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Fall 2010

Eleanor Roosevelt Murdering Babies

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Jess Row

An evening at the theater begins as a rush to the finish line: the tickets and keys are lost and found; the babysitter finally arrives; the prix fixe linguini is cold; the cab gets stuck in traffic; the coat-check line takes forever. When we finally find our seats—fidgeting with our programs, diving into pockets to turn off cell phones—and the lights dim, we enter an uneasy purgatorial space: bodies winding down, digestive systems palpating around a sludgy mass, minds caught halfway between the cocoon of the day’s worries and the oblivion of sleep. It’s a vulnerable, complacent, fetal state, edged with anxiety, even a slight frisson of guilt: Was it worth $50 a ticket? Will I understand the accents? Will I fall asleep and have nothing to talk about at intermission? And then: At least I’m not home on the couch again. Here I am, patronizing the Arts. That must mean something.

“Hello, dear good people who have taken yourselves out for a special treat, a night at the theater,” Lemon begins, in Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon:

Hello, little children. How sweet you are, how innocent. If everyone were just like you, perhaps the world would be nice again, perhaps we all would be happy again… Maybe you’re wondering about all these glasses, all these drinks? They’re all sweet fruit and vegetable juices, my friends. I spend all my money on these wonderful drinks—lime and celery and lemon and grape—because I’m a very sick girl, and these juices are almost all I can take to sustain this poor little body of mine. Bread and juices, and rolls, of course.

This language is one theatergoers know and use, unconsciously—the high aspirations and ideals of Art, combined with the minute attention to the frailties and particular needs of our own sovereign selves—but here there’s something slightly sinister about it, something rancid and sticky. Those unnecessary, redundant, extravagant adjectives and qualifiers (“sweet fruit juices,” “wonderful drinks,” “poor little body”) and the proliferating, voraciously necessary nouns (“lime and celery and lemon and grape”)—innocuous in themselves, but poisonous in combination. It’s as if we’ve fallen asleep and found ourselves in a world populated by our own clever, entitled, unreasonable inner children.

Aunt Dan and Lemon, produced in 1985, and perhaps the best-known of Shawn’s plays, is a narrated monologue punctuated with scenes, a reminiscence that turns, first with excruciating slowness and then with terrifying speed, into a rant. The summer nights Lemon spends with Aunt Dan—her only friend and role model, a bon vivant and Kissinger devotee—create in her mind a kind of steely and exacting logic she then pursues to its inevitable end:

The mere fact of killing human beings in order to create a certain way of life is not something that exactly distinguishes the Nazis from everybody else. The fact is, no society has ever considered the taking of life an unpardonable crime or even, really, a major tragedy… If we didn’t have to do it in order to create a way of life we want for ourselves, we would never be involved in killing at all. But since we have to do it, why not be truthful about it, and why not admit that yes, yes, there’s something inside us that likes to kill?

Wait a minute, we may be thinking, how did we begin with fruit juices and arrive so quickly, by a series of dramatic developments, of shifts in logic, at genocide? What we have here is not the banality but the obviousness of evil: the slippage from one register to another, from the boundaries of the body to the legislation of the world. As Shawn puts it in his essay “‘Morality,’” which began life as an afterword to the play, “Our political attitudes can only come out of what we are…as all of our attitudes flow into action, flow into history, the bedroom and the battlefield soon seem to be one.” What makes his theater unbearable—what may explain why it’s more admired than produced, at least in the United States—is his insistence that the body, with its “private” needs, is inextricably intertwined with the world and is, in fact, the source of our most radical and unforgivable hypocrisies.

