Wallace Shawn Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Playwright, screenwriter, and actor Wallace Shawn was born in New York City, the elder son of William Shawn, noted editor of The New Yorker, and Cecille Shawn. After attending Dalton School, a private high school in New York, and Putney, a preparatory school in Vermont, he studied history at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1965, and philosophy, politics, and economics at Magdalen College of Oxford University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1968 and a master’s degree in 1975. In 1965 and 1966, he taught English at Indore Christian College in India as a Fulbright fellow.

Shawn’s work as a playwright led him to study acting, in order to sharpen his skills in creating and developing characters for the stage. Like many who pursue careers in the theater, he has held numerous jobs unrelated to the practice of his art, such as clerking in New York’s garment district, teaching Latin, and photocopying documents. For many years, Shawn has lived with the writer Deborah Eisenberg in a Manhattan loft.

Shawn’s interest in the theater and the performing arts dates back to childhood productions that he and his brother, the composer Allen Shawn, would create and produce for the family’s enjoyment. As a young man, he considered a career as a diplomat; however, while attending Oxford University in 1967, he wrote a script, Four Meals in May, and entered it in a competition for playwrights. The script did not win, but its author discovered his calling in the theater and continued to write plays. In 1975, he won an Obie Award from The Village Voice for the Off-Broadway staging of Our Late...

(The entire section is 681 words.)