Trump is the Boot Man
An LRB Podcast with Wallace Shawn and Adam Shatz
Writer and actor Wallace Shawn talks to Adam Shatz about ‘the thin line between entertainment and cruelty’ in the age of Trump, his childhood fear of almost everything and his realisation that humans are probably the worst species.
Adam Shatz: I’m very pleased and honoured to be sitting here with Wallace Shawn. Shawn is one of our great actors in American film and television, famous for roles he’s played in Manhattan and The Princess Bride, as well as in two great films with Andre Gregory, My Dinner with Andre and Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street, both of them directed by Louis Malle. Shawn is also one of our finest and most challenging playwrights. In The Fever, The Designated Mourner, and in his most recent play, Evening at the Talk House, Shawn has explored the sordid underbelly of Western privilege, the brutality and misery that make our lives possible and that we’d do anything not to think about unless we’re being entertained. Shawn has a new book, a terse, freeform essay that he calls Night Thoughts – a title that might just be applied to any of his writings which inhabit a nocturnal zone between reality and the world of dreams, or nightmares. His work has never seemed more urgent, more distressingly prophetic, because it’s always been acutely attuned to how easily civilisation slides into barbarism, and to the thin line between entertainment and cruelty – two topics we can’t avoid these days. Wally, it’s great to have you here.
Wallace Shawn: It’s great to be here. And I’m sure you didn’t mean to slight our third film, A Master Builder, directed by the great Jonathan Demme.
AS: Not at all! Ibsen’s Master Builder, yes.
WS: Ibsen’s Master Builder.
AS: You’ve been chided at times for taking too bleak or critical a view of America, but now we’re seeing the rule of law under siege in DC, and The Designated Mourner being revived, partly in response to Trump’s election. So, in a way, you’re having the last laugh, except it’s laughter in the dark. I’m wondering how that feels. It’s as if you’ve been in the trenches preparing for this moment.
WS: Well, I suppose I am less shocked than a lot of people. And, you know, since the late eighties I have been training myself in the ability to see my country from below – from the point of view of those being crushed by the boot.
AS: ‘The unlucky ones’, you call them in Night Thoughts.
WS: Yes. So, you know, you could say Trump is the boot man – I mean, he looks to everybody the way the United States has really looked to me ever since I came to that sort of political awakening in the 1980s. So, it is true that people have in effect said to me: Gee, we thought you were exaggerating or, you know, being hysterical, but now we think you were smart! And so that’s kind of interesting, and somewhat enjoyable in a way, in a horrible way. And … we did do The Designated Mourner, my play, in LA a month or so ago, and it was sort of shocking how well people seemed to understand it – it was not …
AS: It was not so well understood at the time when it came out, in 1996?
WS: Not the way it was last month. I mean, it didn’t seem to be so strange or avant-garde as it had.
AS: I want to talk to you a little bit about Night Thoughts, but since you mentioned the late 1980s as having been the moment of your epiphany and of your decision to look at America from below, or for that matter from outside the United States, what was it about the late 1980s? Because you’re a child of the Vietnam era, you came of age – you were born in 1943. Why the late eighties? What was it about that time in particular?
WS: You know, that really is a psychological question that, because my knowledge of myself is absolutely minimal, I can’t answer! There were various things happening at that time.
AS: Reagan’s wars in Central America, for example, I’m imagining?
WS: Yes – that was certainly happening. And, well, Reagan was a rather hard person to ignore – I mean, he … clearly was a disturbing character. I also had had a brief period of economic success, personally. I had fallen … I mean, I’d started my life as a writer, and I’d fallen, sort of by accident – or completely, in a way, by accident – into acting, and I … that was my peak. I mean, I’ve sort of deteriorated, in terms of how much money an hour of my time is worth and how popular I am, since 1989, let’s say. But during the eighties I had some pretty good jobs, and was paid very well for them. I think I was reflecting about that a little bit, and, yeah, I went through psychological changes after I turned forty.
AS: Actually, in the very first scene, I think, of My Dinner with Andre, which was released in 1981, you talk about the struggle to make a living, having grown up in this home of great comfort, and now you find that you’re thinking about the bills.