“In the old, old days when I was growing up,” says Ben, the aging protagonist of Grasses of a Thousand Colors, “people simply didn’t think very much about their genitals. And they never talked about them.” Shawn’s own life, as sketched in his Essays, follows a similar trajectory: beginning in a state of polite, genteel, ironclad repression, which falls apart, bit by bit, as the bare facts of life are revealed. “My parents,” he writes, “were completely assimilated American Jews…fortunate members of the bourgeoisie, and American liberals of the old school”:

I remember going with my mother to the gorgeous, modern United Nations build-ings on our own island of Manhattan and buying holiday cards from UNICEF in the United Nations gift shop… To her, being an American meant being a person who loved the United Nations and was a friend to poor children all over the world, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson… My father [was] a kind and beloved mentor to writers, and at the same time a highly respected judge of literature; and whenever he was discussed…it was always said that he had “high standards.”

Shawn’s father, the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, appears here only in one childhood anecdote: bursting into tears when young Wallace laughs at an “overweight, bizarre, miserable-looking boy in the street.” It’s a predictable, overdetermined dynamic (“You could say, boringly, that I’ve therefore often been a ‘person in conflict’”) but in his perverse, complacent, over-privileged younger self Shawn locates the seed of his artistic life: the tension between one who sleeps in the muffled bed of privilege and one who awakens to “the pain of the amputee’s severed limb—a weird memory of the people to whom I seem to have no current connections: the poor and the oppressed.”

In our current climate we have an allergy to the adjective “political” when applied to art, and it would be unflattering for me to call Wallace Shawn a “political playwright,” but of course, as Essays makes clear, his work has always been haunted by a kind of perpetual moral tinnitus, an inability to reconcile the life he has with the values he has been taught to embrace:

When I was a child, I didn’t know that the pieces of paper I used had been made by anybody… I’d frequently meet people who owned factories and farms, because they lived around us in the huge factories I could see from my window... Our wealthy neighbors were really like the giants in a fantastic tale, giants who were superior to others because they could spin gold out of human suffering… I suppose I’m something like what my mother would have been if she’d gone down into her basement and stumbled on Eleanor Roosevelt murdering babies there.

The narrator of The Fever describes how he once was presented, anonymously, with a copy of Das Kapital, volume one, and read it with intense interest: “For two days,” he says, “I could see the fetishism of commodities everywhere around me… Then on the third day I lost it, it was gone, I couldn’t see it anymore.” Shawn himself has not lost it. Though he never quite says as much—in Essays he’s reticent about his influences and his education, never mentioning, for example, that he studied philosophy and economics at Oxford—it seems very likely that his work draws some of its inspiration from the fusion of Freud and Marx that began with writers like Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, blossomed in the aftermath of 1968 with Anti-Oedipus and Louis Althusser, and persists today in the work of Slavoj Zizek, among many others. In theatrical terms, we might call this a meeting point between Artaud’s theater of cruelty and Brecht’s epic theater: a theater both nightmarish and fantastic, engaging us at a subconscious level (or, we might say, the level of the Id), and yet also rigorously holding us to a higher moral standard than we would otherwise accept.

Shawn’s early work of the 1970s—Our Late Night, in particular—can be seen as a brutal, almost un-actable kind of absurdism, very much in keeping with the anarchic spirit of that era. (“Have you ever thought about what it would be like to eat the flesh off a human finger—or off the palm of a hand?”) But rather than channeling that spirit into a more conventional, theatrically acceptable form, Shawn in the Eighties turned his characters inward, into narrators and soliloquists, and put violence to work in their thoughts, in their imaginations and memories. His writing is, as we say in fiction workshops, “interiorized”: it consists largely of passages of interior monologue spoken aloud, of people putting their dreams and theories and arguments into words—but words they would normally keep to themselves. Shawn’s characters, to American ears, are unacceptably, nightmarishly impolite, direct, and hostile. The pages are spiked with exclamation points, jeering, sardonic bursts of laughter, and frank expressions of desire: for sex, for food, for diversion, for a basic, naked, primitive form of psychic satisfaction that transcends any of these sources. Unlike Mamet’s salesmen and petty thieves, or Shepard’s mad brothers, however, Shawn’s characters are in the room with the audience, literally and figuratively. They are intellectuals, artists, cultivated, fortunate children of privilege, and they speak to us across the fourth wall, creating that peculiar vertiginous feeling, like the smell of burning hair, that Brecht calls verfremdung, the alienation effect.

