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Wallace Shawn Looks for More From Theater

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: Wallace Shawn, theater, criticism, Arts, The Believer, Will Wlizlo,

Radical playwright and occasional essayist Wallace Shawn was recently interviewed by The Believer. Although the Believer Cover September 2010interview covers similar ground as former Utne Reader Senior Editor Jeff Severns-Guntzel’s podcast, Shawn shares interesting insights into literary criticism, American theater audiences, and playwright Harold Pinter.

Here’s a choice passage on theater as a source of amusement:

Believer: Do you get exasperated by theater’s limitations and the limitations of reaching an audience? In My Dinner with Andre, your collaborator, the director Andre Gregory, describes his loss of faith in theater. It seems that for you, too, there have been moments where you’ve challenged what theater can be and maybe lost faith in it. Perhaps that’s wrong.

Wallace Shawn: Well, no, certainly in the late ‘80s when I was writing what eventually turned into The Fever, I was thinking, I have had it with theater and may not do it anymore. I was almost obsessed with the fact that anything you put on a stage was interpreted by the audience as an attempt to divert or amuse them in one way or another. A musical was diverting and amusing in a very direct way, so that people would walk out and say, “That was so delightful,” and a serious play was amusing and diverting in a slightly more indirect way, so that people would walk out and say, “Oh, that was shattering,” or “That was so disturbing.” But really, shatteringness or disturbingness were simply other forms of amusement. Being tickled on your toes rather than being tickled in your stomach. It was just a different form of amusement. Whereas what I wanted was something else, maybe something more like the communication between friends or lovers, something more intimate, so that, for example, if a friend or lover says to you, “For god’s sake, could you carry that bag of garbage into the street?” you don’t react by saying, “That was a very amusing remark,” you react by saying, “Yes, I will do that,” or “No, I won’t do that.” The remark is not there just for amusement. I suppose I wanted something more like that. 

Source: The Believer (article not available online)