WS: Right. I mean, I grew up in a privileged home, and a privileged environment, and then, in my twenties, I didn’t really have any source of income except basically borrowing from friends who were doing a bit better than me. And I did various jobs – you know, I was a shipping clerk, or whatever. But I was not feeling very privileged at that time. And then I started making money as an actor, and I … I became privileged again. I think that caused me to reflect. But, I mean, I think it’s mostly psychological things that I really don’t know about.
AS: Let’s talk a little bit about Night Thoughts. It’s alternately dreamy, angry and hopeful, and you speak, as you do in your plays, in this inimitable voice. I’m wondering, it’s an essay about the state of our world …
WS: Yes, it is.
AS: … and the parlous state of our world, and what we might do to change it. How did this book arise, and how does it relate, if at all, to your work as a playwright?
WS: Well, I have every once in a while had a thought about the world that, you know, I wouldn’t or couldn’t express in writing a play, and I’ve written an essay every once in a while.
AS: And you’ve collected some of those in a book.
WS: Yes. This longer essay partly came about because I gave a speech, and I was dissatisfied with the speech and thought it had to be finished, or improved, or completed. And so I ended up … really, I changed almost every word, and added a lot, and … but it sort of started me off. And I also was inspired by the thought that I am over seventy, so I could easily die or become senile; if I were going to express my thoughts about the world, summing them up, it would be wise to do it quickly, and at first I sort of thought, well, how could I write such a book? Noam Chomsky has read about all of history – he knows every theory of economics. I know so little – I’m ignorant; and I’m not that smart compared to Chomsky, or many other people. But then I started thinking, well, we all have had the same number of moments of life, if we’re the same age. Some people have travelled the world – they’ve been to India, China, New Zealand, they’ve seen everything; and other people have just stayed at home and not travelled, they’ve stayed in their neighbourhood and gone to their local grocery store. But it would stand to reason that they know more about their grocery store than the guy who’s spent his time travelling around the world. And, really, to write such a book, you should have also worked in a coalmine; you should have lived with tribal people in the jungle – you should have done a lot of things that Chomsky hasn’t done and I haven’t done either. So, maybe my silly life has given me some insight as well.
AS: Also, I’m just reminded of something that Mark Strand said to you in the interview published in your collection Essays, where he says that his hope is to be smarter in his writing than he actually is.
WS: Exactly! He … I mean, that was in response to my saying, How do you dare to write something that you admit you yourself don’t really understand? And he said, Well, if I had to understand everything that I wrote, then I couldn’t … my writing couldn’t be any smarter than I am!
AS: And this book does begin with a very dreamlike image, as if you pulled it out of your unconscious, with you as the murderer, not as the victim.
WS: Yeah, well, it’s … but it turns out to be sort of apropos, but it … yes … its form is free-associative, you might say. I mean, the transitions between its episodes are intuitive – the leaps are somewhat intuitive. It’s not like a regular essay that would be in the Nation or the Guardian.
AS: To me, it reads like a monologue by one of your characters. You begin with an image that I think will resonate with a lot of listeners. ‘The television screen’, you write, ‘keeps turning back obsessively, crazily, to the face of Trump. Oh my God – will this never end? I turn off the television, turn out the light. When I try to fall asleep, Trump keeps jumping back at me, then he slowly fades out, and I think about myself, the course of my life.’ So, immediately we’re in this place that I recognise from your plays – this shadowy area between daylight and night-time, between reality and the world of dreams. And you’ve said that you spent your life racing back and forth between these two places. And I think, for a lot of us, since Trump was elected this shadowy area has become the new normal.
WS: Yes! Well, I mean, it is true that we wake up and, I mean, for many of us, certainly for me, by the time I’ve been awake for fifteen minutes, I have usually absorbed the latest fantastical news from Washington – which, by the way, is in my view an incredible distraction from the underlying horrors of what’s really going on. The whole story about whether Trump and the Russians colluded in releasing emails about Hillary Clinton is just a trivial idiocy masking the really terrifying things that are going on, in which the …
AS: The wealth transfers and the attacks on rule of law, and so on?
