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'The Designated Mourner': Wallace Shawn's play from the '90s finds new meaning today

by Cameron Kell | The Frame

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Playwright/actor Wallace Shawn stars in "The Designated Mourner," an eerily relevant play about dissidence and intellectualism. Lawrence K. Ho/REDCAT

Director André Gregory and actor slash playwright Wallace Shawn are back at it.

The two, who famously made the film “My Dinner With Andre,” have collaborated often over the years, most recently with a limited run of the play, “The Designated Mourner.”

Written by Shawn in the 1990s, it tells the story of three people living under a totalitarian regime that has squashed intellectualism and free thought. The play is a meditation on the price of speaking out, and the consequences of doing nothing.

When Shawn and Gregory joined us at The Frame studios, they talked about reviving the play as an act of political resistance, and how the relevance of "The Designated Mourner" has only grown over the years.

Interview Highlights:

Wallace, you wrote this play in the early 1990s and it premiered in London in 1996. So what was the thinking behind reprising it now?

Shawn: Well, I guess it started with that man being elected president. We thought, what can we do to resist? What could we do that somebody else couldn't do?

Gregory: And the play is very, very relevant.

This play imagines an authoritarian regime where independent thought is penalized and where intellectualism is essentially considered to be a crime. In some ways, and to some people's thinking, that seems like the world in which we live.

Shawn: Well, certainly Trump has very authoritarian leanings. He certainly admires rough players and he certainly resents what he thinks of as an intellectual elite. The character that I play in the play is certainly also very resentful of people he thinks look down on him.

Gregory: On top of that, I'm always surprised at how many people say, "God, how could Trump happen?" On one level, I think those are people who are denying what this country has been ever since Eisenhower said to beware the military-industrial complex, and even before that — we're a nation that wiped out the American Indians and lynched black people from trees. There might be a certain inherent violence in America.

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(Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine, and Deborah Eisenberg star in "The Designated Mourner," directed by André Gregory. Courtesy of Lawrence K. Ho/REDCAT)

The play was first performed in the United States in 1997, during Bill Clinton's second term. How would you say the play was received differently then than it might be received today?

Shawn: When we first did the play, people were completely puzzled — why would I write it? Why would André do it? People asked, "What does that political violence symbolize?" And we said, "Well, it symbolizes itself, it's political violence." People didn't know why we were even talking about that.

Gregory: And wouldn't you say that even when we did it at the Public Theater, three years ago or something like that, that it still seemed a little odd to a lot of people?

Shawn: Yeah, I think it's just that, more and more, people don't find it very puzzling. And when we first did it, and the subject of being hated by other people in other countries came up, people didn't quite know what that was about. Now you get a very loud silence when you talk about that.

In the author's note to the published script you write, "Real life is hard to understand, and I've always liked that there's more than one way to understand the events and characters of a play as well. But some of the blunt misreadings unnerved me." What were the nature of some of those misreadings?

Shawn: Well, there were people in the audience who didn't realize that this repression and violence is coming from the authoritarian government. But that was something that, when I first wrote the play, I thought was so obvious that I didn't need to underline it.

I think I always go on the assumption that people should see my plays two or three times and memorize them. But that doesn't actually happen, so even in this production we've added a few things. Over the years, people just didn't quite get certain things, and I want them to follow the play.

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