Huffpost New York
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Wallace Shawn Headshot

Life As An Artist

Posted: Updated:

Adapted from the Introduction to Wallace Shawn's new book Essays.

The human community is carved up into "individuals." Why?
Presumably because it's helped us to survive, because a sleeping dog
can easily be kicked, but it's hard to damage a large group of flies. I
honestly don't know. At any rate, I didn't ask to be an individual,
but I find I am one, and by definition I occupy a space that no other
individual occupies -- in other words, for what it's worth, I have
my own point of view. I'm not proud to be me, I'm not excited to be
me, but I find that I am me, and like most other individuals, I send
out little signals, I tell everyone else how everything looks from
where I am. I have more free time than a lot of individuals, so, instead
of talking, I sometimes write. My friends Anthony and
Brenda found my signals interesting, so Anthony asked me to collect
them into a book, which Haymarket Books has just published (Essays).
I've always somewhat hated being "me" and only me. I wrote my
first play at the age of 10, 55 years ago, and I've always found it
a fantastic relief to imagine I know what things would be like from
the point of view of other individuals and to send out signals from
where I actually am not. Playwrights never need to write from the
place where they are. Unlike the fiction writer who says, as himself,
"Fred woke up in his bed that cloudy Sunday," a playwright can spend
a lifetime writing without ever speaking from his own location.
I've passed my life largely in a fantasy world. My personal life is
lived as "me," but my professional life is lived as other people. In
other words, when I go to the office, I lie down, dream, and become
"someone else." That's my job.

I've worked in the theatre since 1970. I've written plays and a
few screenplays, in each one of which a person who isn't me speaks,
and then another person who isn't me replies, and then a third one
enters or the first one speaks again, and so it goes until the end of the
piece. I've even worked as a professional actor, speaking out loud as if
I were someone not myself. And perhaps it's disturbing or frightening
how easy it is to become "someone else," to say the words of
"someone else." It really doesn't feel odd at all, I have to tell you.
Every once in a while, though, I like to take a break from
fantasy land, and I go off to the place called Reality for a brief vacation.
It's happened a dozen or so times in the course of my life. I've
looked at the world from my own point of view, and I've written
these essays. I've written essays about reality, the world, and I've
even written a few essays about the dream-world of "art" in which I
normally dwell. In a bold mood I've brooded once or twice on the
question, Where do the dreams go, and what do they do, in the
world of the real?

My congenital inability to take the concept of the inviolable
"self " seriously -- my lack of certainty about who I am, where I am,
and what my "characteristics" are -- has led me to a certain skepticism,
a certain detachment, when people in my vicinity are reviling
the evil and alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become
that Other, and so could the reviler. And this has had an effect
on my view of the world.

I grew up listening to discussions about the world, and in
school I studied history and politics and even a little elementary
economics. My parents were completely (some might say excessively)
assimilated American Jews whose own parents (said with
only a moderate degree of certainty to have been born in Sweden,
England, Germany, and possibly Canada) were probably all of Eastern
European or Russian origin, or in other words, saved from a
harsh destiny by the existence of the United States of America. My
mother and father, fortunate members of the bourgeoisie, were
American liberals of the old school. They never described the
United States as "the greatest country in the world" as many politicians
did. They were passionately close to their French friends and
their English friends and presided over a living room in which people
from India, Poland, Italy, and Czechoslovakia were constant visitors,
and they adored and admired Adlai Stevenson. From an early
age, I remember going with my mother to the gorgeous, modern
United Nations buildings on our own island of Manhattan and buying
holiday cards from UNICEF in the United Nations gift shop.
(As a Jewish atheist, my mother was one of the world's most loyal
devotees of Christmas, and she loved Advent calendars, Christmas
trees, and Christmas cards.) Mother loved UNICEF, the United
Nations Children's Emergency Fund, which helped poor children all
over the world, and she loved the United Nations; and, to her, being
an American meant being a person who loved the United Nations
and was a friend to poor children all over the world, like Eleanor
Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson.

When not totally preoccupied with my own problems, I feel
some of the emotions my mother felt toward those poor children all
over the world. But my earliest essay, "Morality," from 1985 (I was
just over 40 years old when I wrote it) shows me slowly seeing, as
it appeared out of the mist, the outline of my own figure as a character
in their story. It turned out that my role was sinister, dreadful,
but for my first 40 years I hadn't realized that. My ignorance
about my own involvement in the story of the children allowed me
to think, Yes, the conditions in the world are terrible, certainly -- but
I still could feel that the topic could be discussed in a leisurely manner.
When one hasn't noticed that it's one's own boot that's standing
on the suffering person's neck, one can be calmly sympathetic to the
suffering person and hope that over time things will work out well
for them.

I never became as nice as my mother. But by the time I was
45 I understood a few things that she'd overlooked. I suppose
I'm something like what my mother would have been if she'd gone
down into her basement and stumbled on Eleanor Roosevelt murdering
babies there.

The schizophrenic nature of my book (essays on war and death
and essays on the windowless miniature world of theatre) gives a
pretty good picture of my own mind. Born by most definitions into
the ruling class, I was destined to live a comfortable life. And to
spend one's life as a so-called "creative artist" is probably the most
comfortable, cozy, and privileged life that a human being can live on
this earth -- the most "bourgeois" life, if one uses that phrase to describe
a life that is so comfortable that no one living it would want
to give it up. To lie in bed and watch words bump together until
they become sentences is a form of hedonism, whether the words
and sentences glorify society and the status quo or denounce them.
It's very agreeable to live like that, even if people don't like your
work, criticize you, whatever. So I've always been tempted to turn
off the radio and forget the world, but I'm not quite enough of a hedonist
to forget it entirely and forever. I'm unable to totally forget
the world -- but I still haven't (yet) become a compassionate enough
person to leave my bed for more than a moment in order to devote
myself to changing the world or alleviating the suffering of my fellow
human beings.

In other words, I've been divided. When I was
15, my brain was feverish with the work of Dostoevsky and
James Joyce. But by the time I was 20 I'd turned against art, I
planned to spend my life as a civil servant, helping humanity, and I
would no more have dreamed that I'd one day work in the theatre
than that I'd one day become a champion racing car driver. Five
years later I'd fallen hard for art again, and I was loyal to art for
twenty years. Then its immorality became intolerable to me, and I
turned against it again, though I failed to find, as I looked around
me, anything else that I wanted to do. At any rate, the oscillations
continued, their pattern unpredictable and indecipherable to me.
Not surprisingly, my own ambivalence leaves me totally in awe
of those amazing people whose concerns and passions have stayed
constant and undimmed throughout their lives. I find I do need
models or heroes to guide me on my journey through the world,
and this need, combined with my shaky grasp on who I find "myself" to be, led me not merely to seek out and interview the poet
Mark Strand and the political philosopher Noam Chomsky, but to
believe, against the evidence, that they were me. Of course one could say that no one person could
be both Noam Chomsky and Mark Strand, not merely because it's
miraculous that anyone ever was remarkable enough to be either of
them, but because their lives seem to point in opposite directions.
That doesn't seem to stop me from wanting to be both of them at
the same time, and it doesn't seem to stop me from refusing to accept
that their lives are contradictory. Somehow poetry and the
search for a more just order on earth are not contradictory, and rational
thought and dreams are not contradictory, and there may be
something necessary, as well as ridiculous, in the odd activity of
racing back and forth on the bridge between reality and the world
of dreams.