WS: Yes, and the way that the 1 per cent, let’s call them, has really been given the levers of the system in an unprecedented way, and all of the coins are flowing fast and down these chutes in their direction; and, you know, the brutality of the arrest of all of these immigrants who, in my way of thinking, really are as innocent as the Jews of Europe who were being picked up in the thirties. I mean, passports didn’t even really get going until a hundred years ago; I mean, to have crossed a border is not a crime, like murdering somebody – it’s not a crime. And these people are being intentionally persecuted because Trump’s audience has a sadistic bent, and Trump has figured out how to make immigrants a …
AS: Political fodder, essentially
WS: … and scapegoats for the real miseries that those followers of his are experiencing.
AS: Your new play, Evening at the Talk House, is partly about the drone war. There’s a reunion of actors, and we learn that some of them have been moonlighting as drone operators. They can’t get enough work doing their usual work, which is entertaining, and so they’re killing people instead – our quote-unquote ‘enemies’. It’s a striking play written just before Trump’s emergence. But it also made me think of something that Philip Roth said in an essay in 1960 about how novelists, the American novelist, can no longer keep up with American reality – that life here is so crazy, so wild, it defeats any attempt to depict it. I’m wondering, do you ever feel eclipsed or pre-empted by what Roth has called ‘the American berserk’?
WS: Well, I’ve never specifically …
AS: … written about America, of course.
WS: Right – I mean, my plays are set, you know … With one exception, none of my plays are set in any particular place – they’re set in the place of my own imagination. And I’ve never specifically felt, Wow! Today’s newspapers so closely mirror what I wrote in my play that my play is no longer interesting. When there have been overlaps – and there have been – I sort of thing, Wow, that’s interesting! And, I mean, as I say, it’s … influenced the reception of the plays.
AS: Fintan O’Toole, in an essay that I thought was very perceptive about your work in the New York Review, wrote that in your plays darkness is inextricable from the popular entertainment – that wrapped up in the smooth consolations of prime time is a core of utter cruelty. I’m wondering, what do you think explains this relationship between entertainment and cruelty?
WS: Well, cruelty is often expressed in entertainment …
WS: … obviously, the most famous being the Romans, who openly had people being killed in front of an audience.
AS: Or lynching in the States, as well.
WS: Yes. And, of course, public executions, which are still common in many countries. I mean, human beings have, one might say, in infinite well of sadism somewhere inside them, and our, you know, challenge is to try to prevent that from having everyone annihilate everyone else. But obviously there’s a tremendous amount of vicarious killing, beating and insulting that forms a large part of film and television entertainment. I mean, you know, you have to … you have to work hard to find popular pieces of entertainment – I mean, of television or films – that don’t contain those elements. But it’s … you know, when I was, I suppose … maybe nine or so, and my brother was five, we had a little Super 8 movie camera, and we made little films – and we were not very rough boys, to put it mildly, but we had guns and fist-fights, and our father tried to encourage us to make up a story that had no violence in it, and I think he gave us a head-start, you know, some suggestions on how to go about it.
AS: This isn’t a violent story, but you do talk, in one of your essays, in a very affecting scene where you’re riding in a cab with your dad – I think you’re about ten years old – and you see some awkward, miserable-looking kid, and you start laughing at him, and your father breaks down in tears.
WS: Well, he was a sensitive guy. And I don’t know if there’s any ten-year-old who is very sensitive – maybe there are. He was … yeah, it was a funny-looking, overweight kid who would have been, you know, bullied in school, and I didn’t know him, but I was indirectly bullying him just by laughing at his appearance. And, you know, that was a powerful lesson from my father, which, you know, one has to … I have to re-learn it all the time – certainly, as a short actor, I’m offered … well, I’m no longer offered many parts, because I’m declining in my popularity, but I … I have been, over the years, offered an enormous number of parts where my character, the short guy, is being bullied, and it’s supposed to be funny – and then, at a certain point, I sort of realised that was what it was, and started turning those down – along with the parts with the bullied short guy realises that he, too, can be a bully.
AS: And turns his aggression against the other?
