Wallace Shawn is not the man you think he is — not, anyway, if you know him only through the persona he projects on screen. Shawn’s film roles are so vivid — I’m thinking here of Diane Keaton’s sexually rapacious husband in Woody Allen’s "Manhattan," the villainous Vizzini in "The Princess Bride," and even the befuddled version of himself he created in "My Dinner with Andre" — that it’s tempting to see Shawn merely as a brilliant comic actor who uses his unassuming appearance as a decoy for delivering unexpected punch lines.
As a playwright, Shawn employs a different, and far more frightening, set of masks. His early plays, including Our Late Night and Marie and Bruce, look beyond the facades of human sexual relationships and find the desperate animals within.
With Aunt Dan and Lemon, in 1985, his obsession with facades turned political, as the young, sickly Lemon is seduced by the fascist beliefs of her family’s charming friend Aunt Dan. The Nazis, the adult Lemon concludes, were only different from the rest of us in their acknowledgement that “there’s something inside us that likes to kill.”
Finally, in his one-man show The Fever, Shawn turns his chilly gaze on himself and his fellow upper Eastside liberals, in whose homes it was originally performed. (It’s worth noting here that Shawn’s father was the editor of The New Yorker for 35 years.) As a traveler who falls ill in a foreign country, he undergoes a fever-induced thought-journey that causes him to question the foundations of his comfortable life. By play’s end, he realizes the futility of our conscience-easing gestures:
My feeling in my heart a sympathy for the poor does not change the life of the poor. My believing fervently in gradual change does not change the life of the poor. Parents who teach their children good values do not change the life of the poor. Artists who create works of art that inspire sympathy and good values do not change the life of the poor.
Despite these revelations, Shawn continues to create works of art that seek to inspire sympathy and good values. This is the Shawn who will appear at Thursday’s symposium at the Sorrento Hotel and Friday’s event at Town Hall Seattle, which will include readings from his new non-fiction collection, Essays.
Expect a challenging and thought-provoking evening from one of America’s great secret intellectuals — enlivened with the wry charm and humor that have made him one of our great character actors.
If you go:
Penthouse Symposium with Wallace Shawn, Thursday (Jan. 20), Sorrento Hotel, 900 Madison St., Seattle. Tickets cost $40 and are available here.
Wallace Shawn: Essays, Friday (Jan. 21), Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets cost $5 and are available here.