This feeling of unsettling recognition rises to its highest pitch in Shawn’s two plays of the Nineties, The Fever and The Designated Mourner. The Fever is a monologue (later turned into a film starring Vanessa Redgrave) which, beginning with a situation very much like Aunt Dan and Lemon, takes us in precisely the opposite direction: the narrator, a well-intentioned liberal trapped in an unnamed Third World country in the midst of a revolution, takes us on a psychic tour of his or her insecurities, anxieties, and pathetically weak self-justifications. In The Designated Mourner, three characters—Jack, Judy, and Howard—operate not so much as separate dramatic figures as overlapping narrators. The setting is a dystopian state of the not-so-distant future; Howard, a radical essayist, has been murdered, his daughter Judy sent to prison, and Jack, his cynical son-in-law, is coming to realize that the creature comforts that have insulated him from the realities of life in a totalitarian state are slowly losing their grip. On the morning he sees a picture of Judy’s execution in the newspaper, he wanders outside:

Everywhere I went the leaves had turned—traitors! I mean, had they no shame? Oh well, that had been going on, you know, for quite some time. One noted the usual golds and oranges and browns amidst the green. I went into the park, sat on a bench…and then suddenly it hit me that everyone on earth who could read John Donne was now dead. And as I turned this odd fragment of information around in my brain, I realized that I was the only one left who would even be aware of the passing of this particular group, this group which was so special, at least in their own eyes.

The motif of the stealth takeover—“by the time they came for me,” Pastor Niemoller wrote, “it was too late”—is not exactly new, and in some ways The Designated Mourner is the closest Shawn comes to the kind of overtly political theater Susan Sontag long ago called “classic Broadway liberalism.” On the other hand, there aren’t many American writers of any genre who have done such a convincing job with the inner lives of those who resist a dictatorship; the closest parallel I can draw to The Designated Mourner is Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, perhaps the greatest of all apartheid-era South African novels. Like Gor-dimer, Shawn neither devalues political commitment nor pretends that it occurs in a vacuum, outside of ordinary human narcissism and vanity. But he’s much more interested in those who, like himself, live on the fringes of politics, fundamentally unsure of how to act, but sure that the lives they themselves live will in the long run be found unacceptable.

One of the most interesting metastases of liberal guilt in the last decade has been the pendulum-swing back to the “lifestyle activism” of the 1970s—a collective turn away from foreign policy and national politics toward our own habits of consumption. Our gated suburbs, our gentrified and scrubbed Park Slopes, now sprout farmer’s markets, upscale butchers, cheesemaking classes, and community gardens; we shop at the ecotopian Whole Foods, having banished processed cheese and high fructose corn syrups to the unsightly obese, the invisible poor, who shop at Walmart and collect food stamps. Shawn, perhaps more than any writer alive, is attuned to the anxieties and hypocrisies of the comforted and pampered body, and so somehow it’s not surprising that his latest version of a liberal nightmare, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, takes our current obsession about food to its most extreme conclusion. Ben, the principal narrator, is a famous scientist, now retired, who decades ago invented a process by which animals could survive by eating the corpses of their own species; some years afterward, in a worldwide cataclysm, human beings quickly began to lose their ability to digest any food at all, and the species has now all but disappeared.

