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The End of Room-Space: Domesticity and the Absent Audience in Wallace Shawn’s The Fever
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We need to build our own shells—yes, shoes, chairs, walls, floors, and for God’s sake, yes, a little solace, a little consolation, . . . we need nice food, we need nice things to wear, we need beautiful paintings, movies, plays, drives in the country, bottles of wine. There’s never enough solace, never enough consolation.

—Wallace Shawn, The Fever

In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

—Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Much is left unsaid about the identity of the speaker in Wallace Shawn’s 1990 one-character play, The Fever. His name and the name of the cosmopolitan city he inhabits are not given, and neither are the names of the poor countries he describes in the ninety-minute story he tells. Perhaps this is because the only marker of identity that matters—for this speaker and for the audience listening to him—is economic class.1 An upper-middle-class Westerner, The Fever’s speaker recounts one night he spent nursing a fever on the bathroom floor of a hotel room in a poor country “with a small war going on,” and how he ended up on that floor. After reading a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital that a stranger left on his front steps, he becomes preoccupied with the fetishism of commodities. He explains how Capital—and a few encounters with strangers at bus stops and parties—motivated him to take some time off from work to travel as a tourist to revolutionary countries, each successive destination on his itinerary increasingly poor and war-torn. The play begins with his first waking thought: that a convicted murderer is scheduled for execution this day “far away, in a different country.” He imagines the preparations, the first of his many descriptions of killing and torture: “He’s tied into the chair with leather straps. His arms are strapped down to armrests so the witnesses won’t see them move, his legs strapped to the legs of the chair.” As his fever worsens, he begins to identify with the tortured rebels he describes. Finally, he hallucinates that he himself is being held prisoner, beaten by guards who force him to read what he calls “the book of his life,” a short book that he has never bothered to read because he’s “always thought it would be terribly boring.”2

When he finally does read this “book of his life,” he finds that it contains a catalogue of what he does, not who he believes himself to be, “as if a person’s life were a customs form.”3 Nonetheless, he would rather define himself by the things he thinks and loves than by the actions he takes. “I was born into the mind,” he says, and by way of explanation, he relates a memory of a domestic childhood scene, a list of material conditions and things: “Lamplight. The warm living room. My father, in an armchair, reading about China. My mother with the newspaper on a long sofa. Orange juice on a table in a glass pitcher.”4 He recounts memories of his childhood in terms of the things he was given—toys, clothes, and food—and tells us what kind of person he is now by listing the things he likes: “love—mail, presents—nice plates—those paintings by Matisse . . . .”5 The equal weight these things have within this list—love and plates and paintings—points to the reification of his thoughts and fine feelings.6 This is complicated by his realization that much of the world’s suffering comes from the production of the objects and cultural products he so loves, and moreover, that the love he feels comes from these things.

These objects and the creature comforts they provide constitute the “being and having” associated with living the life of a member of the bourgeoisie.7 This essay considers the relationship between private, bourgeois domestic space, and public, bourgeois theatre space. The manifold term, bourgeois, intensifies this discussion of space, as bourgeois has come to signify a range of material circumstances related to dwelling, wealth, and taste. Here I...


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