turning point in his perception of drama came when his father took part in a different kind of play, about a botanist in Japan. From this point, Shawn developed the conviction that a play could be almost anything, and other performances included a four-hour version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a play featuring Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a Chinese dynastic drama. Many of these performances featured music by Allen Shawn, with whom Wallace continued to collaborate.
The young Shawn attended frequent professional productions in New York, including acclaimed productions of work as varied as Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (pr., pb. 1946) and the early classics of the absurdist drama. This exposure reinforced Shawn’s conviction that the potential topics for dramatization are infinite.
Shawn’s career after Oxford started with two years of teaching Latin at the Church of the Heavenly Rest Day School in Manhattan. During that time, Shawn began to write regularly, drafting plays such as Four Meals in May and The Old Man. Shawn then took a succession of odd jobs, including work as a shipping clerk in the garment district and as a copy-machine operator, while drafting a number of short plays and one full-length script, The Hotel Play. During this time, Shawn also studied acting with Katherine Sergava at the H.B. studio.
Shawn maintained a long-term relationship with writer Deborah Eisenberg. His play Marie and Bruce is dedicated to her, and she is mentioned several times in My Dinner with André. She also appeared in the New York production of The Designated Mourner in 2000. Her book of short stories, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), carries a dedication to Shawn, and her long story “A Cautionary Tale” (published in The New Yorker) features characters resembling them both. Eisenberg has also authored one play, Pastorale (1982), which features the same sorts of casually cryptic dialogue and frustrated young characters that appear in Shawn’s dramatic output.
Shawn’s first break came through André Gregory’s Manhattan Project. The hourlong production of Our Late Night, Shawn’s first professional production, was awarded an Obie for Best Play Off-Broadway. Shawn was then engaged by the Public Theatre to prepare the adaptation of Niccolò Machiavelli’s La mandragola (pr. c. 1519; The Mandrake, 1911). The production was staged by Wilford Leach, and Shawn was featured as an actor in the prologue. Leach later directed Marie and Bruce, with Louise Lasser and Bob Balaban, in a widely reviewed Public Theatre production in 1980 that led Shawn to a publishing contract with Grove Press.
Shawn’s plays have also received several productions in London, including an early stage version of My Dinner with André in 1980. The first British production of his work was a succès de scandale, a staging of the trilogy Three Short Plays by Max Stafford-Clark for the Joint Stock Company in 1977. One part of the trilogy, an orgiastically sexual play called The Youth Hostel, aroused a public outcry over alleged obscenity. The author fortunately escaped prosecution, but concern over the representation of sex precluded any impression that might have been created by the play’s artistic qualities. Later productions of Marie and Bruce and Aunt Dan and Lemon were received more responsibly.
The development of Shawn’s acting career since 1977 has allowed him the comfort of a regular income and the time to pursue his writing projects. Shawn has had large character roles in a number of films, such as an obsessed psychiatrist in Marshall Brickman’s Lovesick (1983), a depraved priest in the schoolboy drama Heaven Help Us (1985), the diminutive innkeeper Freud in The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), and a comic villain in director Rob Reiner’s film The Princess Bride (1987). He is still perhaps best known for a brief appearance as Diane Keaton’s former lover in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), as well as for his role as himself in the film version of My Dinner with André. Shawn has also appeared frequently in his own plays, including the 1981 La Mama E.T.C. production of The Hotel Play, the stage and screen versions of My Dinner with André, and the London and New York productions of Aunt Dan and Lemon. He has also appeared as the sole performer in The Fever.
By his own admission, writing does not come particularly easy to Shawn. Nevertheless, he has consistently pursued the images and themes that capture his imagination, always with the assumption that a personal concern with the material will arouse some similar response in the audience. Shawn has not developed any formulaic approach, though his work has distinctive stylistic traits and persistent themes. His plays have shown a steady improvement, and his following has continued to grow as his works enter the repertoire of major regional playhouses such as the Magic Theater and the Mark Taper Forum.
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