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
My Dinner with André, 1981 (with André Gregory)
The Designated Mourner, 1997 (adaptation of his play)
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.
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.