25 January 2011

Wallace Shawn in Berkeley

Last Sunday I went to Berkeley to hear Wallace Shawn in a program called Real World, Fake World, Dream World, a collage of readings by Shawn and others. He has considerable deadpan charm and speaks with understated drollery, in a surprisingly hesitant manner for such an accomplished performer and writer (though perhaps the hesitation does make sense, when he is not speaking words that he can revise, or that have been written for him). He came out on stage, went to the podium in the center, and suggested that, since he is known for many things, if he was not in the guise we had come hoping to see, we could always quietly and politely exit, and “it would just be one of those evenings.”

I’ve never had the chance to see one of his plays, and though I’ve had it in the back of my mind for years to read them, they’re just one of too many things I’ve never gotten around to (though after hearing him I now plan to make that more of a priority). Of course like any art-house aficionado in the 1980s, I saw his Dinner with Andre. I had seen him in various other movies as well. I knew his father was the famous long-time editor of the New Yorker. I saw him briefly in person once before, during the Boston Shakespeare Company’s brief moment of starry glamour, when Peter Sellars was running the place – Shawn was in the audience the night I saw Linda Hunt as Mother Courage. The rumor was that Sellars was going to direct him in something by Moliere – the Misanthrope, I think, or perhaps the Miser. Then Sellars decamped for the Kennedy Center, and nothing ever came of that.

He subtly planned his readings, I think, so that you were encouraged to think about roles, costuming, and possibilities that never come to pass – not just in the theater, but politically as well. He explained that his Real World was the world of political reality, the Fake World was the world (often to political ends) that people insisted in believing in, and the Dream World was the world of art, where he often worked, and where all of us spent some time. I might have the definitions not quite correct, because he blurred and qualified them as he spoke, and the end effect of the evening was to make you question which world was which.

He started off by reading “Why I Call Myself a Socialist” from his latest book, Essays (published by Haymarket Books, and I have to say they did an absolutely beautiful job – the design, the quality of paper, the quality of the typesetting, are all outstanding; William Morris would have loved it). Starting sometime in the 1980s, he gradually changed from being a standard liberal into what he called “a 1960s radical.” I was fascinated and sympathetic, since I have gone through a similar journey, starting around the same time, and I assume for similar reasons (and if I have to explain to you what they are, either you haven’t been paying any attention at all to American politics and society for thirty years or you’ll never understand). The prose and the argument were so limpid that I couldn’t help remembering this was William Shawn’s son. They were maybe a bit too much so; though I basically agreed with him I couldn’t help feeling that he was maybe a bit too optimistic about human potential – giving too much weight to economic and cultural circumstances, rather than to any in-born qualities (or lack of those qualities).

But then I started questioning that reaction of mine as he moved on to the other readings, which is why I thought the seemingly random selection was so brilliantly chosen – how do we really know what strangers are capable of? Isn't it just a matter of comforting myself to think that some people couldn't have done better than they've done? In the essay, he had built from the casting and costuming of an actor, and how that brings out or distorts qualities in the actor, qualities which are only part of what’s in the actor, to the way we assign roles and even personalities in the theater of the world.

When he finished reading the essay, he announced that we were now moving into the artistic portion of the evening, therefore the lights would now be dimmed. Before the dimming one elderly couple did take advantage of his earlier permission to slip out, though who knows why – it’s hard to believe that an elderly couple in Berkeley would be put off by support for socialism. Shawn then read a selection about a Thanksgiving celebration from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto” that expanded, in the more specific terms of fiction, some of the points – exploitation of others, and how we persuade ourselves that such exploitation is OK, and the changing and mysterious identities of others – that his essay discussed in more abstract terms.

That was followed by a selection from John Ashbery, but first Shawn had the lights turned up and asked how many of us knew Ashbery. The word “knew” threw me: I wouldn’t claim to “know” his work, or to have read more than a few passages, though my mind did immediately produce the title Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and I think I am finally able to keep him separate in my mind from John Berryman. Is that “knowing”? I decided it was close enough, and became one of the few to raise a hand, though fortunately he didn't call on any of us.

I don’t remember the title of the book-length poem which the enjoyable excerpt came from. That was followed by several monologues from Shawn’s latest play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, first from the increasingly despondent protagonist, who finds himself in a state in which the high point of his time is occasionally masturbating on a pet cat, and then from the woman who lives with this man. He closed with another essay, a brief one from November 2001 called “After the Destruction of the World Trade Center,” which, as he mentioned, is unfortunately as relevant today as when he wrote it.

