Wallace Shawn’s Class Honors


What exactly about Wallace Shawn’s voice? His vocal presence keeps you alert and unlikely charmed, even when the main men in his plays – the writer-actor often portray them himself – are at their worst pig and sociopath. You hate these guys, but you kinda are also get them. Gideon Media has released audio versions of two of Shawn’s previously produced plays, “The Designated Mourner” (1996) and “Grasses of a Thousand Colors” (2009). These twin speculative catastrophes are presented in podcast form, six episodes each, placing Shawn’s voice (he stars in both) directly into the ears of his listeners, which helps clarify his eerie, vacillating power.

When a character played by Shawn is confused or having fun, the actor goes for nasal, whimsical, and twangy, almost untrue rides. His middling voice, the one he uses for the backstory and tongue-in-cheek irritation, is still a little phlegmatic, suggesting the first flushes of a cold. In its deepest registers, the voice takes on gravel. Shawn also has a slight lisp, making his phrases rubbery and round, which he plays for innocence, but his hissing becomes threatening at the end. The result is something like Shawn’s plays themselves: noble and intelligent, deceptively brutal, and increasingly gloomy in the moment.

Shawn’s voice could be regarded as a metonymy of the class to which he ambivalently belongs, and which he has made the main object of his dramatic investigations. He is the most insistent class traitor in American theater. In “The Designated Mourner” he plays Jack, an eccentric con artist who sends dispatches from an unnamed country to what might be the not too distant future. Amid authoritarianism from above and uprisings of the poorer classes below, the intellectual and aesthetic class – including Jack’s wife, Judy, and his poet father, Howard – has either been purged, be imprisoned. Jack, who declares himself the “designated mourning” of this class, to which he belonged only in a tenuous way – among other concerts, he wrote a column on sex – does not seem particularly sad about his disappearance, nor of the fate. of his wife and his father. -the in-laws, whom none of them, it seems, ever really liked. He’s unfaithful in a jaded way and is jealous of Howard’s effortless “smart” performance – the old man can read John Donne intimately, and Jack just can’t. Judy, who, with Howard, speaks in monologues woven in counterpoint to those of Jack, remarks his essential coldness: “The one thing Jack would never say, the word he couldn’t stand: love.”

In “Fat”, Shawn plays a doctor named Ben, intelligent and informed but monstrously self-centered, just like Jack. He too lives in a dystopia that doesn’t seem too unlikely given current realities, but unlike Jack, he has the distinction of having directly caused the situation himself. He invented a compound called Grain Number One, which, by conditioning animals to eat the flesh of other animals, even of their own kind, promises to conserve vegetation that they would otherwise have fed. Things go haywire, triggering an apocalypse, leaving humans obsessed with sex and the subject of their own genitals.

Jack and Ben both love to watch, talk and think about – and, yes, touching for free – what they call their “cocks”. Here, the American navelist slipped a few inches and landed at the crotch. The two cast humor and insight right before they happily jump off either high moral cliff. Other types of writer-actors have played the upper-middle-class intellectual as some sort of sheepish hero, while hiding, beautifying, or justifying the dark interiors that often accompany this seemingly benign performance. Shawn flips that kind of character and shows the demon inside, then offers a tour of the kind of hell he can create.

(In strange harmony, the credits for “The Designated Mourner,” which are played after each episode, cite one of the play’s former producers, Scott Rudin, the film, television and theater blockbuster, who recently faces new accusations of workplace abuse. Rudin has since retired from his role as a producer on several Broadway shows. The quote is certainly a professional formality, but it feels on the theme: it is a reminder of the dangerous potential behind early intelligence and high achievement.)

The hidden meanness of mannerisms is a constant theme in Shawn, in his plays, and also in his occasional prose. He always seeks, and duly finds, impunity on the part of the elite, and the corresponding unrest of the lower classes. In a recent article for The New Republic, he traced the still existing and rapidly exploding conflict between the educated and liberal population and the “not well educated” whites who expressed their hostility in the form of support for Donald Trump. Shawn admits his origins in the law class. “I am part of it, even though I tried to escape from it,” he writes. (Shawn is the son of this magazine’s second editor, William Shawn.) Although many of the elite voted for Trump, Shawn was more interested in those “who had very little money and who were even desperate enough for the money ”and nonetheless voted for a ruthless and money-hungry heir because they were“ humbled by the imaginary contempt they felt in their leadership ”.

It has become an easy reflex to dismiss Trump’s lower class voters – in fiction and also in reality – as rubes and racists stupidly throwing their meager pearls in front of a rogue demagogue. Shawn, however, identifies the material struggle between the classes as the inescapable subtext of their hostility: “It is economic inequality that divided us into clashing groups just before the war.

In “The Designated Mourner,” Jack makes many crude but useful distinctions, including between the passive “rabbits”, happy to gnaw the grass of the world without acquisition conflict, and the ruthless “rats” who do all that. it takes to earn a little more. than their share. At one point, Jack makes a simple, conscious observation of his class, not unlike Shawn’s, with a particularly cheerful and contemptuous turn:

If you look at the world. . . most of the people in it are the ones we can only refer to, rather nervously and cautiously, with those terribly melodramatic and almost hysterical words like “miserable”, “miserable”, “unhappy”, “desperate” , “helpless”, “poor.” . . . And these people in particular — and, you know, God knows why — well, they just don’t like us. They don’t like us. They just don’t like us. So it is not difficult to see what will happen one day.

One of the peculiarities of these wonderfully sinister audio productions is that they bring together the actors and creative teams from previous productions. In “The Designated Mourner,” Deborah Eisenberg, Shawn’s longtime romantic partner, returns as the panting, sad and torn Judy, and Larry Pine plays Howard again. In “Grasses”, Julie Hagerty plays Ben’s wife, Cerise; Jennifer Tilly plays his mistress, Robin (her deranged laugh while describing an inexplicable rash is one of the funniest and weirdest moments in the play); and Emily Cass McDonnell plays his girlfriend Rose. The two pieces, which are divided into episodes of about half an hour and best to listen to all at once, are conducted by Shawn’s loyal collaborator, André Gregory; composer Bruce Odland designed the spectacular and eerie soundscapes.

“Grasses” is an impenetrable and dreamlike tale, a poem more conceptual than a traditional play. Basically, it’s an ecological exploration – the Anthropocene ends, humans, animals and plants slide into precarious equality. Nature, just like the human working classes, has a righteous vendetta and the numbers to win a war. Shawn speaks through the species with his acrobatic timbre, using his offbeat imagination and knack for a comedic, lascivious description: Blanche, a cat, is Ben’s most ardent lover, and also a sort of wordless antagonist. Shawn’s monologues – and the actors’ recurrence in their roles, their familiar voices slightly sanded by time – are omens: form yourself soon, stop the cycle and look up above your belt line, or feel the ground start to shake under your feet. ♦


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