PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3 (2000) 38-46
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The Solace of Chocolate Squares: Wallace Shawn in Mourning
Why is it that some people are made to eat dirt while others feast on the songs of Schubert? This question is at the heart of Wallace Shawn's new play, The Designated Mourner, in part, a meditation on the theme of the eaters and the eaten. In an earlier play, The Fever, Shawn's ruminations on class circulated around the antipathies of powerlessness and privilege, taking the form of the monologue. Now, two additional characters flesh out his worldview in a sense of perspective unavailable to the solitary voice.
In The Designated Mourner, Shawn himself acts the part of Jack, a middle-aged man alternately self-mocking and devastatingly honest, and, by his own estimation, a "rat," an "asshole," mere "bric-a-brac" instead of a self. In the opening scene, Jack sits at a table eating a piece of pastry, and, by way of introduction, describes himself as "the designated mourner" to whom the task of grieving for something lost has fallen. He is the survivor of a proud community--a certain world--that once existed, not yet identified. As if to light a ritual fire commemorating it, from his table he sets a burning pastry paper afloat into the air. Perhaps he has been eating an Amaretto cookie. The entire play is a description of that world, that loss. Jack's loving wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), and her father, the writer Howard (Larry Pine), complete the triangulation.
This is a play based more in voice than in text, favoring the monologue form that Shawn has convincingly reinvented to displace conventional dialogue and dramatic action. It has a private, conversational tone that doesn't try to project itself in an artificial way, but is simply there, unfolding like a story and, thus, narrative in texture. All of the events spoken of have already occurred in the past rather than being enacted. Jack, self-absorbed and alienated from his surroundings, relates most of them while Judy, whose sense of refinement protects her from reality, details their social dimension. Howard, for whom John Donne makes light reading, according to Jack, is mostly spoken of, his passivity a form of arrogance. But, Jack remains the central figure, as he not only does most of the talking but describes so contemptuously the liberal intelligentsia whose irony, detachment, and idealism he chronicles and unmasks, along with his own devolution from highbrow to lowbrow. Occurring [End Page 38] in tandem with the domestic conflict is the total collapse of the cultivated social milieu the seemingly charmed characters inhabit.
First a rock is thrown through a window. Then there is the gradual rise of authoritarian political factions and demonstrations in the street, transforming once comfortable surroundings through acts of random violence and lawlessness that the curiously disaffected characters seem powerless to comprehend or counteract. It is as if they expected that the chaos would one day overtake them or that perhaps they could share the same political ground as the underclass in revolt, revealing a level of anxiety and misperception beneath the veneer of gracious living. Or is it that Howard's early essay, "The Enemy," parts of which are read in the play, has been so prescient, its message unconsciously assimilated by the characters? The way Jack sees things, the privileged were asking to participate in what one of them viewed as "the disemboweling of the overboweled." Death squads, arrests, and the accretion of small injustices come to destroy the artistic and political culture of the world whose demise Jack endorses, creating the relentless trajectory of the play.
That the process of change and destruction is narrated rather than dramatized makes the drama seem a more mental than kinetic experience, like following a story read aloud. The actors are only a few feet from an audience of thirty settled into various kinds of chairs in an attempt, it would seem, to reach out to audience members individually...