After that came improv time, also known as the Q-and A. Those are always chancy, but there were no disastrous questions of the type that are really fifteen-minute statements, and Shawn took each question seriously and really got any interest that was possible out of each one. So, working from memory and paraphrasing to the best of my ability:

The first guy pointed out that his bio did not mention what are probably his two most popular performances, in The Princess Bride and in the Toy Story series, and did he write any of the lines in The Princess Bride (no, William Goldman wrote them all, and it was filmed as written) and how did he feel about the popularity of these roles. He gave what I think of as the Sullivan’s Travels response, imagining someone sick, unable to sleep late at night in a hospital, and coming across those movies and having his mood lifted – Shawn said that gave him great joy.

He was asked how he feels about differing stagings of his work, specifically his play The Designated Mourner, which has been staged with the characters sitting on chairs facing the audience as well as with the characters moving about constantly. Shawn said that he found it a fascinating part of theater – that two people could bring such different insights to the same text. Except for the occasional staging that was completely unsympathetic to the aims of the play he enjoyed variant stagings. (I couldn't help remembering Beckett disowning Joanne Akalaitis's post-apocalyptic staging of Endgame.)

He was asked about clothes, and which clothes he’d like to wear, since he had been talking about costuming and roles. I think he took the question a little more literally than intended, saying he was one of those people who basically wore a uniform; he had a summer outfit and a winter outfit. We were seeing the winter outfit. It was dark, and looked heavy and warm. Maybe he was also being metaphorical – he was OK with the role he was playing.

He was asked about long-time collaborators, and whom he’d like to collaborate with. He said he had been working with Andre Gregory for over 40 years, so they had lasted longer than Gilbert & Sullivan (which made me laugh). He mentioned several actors, whose names I don’t remember. He said he would love to work with Mike Leigh (applause from the audience) and if Leigh ever needed a short American in his work, he would certainly be available. He mentioned that he had always wanted to be in a film for the late Eric Rohmer, though of course that could no longer happen.

He was told that he seemed like a good-natured, humorous person, and asked how he reconciled that with the often grim nature of what he wrote. He responded by telling about meeting Hannah Arendt, a person he greatly admired, when he was in his 20s: although she had lived through, and spent her life writing about, many of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, she exuded vitality and energy. So perhaps unless you had some basic faith in the world and in people, you wouldn’t bother to try to save or improve them – why would you want to be a socialist and spread the richness of the world around, unless you thought it was worth having?

He was asked if he saw any signs of hope in our political climate. He said that after a strange period of passive quietude and acquiescence after 9/11, there were at last some protests beginning to sound from those concerned with social justice. Progressive groups and publications were increasing in membership and circulation, and people were interested in something like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. On the other hand, the educational system in this country is being trashed, starved of funds and based more and more on tests, rather than on the sort of knowledge that might lead citizens to question the stories they’re told. (That seems like an automatic applause line in Berkeley, though Shawn clearly wasn't trying to get a cheap hand from it, but oddly enough though I certainly didn't sense that anyone disagreed with him, the crowd was quiet. Strange group!)

There were a couple more questions, both from the balcony. First someone asked – if I understood her correctly – how an egalitarian and socialist could appear on Gossip Girl (I didn’t even realize he was on this show – that’s the first thing I've heard about it that’s made me want to watch it). Shawn gave a thoughtful reply that seemed circuitous but was actually quite direct: basically, you can’t know what effect things will have on people; it’s something he’s thought about a lot, since his plays often depict reprehensible people; he personally enjoyed the show, and was one of the few cast members who had grown up in that milieu (upper East Side privilege); he would feel terrible if someone who worked feeding the indigent saw the show and was inspired to quit such work and start at a hedge fund, but, as he acutely pointed out, the people who ask such questions are always asking on behalf of other, unnamed, presumably less intelligent and moral, people – it’s always “some other people I don't know might be led to believe in something without value” and not “this led me to believe in something without value.”

Finally, there was a long question that reflected in a way on the issues the previous question had raised about privilege and its portrayal in art (at least, I think it did; the question was fairly convoluted): in My Dinner with Andre, there’s a part when Shawn attacks privilege until it becomes a matter of giving up his electric blanket, which he just can’t do – the questioner also had an electric blanket he loved, and thought that was great and inspiring, and was that how the passage was meant to be interpreted, and if so, had he changed his mind as part of his growing radicalization? Shawn said that even at the time the passage was meant to be a bit satirical – to force him to think about moving beyond the political boundaries he had set.

The readings and his answers all played off one another to create a thought-provoking and suggestive swirl of ideas about theater, politics, and privilege. Oddly, I had been discussing related issues out in the lobby before the show, before I had any idea of what Shawn would be saying – NA and I were discussing clothing as costume and as social and political statement. It started as a conversation about hats, and I mentioned I mostly had baseball caps which sometimes led people to assume I was a dedicated fan when I was really a casual visitor – just that morning I had been quizzed about the Pittsburgh Pirates, and though I can say I’ve enjoyed a game in their beautiful stadium, that’s about all I can say about them. NA told me that her cheap thrift-store T-shirts, which are often discards from pricey universities and exclusive golf tournaments, had sometimes led people to make all kinds of strange assumptions about who she really was, as if they were a false passport.

