WhatsOnStage Logo

Wallace Shawn Goes Courting

There can’t be many writers of provocative contemporary American drama who can also act in sitcoms and do voiceovers for Toy Story. Step forward Wallace Shawn, whose many achievements are being celebrated in a dedicated three-month season starting this week at the Royal Court. Michael Coveney reports.

WhatsOnStage logo

Wallace Shawn goes back a very long way with the Royal Court. He has appeared there a couple of times in his own work, first as a New York socialite in Marie and Bruce (1979), a devastating critique of a dead middle-class relationship, and soon afterwards in a few readings of what later became his signature movie, My Dinner With Andre (1981) once the producer, Michael White, raised the last investment to enable Louis Malle to start filming.

Since then, Max Stafford-Clark collaborated with Joe Papp’s New York Public Theater on the 1985 production, directed by Stafford-Clark, of Aunt Dan and Lemon, a play which flew in the face of all orthodox liberal opinion in expressing sympathy for Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy and the war in Vietnam. And Shawn himself appeared – again in the Upstairs studio – in The Fever (1991), his coruscating monologue about the conscience of a self-confessed pampered liberal confronting world poverty.

Major surprise for movie fans

So the Wallace Shawn season this month not only celebrates one of New York’s most brilliant and controversial dramatists, but also pulls together a body of work that might come as a major surprise for a generation of theatregoers who more readily associate the author with his movie appearances as a succession of geeks, nerds and chrome domes in films like Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) – his character’s unlikely sexual power, we were told, reduced Diane Keaton to jelly – Radio Days (1987), Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987) and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995).

Not only that, he was the voice of Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story (1995) and even appeared as John Lahr, his fellow New Yorker, great friend and critical champion, in Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears (1987), the film about Joe Orton written by Alan Bennett and based on Lahr’s biography. And he pops up on American sitcoms like Taxi and The Cosby Show. Hell, he was even Zek the Grand Magus in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

How do we reconcile this zany, pop-eyed capering little gnome (now 65, Shawn’s about five foot, three inches tall and lives in Manhattan with his life-long companion, the writer Deborah Eisenberg) with the dark and scabrous playwright, one whose latest drama, Grasses of a Thousand Colours – receiving its world premiere in the Royal Court season, directed by Andre Gregory and featuring in the cast Shawn himself alongside Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Tilly – pulsates with sex and an explicit discussion of predatory male sexuality that would bring a blush to the cheek even of a depraved Casanova?

Core of utter cruelty

The question was answered by the Irish critic Fintan O’Toole in suggesting that, according to Shawn, darkness is inextricable from popular entertainment, that wrapped up in the smooth consolation of prime time, is a core of utter cruelty. Dominic Cooke, the Court’s artistic director, who is directing Clare Higgins in The Fever and Jane Horrocks in Aunt Dan and Lemon, is a long-time admirer who wants Wally fully outed at last as a major stage player.

“I’m very keen,” he says – and he said this right from day one in Sloane Square – “to make our audiences question their own values when they come to see plays here. A place like the Royal Court is in permanent danger of preaching to the converted, but Wally doesn’t give any of us an easy time in his plays. And because they are done so infrequently, there’s a whole generation, even working within our own theatre, who don’t know his work. I hope this season will put that right.”

Shawn himself is happy to be back in London, where the theatre community has always made him feel at home. When Stafford-Clark produced and directed his Thought in Three Parts at the ICA in 1976 (the play will be directed in a reading by Caryl Churchill during the season), the scenes of masturbation, dildo-waving and ejaculation resulted in a fistful of bad reviews (“There is no attempt at anything that could be called artistic endeavour,” snorted the Daily Telegraph) and questions in the House of Lords. Churchill signed a letter to the Guardian – along with Howard Brenton, David Hare and Barrie Keeffe – deploring the “mindless and prudish abuse” meted out to “our gifted colleague”.

Barbarians through the gates

Hare himself directed Shawn’s last play, The Designated Mourner (1996), at the National Theatre, with film director Mike Nichols declaring, in the course of just 20 sold-out performances in the Cottesloe, that everyone on earth who could once read John Donne was now dead. All done and dusted, in fact. The barbarians were through the gates and literary society was destroyed. Nichols as Jack – the performance was underrated because of the hoo-ha over whether or not he was reading it from an autocue – sat with the other actors (Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser) at a large table in a golden bunker laden with endangered books.

Those books are one of the necessary comforts in a life defined by a background Shawn is creatively uneasy about. His father, William Shawn, was a legendary editor of The New Yorker between 1952 and 1987 and although he lives frugally he still owns up to feeling like “an aristocrat in the 17th century”. He never owned a television, fax machine or microwave oven and until recently was computer illiterate.

Shawn always says, though, that his plays are more about the audience than himself, and he disarmingly claims to have no sense of humour, “so I don’t know what’s funny about a character. This happens to be a feature of my life, generally. I do things, and other people laugh at them. I rarely know what the joke is supposed to be or why they’re laughing ... my characters are much wilder than me. I’m really a buttoned-up little creep.”

Cultural guilt

The Fever, which Shawn first performed in private houses in New York, is the classic statement of his own cultural guilt and despairing sense of self and is, he says, “some kind of human exhortation which is meant to arouse thought and action, not appreciation of enjoyment.” Frank Rich of the New York Times, dismissed the monologue as “a musty radical chic stunt destined to be parodied” but Shawn himself (who was shattered by that review) has recently reprised his performance to general acclaim on Broadway and the play has blazed irresistibly in the performances of the Irish Canadian actress Clare Coulter in London ten years ago, and in Vanessa Redgrave’s 2004 television recording.

Dominic Cooke thinks the piece is equally powerful performed by a man or a woman, though he admits there’s a line about socks he may discuss with the author and Clare Higgins before they launch their revival. “It’s an incredible text. You don’t have to change a thing. I think The Fever is about a particular kind of New York sensibility, but I know Wally doesn’t agree with that! The newer version of the play has some oblique references to technology and terrorism, and otherwise remains driven by its desire to implicate an audience, not preach at them.”

The nub of the philosophical argument centres on the necessity of poverty in the world. How could we afford to buy a shirt or an apple if the poor were paid their full due in order to facilitate our comfort? “We need solace,” says the speaker, “we need consolation, we need nice food, we need nice things to wear, we need beautiful paintings, movies, plays, drives in the country, bottles of wine.” But what is the privileged person to put back, and is anything he puts back of any value? Shawn doesn’t know. Do you?

The Wallace Shawn season at the Royal Court begins with in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs with The Fever (2 April to 2 May), which is followed by Aunt Dan and Lemon (20 May to 27 June), both directed by Dominic Cooke. In the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Shawn himself appears in the world premiere of Grasses of a Thousand Colours (12 May to13 June). The plays are presented alongside a series of Shawn readings and film screenings.

A version of this article appears in the April issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out now in participating theatres. NOTE: After the April issue, the magazine will be available on subscription only as one of the many benefits of our Theatre Club. To guarantee you receive all future editions, click here to subscribe now!!


Tagged in this Story