WS: Exactly – maybe with a gun, or maybe through some clever tactic such as kicking him in the testicles, whatever.
AS: One of the things that makes your work striking and disturbing, your plays, is that you often describe the dark allure and the pleasure that people take in cruelty, and I think, for that reason, the plays are not accusatory or pious, because you’re writing about the seductions of amorality – and the seduction of amorality is a big theme, certainly, in The Designated Mourner. Do you think that this pleasure in cruelty and aggression is a big part of Trump’s appeal? You spoke about him earlier as ‘the boot’.
WS: Well, I think he certainly has concluded that that is the side of him that has made him president. I personally found his speech the other day to the policemen at the Police Academy, where he said, Don’t be too nice, one of the more horrifying moments in his presidency. I think that the pleasure that people take in cruelty, or what you would call sadism, is a very under-discussed motive for a tremendous amount of what goes on in the world – not just in our country. I mean, people take at face value the verbal explanation for why someone is being beaten up or shot, or hundreds of people being beaten up or shot, or people are being are being tortured. There are a million explanations, as there have been for every war that’s ever been fought, going back to the beginning of humanity. These … you know, there are different explanations – the explanation that is ignored is the one that isn’t put into words: the human love of cruelty, the desire to kill, the desire to torment other humans – that’s not included. I mean, the Americans say, We are fighting for freedom and democracy, and the Isis people say, We’re fighting for God, and … I mean, there have been a million explanations. But there is … an irrational desire to hurt or kill other people that is, for reasons we don’t fully understand, sometimes quiet inside humans and sometimes comes to the fore.
AS: Let’s talk a little bit about how Wally Shawn became Wally Shawn. Your father was the New Yorker editor William Shawn, you grew up in this very cultured, comfortable home. In My Dinner with Andre, you say that when you were ten, you were an aristocrat riding around in taxis surrounded by comfort, and ‘all I thought about was art and music’. There are passages like this in your plays, in your essays – you keep returning to your childhood. How did this upbringing shape your view of the world? How did it shape your political evolution?
WS: Well, I suppose I’m more obsessed with my childhood than some other people. And there were some paradoxes in my childhood that it’s taken a lifetime to try to deal with. I mean, my parents were unbelievably benign and kind people. They themselves had almost no conception of privilege, or that they were the recipients of it. My father had grown up privileged; his father had run away from a home when he was around twelve, I think, and been a peddler, and had very little education; and my father’s mother, I think, just had been through the third grade. But the peddler became very prosperous, in that way that happened in that, you know, turn-of-the-century type of time. He was a Jewish immigrant peddler. Actually, he didn’t even know what country he’d been born in – he probably was born in upstate New York, maybe in Canada, maybe in Europe, he didn’t know. I think he had no contact with his parents after he ran away. Anyway, my father grew up privileged. My mother grew up basically poor, but for some reason neither of them realised that they were doing very nicely. They never expressed amazement about it, or gratitude, or any sense that privilege had anything to do with the suffering of the unprivileged. And I was always embarrassed about that – the fact that they were privileged, and that I grew up privileged. I sort of had some awareness of it from a fairly early age. And, I mean, my first, in principle, feeling for many years was that it was embarrassing, and I didn’t want …
AS: … didn’t want other people to know about it?
WS: … didn’t want other people to know – even though most of the people … yeah, most of the people that I went to middle school with were privileged themselves. In the sixties I was there, but clueless, really. I mean, I had the opportunity to be involved in the greatest events of the century, in some ways, but I was … I didn’t get it – I just … I knew the Vietnam War was wrong; but I thought that to be in a demonstration was unappealing, unattractive, and sort of … I found it a grotesque idea that didn’t represent my view of what a human being should be like.
AS: You mean, almost as if it were aesthetically unappetising to be mobilising with large groups of people on the street?
WS: Uh … to be shouting slogans in a mob of people – I just found that not what I thought a person should be like. Even though I knew that the … the Vietnam War was wrong. And I was, frankly, very repressed and frightened of practically everything – certainly rock and roll was too wild for me; I just couldn’t … it frightened me. And it was my father who said, Wallace, you know, there’s this incredible gathering of people in Woodstock, New York, this weekend …
AS: He was encouraging you to go?
