Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: "Essays" By Wallace Shawn

Essays by Wallace Shawn. 167 pp. Haymarket Books

Playwright and actor Wallace Shawn's "Essays" is divided into two sections, "Reality" and "Dream-World." "Reality" centers around the theme of his play "The Fever," a searing meditation on privilege and injustice that I saw five years ago. Shawn is consumed by the inequities that many in the West benefit from and take for granted. He refers to "the unobtrusives" as "...all those people whom we don't know and don't think about much but who serve us and make the things we need and whose lives we actually dominate..." Shawn is speaking of those who are subject to economic exploitation and whose countries are subject to attack. He applies the status quo to his own life; considering an African miner, he writes, "...each April at tax time I pay my try to keep the world more or less as it is, so that next year it will not suddenly be me who is working a seventy-hour week in some god-forsaken pit..." The media, in turn, brings us a clinical account of reality; prior to the war in Iraq, he found it "...psychotically remote from the reality of what will happen if war actually occurs. We are talking about raining death down on human beings..."

Despite the fact that Shawn titled his section on aesthetics "Dream-World," he indicates a similar preference toward facing reality in the arts. In an interview with poet Mark Strand, he speaks of an aversion to symbolism, in which poetry becomes a game of code words. In his essay "Writing About Sex," Shawn compares the world presented by the New York Times, in which "problems...can be solved by wise rulers," with "the contemplation of nudity or sex" that could "bring up the alarming idea...that human passions might rise up and topple the world we know."

The Times' review of "The Fever" objected to the fact that, in reference to the world's injustices, Shawn doesn't "posit any rational ideas about how they could be eased." Some may have the same objection to this collection, but it is misplaced. Awareness is the first step to finding alternatives. In causing us to think, for example, about the low-wage labor abroad that manufactures our products or the wars waged in our name and through our taxes, Shawn has performed a valuable service as a moral provocateur.

Watch Wallace Shawn read from and discuss his "Essays" on "Democracy Now":

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