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Reviewed by:
  • The Designated Mourner
  • Robert G. Egan
The Designated Mourner. By Wallace Shawn. Royal National Theatre, London. 29 April 1996.

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Figure 1.

Howard (David de Kayser), Judy (Miranda Richardson), and Jack (Mike Nichols) in the Royal National Theatre’s production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, directed by David Hare. Photo: John Haynes.

On a platform at one end of the Cottesloe Auditorium, a long, plain trestle table and three chairs are set as if for a public meeting. Three people file in and seat themselves facing us. Mike Nichols begins to speak as the others, Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser, wait politely, seemingly content to let him chair the proceedings. Only two details appear extraneous: a large mound of extinguished, half-melted candles on the stage floor in front of the table, and a huge, bronze-plated wall immediately behind and above the three seated figures.

In fact, the occasion is not a meeting but a performance of Wallace Shawn’s new play The Designated Mourner, in its regrettably limited premiere run at the National Theatre under David Hare’s direction. Nichols, Richardson, and de Keysar (as the characters Jack, Judy, and Howard) deliver most of the play in narrative form, punctuated only rarely by moments of dialogue with one another. Jack speaks the most; the other two tell their stories with more reticence. Eventually it becomes clear that Judy and Howard, Jack’s wife and father-in-law, are in fact dead, whereas Jack identifies himself as the last surviving member of a tribe, designated to remember and mourn.

Yet Nichols’s Jack does not grieve noticeably, aside from a tightening in the voice as he describes the televised execution of his wife. If anything, he addresses us in a desperately upbeat manner reminiscent of Nichols’s personae in the old Nichols and May sketches, as though pleading for our approval. Jack has survived under a murderous political regime by energetically compromising the liberal intellectual principles for which his wife and her father have died. Though the three speak with distinctively American accents, the locale of the story is left unspecified: extreme poverty has sparked open warfare, resulting in a coup and a totalitarian regime. Howard, a noted author and luminary of the intelligentsia, has suffered persecution, imprisonment, and violent death, and Judy has shared his ordeal to the end. Jack, however, has dissociated himself both from his marriage and from his former place on the periphery of Howard’s circle. In the process, he has undergone a personal transformation which we might view as a moral and emotional disintegration, but which Jack himself touts enthusiastically as an embracing of absolute honesty and peace.

Jack’s compulsive and compelling narration of this process comprises the core action. He relates with satisfaction the smug hypocrisies of the other two, admits his envy of Howard, and traces his emotional and sexual disengagement from Judy. A former student of English literature, he has decided that the pleasures of television, film magazines, and masturbation are far preferable to reading the metaphysical poets. Relieved to declare himself “a low brow at heart” (The Designated Mourner [London: Faber and Faber, 1996], 49), he has killed off “that self which was mine, that ludicrous figure” (49), and marked its death by defecating on a book of poetry. Celebrating his survival as “nothing more really than a large balloon with a mouth, genitals, paws and an asshole” (19), he is Falstaff without the jokes. Though Nichols’s Jack chuckles frequently, we are less and less inclined to join him. Judy and Howard are not portrayed as especially heroic; both Richardson [End Page 236] and de Keyser catch perfectly the tasteful self-satisfaction of the New York-style intellectual brahmin. Yet they are the dead; the extremity and finality of their suffering endow them with a gravity of selfhood which Jack not only is incapable of but struggles actively to avoid. It becomes clear that they are mildly embarrassed at sharing the platform with him, and eventually they leave him alone on it.

Yet we attend very closely to what Jack says, as we do to the...

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