Friday, May 12, 2017

Douglas Messrli | "The Survivor" (on Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner)

the survivor
by Douglas Messerli

Wallace Shawn (author), André Gregory (director) The Designated Mourner / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) / the performance I saw was on Thursday, May 11, 2017

It’s easy to see why Wallace Shawn and director André Gregory might wish to revive Shawn’s 1996 play, The Designated Mourner, which is currently being performed at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (Redcat) in downtown Los Angeles. 
     When the play originally appeared, with its major theme of intellectuals working within a society that is determined to destroy their kind, critics felt that the unnamed country of the play was surely some Latin American city in a country such as Argentina or Chile in which precisely such things had happened. Today, incredibly, we can see it as a statement about what might possibly happen in the US under President Trump.

     Yet, Shawn’s play is not truly centered on the intellectuals such as the elderly poet-thinker, Howard (Larry Pine) and his beloved daughter, Judy (Shawn’s real-life companion Deborah Eisenberg), but on Judy’s lover, Jack (Shawn), who begins the play pretending to be one of them, but gradually shows himself as a totally selfish and lazy being who actually has no intellectual aspirations whatsoever.
     As for many of neo-cons and populists, the world of art, literature, and poetry is perceived as an artificial elitist pursuit, in which its advocates spend most of their days dismissing and dishing friends and enemies whom they perceive as not worthy of their own pursuits. And Shawn makes that world real enough in his several long monologues, that, at first, we’re not so sure that he isn’t right. Certainly, I’ve been guilty of the same sins, and presumably anyone who might attend a Shawn/Gregory production might be expected to feel some justifiable remorse.


     Throughout the first act, we gradually begin to perceive how Jack, at times literally “in bed” with his intellectual friends, begins to doubt their perceptions and honesty. Bit by bit, we see this man turning over the few ideas he really has in order to reveal that he is not comfortably “highbrow,” but pleasantly “lowbrow,” a man who truly prefers, as he describes it, to be a rat—not in the sense of one who snitches (although given the increasing political changes throughout the play, he might well be one of the populace, who like Russian and East German citizens collaborated with police to destroy their fellow citizens), but the sleek small-headed survivor who doesn’t mind eating whatever is put before him. 
      Jack, given Shawn’s seeming intense populism, seems even somewhat convincing. Do these intellects truly know what they claim to? Is someone like the great poet Donne really worth reading in this day and age? Mightn’t one simply sit at home and watch television while jacking off to porno without being seen as some kind of creep? Aren’t ordinary citizens as valuable as the highly intelligent readers and thinkers amongst us?
      Indeed, Jack is so convincing that by the end of that first act, we might ask ourselves these very same questions. After all, those are similar Trump put to his audiences which allowed him to build his slim electorate who happened to be in states that gave him his victory.
      Shawn’s subtle satire begins reasonably enough. But soon those same questions begin to read a bit like shocking Swiftian insistences, particularly as the new government in power begins to arrest and even kill the intelligentsia. Jack removes himself from his former friends—and Judy—just in time, as they begin to hear the nightly gunfire, seeing people near them getting shot, and, finally, themselves being arrested. As Judy asks: “How could this have happened?” “How can that have happened?!” “Why, it seems impossible!” And yet, the answers to those questions are quite obvious. People like Jack run off. Friends pretend to no longer know each other. The challenges of an intellectual life become too demanding. As Judy expresses it:  “If you try to swat a fly, it moves out of the way. And humans are the same. They step aside when they sense something coming, about to hit them in the face.”
      Even when the police come for her, her father, and friends, she is surprised by how meek and accepting she and the others are about it. Sentenced to five years each, many do not survive the prison internment, and when those who survive come out, like her father, they are still exterminated. Jack later sees that some others of his former friends have been killed in another kind of group execution, including Judy.
      By now, however, the meek populist, just an ordinary man with no pretensions, has no feelings left. Even if he is a bit startled at first, he can no longer open up his mind and heart to feel anything. His only solution is to see himself as a kind of “designated mourner,” as someone, who having known about their values, might mourn their passing, including the end of a poet such as Donne. His stupid paper pyre celebrating the now exoteric past is a pointless thing, like the celebration of dead man’s passing by putting a candle on a cupcake.

     By play’s end, the confessor of these terrible sins, Jack, feels no recriminations, insisting that life has indeed “gotten better,” that sitting on a park bench he can still enjoy the setting sun, the smells of nature, etc. So what if all attempts to transcend the ordinary with intelligence and wit have been killed off. Is life truly any worse for those of us who perceive we are simply ordinary? The barbarians are us always.
     My only criticism of Shawn’s quite bitter satire is that he presents Jack’s (and perhaps Trump’s selfish populist cause) so convincingly that some, in this age when satire and irony have been seriously lost, might interpret his character’s statements as being those of the author himself. Peering through the strange and perverse lens of today’s political cynicism, things that might once have seemed impossible are now probable. And that, I believe, is Shawn’s point. The bizarre, the horrific quickly become—we know this particularly from the great wars of every century—daily events. The important thing is not to see them as permissible or merely banal. They are horrific and need to be addressed as such.

Los Angeles, May 12, 2017

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