The Designated Mourner

Dialogues---Shawn---Gregory-CoverShawn’s Theater*
By Stanley Kauffmann

Theater history is replete with actor-playwrights, but if we except Shakespeare, most of the Anglophones among them have been more notable for their acting than their plays. In our century the balance has altered somewhat. Harold Pinter spent his early years trying to build an acting career and his latter-day performances confirm his acting talent, but his real achievement is of course his drama.

Sam Shepard could obviously have had a full life as a theater and film actor, an outstanding one, but his plays reach heights beyond his acting. Now there’s Wallace Shawn. He is familiar to many through his multiple screen appearances, most memorably in My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, but his plays, which for years were a kind of rumor around the edge of his acting career, are looming larger and larger in the Shawn account. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, though much of his acting has been pleasant, some of it more than that, his plays have true and pressing importance.

To read the full article, download  Dialogues: The Wallace Shawn-André Gregory Project

* Excerpted from “Shawn’s Theatre” in About the Theater: Selected Essays (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2010). Reprinted with kind permission from The Sheep Meadow Press and the author.

STANLEY KAUFFMANN has been film critic for The New Republic for some forty years. He has published ten books of criticism, seven novels, and Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann in 2003. He has also published and produced many plays and taught at the Yale School of Drama and at the Theater Department of CUNY Graduate Center.

High Culture and Low**
by Dayton Haskin

There is something to be said, of course, for the idea that in The Designated Mourner [John] Donne’s name is only a signifier, at most a stand-in for poetry in general. What Shawn has said about the origins of the play encourages the presumption that “Donne” is a word used to call up a time when, among influential elite, poetry seemed to matter a great deal more than it now does. In the prefatory letter that accompanies Plays One, he confides that the idea for the play began to come to him at a memorial service, where he conceived a desire to join the “reverence and respect” (xxi) he feels for certain writers (he does not mention Donne) with the social themes he had been probing in The Fever (1990). From early on in the script of The Designated Mourner, moreover, there seem to be signals that the playwright’s real concern is the contemporary culture wars.

To read the full essay, download  Dialogues: The Wallace Shawn-André Gregory Project

**Excerpted from “When Performance Is at Odds with Narrative: ‘The Designated Mourner’ as Wallace Shawn’s Wager on John Donne” by Dayton Haskin, in Narrative, Vol 8, No 2, (May 2000), pp. 188-192. Copyright 2000 The Ohio State University Press. Reproduced with Permission.

DAYTON HASKIN is the author of Milton’s Burden of Interpretation (Penn) and of John Donne in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford).  He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and has served as President of the Milton Society of America and of the John Donne Society. Currently, he’s working on a book about how, after the Civil War, American colleges attempted to turn English literature into an academic subject.  He teaches Renaissance and comparative literature at Boston College and claims to have had a lot of fun watching the playwright perform the title role in an early production of The Designated Mourner.