WS: He was … I think he was hinting that maybe it would be interesting to go to this amazing event!
AS: Good journalistic instincts.
WS: To me, that sounded horrifying. There’d be a huge mob of people listening to terrifying music in a big pile of mud. It just … It scared me, terribly.
AS: So I guess you missed your chance to see Jimi Hendrix perform the national anthem?
WS: I did – I did! And I’ve, of course, regretted everything that I didn’t do for … you know, for decades afterwards.
AS: Was this fearfulness, though, of … listening to this kind of music, of being in large crowds … ? I mean, I’m imagining that this was also a part of your upbringing on some level – I mean, that it was something you were soaking up?
WS: Well, I think my parents had definitely taught me that, if you go out in the rain, you might catch a cold, and it could be serious. And, you know, we were stuck with these bodies – that’s just the way we were made.
AS: That could fail us?
WS: But they should … you know, they could … you had to protect yourself, and there was no emphasis on the fun of having a body, that I was presented with in my household. Most people did discover that on their own, though – they … And anger was not part of the way of life of our household. Certainly, shouting, chanting, wild dancing …
AS: It was no bacchanal – that’s what you’re … ?
WS: It was not a bacchanal, and it just … I mean, my father secretly was not as repressed as he pretended to be – but we didn’t know that. So I was upset about the Vietnam War but I didn’t protest it – and then eventually, you know, years passed in which I thought of myself as a sort of observer of life, and it wasn’t until I was over forty that it hit me, very, very forcibly that, wow, I was a participant, and all of these awful things that were happening were being done for no other reason than to give me an enjoyable, nice life. And that hit me very powerfully.
AS: And that’s something you very much confirmed in … we’ll talk more about it in your play, The Fever, which I think came out in 1990. But … to return to the subject of your childhood, you describe your parents, in a number of your essays, as Rooseveltian Democrats, admirers of Adlai Stevenson, who took a very benign view of the possibilities of this country and saw us as the good guys. And yet, your father published John Hersey on Hiroshima, Hannah Arendt on Eichmann and The Banality of Evil, James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time, and your close friend, the late Jonathan Schell, on Nixon’s lies and environmental catastrophe. So it seems to me – and perhaps I’m wrong – that your father had a dark, even apocalyptic sense of what lay behind the surface of American life that wasn’t terribly unlike yours, even if he preferred to have it expressed by others rather than say it himself.
WS: Well, he was radicalised by the Vietnam War, very dramatically, and so was my mother. When Lyndon Johnson said that we had to fight in Vietnam because the North Vietnamese had blown up or captured that ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, they believed that, because they said – and I do remember this – that the president wouldn’t lie to us. And then, over the next couple of years, they developed a radically different point of view – radically different, unbelievably different, and … my mother, you know, would yell at the television set. And my father …
AS: So shouting entered the Shawn home?
WS: Yes, exactly! And …
AS: So long as it wasn’t directed against another member of the family
WS: Exactly! But my father started … Well, Jonathan Schell went to Vietnam when we were both, like, twenty-two, and he published … he wrote an amazing article that was in the New Yorker, ‘The Village of Ben Suc’, which told about the destruction by the American army of one village. And it was an incredible article for somebody to write at any age, and it was very frank. And he and my father began to collaborate on these editorials in the magazine.
AS: He was writing the comments, wasn’t he?
WS: Yes, but my father had a very strong hand in those comments. And this led to … well, you’d have to say a very painful and sort of tragic split in the staff of the magazine, in which many of the editors and writers thought that Jonathan Schell and my father were out of their minds, and were horrified by what the New Yorker was doing. So, yes … I mean, many of those people had been veterans of World War II and like, for example, Salinger, were flatly horrified at the idea of, in effect, criticising what American soldiers were doing. I mean, Salinger just thought that was absolutely appalling. So, you know, there was no question that my father preceded me by, you know, a couple of decades in becoming a radical critic of the United States. I would say the only element that was slightly different was that, I think, for most of his life, Jonathan Schell clung to the idea that perhaps it could change – and my father certainly believed that. Whereas I came to believe, you know, many years later that there were structural reasons, to use that rather vague word, why the United States did what it did, and I came to have a sort of Marxist view. I mean, I’ll say this very succinctly: I’ve read Capital, vol. 1, which maybe not everyone has read, and it’s not that easy – but that’s all I know.
