Archive for the ‘Wallace Shawn’ Category

The Playwright Nobody (and Everybody) Knows

June 3rd, 2008 No comments

I am continuing here with the second article from American Theatre from April that looked at Wallace Shawn. I know I am taken by him as a subject because I was acting as a dramaturg at Cleveland Public Theatre when they were producing The Designated Mourner, and I was surprised to see a photograph from that production in the American Theatre issue. I have, in fact, posted the piece that I wrote for the program at CPT on this blog.

The request that I write a program piece for the play was something I hadn’t expected and like many other young writers, I suppose, my experience of Wallace Shawn came from other areas of popular culture than through theatre. In fact, until I was asked to do the piece I didn’t even know he was a playwright. I read several critical articles, a book, read The Designated Mourner, Fever, and Aunt Dan and Lemon. I found that Case had a copy of My Dinner with Andre which I found fascinating and actually had an epiphany of sorts when Andre started talking about his “coincidence” experiences with The Little Prince and the hand tracings–for more on this, quite a fascinating talk–go to for a full transcript of My Dinner with Andre and do a browser search for “Saint-Exupéry” to find the section. (I am fascinated with stories of coincidence, which is one reason why I love the Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster, but I digress…)

The main point being that I found myself digging Wallace Shawn pretty hard during that time because he was definitely new and definitely different than where I had come from in the world of playwrighting and these articles in American Theatre really took me back to that experience.

The article on Shawn as a playwright covers a lot of the same ground that I did in my piece, so I’m not going to dwell on it. The only thing that I will point out is a cool radio play version of the Designated Mourner.

I think the two things that struck me most about this article are 1) Shawn’s true sense of disappointment in American theater and the sense, that we all know, that no one is going to it and that there are some things worth seeing and the true challenge of making that connection–of interested, active, passionate people to the theatre that would satisfy them. And for me, this is one of the big marketing challenges I see ahead for convergence-continuum: how do you get at the people who would be most interested in your theater when they have a notion of theatre that is different from what you’re doing; and further, how to connect with people who haven’t been in a theatre in years… 2) deals with something that Shawn says, on page 27:

I’ve always thought the best use of my talent would be as a literary writer. It would be a fantastic thing to have an impact on some specific problem in society–to write a play that whould have an influence on the debate about capital punishment in this country. But I’ve sort of decided I’m not going to organzie my life that way. And I’m going to follow this strange, somewhat old-fashioned belief in the idea of inspiration and that your subject picks you. You don’t pick the subject.”

I find that statement at once fascinating and also confirming for me. I’ve been dealing with this question, with no resolution, for some time. That is, what does it mean to be a playwright? Should I write “the well-made play” about a given topic. Should it be a well-formed, two-act play that deals with an issue–the injustice shown midwives in our society, the injustice shown empirics in the past (as did my play The Empiric), or any number of other issues that any one of us can come up with–always the most popular and glaring being the “abortion” play. That is, do you write plays that address topical themes of your day–relevant in some way to the culture or society–or do you seek some other level in yourself. Some form of expression that “finds you” as Shawn says, not that you choose.

For me, this was the main break between how I was approaching playwriting and how I have been altered since. I wrote The Empiric in 2005-2006 and it is about injustice and outrage; driven by sincere personal anger. Then I wrote A Howl in the Woods, now Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber–and it was authentic, pure–not motivated or consciously driven in any way by the logical mass between my ears. I let it direct me and it direct itself. The result? Something that will be staged, for one. Something that still is unsettling to me–because I don’t have an answer for what it is or what it means. It is from me, a part of me, and yet, the “me” that makes that definition has no way of defining clearly what it is–it is beyond a label.

So, knowing that Wallace Shawn addresses this question frankly in this article in American Theatre has lent me some comfort in a way of proceeding.

On Writing…and on Writing about Sex

June 2nd, 2008 No comments

Just now getting to the article in American Theatre highlighting the work of Wallace Shawn. The first that I’ll talk about is “Writing about Sex” which is the first article.

