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Award-Winning Playwright, Actor Wallace Shawn on “The Quest for Superiority” and His First Published Book of Nonfiction

StorySeptember 01, 2009
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Award-winning playwright and actor Wallace Shawn joins us in our firehouse studio. He has just published a new collection of nonfiction work titled Essays. Shawn is a mainstay on the New York theater scene. He’s also had celebrated roles in many films, including Manhattan, The Princess Bride, the 1981 cult classic My Dinner with Andre, and many more. Shawn reads an excerpt of his essay “The Quest for Superiority” and discusses the role of media in covering war. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For our last segment, we’re joined by the actor and playwright Wally Shawn. He has just published a new collection of nonfiction work called Essays. Wallace Shawn is a mainstay on the New York theater scene. He’s also had celebrated roles in many films, including Manhattan, The Princess Bride, Clueless, Toy Story, and the 1981 cult classic My Dinner with Andre, which he also co-wrote. Several of his plays have been produced off-Broadway, including Marie and Bruce, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Designated Mourner and The Fever. His new book, out today, is Essays, the first — his first published book of nonfiction.

Wallace Shawn, welcome to Democracy Now! Well, now that you’ve written it, why don’t you just read it to us? Take a section and read to us from Essays.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.

WALLACE SHAWN: Wonderful to be here.

So, I suppose, my role in life is to be a recovering centrist from the privileged class, so this passage reflects that, I suppose. This is just a piece of an essay. You’ll have to guess what it comes from and where it goes. It just is in the middle.

“One evening last week, a friend and I went to a somewhat inexpensive restaurant, and the waiter who served us was in such a state of agitation or anxiety about God knows what that he didn’t even look at us. And so I was thinking about the fact that in more expensive restaurants, the staff is usually trained to focus their attention on the pleasure of the diners, not on their own problems. In fact, the waiters in more expensive restaurants are invited to be friendly, amusing, to make funny remarks about their lives and to let us diners get to know them a little. But in the most expensive restaurants, the really fancy ones, we don’t get to know the waiters. The waiters in those restaurants just do their work with such discretion that they’re barely noticed. And people compliment them by saying that they’re unobtrusive.

“And actually that’s quite a good word for all those people whom we don’t know and don’t think about much but whose lives we actually dominate: ‘the unobtrusive.’ And the interesting thing I’ve noticed is that in those very expensive restaurants, we don’t talk to the waiters, but we enjoy their presence enormously. We want them there, these silent waiters, the — ‘unobtrusives.’

“It’s obviously a characteristic of human beings that we like to feel superior to others. But our problem is that we’re not superior. We like the sensation of being served by others and feeling superior to them, but if we’re forced to get to know the people who serve us, we quickly see that they’re in fact just like us. And then we become uncomfortable — uncomfortable and scared, because if we can see that we’re just the same, well, they might too, and if they did, they might become terribly angry, because why should they be serving us? So that’s why we prefer not to talk to waiters.

“A king feels the very same way, I’d have to imagine. He doesn’t really want to get to know his subjects, but he nonetheless enjoys the fact that he has them. The subjects are in the background of his life. They’re in the background of his life, and yet they provide the meaning of his life. Without his subjects, he wouldn’t be king.

“It’s become second nature to all of us to use the quiet crushing of these unobtrusives as a sort of almost inevitable background music to our daily lives. Like those people who grow bizarrely nervous if they don’t have a recording of something or other quietly playing on their sound system at dinnertime, we’ve become dependent over the course of decades on hearing the faint murmur of cries and groans as we eat, shop, and live.”

And while the essay really is talking about how, as Americans, we, even those of us who march in the streets in favor of peace and speak against imperialism, even we, perhaps consciously or unconsciously, enjoy being members of a powerful country that can crush other people. So that’s a lot of what the book is about, a little bit of an attempt at self-examination.

AMY GOODMAN: Wallace Shawn, award-winning playwright and actor, reading from his book, the first collection that he has written of nonfiction essays. Why did you go that route, Wally?

WALLACE SHAWN: Well, you know, as a playwright, we’re always speaking through other people. And my characters usually don’t represent my thoughts; they represent the things I’m criticizing. I’ve never had a character in a play that was like me, so, at a certain point, I felt the need to speak as myself, and I felt I’ve learned — you know, at a certain age I’ve learned some lessons about myself and about the world that I came from, and so I started writing a bit in my own voice or seeing if I had a voice.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And in this book, you write about issues ranging from Iraq to Israel’s attack on Gaza and also the media coverage of these issues. We just did a segment, which you heard, about Afghanistan and embedding there. What is your thoughts of how the media covers these issues? Even your local paper, the New York Times, you’ve been highly critical of it.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s funny you call it a local paper.

WALLACE SHAWN: Yeah. Gee, that’s the paragraph I skipped. Do you want me to read my paragraph?


WALLACE SHAWN: From that very — you know, from the — about my local paper.

AMY GOODMAN: That’ll teach you to omit anything.

WALLACE SHAWN: Because I do like to write about the New York Times for some reason.

“My feeling of superiority, and the sense of well-being that comes from that, increases with the number of poor people on the planet whose lives are dominated by me or my proxies and whom I nonetheless can completely ignore. I like to be reminded of those poor people, those unobtrusives, and then I like to be reminded of my lack of interest in them. For example, while I eat my breakfast each morning, I absolutely love to read my morning newspaper, because in the first few pages the newspaper tells me how my country treated all the unobtrusives on the day before — deaths, beatings, torture, what have you — and then, as I keep turning the pages, the newspaper reminds me how unimportant the unobtrusives are to me, and it tries to tempt me in its articles on shirts to consider different shirts that I might want to wear, and then it goes on, as I turn the pages, to try to coax me into sampling different forms of cooking, and then to experience different plays or films, different types of vacations…”

In other words, the stories in the newspaper about Afghanistan are partly true and partly false, but they’re presented in a context that basically makes me feel alright about treating the people there as non-equals, which obviously we do if we send an unmanned drone and we are thinking of killing some person who we think is an enemy and we kill fifteen members of his family. We wouldn’t do that to people who we thought were our equals. For example, friends. Even if there was someone that we despised or who wanted to kill us in the middle of their family, we wouldn’t kill the whole family. We just wouldn’t. And the New York Times helps me to take that as totally normal.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, we’ll leave people to meditate upon that . Wally Shawn’s first book of nonfiction essays, called simply that, Essays. Wallace Shawn, award-winning playwright and essayist, thank you so much for being with us.

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