Yet the prophetic element of Grasses of a Thousand Colors is in fact just the backdrop, the pretext, for the play’s actual nightmarishness. If the end of the human race, in this case, is brought about by human dominion over animals, the animals, in the play’s parallel dream-world, have the last laugh. The ur-text of Shawn’s play is “The White Cat,” a dizzying fairy tale by the seventeenth-century French writer and saloniste Madame D’Aulnoy. In the original tale, a selfish king sends his three sons out on impossible tasks to prove themselves fit to replace him; while on his quest, the youngest prince stumbles onto a magic kingdom ruled by a magnificent white cat and falls in love with her. Finally the white cat reveals herself to the prince and the king as a beautiful princess imprisoned in a cat’s body, and thus convinces the king to give the youngest prince, and her, the throne.

In Shawn’s retelling, it is Ben, the nobleman of science, who, at the peak of his fame and in the middle of an adulterous affair, happens on the white cat’s castle, and his narration of what happens next is as graphic and disturbing as anything Shawn has written. Where D’Aulnoy’s text contains gratuitous illustrations of wealth and grandeur—the pornography of its time?—Shawn substitutes a literary version of the Paris Hilton sex tape, only with Man on Cat Action: “Somehow her paw had extracted my member from inside my trousers, and my astonished penis was completely enclosed in a warm coat of indescribable coziness, such as travelers dream of on snowy nights.” Not long after Ben and the audience have emerged from this fantasia—like watching Into the Woods performed at the Hustler Club—he and his mistress feel the first cramps of the indigestion that heralds the worldwide pandemic.

For Shawn, Grasses of a Thousand Colors is an enormous and startling leap into the territory of myth: moving away from the private dread of the contemporary mind and into a deeper, Jungian substratum. As such, it’s difficult to say what it “means.” The coincidence of gastric distress and taboo-breaking sex conjures up primal images of decadence—Roman vomitoria, “The Masque of the Red Death”—a kind of apocalypse that literally turns the body inside out. It’s as overwhelming a piece of theater as I’ve ever read, and the idea of seeing it performed is a little intimidating. Reviews of the London premiere, in May 2009, were, unsurprisingly, mixed. (“I felt…sickened by the playwright’s pervy and frequently bestial fantasies, and this 65-year-old man’s positively adolescent obsession with his own penis,” wrote the Telegraph reviewer. “I couldn’t look my own cat in the eye without blushing.”)

This may be the great drawback, the gnawing defect, that has made Shawn’s work less visible than it ought to be. In “Myself and How I Got into the Theater,” he writes that he was drawn to theater in the late Sixties because “the whole field…was a strange sort of non-field, in which the whole business of ‘standards’ just didn’t apply.” But that anarchic spirit—the rediscovery of the communal, ritualistic, dangerous energies of performance, in Artaud, in the Living Theatre, in the anthropological work of Victor Turner—has long been subsumed and synthesized into the bourgeois world of subscription-based regional theaters and Performing Arts Centers, Broadway and fringe festivals. Theater’s very irreproducibility, the fact that it can’t be televised, archived, linked, or DVR-ed, makes it both expensive and remote, especially to young and curious audiences. Shawn’s target is also his target audience, and this presents a problem, because the well-off, well-educated, middle-aged-to-elderly theatergoing public still wants to be flattered and reassured, not taken on a tour of its frailties presented in the harshest possible light.

And yet, and yet: we still live in a large country with pockets of insurgent energy, and Shawn’s least actable play, A Thought in Three Parts, finally premiered in Austin in 2007, three decades after it was written, courtesy of the Rubber Repertory Company. “I am not one of those who believe that civilization must change so that the theater can change,” Artaud writes in The Theater and its Double, “but I do believe that the theater…has the power to influence the aspect and formation of things: and the encounter on the stage of two passionate manifestations, two living centers, is something as whole, as decisive…as the encounter of two epidermises in a momentary lust.” Shawn has preserved the spirit, the germ—in more ways than one—of a thrilling, cathartic, contemporary theater, for the few audiences, and readers, awake enough to embrace it.

Jess Row's story "Sheep May Safely Graze," published in The Threepenny Review in 2009, won both an O. Henry Prize and a Pushcart Prize. His new collection of stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, will appear next year.

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