So I was waiting in line for the book signing, having managed to buy a copy of Essays before the rude woman behind me grabbed them all out of the attendant’s hand (reminder to self: if you think you’re going to buy a book at a reading, always do it beforehand). We were up on the mezzanine, and I was leafing through the essays, pondering privilege and theater. One woman behind me announced that she really had to get Nieman Marcus to stop sending her so many text messages. Another group held a lengthy and extensive discussion about which private schools were the “right fit” for their children, and how much college was going to cost them.

When it was my turn to have my book signed, Shawn was extremely gracious and personable and seemed pleased when I told him how much I had enjoyed the selections and his discussion. I know that’s the sort of boilerplate people say at things like this, but here it is a couple of days later and I’m sort of surprised at the deep impression this self-effacing, quietly droll man made on me.

When I got to the BART station I only had to wait two minutes for the train to show up, which was excellent for me because it was getting kind of late, even though the performance started at the reasonable hour of 7:00 – but the readings lasted a little longer than announced, and the question session went on a little longer, then there was the wait for the book signing, which was totally worth it to me because I love getting books signed. . . .

So I was on the BART train and a woman in the car loudly announced to whoever was on the other end of her phone that he had better not be disrespecting her, because she would not stand for being disrespected and he had better watch out or she would kick his ass. Then she started talking in the same volume to another woman two seats away. I didn’t quite follow the conversation because I was hearing it through my noise-reducing headphones (which are the greatest invention since the mute button on the TV remote) while trying to read The Eustace Diamonds. They seemed to be talking about child-rearing, because she said it was better for her to be harsh on her kids than for someone like the BART police to shoot them the way they did Oscar Grant – she started saying, even louder and over and over, “An eye for an eye! An eye for an eye!” Then her stop came and she got out, after wishing the other woman a blessed life.


Sibyl said...

Oh Thank God I am not the only one who used to get Berryman and Ashbery confused.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

It's a pretty esoteric and high-class confusion, isn't it? I think we're entitled to be condescending towards those who mix up Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman.

Sibyl said...


And leave us not forget Wendell Berry neither.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

all the berry boys. . . .

Actually, Wendell Berry was never in the confusion mix for me, possibly because I knew someone named Wendell and that was enough to distinguish him.

Civic Center said...

Beautiful essay. And your summation of the chatter in line around you at the book-signing pretty much sums up the Cal Performances crowd which I do everything to avoid.

I saw Shawn at the Herbst Theatre in the early 1980s, when he supposedly turned into a 60s radical (and thanks for that bit of reporting). He was reading his monologue "The Fever" which is basically a long guilt-trip about being an East Side liberal while Reagan and his Death Eaters were murdering and torturing much of Central America with our money and our name, and how did one live with that reality? It was equal parts fascinating and deadly boring, but I've never forgotten it. Shawn sounds like he's still obsessed with the same themes, and good for him.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the compliment. I think the chatter is typical of most "major producer" audiences around here, and not just Cal Performances -- the Opera, the Symphony, the Ballet, ACT, Berkeley Rep, SF Performances. . . I figure it's part of what I have to put up with for the parts of theater that I enjoy. I know you don't like Cal Performances in particular. They do have a bit more of the academic thing going on.

It sounds as if you heard Shawn early on in his conversion. And yeah, good for him for continuing to think about these themes instead of resigning himself to cynicism or indifference. I was looking through his collection of essays while waiting in line, and it looks really fascinating -- I'm recommending it based just on the brief passages I read.

Civic Center said...

Dear Patrick: That genre of chatter is typical for "major producer" shows, though that isn't the kind of conversations I listen to or engage in at the opera or symphony in San Francisco, but your very specific "too much texting" and "Neiman Marcus" references conjured up a Cal Performances audience rather like a madeleine for Marcel.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

ha ha! Yes, I know what you mean: there are specific behaviors I associate with specific audiences, and though I come across the same behavior elsewhere, it still seems peculiar to the other group. Sorry my madeleine didn't conjure up something more pleasant for you.

Sibyl said...

I would probably not confuse Wendell Berry's work with Ashbery's and Berryman's, but he got sucked into the "names with Berry in them" vortex in my highly associative, easily distracted little magpie brain. And how sad is it that I felt the need to clear that up? SO, So, so sad.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

If parents are going to name all their children "John," then they can't expect other people to tell them apart. For me, the key there is the distinctive name "Wendell."

And don't feel bad, because in the past I have felt the need to clear up things that were much, much sadder.