AS: But you have a very elegant account of commodity fetishism in The Fever.
WS: Thank you kindly. But, I mean, yes, I’m not … if I say that I have a Marxist point of view, I’m not claiming to know any more about Marx than that one book, but that’s not an … in my mind, it’s quite an accomplishment to have read that book. And I did become someone who believed that the United States could not, all of a sudden …
AS: … reform itself …
WS: … reform itself …
AS: … by electing better leaders.
AS: Your original ambition was to become a diplomat, I think?
WS: A civil servant of some kind.
AS: Or a civil servant – but in the early seventies you met Andre Gregory, you started writing plays. Who were the playwrights who spoke to you then? I’m guessing that Brecht and Genet may have been important …?
WS: Tragically, they weren’t. They should have been. I mean, I suppose the playwrights who … I mean, when I was twelve, I went to see The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards, in Greenwich Village in New York; and when I was thirteen, that was when the first production of Long Day’s Journey into Night happened; and my friend Jonathan Schell and I saw Endgame the first time it was done in the United States; and I saw The Chairs and The Lesson of Ionesco at that same time, when I was thirteen – so those were, like … and The Bald Soprano and Jack – so those were big, big, big experiences for me. And when I was thirteen, I read all of O’Neill’s plays. So I suppose, you know, you’d have to say those were my early influences in theatre. And then in my twenties, I did … I loved Pinter, and Peter Hall did beautiful productions of his work that came over here, and I loved, particularly, the play All Over, by Edward Albee …
AS: Some of the Grove Press playwrights – Beckett and Pinter …
WS: Yeah … And I’d loved Beckett from the early time. But I also … I read … let’s be frank, I don’t know if I could do it today, but I read Molière and Racine in French, and they made a big impression.
AS: In an essay on the theatre, you say that the essence of theatre lies not in its aesthetic possibilities, but in its unique power to reflect the real world, to serve as a mirror – I’m paraphrasing you. And yet, unlike a lot of didactic or social-realist theatre, your work has never served as a mirror exactly – or maybe, perhaps more precisely, as a distorting lens, so that we can see the real more sharply. Much of it takes place in this dream space that we’ve talked about – it seems to grow out of night thoughts. And I’m wondering whether you might talk a bit more about your choice of form, your decision to confront the questions that preoccupy you through the creation of this parallel reality that’s perhaps more surreal or phantasmagorical. Because you’re plays are not … it’s not realist political theatre at all.
WS: It’s … I can’t fully explain why – I always have written from the unconscious. That’s what has always been writing, to me. I’ve never done anything else. I was very influenced … I don’t say influenced, necessarily, I don’t know what influenced me; but I … I loved the plays that were done at the Royal Court, in England, that were very naturalistic, and dealt very directly sometimes with social issues. And I was … you know, I’ve always been … my plays were sort of discovered, in a way, by David Hare, and he gave them to Max Stafford-Clark. I mean, he got them from my English agent, Peggy Ramsay, who I met through John Lahr, who was a friend of Andre. And Max Stafford-Clark did incredibly realistic plays about society – you know, for instance, there were was one that I remember very vividly where it was just about an Irish rebel being interrogated by an English policeman. It was amazing. And … I’ve always felt … close to Caryl Churchill in the spirit of how we both write … although, you know, there are many ways in which we differ, I have, over the decades, always felt an affinity there. And of course, what she writes, it’s firmly, much more firmly grounded in a real knowledge of how people live than my plays are. I envy that. But they’re very fantastical and dreamlike.
