Opinion: In Praise of Wallace Shawn

Remington Write

A little light reading /Photo byTammy Remington

The man is downright formidable

Wallace Shawn looks positively cuddly, doesn’t he? With that goofy, cheerful grin and sly way of being just self-deprecating enough, the word affable comes to mind. Too many people only know of him due to his scene-stealing turn in "The Princess Bride” — incontheivable! — and that’s a pity because the guy is intimidating. And it shouldn’t be surprising given his father, William Shawn, edited The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987.

Grow up in that environment and try to read comic books.

Prior to seeing Lili Taylor do an outstanding interpretation of Shawn’s sucker punch of a monologue, “The Fever”, at the Minetta Lane Theater, my knowledge of his work pretty much stopped at his acting in such gems as Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” and Andre Gregory’s unforgettable “My Dinner with Andre". There was also Shawn’s delicious turn as Diane Keaton’s former lover in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”. Allen’s 2020 movie, “Rifkin’s Festival” in which Wallace Shawn was the lead maintained that image of Shawn as a somewhat bumbling but mostly endearing loser. However, it was seeing his riveting performance in 2013's “A Master Builder” that demonstrated his harder, more sinister and serious side. The real Wallace Shawn, if you will.

Enjoying Lili’s superb rendition of “The Fever”, compelled me to seek out more of Shawn’s work both on film and in print.

For example, there was the 2004 film version of “The Fever” starring the always incandescent Vanessa Redgrave. Having already experienced the powerful monologue as it was intended to be performed my expectations were low. Oh, me of little faith! If anything Redgrave’s performance of Shawn’s cringe-inducing words was even more annihilating.

What makes Shawn's work so devastating? Simple. The man is the absolute master of white liberal guilt. On steroids.

He’s uniquely qualified to hold nice, privileged white people who donate to food pantries and BLM up for inspection because he never spares himself. Throughout “The Fever”, Shawn systematically tears down the cozy, precious world into which he was fortunately born while demonstrating the true nature of privilege.

Did you sleep in a warm bed last night with no fear of bombs, rats, or thugs kicking in the door? Is there food in your kitchen? Can you cover your mortgage/rent and still afford a little fun on the weekend?

In that case, you my friend, are privileged and Mr. Shawn takes particular delight in pointing out how that privilege comes at the expense of those who don’t sleep free of bombs, rats, or thugs.

Moreover, Shawn is wonderfully sneaky with his attacks. Take his play “Aunt Dan and Lemon”. Talk about a wallop upside the head at the end of that one. It’s not really surprising that Shawn’s plays seldom get produced. They’re not exactly feel-good material. But the plays are available to be read and I recommend them. Those as well as his essays are un-put-downable.

Why bother reading or watching this stuff intended to make me feel rotten about my incredible good luck to have been born when and where I was?

Simply because Shawn is wickedly funny and smart. I read his stuff and grin with a wince and a nod. Yes. Yes, I think that way, too. Yes, I’m on a constant cycle of seeking to balance gratitude with awareness. Yes, I see the steep downward grade we’re on — and how we're speeding up as we go down — and the best I can manage is to consume less stuff, save more stuff, and savor what we’ve got while we’ve got it.

And when part of what we’ve got is a writer/thinker/actor/philosopher of the caliber of Wallace Shawn, we damned well better appreciate the man’s work.

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Covert dilettante with an omnivorous capacity for wonder. Writing because I can't not write. Always watching for the hidden patterns and connections. I don't know I cannot fly..........and so I do.

New York City, NY

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