Nightmare Travels: Wallace Shawn and the Good Life

thefever.jpgHow often does one go to the theatre and get to hobnob on the stage before the play starts with all one’s fellow theatergoers and the star?

We are served champagne on the drawing room set. It’s a discreet little party, with the guests just slightly shoving in that aggressive New Yorker way towards a moment of discourse with Wallace Shawn. And, yes, he stands there in his tweed sports jacket and discreet tie, beaming, and gabbing away like a genial host.

This is the introduction to his monologue, The Fever, in its latest incarnation at the Acorn Theatre on 42nd Street, directed by Scott Elliott and produced by The New Group. Such a cunningly effective moment of performance blurs the line between social life and artistic event. “Is he in character?” my friend whispers to me. She has heard that this play concerns a character called “the traveler,” who is not actually Wallace Shawn. It seems to me as I hover within hearing distance of his various conversations that he is in character as Wallace Shawn. We can’t say he is exactly a man at a party, but he is playing himself as a man at a social gathering, a man who will later play “the traveler,” who may in fact be some nightmare version of himself, and of course to be a traveler is to play the role of “other”—the one both invited and not invited to the foreign banquet or torture session, depending upon which nightmare one ventures into.

Since the play itself, the 90-minute monologue, evolves into a reasonably clear attack on entitlement, on the comforts of upper-middle-class American life—the pleasurable materialism, the self-righteousness, the liberal guilt, the love of art, the worship of one’s own children, the expensive taste, the group indulgence in fine food and superior coffee—some critics have suggested that the champagne serving is a tactic to involve the audience in group guilt, so that, as Charles Isherwood claims in The New York Times, “Mr. Shawn’s aim is to make you regret every sip by inducing a bout of moral indigestion.” Indeed, his “real goal is to hold an unflattering mirror up to his well meaning, liberally inclined audience.” But lest this be an insufficiently defined characterization of Shawn’s art, Isherwood concludes, “It’s sort of like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with you, dear viewer, cast in the distasteful role of Kurtz.”

I beg to differ. Conrad’s work casts Kurtz as a probable cannibal, certainly a head-hunter, and sexual adventurer as well as colonial exploiter and, ultimately, madman. Kurtz is one of the great white male characters run seriously amok in 20th century literature. We, on the other hand, merely want our Starbucks and our shiny Christmas gifts.

But perhaps Wallace Shawn is more insidious than I perceive. What I do strongly suspect is that Shawn is at least as much preaching to himself as to us in the audience (those “dear viewers” of Isherwood), and if that is the case, then Hamlet would seem to be the literary prototype here: the hyper-self-conscious self-questioner. Both guilty and guiltless, Hamlet is dark, antic, witty, worried, searching—in short, a modern human being. The more we know, the more we must question ourselves. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark, and also in these United States in these our times.

Two things stand out for me in The Fever: first, the investigation of what it means to be a traveler to the dark places on the earth (yes, yes, like Kurtz, okay CI, but more like the narrator Marlow); and second, Shawn’s pointed juxtaposition of torture, rape, and murder with enjoying fine food, serious theatre, and ballet. He creates this tense coupling of moods by weaving back and forth between his alienated self (in a foreign hotel room, vomiting in the bathroom, while dangerous rebels run wild in the streets) and his homebody self (wrapped in nice sheets and comfortable socks, eating tasty food and “just talking on the telephone and laughing and drinking more coffee and watching the sun coming in the window”).

The traveler, or adventurer tourist, is a popular role in recent years. We sophisticated urban people love to roam, and not just to Europe, but also to Africa, Central America, Asia. But what does it mean to travel to these places where poverty is so much more evident, injustice so dramatic, mere survival such a struggle? We are aware, as Shawn’s traveler is, that certain people there “are being awakened suddenly at night by groups of armed men. Suppose that they are being dragged into a stinking van… and stomped by boots till their lips are swollen like oranges, streaming with blood.” And this is not the most extreme image. We know about Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and El Salvador. We’ve seen the photos of blood soaked corpses. We’ve heard the tales of genital mutilation and more. So how do we still go there and buy ourselves cheap pretty trinkets? How do we justify our vast wealth and their vast poverty?

This moral dilemma is ultimately what Shawn’s work asks us to think about, just as Karl Marx did in Das Kapital with his insight into “commodity fetishism,” a concept about which Shawn’s speaker remarks most tellingly: “I wanted to understand that weird-sounding phrase, but I could tell that to understand it, your whole life would probably have to change.”

With its repeated thematic riffs both comic and tragic, The Fever is both more complicated and more poetic than I’ve indicated. Through it all, Shawn draws us inexorably in the direction of self-scrutiny, even if his speaker becomes more defensive and more resistant to economic equity—no, no damn it, he decides, we must “teach the poor they must never try to seize power for themselves, because the rule of the poor will always be incompetent, and it will always be cruel.” At this point Shawn has stepped down from the stage, closer to the audience, who are laughing at his audacity, and if the poor refuse to understand the lessons of history, he continues, why then “they must all be taken out and shot.” The audience is no longer laughing.

So, yes, we are being brought face to face with our inconsistencies, our willingness to, say, let small children at a distance ruin their eyesight and their fingers tying tiny knots in our precious and so necessary “oriental” rugs. Because otherwise our “whole life would probably have to change,” and we are not prepared to go that route.

The mirror has certainly been held up in our faces, but Isherwood wants more, claiming that the play “doesn’t go very deep in its analysis of the fundamental causes of the world’s inequalities or posit any rational ideas about how they could be eased.” Is this really the job of the artist? Isn’t that why we have legislators and think tanks and the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland? Surely to point out the moral paradoxes compellingly is quite sufficient on a cold night in Manhattan when we’ve already had our champagne. - Victoria Sullivan

The Fever's limited run has been extended to March 9, 2007.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.

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