Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine, and Deborah Eisenberg in The Designated Mourner
Photo: Joan Marcus
“I think staying awake rather than falling asleep when people are talking to you is an important component of the definition of clarity,” wrote Wallace Shawn in “Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening,” an essay appended to his ‘85 play Aunt Dan and Lemon. “And I think theatre can give people a certain training or practice in this type of vigilance.” Andre Gregory’s new production of Shawn’s The Designated Mourner isn’t what I’d call a “difficult evening” — this isn’t some Abramovic endurance experiment after all, and much of it is broadly funny. (Here’s a gem of a line, if you’re in the Wally Shawn novelty-T-shirt business, a business someone should be in: “My dick lay limply inside my trousers, like a little lunch packed by Mother.”) The moral content is richer than just about anything you’re likely to find elsewhere; Shawn, in defiance of the fashion, writes about actual things, like justice, not about his own stylistic or structural choices. Choice quote from another Shawn essay: “There’s something particularly disingenuous and cheap about extricating oneself from the human struggle with the whispered excuse that it’s already over.” To borrow a Shawnism: Isn’t that rather nice?
Of course, Mourner isn’t nice at all, nor is it easy. It’s a talking-to, dense with catastrophe and moral confusion, a stammering agon directed unrelentingly at its audience, set in a spartan, mildewed room. Here, soul is pitted against body, mind against bowel, private sensuality against public moral and intellectual responsibility. It’s also a eulogy and an indictment of a world Shawn knows well: Any resemblance between this tribe of tweedy Mohicans and the intellectuals Wally, son of famed New Yorker editor William Shawn, grew up with is, of course, purely intentional. The story’s three principal characters — Jack (Shawn), his wife Judy (author Deborah Eisenberg, Shawn’s real-life companion), and Judy’s father Howard (Larry Pine), a malingering intellectual totem whom Jack envies and despises in equal measure — rarely speak directly to one another, and their warring monologues offer little in the way of easy answers or prescriptive thinking: If anything, Mourner invites us to identify with Jack, a man who acquiesces, rather contentedly, to a bloody purge of the intelligentsia he’s spent his life bitterly, indignantly venerating.
The show is three hours long (with an intermission), takes place in a nameless dystopia nearly identical to our own, and is delivered mostly by Shawn himself in his trademark nose music — so let’s just say I watched some of my seatmates lose their battle with clarity, and I watched Shawn take note of this, with a combination of scorn and curiosity. (That’s also part of the show. Gregory leaves the house lights up, allowing his performers to peer probingly into the stalls.) The night I attended, Shawn singled out a group of latecomers as they were being seated, improvising, in character as Jack, a short speech explaining that they’d missed nothing, that the first ten minutes contained nothing of interest to them, that they should relax. Jack’s always telling us to relax; he’s succeeded in calming himself in the face of butchery and the social death of the Mind, he’s passively collaborated in the pacification of the intellect by the gut and the groin - and he’d like us to join him. We’d like to join him: What other choice is there? Howard, bedridden, self-involved, constantly ailing yet persistent and ineradicable as chronic pain until he’s finally swept away by history? Judy, cadaverous and pallid, who looks like she’s risen from the shallow grave where they buried Print?
Jack, hilariously, is the only one left to remember this “peculiar group,” an extinct tribe he takes pains to define, as if addressing a generation who’s never seen such fantastical creatures in the wild. “A ‘highbrow’ was a person who liked the finer things,” he explains. “You know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby or the fried chicken or whatever, while a ‘lowbrow’ was someone who you might say liked to take the easy way in the cultural sphere — oh, the funny papers, pinups. You know, cheap entertainment.” Jack ends up embracing the latter; it was his destiny all along. And as we of the new chattering class spend countless hours debating the relative merits of Man of Steel, it’s probably worth setting aside an evening to contemplate a world where “everyone on earth who could read John Donne was now dead.” It’s been said that Shawn predicted the Bush years with Mourner, which enjoyed an epic site-specific production (also directed by Gregory, with this very cast) in 2000 at a soon-to-be-demolished downtown men’s club. I’m sad to say I missed that show, but if all we take away from this text is how it foresaw rising anti-intellectualism and creeping fascism, well, that’s a shame: The Bush years were a caricature of imperial decadence, and any schmo can predict a caricature simply by assuming the worst. I’m more haunted by Mourner’s enduring ideas about the simple, sensual Self as both the irreducible and inescapable unit of a free society and its potential undoing. It’s all bound up in the title Jack gives his post-purge diary, which he begins keeping after he’s free from the impossible standards set by his now-exterminated Über-snob betters, a wild carnival account of defecating on books and developing a relationship with a bag full of pornography: He calls it “Experiments in Privacy,” and that just sends little rivulets of ice water down my spine. It makes me want to stay vigilant, to keep watch against the greatest enemy of all, the closest enemy, that rather nice fellow who’s always with me, whether my nose is in a book or my hand’s on my little lunch.