Wallace Shawn: An ability to amuse

Wallace Shawn is best known as a film and TV actor. But a season of his plays will show another side to his talent, says Michael Coveney
Click to follow

There are two sides to Wallace Shawn, soon to be celebrated over three months at the Royal Court Theatre, where artistic director Dominic Cooke reveres Shawn as a sharp antidote to the tendency of preaching to the liberal converted. He's the bleakest, funniest and rudest playwright in New York, hailed by his peers and critics, even if he's no Broadway fixture.

Then there's dear old Wally, the little bald gnome of a comic film actor who crops up in Hollywood movies from Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979) as Diane Keaton's unlikely sexual animal of a husband, to Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995) as a geeky, lovelorn high school teacher, not to mention the TV soap opera Gossip Girl as the squinty-eyed lawyer Cyrus Rose. And he's the voice of Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story (1995).

Over the telephone from New York, on the day he is performing Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children in a rehearsed reading, Shawn ponders his double identity: "It's turned out, surprisingly for me, that when I write, the things I write are of interest to a small group of strange people. But when I act, apparently, I have the ability to amuse quite a large number of people. For me, that's a delightful fact, the way it turned out.

"So I make living as an actor, and my activities as a writer are pro bono, like those of a lawyer working for Amnesty International for no financial reward. And like that lawyer I hope I'm doing something worthwhile and wonderful. Also, doing silly things as an actor can both entertain sick people in hospitals in the small hours of the morning, and save me from the possibility of taking myself too seriously."

Shawn is the elder son of the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn. His life as both writer and actor can be viewed as an extended, witty, mildly self-lacerating protest against the privileged background he enjoyed on the Upper East Side of Manhattan all his life, in between bouts of slumming in the Village and visiting political hot spots and poverty traps abroad.

Happily domesticated with his life-long partner, the writer Deborah Eisenberg, he studied history at Harvard and politics and philosophy at Oxford and is best known for playing himself in Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre (1981), the avant-garde playwright with a squeaky voice listening to his friend Andre Gregory's identity crisis for two hours. He even made a creepy post-ironic appearance as John Lahr, his fellow New Yorker, great friend and critical champion, in Stephen Frears' Prick Up Your Ears (1987), the film about Joe Orton written by Alan Bennett and based on Lahr's biography. And he teamed with Gregory and Louis Malle in the strangely hypnotic Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), a rehearsed reading of Chekhov scripted by David Mamet in an empty Broadway theatre. All of these disparate projects belie a serious and literary experimentalism, underpinned in a wonder at how the world works and a sort of joyous despair at its incongruities. Specifically, as a playwright, Shawn sees the theatre as a place to discuss difficult issues of selfish sexuality, spreading illiteracy and how best to live with poverty and put up with it. "I see The Fever, for example," he says "as some kind of human exhortation which is meant to arouse thought and action, not appreciation or enjoyment."

When he wrote that play, he lost all interest in theatre: "I wanted to seriously talk to people, particularly to members of my own privileged class. I wanted to intervene in people's lives. So I performed for a year in different homes for people I knew in a sort of chain."

He came round slowly to seeing the piece performed in a theatre, but he has only written one stage play since, The Designated Mourner, which David Hare directed at the National 10 years ago with a cast including film director Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson in a golden bunker.

And now, suddenly, there's new play: Grasses of a Thousand Colours, receiving its world premiere in May as part of the Court season. Andre Gregory directs the author, Jennifer Tilley and Miranda Richardson in a piece, Shawn says, where the cast are "tossed about on an ocean of sex".

"The play is a bit oceanic, much bigger than me. It takes place in a time and a place that are made up. I play a successful and wealthy scientist and... some of the preoccupations covering my whole life come into it, including things people think I might have gotten over." Some of those things might include elements in the play that made his name here in 1976. A Thought in Three Parts at the ICA contained some hilarious scenes of masturbation, dildo-waving and ejaculation and resulted in a fistful of bad reviews ("There is no attempt at anything that could be called artistic endeavour," snorted The Daily Telegraph).

"I would have stopped writing plays, no question, but for the support I found here from David Hare, Max Stafford-Clark and Bill Gaskill, who were running the producing company Joint Stock, and writers like Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and Barrie Keeffe." The monthly magazine Plays and Players published the script after Hare organised a letter to The Guardian which, says, Shawn, "changed my life".

Shawn's early plays were directed here first by Stafford-Clark, who collaborated with Joe Papp's New York Public Theater on the 1985 production of Aunt Dan and Lemon, a play which flew in the face of all orthodox liberal opinion in expressing sympathy for Henry Kissinger's foreign policy, and the war, in Vietnam; and Shawn himself appeared in the Court's upstairs studio in The Fever (1991), his coruscating monologue about the conscience of a self-confessed pampered liberal.

He says his plays are more about the audience than himself, and disarmingly claims to have no sense of humour, "so I don't know what's funny about a character. I do things, and people laugh at them. I rarely know what the joke is supposed to be or why they're laughing... my characters are much wilder than me. I'm a buttoned-up little creep."

The philosophical argument in The Fever, which Clare Higgins performs in this revival, centres on the necessity of poverty. How could we afford to buy a shirt or an apple if the poor were paid their due? Is this still how Shawn thinks?

"We should all be political activists. I have friends who are more full-time than me. I have a niece who works with Doctors without Borders. I sign petitions and go on demos when I have to. We have to fight our tendency to go to sleep. Laziness is always an attractive option."

The Fever (Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, 2 April to 2 May); Grasses of a Thousand Colours (Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, 12 May to 13 June); Aunt Dan and Lemon (Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, 20 May to 27 June); (020-7565 5000; www.royalcourtheatre.com

Shawn's scenes: Five of his best plays

A Thought in Three Parts (1976)

A couple in a hotel room skirt round the issue of loveless sex, then a group in a youth hostel engage in wild antics and masturbation. A man at a breakfast table remembers a long afternoon.

Marie and Bruce (1979)

A New York relationship is stretched to breaking point in a fury of insults that make Edward Albee sound like Sooty; a lacerating comedy of bad manners and bowel disorders.

Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985)

A disturbing philosophical debate, asking exactly what do we mean by compassion and how do perfectly decent people become monsters. Aunt Dan is a frightening character, a friend of young Lemon's parents, but is she an anti-Christ?

The Fever (1990)

Monologue for a privileged person in a poor country that nails the connection between slave labour and creature comforts and asks if having a caring attitude is the same as being a good citizen.

The Designated Mourner (1996)

The barbarians are through the gates and everyone who once read John Donne is dead. Three people sit at a table laden with books. The breeze on your face in the park is all that matters. Is it?