Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Before it moved to The New Yorker:
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Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule



Pollux writes:

After the Simon Schama lecture last Saturday I sped over to the City Winery on Varick Street.

I had time to spare but I had been uncertain about routes and taxis, being a confused Angeleno in the Big Apple. When I got there around six o’clock, there was already a line forming outside of the event that would start an hour and a half later. It was a good indicator of the anticipation surrounding this event.

Several older gentlemen in line looked like Wallace Shawn imitators. One woman asked a gentleman in line if he was Wallace Shawn. “No, I’m not,” he said.

“Oh, you have the same voice,” she said. My first glimpse of the real Wallace Shawn was of the actor and writer descending the spiral staircase in the middle of the Winery.

I sat at a small circular table and was soon served by a City Winery waiter. The rumble of the nearby subway rattled the glasses of my table as I ate a modest meal and waited for Shawn and John Lahr, senior drama critic for The New Yorker, to come on stage. Table space was at a premium.

Shawn talked about his childhood, his career as a quiet and obedient student who nevertheless was also something of a class clown. Shawn talked about the puppet shows he and his brother Allen used to put on when Wallace Shawn was around sixteen years old.

His puppet shows were about serious people and serious issues, such as Socrates and the Congo Crisis involving Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Mobutu.

Shawn said that his father, William Shawn, liked old-fashioned musicals, and hated serious musicals of the post-war era.

Wallace Shawn talked about his career at the Dalton School, which if nothing else, he said, taught him self-esteem.

Shawn talked about a playwriting contest he entered in his early twenties. His self-esteem led him to believe that his entry would change the world, that Chicago would be renamed “Shawnville,” and that it would cause political change even though the play had no political content. It did not pan out like that, but he knew playwriting was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Shawn mentioned his acting classes with Andre Gregory, who taught him that there were no rules. Shawn joked that some of the advice on acting he received from Gregory was to go and buy some cheap alcohol and come back to class after a few days. A clip from the film My Dinner with Andre was played.

Prompted by Lahr’s intelligent questions, Shawn talked about the social and political themes of his plays. “Poor people in the world,” Shawn said, “do not actually accept that the rich should have a pleasurable life.” Shawn said that the poor are kept in line with violence and threats of violence. A clip from the film version of The Fever, starring Vanessa Redgrave, was played.

“I think the bourgeois should have a nice life,” Shawn said. “I think everyone should have a nice life.”

Shawn talked about the philosophy behind his writing -if he’s not shocked by what he writes, he said, he tosses it into the garbage. He talked about his influences, which include Eugène Ionesco, Eugene O’Neill, and Henrik Ibsen.

Shawn was asked about his habit of inviting audiences attending his play “The Fever” to come on stage and share some champagne with him before the play begins. Shawn said that this was his way of lulling audience into a false sense of friendliness. The sip of champagne is not simply a congenial drink amongst friends; Shawn is poking fun at his audience’s bourgeois pretensions when he does this.

Our estimable editor of Emdashes, Martin Schneider, participated in this strange ceremony during one production of “The Fever” on January 25, 2007.

Shawn was also asked about the Polanski case. Shawn said that he personally did not know any artists who believed they were above the law.

Someone asked Shawn about his oeuvre’s appeal to an American audience that largely feeds on fare such as Survivor and Dancing with the Stars? Shawn said that he cannot write for people whom he doesn’t know. “I don’t know you,” he said to the person who made the query. “And I don’t know what you like.”

The audience at the City Winery liked Shawn, and Shawn liked them. My Dinner with Wallace made for an enjoyable night.

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