Chances are if you are from New York and happen to be a serial protestor of America’s foreign wars, you will find yourself at some point in the presence of Wallace Shawn, the actor, playwright and essayist. In his newly published Essays (Haymarket Books), he writes: “Not unlike those unfortunate
individuals who have somehow become addicted to pornography on the Internet, a frightening number of Americans seek temporary relief in nationalistic fantasies from the unsatisfying incompleteness of their daily lives – and then become hooked. It’s been going on for years.”
Shawn is the son of The New Yorker’s legendary former editor, William Shawn. He himself co-authored and acted in the legendary film, My Dinner With Andre (1981), a dialogue over dinner between two friends discussing their respective mystical and rational views of the world. The author of plays that have been performed in London and Manhattan, he has appeared as a character actor in numerous TV shows. But he is most well known for his comic roles – the voice of Rex in Toy Story and the evil Vizzini in The Princess Bride.
At 66, Shawn is a contemplatively cherubic man who most recently appeared in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Famous in an underground sort of way, he tells of being stopped in the streets of his city by fans and critics. The critics lambaste him for his attacks on Israel’s Palestinian policies.
“That’s all I ever get criticized for. Not for all the things I said about Bush. Not for anything else. Just Israel.” In his essay, Israel Attacks Gaza, Shawn writes: “As the years go by, and the Holocaust fades further into the past, in every country more and more people are born to whom the outrageous behavior of the Israelis seems simply hateful, and to whom justifications based in the past seem simply sophistical.”
In the essay in your book titled Morality, you claim to be an unapologetic advocate of comfort, while acknowledging that the exploitation and oppression of others makes your comfort possible. As a radical, how do you reconcile that contradiction?
I suppose I believe that the solution to the problem of global injustice doesn’t come from a single individual’s behavior. I advocate for change in the world, which if it came quickly enough, might diminish my degree of comfort, and I could accept that.
Did your childhood in a prominent liberal household, where you were exposed to thinkers of every kind from everywhere, shape your political thinking?
Well, I suppose I had an advantage over most Americans in that many people who visited our apartment weren’t Americans. So, I was never likely to grow up as a narrowly nationalistic person, or as someone who believed that only Americans were worthy of respect.
When you began writing plays in the ’60s, did you immediately explore political themes in your work?
No. But in a funny way I always associated plays with politics. For instance, my first play was very quiet and gentle. It had maybe twenty-five Catholic monks as characters. I believed its very gentleness was a rebuke to the Vietnam War, and might have an effect on ending it. The first play of mine in which I mention a specific place, person and time in a political context was Aunt Dan And Lemon. [Aunt Dan, an Oxford don, is a defender of Kissinger’s Vietnam policies.]
How do you see the tradition of politically engaged playwriting in this country?
Well, there was the Group Theatre, a community left-wing theatre in the ’30s. Strangely, the political plays of Clifford Odets and others did not really have any successors. They did not start a tradition of playwriting, but the type of acting that was developed there still predominates to this day. Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan were members. They later formed the Actor’s Studio.
Had you been born in a previous generation you probably would have been an excellent candidate for a blacklist.
[Laughs.] Yeah. The people on the blacklist were for the most part quite courageous. You could get off the blacklist just by naming names. I have never been tested.
Have you ever imagined how you would have reacted to being called before a committee?
Have I imagined it? I imagine it almost every day.
What do you imagine?
Like many dreams, they don’t really go to the end of the story. I mean, I imagine being called before the committee, but I don’t see what I would do.
Knowing yourself, don’t you know what you would do?
I don’t know myself very well. We know ourselves when a situation comes up. It’s quite hard to predict how people will behave when the finger of history points at you. Everything is different from what we might imagine. Everything. I have been to this restaurant very recently. [We are sitting at a restaurant in Chelsea, in Manhattan.] In fact, I have already been to this restaurant today. But I couldn’t predict how I would feel coming into it.
Can you imagine a political version of My Dinner With Andre being made, where instead of two old friends meeting over dinner to discuss the meaning of life, you engage in an edifying conversation about world affairs?
I think that a well-written version of My Dinner With Andre that was completely political could be fantastic. Well, if you imagine a liberal, and let’s say a communist, meeting after a certain period of time. As a matter of fact, if we did My Dinner With Andre 10 years later, it would have been much more political. I imagine it could be a wonderful story. In my own case, I was an ordinary centrist at one time. I only became more left-wing when I was 40. I had conversations on the dramatic side when I was going through that change. If someone wants to write the script, that would be great.
You introduce us in the essay, After The Destruction of The World Trade Center, to the much-needed Foreign Policy Therapist. Do you think progressives should struggle to make this a cabinet post? And would you be willing to take it on?
[Laughs, then abruptly serious.] I do think that political people are often disturbingly uninterested in psychology. And I think that was one of the disastrous facts about many left-wing revolutionaries. They were not sufficiently psychological. They lacked self-awareness, and they didn’t take notice of the dangerous areas within themselves.
When you were at McNally Jackson, a bookstore in Manhattan, reading from Essays, a questioner suggested that you come across as the “fool” in your public persona. Might he have been alluding, do you think, to your un-self-consciously out-of-step approach to politics and most other things, as if almost inviting obscurity?
Well, I can’t explain it. I shouldn’t even begin talking about it because I can’t explain it. I seem to have a point of view, or a way of thinking about things, that is funny. I don’t even know what that means really. Let’s start from the premise that the world is so astonishingly far from the way it ought to be that one is driven to ask what thoughts can be large enough to figure out a way forward. There isn’t anybody who has mapped it all out perfectly. We have to look in every possible direction.
Give me an example.
I am going to tell you a story a friend related to me. Indira Gandhi came to this country, and wanted to meet with a bunch of writers and intellectuals. So, they all gathered in this room somewhere, and the surrealistic writer Donald Barthelme was asked what he thought the world needed. He quite sincerely, when answering this important head of state, expressed the belief that maybe the way forward could be found somehow through poetic intuition, through the irrational, through the illogical. Maybe politics is too vast to be left merely to political philosophers. Maybe we need the insights of poets as well. Karl Marx was a staggeringly, unimaginably brilliant man with incredible insights. But he lived and died and the problem remains.
Last year, with the presidential election, Americans went through a period of tremendous optimism that was focused on Obama. What were your feelings about Obama? Did you share people’s optimism?
Obviously I was thrilled that the American public declared their feelings of being fed up with Bush and what he symbolized. I was also thrilled that the American public voted for a president who wasn’t white. But I made no predictions about what Obama would or would not accomplish. I almost always have had a visceral dislike of American presidents. In the case of Obama, I actually feel an affection toward him. I feel that I know him. But I don’t know him. Of course he has the characteristic that makes people think, “Oh, Barack shares my attitudes exactly. And if he doesn’t act the way I want him to act, he is simply not able to, he is politically constrained.” I know that I feel that. And if it’s true in my case, and he is really a leftist in his heart of hearts, it raises the question: to what extent can an individual change his society?