AS: And Cloud 9 certainly explores some of the same territory that you did in your early plays. I mean, in those plays you said that you were interested in capturing the … ‘my interior life as a raging beast’, these plays were full of sex, obscenity, nudity – the kinds of things that, I might add, were not at the time printed in the pages of your father’s magazine; you even ran afoul of the Vice Squad in London, which accused a production of A Thought in Three Parts of being pornographic. But in more recent decades your work has looked outward as much as inward, even if it’s still saturated with dreams, fantasies, the raging beast of the unconscious. In fact, it often suggests that the selfish individualism of the West – this belief in some sovereign and beautiful self – is a product of ruling over unseen others abroad and at home. Can you talk a little bit about how this shift in your work took place? The writing … the voice is yours throughout, but there is definitely a shift in focus.
WS: Well, the play that I worked on the longest – it took me ten years to write it, Grasses of a Thousand Colors – which is my second-to-last play, it has an awful lot of sex and dream in it.
AS: I don’t mean to suggest that you abandoned the concerns – obviously, there’s plenty of sex in plays like Designated Mourner, and the body is very much a part of all of your plays. But it does seem as though there’s a growing politicisation and a concern with issues of complicity, and our happiness, their misery, the lucky, the unlucky, and so on.
WS: I definitely … you know, I’ve changed – I went through a crisis when I discovered my own complicity in the suffering of other people. I freaked out, and … became very hard to live with, because my hatred of myself was so extreme; and my hatred, really, of people like me – that’s to say, everybody that I knew, in a way.
AS: You must have been great dinner company then!
WS: Well, it was a problem! And it isn’t one that’s been resolved. So, I did … my brain was, conscious and unconscious, flooded with political questions, really – so they came out in my plays. They actually came out one play ahead of my own conscious awareness of them. I mean, not to get too involved in my own biography, ’cause who cares, but my play Aunt Dan and Lemon is a very political play about a woman who loves Henry Kissinger, not as a boyfriend, but who profoundly … her life is centred around her admiration of Kissinger; and the other leading character in the play is a young woman who knew her, knew the first woman, when she, the second woman, was a child, and she has gone in a very disturbing direction, and become sort of … a Nazi sympathiser after the fact. And the play is full of political content, but I didn’t fully understand it myself until I watched it over and over again.
AS: So this was a case, in a sense, of you being smarter on the page than … or, the unconscious was speaking for you?
WS: That’s absolutely right – it was an example of Mark Strand’s statement, and … that was one of the things that changed me at that time.
AS: congratulation over the fall of communism, the end of the Soviet bloc. And in that play you begin to explore something that comes up in, I think, much … in most of your work subsequently, the … rationalisations that people make for how they live; the little lies, the little fables they tell themselves to justify their privilege, their comfort. And these fables are very recognisable – I … imagine most people, no matter how progressive they imagine themselves to be, have made them themselves at one time or another. And I’m wondering, what’s the raw material for some of these little stories? Are they things that you’ve thought of yourself? Are they stories that you hear when you have conversations with friends? Because they’re just very … very pithy, and very familiar.
WS: Well, I mean, that play was written out of my own crisis, and is … certainly, compared to any of my other plays, has got heavily autobiographical content, even though it’s a kind of fable that I made up, and volume 1 of Capital appears mysteriously on the doorstep in a brown paper bag – that didn’t happen to me. I mean, I was trying to murder myself; I mean, I was playing it out pretty frankly. I’d decided early on that … Well, let’s put it the other way. When I started writing it, I would write something down, and then I’d think, Oh, my God! But that’s something that I say, or that’s something that I do! I can’t put that in there! It shows … I mean, that I’m a complete hypocrite! And at a certain point, I decided, no, that’s what I’m going to do – I’m not going to be afraid of people calling me a hypocrite; I’m going to put all that stuff in there, even if it does expose me as a hypocrite, because I don’t think I can change my life and myself fast enough to be able to write a play in which I would be able to say, well, I no longer do that. So, I just sort of … wrote a play that indeed indicts me.
AS: One of the things that I find … fascinating and troubling about your work is that you go beyond attacking hypocrisy – you ask us to imagine whether civilisation might have been, as you put it, a mistake; or whether, to quote Walter Benjamin, every one of its monuments is also a monument to barbarism. You seem, at times, disillusioned with humanity itself, and I’m going to quote one of the more memorable lines from Night Thoughts, and ask you to elaborate on it. And you write: ‘Obviously I’m upset about what my species has turned out to be – that species that went mad and destroyed the planet. It’s unbelievable to recall how respected and admired the human animal was at one time. It’s as if the old family dog, once universally beloved, had suddenly become rabid, his muzzle now covered with foam, his presence terrifying.’
