Authors: Wallace Shawn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright, screenwriter, and actor

Author Works

Drama:

The Hotel Play, wr. 1970, pr. 1981

Play in Seven Scenes, pr. 1974

Our Late Night, pr. 1974

In the Dark, pr. 1976 (libretto)

Three Short Plays: Summer Evening, The Youth Hostel, Mr. Frivolous, pr. 1976, pr. 1977 (as A Thought in Three Parts)

The Mandrake, pr. 1977 (adaptation of Niccolò Machiavelli’s play La mandragola)

The Family Play, pr. 1978

Marie and Bruce, pr. 1979

My Dinner with André, pr. 1980 (with André Gregory)

The Music Teacher, pr. 1982 (libretto)

Aunt Dan and Lemon, pr., pb. 1985

The Fever, pr. 1990

The Designated Mourner, pr., pb. 1996

Four Plays, pb. 1998

Screenplay:

My Dinner with André, 1981 (with André Gregory)

The Designated Mourner, 1997 (adaptation of his play)

Biography

Playwright, screenwriter, and actor Wallace Shawn was born in New York City, the elder son of William Shawn, noted editor of The New Yorker, and Cecille Shawn. After attending Dalton School, a private high school in New York, and Putney, a preparatory school in Vermont, he studied history at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1965, and philosophy, politics, and economics at Magdalen College of Oxford University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1968 and a master’s degree in 1975. In 1965 and 1966, he taught English at Indore Christian College in India as a Fulbright fellow.{$I[AN]9810001605}{$I[A]Shawn, Wallace}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Shawn, Wallace}{$I[tim]1943;Shawn, Wallace}

Shawn’s work as a playwright led him to study acting, in order to sharpen his skills in creating and developing characters for the stage. Like many who pursue careers in the theater, he has held numerous jobs unrelated to the practice of his art, such as clerking in New York’s garment district, teaching Latin, and photocopying documents. For many years, Shawn has lived with the writer Deborah Eisenberg in a Manhattan loft.

Shawn’s interest in the theater and the performing arts dates back to childhood productions that he and his brother, the composer Allen Shawn, would create and produce for the family’s enjoyment. As a young man, he considered a career as a diplomat; however, while attending Oxford University in 1967, he wrote a script, Four Meals in May, and entered it in a competition for playwrights. The script did not win, but its author discovered his calling in the theater and continued to write plays. In 1975, he won an Obie Award from The Village Voice for the Off-Broadway staging of Our Late Night, directed by André Gregory. Shawn subsequently received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978.

Shawn began acting in 1977, more than ten years after he started writing plays. Professional acting, like clerking, teaching, and photocopying, was initially merely a source of income, more remunerative and less time-consuming than other jobs. Yet he expanded his range with a diversity of remarkable performances on stage and in films, and his talent has circumvented the typecasting that his puckish appearance invites. He began acting by performing in his own plays, first in The Mandrake. This performance brought him to the attention of Woody Allen, who cast him in his first film role. Shawn’s most noted film appearances include roles as the ex-husband of Diane Keaton’s character in Manhattan (1979), directed by Allen; as Wally in My Dinner with André (1981), directed by Louis Malle; as the wicked Vizzini in The Princess Bride (1987), directed by Rob Reiner; as a doctor in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989), directed by Paul Bartel; and as Vanya in Vanya on Forty-Second Street (1994), directed by Malle. He has also appeared in All That Jazz (1979), Atlantic City (1980), Strange Invaders (1983), The Hotel New Hampshire (1984), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), The Princess Bride (1987), and other films.

Shawn’s playwriting is noted for its shockingly explicit yet realistic language and for the conversational interactions among characters. Plot takes a back seat to character, and action is subordinated to words. The quintessential setting in a play by Wallace Shawn is a public place such as a restaurant, a cocktail party, or a hotel, and the quintessential purpose of the characters is to socialize and interact with others. Countering this public and social element in Shawn’s work is an opposing tendency toward isolation and soliloquy: Characters in public places sometimes fall into prolonged disquisitions that silence (and not infrequently shock) everyone else present. The most positive of these self-absorbed speeches is perhaps André’s lengthy and fascinating exposition of his worldwide quest for reality in My Dinner with André. At the extreme, direct address to the audience may replace meaningful interaction with other characters onstage; in fact, The Fever is a monologue spoken by one character and designed for performance in living rooms for small groups of guests. In this case, the play itself becomes the pretext for public interactions among people in the audience, who can reasonably be expected to socialize before and after viewing the play that has brought them together.

BibliographyBillington, Michael. “A Play of Ideas Stirs Political Passions.” The New York Times, October 27, 1985, p. B1. Billington discusses with Shawn the controversy over the political implications of Aunt Dan and Lemon. Shawn explains his dialogic theory of audience communication.King, W. D., John Lahr, and Wallace Shawn. Writing Wrongs: The Work of Wallace Shawn. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. The first comprehensive study of Shawn’ s life and literary output, analyzing each play and placing it in the context of drama from the Greeks to the present.Posnock, Ross. “New York Phantasmagoria.” Raritan 11 (Fall, 1991): 142-159. Shawn’s concerns in The Fever are cleverly juxtaposed with those of New York intellectual Richard Sennett. Both writers are concerned with the contemporary crisis of human values in urban culture.Rees, Jasper. “A Life in Two Halves.” The Daily Telegraph, May 3, 1999, p. 18. Discusses the disparity between Shawn’s challenging plays and his roles in films he describes as “silly,” such as Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Shawn says that his fifty or so film and television roles pay for his writing.Savran, David. “Wally Shawn.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. This long interview covers Shawn’s career up to 1986. Shawn talks specifically about his processes of composition and revision for production.Shawn, Wallace. “Why Write for the Theater? A Roundtable Report.” The New York Times, February 9, 1986, p. B1. Shawn discusses his creative process and commitment to theater with Arthur Miller, Athol Fugard, and David Mamet. The most concise statement of his philosophy of composition.Shawn, Wallace, and William Shawn. “Interview with William and Wally Shawn.” Interview by Lucinda Franks. The New York Times, August 3, 1980, p. B1. Shawn and his father discuss their memories of Wallace’s childhood and their common interests. Shawn recalls his earliest dramatic efforts, which sometimes included his brother and father.Shewey, Don. “The Secret Life of Wally Shawn.” Esquire 100 (October, 1983): 90-94. This personal portrait, undertaken in conjunction with the release of My Dinner with André, outlines several of the playwright’s basic beliefs.Wetzsteon, Ross. “The Holy Fool of the American Theater.” The Village Voice, April 2, 1991, pp. 35-37. Wetzsteon explains the critical reception of The Fever, and Shawn responds to criticisms of his politics and his use of alternative dramatic forms with some explanations of his intentions.Wetzsteon, Ross. “Wallace Shawn, Subversive Moralist.” American Theater 14, no. 7 (September, 1999): 12. Argues that Shawn’s later plays not only challenge the audience’s sense of morality but also question assumptions about the meaning of theater itself. Includes comments from Shawn, including his assertion that the audience is the main character in his plays.
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