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Designated Mourner

Designated Mourner @ CPT

Wallace Shawn may be more familiar to you as an actor than as a playwright. His appearance in films such as ManhattanMy Dinner with Andre, The Princess Bride, Prick Up Your Ears, and Vanya On 42nd Street, as well as more popular television forms such as Murphy Brown and Ally McBeal make him an almost ubiquitous character actor on the screen.

Unless you’re a hardcore theatre buff, his work as a playwright is likely less known to you. Plays by Shawn include The Hospital Play, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and of course The Designated Mourner.

In his book Writing Wrongs, W. D. King describes Shawn in terms of an A and B personality. The primary personality, the A personality, is the intellectual, the playwright, the self-described liberal prince (son of The New Yorker editor William Shawn): striving to be an artist and striving to right society’s wrongs. The secondary personality, the B personality, is the actor, the persona that most of society recognizes: the angry little balding man with the funny face and high-pitched voice. But don’t confuse the two: in his plays the little balding man with the funny face is gone, replaced by a complex voice that is not afraid to fix the view of an audience on things which are most uncomfortable to look at.

In his play Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn’s main character, Lenora (Lemon), opens the play by praising Nazis and proceeds to reflect on her life and upbringing, closing the play by again praising Nazi efficiency and asking the audience to thank the killers. Shawn writes:

“A perfectly decent person can turn into a monster perfectly easily–the difference between a perfectly decent person and a monster is just a few thoughts. The perfectly decent person who follows a certain chain of reasoning, ever so slightly and subtly incorrect, becomes a perfect monster at the end of the chain.”

The irony for the audience is that at the end of the play one is supposed to give applause. But how do you applaud Nazi efficiency and a request to thank the killers? Shawn loves to fix an audience on the end of a pin, and this is only one example.

Perhaps a more notable example is The Fever, a play told by an unknown narrator who is sick in a foreign country. The play is a brutal self-flagellation that some suggest is a case of liberal guilt, but is nonetheless a ruthless indictment of our inability or lack of desire to help the impoverished and miserable of the world. Shawn intended the play to be “performed in homes and apartments, for groups of ten or twelve,” and has admitted his interest in seeing the audience react as much as anything. This last piece of information is significant, as it demonstrates Shawn’s desire to change the theater fundamentally. In the case described, the audience has become the “thing” to watch, not the reverse.

In fact, the most notable aspect of Shawn’s work is the seeming lack of structure or, at least, lack of well-drawn plot. Shawn himself has said, “It’s laughable, in a way, that someone who has no sense of character or plot would become a playwright.” His plays are, in a way, excavations of character, psychology, and motivation: why does person X become person X? Or, to use the words of Howard in The Designated Mourner, “Wouldn’t it be more valuable to try to understand various things?”for example, to understand what circumstances in the world or in a person’s life might lead them to behave the way Martin behaved?”

In Our Late Night, a couple’s relationship is excavated and analyzed as the two lie in bed on the edge of wakefulness and sleep. In My Dinner with Andre, both characters analyze their motivations for seeking, or not seeking, spiritual and creative awakening”the character Andre examining in excruciating detail his life experience. In Aunt Dan and Lemon, the character Lemon opens the play saying that she admires Nazis for their “refreshing” lack of hypocrisy”and Shawn wants to show you how she’s come to that admiration. In The Fever, the narrator torments himself seeking the solution to how he should act in the world and why he doesn’t. In The Designated Mourner the character Jack disassociates himself with his wife and father-in-law, managing to avoid a political execution, and we witness his transformation and disassociation in excruciating detail.

Shawn’s plays often border on the edge of the abstract, that is, they nearly become expressionist pieces that can focus solely on the image of something or of creating the image of something to impress upon your mind a certain sensation. The Designated Mourner is no exception. Don’t be fooled early on by the conversational tone of the piece, the virtual nonchalance of the way characters address you. Shawn’s plays are largely conversational, involving lengthy monologues delivered by characters to you as audience: you as hearer becoming, in effect, a confidant for the character. Shawn places you in the position of sifting through the actions, motivations, and statements of a character to discover the moral righteousness or unrighteousness of the action, motivation, or statement: that is, Shawn places you in a position of judgment.

As Shawn himself notes, “Most of the people who go to the theatre are simply looking for a certain kind of soothing experience that will take their mind off their troubles. So if that’s why a person has come to the theatre, I feel like an idiot grabbing him by the throat and trying to get him to worry about the things that are bothering me. My style as a human being is to indulge people who need to escape. Yet I insist on confronting them as a playwright. It’s quite embarrassing, it’s quite unpleasant, it’s quite awkward.”

In The Designated Mourner Shawn posits a future that may be, a future where the intellectual, the philosopher, the person concerned with more profoundly human things is driven out of existence: a future, perhaps, of purely animal joys and experiences. Shawn takes aim at a society strangely familiar, one in which high standards have disappeared, morality is vanishing, ethics and good taste are buried. As if this weren’t enough, you get to watch the main character, Jack, dismantle himself, change himself, to be less like the hunted, and more like the mob. As the character Judy remarks, “Human motivation is not complex, or it’s complex only in the same sense that the motivation of a fly is complex. In other words, if you try to swat a fly, it moves out of the way. And humans are the same. They step aside when they sense something coming, about to hit them in the face.”

In The Designated Mourner Shawn opens up a frightening landscape so that you may peer into it as though it were a crystal ball. I hope you’re ready for him to grab your throat.

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