Friday, February 5, 2010

Wallace Shawn

I have always liked Wallace Shawn. Although he is primarily a playwright, he has appeared in quite a few movies, most notably for me: Manhattan, My Dinner with Andre, and Vanya on 42nd Street. His part in Manhattan is tiny but memorable; he is the "homunculus" who is described by Diane Keaton as a devastating ladies' man. He is, of course, the important secondary character in "Dinner," the ever-patient Wally who actually encourages Andre the existential romantic to recount his elaborate tales at considerable length. And he is none other than Vanya himself in the filmed Chekhov play produced by Andre Gregory (As in My Dinner with) and directed by the great filmmaker, Louis Malle.

No matter what role he plays, though, he tends to be likable, the kind of fellow whom you would enjoy having dinner with, even if he does get just a bit irascible at times. But since I am ashamed to admit that I have not seen or read his many plays, I was stunned when I encountered his new book of collected essays. They are magnificent: funny, harrowing, principled, and devastatingly honest.

We also went to see him at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday night, and although he seemed both lethargic and overly deliberate in his speech (sometimes the words came very slowly), he was likable and funny and utterly forthright. There were two related things that I found especially fascinating. One, that in answer to a question about whether he would do "My Dinner with Andre" differently now if he were making it today, he said that the Wally character in all of his smug complacency would be impossible. Too much has happened since then, he averred, and the sense that we are in a worldwide crisis makes such complacency absurd, even inconceivable now. Second, he was downright voluble about the fact that he has moved pretty sharply to the left politically. This is linked to the subject of a number of the essays in his new book, and, in essence, stems from the stunning realization that the enormous privilege he enjoys as an inhabitant of the "Mansion of Arts and Letters" is made possible by an imperial power that is feared throughout the world but that ensures, in the process of asserting its hegemony, that Wallace Shawn and others like him will have all the goods and resources they need to continue to lead their lives of art, creativity, and leisure. This idea that he depends on the unprecedented power of the United States to make his own incredibly cushy life possible has been utterly transforming for him and he is still reeling from its implications. The one thing he is willing to venture, however timidly, is that artists can and must make a difference in helping to change the world. It just won't do any more to claim that art is separate from life. It not only never was, but, in fact, artists, in Shawn's view, has a responsibility to make life, which includes ensuring that everyone has opportunities for creative endeavor, better for all.

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