WS: Well, that is a way of describing the difference between the way the human creature was seen when I was growing up and the way it’s seen now by a tremendous number of people, including me. When I was growing up, even though the world had just … I was born in 1943; even though the world had just seen unimaginable horrors, maybe because I was living in the United States rather than in Europe, and the Americans had not only been on the winning side, but had emerged without having their own nation touched by war, and the … at least as far as we knew, the American troops were greeted as liberators and with flowers everywhere they went, I grew up thinking that the human animal was this wondrous climax to the existence of all beings, and that our intelligence and ability to create great works of art and to think, etc., marked us off as the greatest species that had ever been, and there was no … you know, you could even say that all of existence led up to the magnificence of the human being. Well, I don’t think they were thinking that way in Europe, although a hundred years earlier, they had been – I mean, if you think of, I don’t know, Victorian England … the belief that …
AS: … in inexorable human progress, and emancipation, and …
WS: Yes. And it seemed that things were getting better and better, and there were a lot of people – Oppenheimer and others – who said of the atomic bomb, Well, this is a new … we have to rethink what the human being is. I don’t know if Oppenheimer said this – I know he took the measure of how incredible it was that science, which seemed so advanced and benign, and such a wonderful thing, and the scientists themselves were such wonderful people, who, you know, were so extraordinary, somehow they’d come up with something that could destroy the world, and … every species. But then, when the question of the destruction of the environment came along, it sort of … I mean, how dumb to put it this way, but it sort of removed the slightest doubt that somehow our species, far from being the greatest, might be the worst, and that even, you know, the marvellous inventiveness of the human being, and creativity, and ability to think, had … possibly will have a consequence that will mean there’s no one left to say this, but if there had been, they would say, Wow! It turned out they were awful!
AS: And yet, at the end of Night Thoughts, you hold out the hope that we could have a better world. You write that we can’t ignore things that we’ve learned, and you suggest that knowledge does make a difference, and that it could lead to an upheaval of sorts.
WS: Well, there’s …
AS: Oh, I’m not suggesting a contradiction. I just mean that, for all of the bleak structuralism of your analysis, there is a glimmer of possibility that … or maybe I’m grasping at straws here!
WS: No, not at all! No, I mean, of course the possibility exists that the human species will get it together, and will reverse the trends. It would be very surprising, but certainly the end of the Soviet Union shows us that very, very surprising things can happen. I mean, I was in Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia in ’86, and … my girlfriend and I tried to tell some of the people we met that there were problems in other countries, too, and we said, You know, South Africa, apartheid, this is terrible, and there are these terrible dictators in South America, etc. And the incredibly smart Polish dissidents, who were smarter than any people we’d ever met, really, said, Well, you see, that may be true, that those are terrible governments; they’ll be overthrown, but our grandchildren are still going to be living under communism. That’s how certain they were that their system could never be overthrown. How could it be?
AS: I think some of those same Polish dissidents, or former dissidents, told you, when The Fever was performed in Poland, that if it had been performed under communism, they would have killed you?
AS: But that they’d lived for three years under capitalism, and that was long enough for them to understand that perhaps there were a few problems with the new regime they had.
WS: I think that did happen! I mean, you know, very, very surprising things can happen. And I don’t … I mean, I don’t think … there is a tremendous benefit in guessing about the future, how it’s going to go. Obviously, the trends are horrifying. If history simply consisted of every graph that’s pointing up continuing up forever, and every graph that’s pointing down continuing down forever, then you would say, well, you know, the signs are bad. But that isn’t really how history operates, and … yeah, I don’t …
AS: It could surprise us again.
WS: Of course – and in a good way.
AS: Wally, thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you. Wally Shawn has a new book, Night Thoughts, an essay, and it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.
AS: So great to talk to you.
Online exclusive · 17 August 2017 » Trump is the Boot Man