A plague on both your houses

Paul Taylor urges zero tolerance for the bleeding-heart compassion and moralising Manhattan Marxism of Wallace Shawn's `The Fever'
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The Independent Culture
In Wallace Shawn's one-person play, The Fever, Clare Coulter talks of finding herself drawn towards a beautiful beggar in a poor country. There's money in her purse; she could give the beggar some of it. "And a voice says, `Why not all of it? Why not give her all that you have?'" One argument against giving the beggar all that you have - in the literal Christian sense of "all" - is that you would simply be swapping places with this person. For the sake of a few minutes' relief from middle-class liberal guilt, you would be putting the beggar in the same morally dubious position with regard to poverty that you had formerly occupied. And, from one perspective at least, the net improvement in the world would be nil.

Shawn's play - a monologue delivered by a privileged traveller in a smart hotel in a Third World dictatorship - poses as a questioning of all the intellectual presuppositions that enable cosseted Western culturati to carry on cosseting themselves: that high art and beauty have a trickle- down, humanising effect; that it's political gradualism, rather than bloody revolution, which will improve the lot of the poor, etc, etc.

The monologue takes us on a spiralling, hallucinatory plunge into a kind of nervous breakdown, though, as this nervous breakdown seems to have been triggered more by what the speaker has seen of the world's wickedness than by personal problems, the degree (if any) to which it is supposed to represent an unbalanced view of reality is left unclear. The production opens at the Royal Court in a week that has exposed afresh the difficulties of taking humane, honourable and effective measures with regard to the destitute and homeless. Zero-tolerance policies or bleeding-heart compassion? Either way, the danger is that the focus of concern will not be on the poor but on the sensitivities of the "haves".

Performed with mesmeric skill by Ms Coulter - whose rapid, driven delivery, rubbery, determined mouth, and mocking, self-loathing inflections, beautifully bring out the text's disturbing zeal - The Fever thinks it has the measure of the intractable contradictions in the guilt-ridden liberal stance. But it is riddled with unexamined contradictions of its own and presumptuous assumptions that make you recoil from its garrulous Manhattan Marxism.

I am not, God knows, a religious person but, next to the media appearances of Richard Dawkins, I can't think of anything more likely to make me one than the glib, imprisoning materialism of the outlook on display here. Referring to the chambermaid in the Third World hotel, the speaker offers a savage parody of the Westerners' unspoken attitude towards her - "[she] is repulsive, ignorant - it's not inappropriate that she should live in hell, because to you she really seems like a creature from hell". But the idea that this girl is in "hell" because she is very poor is just the equally impertinent flipside to the old Romantic view that fetishised the supposed simplicity and wisdom of the destitute and outcast. And if the chambermaid's life is "hell", how would you describe the life of the people on the torture tables to which frequent allusion is made? It is, in any case, typical of the simplistic way The Fever divides up the world that you might suppose the poor have the monopoly on being tortured.

Full of lurid imaginings, Shawn's play is vitiated by a failure of imagination. Guilt at her privileged way of life seems to have resulted in the speaker virtually regarding such privilege as the necessary condition of happiness. Irritation at the way she can't escape from referring everything back to herself has produced in her an intermittently reductive response to any art that portrays the feelings of an individual with the disqualification of a moderate income upwards. There were knowing, complacent sniggers from the audience when she wondered why she had ever found The Cherry Orchard moving. Chekhov's heroine may have lost her estate, but she's going to an apartment in Paris, so save your sympathy. By that criterion, Oedipus can go stuff himself, because he lives in a palace.

There's an overarching paradox in the piece. "Artists who create works of art that inspire sympathy and good values do not change the lives of the poor." So why then was The Fever written in such a way that (as a note from Shawn indicates) it can "be performed in anyone's flat or home"? This is rather like running a meals-on-wheels service that subjects its recipients to a stern lecture arguing that the nutritional value of food is a complete myth. Being in two minds about art has long been a valid subject for art but I don't think that The Fever approaches this theme honourably. It feels more like a case of wanting to have your cake and eat it than like a courageous self-impaling on a double-pronged contradiction. Like Shawn's Designated Mourner, premiered at the National Theatre last year, this earlier drama bifurcates the world crudely and then, in effect, says "A plague on both your houses".

I'd spent the afternoon agonising over which work to vote for in the "Best Play" category of the Critics' Circle Awards for 1996. Seeing The Fever cleared my mind on this question. Last spring, the Royal Court produced a new drama about a lonely divorcee who breaks the rules of the day centre for the homeless, where she does voluntary work, by taking in and embarking on a relationship with one of its clients. Through a series of misapprehensions, she winds up being publicly humiliated by this temporary lover, who dismisses her attempted kindness as "all middle-class wank. Do something for some poor sod like me. Feel good about yourself... and get a fuck into the bargain." Why this charge is both correct and completely wrong and why the man both has a right and no right to say this to her are issues which this play teases out with a largeness of spirit and imagination that put The Fever to shame. I shall be voting for Clare McIntyre's The Thickness of Skin.

To 25 Jan. Royal Court at the Ambassadors, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)