First, I found his commentary on writing to be not only amusing, but accurate. Shawn notes that,

“I don’t do my own writing. I personally sometimes express the point, when pressed, by saying that I see my writing as a sort of collaboration between my rational self (“me”) and the voice that comes from outside the window, the voice that comes in through the window, whose words I write down in a state of weirded-out puzzlement, thinking, “Jesus Christ, what the fuck is he saying?” The collaboration is really quite an unequal partnership, I’d have to admit. The voice contributes everything, and I contribute nothing, frankly, except some modest organizing abilities and (if I may say so) a certain skill in finding, among the voice’s many utterances, those that are most successful.” Pp24

There are many such examples of writers talking about how they write. The muses of course being the oldest, but always the notion that somehow one is channeling the voice or channeling the impulse, guiding it, stewarding it onto paper, into the laptop, whatever… The writers as a vehicle to impart the raging voice of the gods. The writer as a lightning rod. Or in the case above, the writer as the person sitting closest to the open window. But I find the notion of the “modest organizing” quite interesting at this point. The small kudos paid to the logical dweller in the great cavern who’s only pedantic offering is to sort things out. And I don’t underestimate this by any stretch of the imagination. Shawn is quite right to point to the “skill” required, for it is that. It is one that I am still honing. I can catch the torrent and ensure that it pours out onto a page. It is that skill at going back and doing the “modest organizing” and the “finding” that is most important. To pare down the utterance. To select. And yet NOT TO HARM or DISTORT the voice. My “modest” parcel always tries to tamper. Tries to adjust. And the only thing that I can think of right now is Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who dabbles a bit too much and all of a sudden the whole damn thing is spinning out of control—brooms and water everywhere.

And like Shawn, I am tempted to just call the voice the unconscious. Especially after my stints reading Jung and Campbell. But I am interested in the fact that he ties the unconscious to society—that:

“I’m forced to conclude that, if the unconscious has thoughts, it has to have heard these thoughts, or at least their constituent fragments, from human beings of some description—from the people I’ve met, the people I’ve read about, the people I’ve happened to overhear on the street. So, it’s not just a theory that society is speaking to itself through me.”

Here, Shawn really is pointing to the idea of society being channeled through the writer, and not the collective unconscious. This notion is somewhat different for me as I think the images that I have put out are somewhat more raw than something that would be formed by society. Shawn’s work is very talky and full of ideas that must be imparted—usually with a quick, breathless flurry. My images tend to stride and swagger around the room and fart. Yet, I find his notion of channeling the rest of society very compelling. And it is to this voice that Shawn attributes his focused interest in sex.

“So,” Shawn writes “at a certain point—and with a certain sadness, because of how I knew I would be seen by other people—I decided I was going to trust the voice I was hearing. And of course, like every writer, I hope I’ll be one of the ones who will be led to do something truly worthwhile.” 25

There are two things I would comment on here: first, the notion of how others will see you. Certainly, I have found, and am slowly wrestling with, that there is this realization that if you want to have an authentic voice you must speak the truth. I am reminded of the scene in Labute’s The Shape of Things where it is stated that there is no place for morality in art. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; books are well written or badly written.” And yet, the people you know DO SEE YOU DIFFERENTLY based on what you put out into the world. Dare you be daring and shock them all? Or do you stay domesticated and dish out lukewarm, tasteless paste? The second is that the hope that this voice will take him to election. That is, a sort of disembodied method of selection. An almost spiritual notion of selection for greatness. And not the notion of greatness for greatness in and of itself, but rather of being led to see something. That the reward is where you are taken, not in any outward dressings that are applied to it.

But more to the point of the article, the “voice outside the window” for Shawn kept returning to the topic of sex. So, the article asks, “why is sex interesting to write about?”

