(Photo by Jared Rodriguez)
It was the perfectly imperfect way to begin.
CUNY’s Proshanky Auditorium was packed, and as I found a seat in the second row, I also stumbled upon some theatre friends in the row behind me. After a few minutes of excitedly discussing Wallace Shawn’s work, two women sitting next to my friends interrupted us.
“Would you like to sit next to your friends?” The icy inquiry clearly meant, “would you like to stop talking?”, and I turned to take in the two older, immaculately dressed women directly behind me. Jewelry glittered on their hands and necks, and their smiling eyes were knives neatly laid out on a counter.
The second woman added, “I’m actually quite happy where I’m sitting, only, if you’d like to yell at your friends, perhaps you could do so afterwards.” She said it reasonably, as if suggesting I might want to use an umbrella in the rain.
I felt a flash of real anger, and turned to mutter it safely away. But as the heat flooded my cheeks, I realized this was a perfect prologue to Wallace Shawn’s work.
Because for the next ninety minutes, we were treated to variations on those themes: the pleasurable, corrosive superiority of class; our natural barbarity veiled in feigned civility; the animals of sex and violence that lurk under our pretense of self; and thankfully, the capacity of beauty to counter cruelty.
Yes, there were some impressive readers, including Fran Lebowitz, Julianne Moore, Mary-Louise Parker and Josh Hamilton; but the most piercing illumination of the evening came from Shawn’s words.
On aesthetic taste: “A parsnip is not a bad carrot – it’s just a different vegetable.”
On the impact of the arts: “They have influence, not power.”
On acting: ” We are not what we seem; we are more than we seem; the actor knows that.”
On haircuts: “There are haircuts that say, ‘I think sex is an interesting subject.’”
On our public selves: “The costumes are wrong; we have to start out naked, and go from there.”
More on art and power: “A poem really is more enjoyable than an empire because it doesn’t hate you.”
One by one, these phrases lit up the outline of a dark truth; whatever privilege enjoyed by those present in the room was inextricably linked to the suffering of many outside of it, and the laughter at Shawn’s wit began to subside.
For this is one of Shawn’s unique gifts: his stories feel as if they are being told to you over a dinner table, and so however far his stories go into the ecstasies of sex or the cruelties of violence, a part of you is still sitting at that table. When the story ends, those extremities now keep your food and candlelight company. Because those cruelties and ecstasies are not other than you, they are you, even if (for the moment) only as possibilities.
Those possibilities are full of both disgust and delight, and Shawn’s work is full of those contradictions. His stories hurt us because they please us, and please because they hurt.
According to Shawn, we have become a culture where the vague awareness of suffering connected to our pleasure has become a necessary background music to that pleasure. Shawn turns the volume of that music all the way up, knowing if we really look at reality for a moment, “it is not bearable”; and only when it becomes unbearable is there a possibility of affecting real change.
As the evening continued, I became aware of a pair of police officers guarding the stage. The officer closest to me spent a good deal of time watching the event, but she never laughed, even when the audience roared. She was outside, even as she stood guarding those on the inside, or at least, she seemed so to me. I thought of Shawn’s fascination with the mystery of self juxtaposed against the narrow roles we play for each other, and then…
…and then I became aware of the officer and my friends and foes behind me, aware of the stars on the stage and the audience watching them, aware of those whose suffering was linked to my comfortable life; all at once aware of them in that way that feels like a penny dropped in water, that rippling outwards from the greedy self ; I became aware of how all of us are not what we seem, that we are more than we seem, capable of great cruelties and ecstasies.
After experiences like that, I find I am kinder to people, because I’m reminded of what we’re all capable of, for better and worse. So I turned to say something to the women behind me, something funny and kind that would show our previous encounter beneath the mutual goodness of our souls. But my eye caught my friends first, and after I’d spoken with them, I turned and the women were gone.
So it was a good night at the theatre. If you’re ready to look at the things Wallace Shawn’s plays want you to see, you can find some of them here, and his essays are here. Thanks to CUNY, Haymarket, the actors, and the TCG staffers who made it all happen!