Well, for Shawn it has as much to do with the utter animal nature or bestial nature of the activity as anything—the shocking realization that he, as a human, in engaging in an activity that “pigs, flies, wolves, lions and tigers, also engage in…” 80. And that this fact disrupts his view of himself—“violently disrupts,” in fact. Although, he expands on this rather nicely by noting that sex is nature and that, as such, sex is really nature “coming into our home or apartment and taking root inside our own minds. It comes out of the mud where the earliest creatures swam; it comes up and appears in our brains in the form of feelings and thoughts.” That is to say, it insinuates itself into our whole being on nearly every level—and this, I suppose, is appropriate as it is the single imperative that nature outlines for us—all of we living beings on this planet, large or small, self-aware or not, by whatever definition, with souls or without, again by whatever definition—namely, to generate new versions of ourselves—to keep this Passion Play rolling along, regardless of the individual or personal character and the importance we attach to it—that is, our ‘self’. As Shawn comments, sex “sweeps other feelings and other thoughts completely out of the way.” Again, affirming its primal authority. It is the prime mover, the first cause, and it will not be bested.

Then, working his evolutionary magic, Shawn draws us into the absurdity of our own existence, as he always manages to do in his writing. By mis-direction he first, he draws our attention to the “big toe” and then compares it to the penis—noting that the two are made fundamentally similar materials. And then by spinning the logic of his argument out, he notes that men “buy magazines containing pictures of breasts, but not magazines with pictures of knees or elbows.” (Of course, during the Victorian-era, I’m sure this was in-fact the choice material—as societies at different times fetish-ize different things.) And then Shawn goes on to the demagoguery surrounding the choice of where to put that penis, and how, generally, the success or failure of an enterprise aimed at sexual gratification can make or break a poor human being. And expands to suggest that the power of desire (for anything: body, meadow, horse, painting, etc.) may reflect the power of love flowing through the individual. Hopefully, that is, not the likely more mundane rapacity of the lower Chakras—the third of possession in particular.

Shawn goes on to talk about the taboos and other barriers erected around sex, the idea of sex, the likelihood of sex, as well as the other features: jealousy, possessiveness, etc. And even notes evidence from a recent sociological survey that found, when Americans were asked the question: “What is very important for a successful marriage?” That 93% said their partner’s faithfulness, while only 70% said a “happy sexual relationship” thus drawing up the high irony that 23% of the respondents feel it is more important that their spouse not be having sex at all—or rather, as Shawn puts it “more important that they and their partner should not have sex with others than that they themselves should enjoy sex.” Yet another example of how the American individual is always more focused on the activities of others than engaged in that form of self-reflection that may lead to personal improvement and general happiness for the greater good. Further, Shawn notes that sex seems to lead to anarchy and thus those who are “committed to predictability and order find themselves inevitably either standing opposite to it, or occasionally trying to pretend to themselves that it doesn’t even exist.”

And at long last, Shawn concludes his tour by discussing what we may deem to be the ultimate point of this lively narrated escapade: that “perhaps it would be a good thing if people saw themselves as a part of nature, connected to the environment in which they live. Sex can be a very humbling, equalizing force…naked people do not wear medals, and weapons are forbidden inside the pleasure garden” and he even points out that when we find out some sexual tidbit about our leaders they somehow lose a measure of their superiority or power—they are lessened in our minds by the revelation. Again, connecting the impulse to sex back to the poor creatures of the earth, reminding ourselves that we are in fact one of them.

I am reminded of a movie that was on HBO frequently when I was a teen: Maxwell Smart and the Nude Bomb. It has been a while since I thought of this movie. The premise can be inferred from the title. The moment that I remember most, however, is a conference which must have been a mock representation of the United Nations. Maxwell Smart, or someone, makes the observation that a nude bomb would be great—it would end war—you can’t kill someone on a battlefield if you can’t tell him apart. You’d be unable to make the distinction. At which point an African states boldly, “We would.”

Some differences then are impossible to be got rid of. But the overall message of Shawn in this article is valid and enjoyably delivered.

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