- Wallace Shawn
Obie Award–winning playwright and a noted stage and screen actor. He is a mainstay on the New York theater scene. He’s also had celebrated roles in several films, including The Princess Bride, Toy Story and the 1981 cult classic, My Dinner with Andre, which he also co-wrote. He has written numerous plays, including The Fever, Aunt Dan and Lemon, Grasses of a Thousand Colors and The Designated Mourner. His book of nonfiction, titled Essays, came out in 2009.
The renowned playwright and actor Wallace "Wally" Shawn has just returned from Brazil, where he gave a special performance of his play, "The Designated Mourner," to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first broke the story about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. The play was staged at the Public Theater in New York City last year, but Greenwald could not attend because of fears that he would be prosecuted upon returning to the United States. Just this week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested journalists could be considered accomplices of Snowden. Through three characters, Shawn’s play reveals the claustrophobia of a shrinking political landscape in a formerly liberal land. Shawn has written numerous plays in addition to "The Designated Mourner," including "The Fever," "Aunt Dan and Lemon" and "Grasses of a Thousand Colors.” Shawn has also had celebrated acting roles in several films, including "The Princess Bride," "Toy Story" and the 1981 cult classic, "My Dinner with Andre," which he also co-wrote.
AMY GOODMAN: "This Land is Your Land," sung by the legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger last year at the annual Farm Aid concert. It was one of his last performances. Pete passed away on Monday at the age of 94. You can go to our website at democracynow.org to see our interviews with Pete Seeger over the years, including a new clip we’ve dug up from our archives, when he recalls the Peekskill Riots of 1949, when he and the singer and actor Paul Robeson were attacked, upstate New York. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the renowned playwright and actor Wallace Shawn. Shawn has just returned from Brazil, where he gave a special performance of his play, The Designated Mourner, to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first broke the story about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Through three characters, Shawn’s play reveals the claustrophobia of a shrinking political landscape in a formerly liberal land. The play was staged at the Public Theater in New York City last year, but Greenwald could not attend because of fears that he would be prosecuted upon returning to the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Just this week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested journalists could be considered accomplices of Edward Snowden. Last summer, David Gregory of Meet the Press raised this issue when he interviewed Glenn Greenwald.
DAVID GREGORY: To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?
GLENN GREENWALD: I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themself a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal. And it’s precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Glenn Greenwald speaking on Meet the Press on NBC to David Gregory over the summer. Since Greenwald couldn’t attend Wally Shawn’s play, The Designated Mourner, in New York, well, Wally took the play to him in Brazil.
To speak more about the act of artistic solidarity, we’re joined by Wally Shawn, noted stage and screen actor, mainstay on the New York theater scene, written numerous plays in addition to The Designated Mourner, including The Fever and Aunt Dan and Lemon and, oh, Grasses of a Thousand Colors. Wally Shawn has also had celebrated acting roles in several films, including The Princess Bride, Toy Story, the 1981 cult classic My Dinner with Andre, which he also co-wrote. He was also in Gossip Girl. His book of nonfiction, titled Essays, came out in 2009.
It’s great to have you back, Wally. So, talk about Brazil.
WALLACE SHAWN: Well—
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you go there?
WALLACE SHAWN: Initially, it was just an emotional response to the fact that I had invited this writer, who I deeply admire, to come and see my play. And, you know, people like me in show business, we’re show-offs, and I wanted him to see the play. And he kept not appearing in the audience. And eventually, I realized he was not able to return to the United States because of having received the NSA papers.
And on impulse, I said, "Well, we’ll bring the play to you." And my colleagues—I went to Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine, who were the two actors in the play with me, and to the sound designer and—Bruce Odland, and the director, Andre Gregory, and they all said, before I had even finished the sentence—they all are old rebels from the ’60s, you could say—and immediately said, "What a great idea!"
So we brought the whole play to Brazil, and we did it for Glenn and some people he invited. We rented a theater, and we—our lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton, talked to the people in Brazil, and we did the complete version of the play, because, you know, you can’t email a play. A play is not the script of a play. You can’t send that in the mail or—you know, if you want to show somebody a play, that’s what you have to do. So it was a gesture of, expression of respect for the fact that he did what we all should be doing. He has risked his neck. He’s risked his physical security and freedom.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the choice of the play, Designated Mourner, the reason—its relevance to our time? Because the play has been out now for more than a decade, right?
WALLACE SHAWN: Yes. Well, it happens to be a play that is on the subject of speaking out, in a way. I mean, you know, one writes out of a personal artistic impulse that you don’t necessarily plan, but it turns out that this play is about a writer, played by Larry Pine, who wrote quite a while ago some essays that were offensive to the regime, a sort of right-wing regime in this is made-up country. And he and his loyal daughter, played by Deborah Eisenberg, are not even gathering guns for the rebels. They’re simply people who are sympathetic to the poor of their country and have written essays.
So, they haven’t really done anything, and yet, as the political space in the country gets smaller and the regime begins to crack down, the people who are on the fringes are threatened, because artistic freedom, artistic freedom of thought, is dangerous freedom of thought, just the way political freedom of thought is. If people are out there thinking on their own, that’s dangerous to governments, if they are repressively minded. And so, it becomes dangerous for the son-in-law—me, my character—to live in the house with these rather dangerous people, or people who are mildly dangerous because they’re thinking freely. So I get out of the house. I play the survivor who is basically cowardly.
AMY GOODMAN: So this is what you did in Brazil for Glenn Greenwald and a couple dozen of his closest friends. Could you perform a section of the play for us now, of The Designated Mourner?
WALLACE SHAWN: Right, yeah. I mean, it’s hard to know what to pick, but I’ll pick a—can I do a couple of minutes of it?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
WALLACE SHAWN: Yes, all right. So, this is my character, a somewhat light-minded, slightly shallow guy who accepts evil, ultimately, really, and is cowardly.
So, anyway, now we come to the question of enemies, you see. And that is a question that we really have to face. I mean, when people refer to the enemy, our enemies, they’re referring basically to what someone once called the snarling, snapping, unmuzzled dogs—or, in other words, the individuals who live, so to speak, outside the fence, the ones who are camped on the other side of the fence with their campfires, their pots, their marshmallows or whatever the hell they have over there.
In other words, you see, if you look at the world, the world as a whole, actually, most people in it are the ones we can only refer to, rather nervously and gingerly, by means of those terribly melodramatic and almost hysterical words, like wretched, miserable, unfortunate, desperate, powerless, poor—that’s a very sympathetic one—or, in other words, they’re people, God bless them, who simply have no resources of any kind at all.
And these particular people—and, you know, God knows why—they just don’t like us. They don’t like us. They simply don’t like us. So it’s not hard to see what will happen one day. There’s the majority—them—the minority—us. And the way they feel about us: great dislike. Very, very great dislike.
So, enemies are not exactly imaginary beings. They’re very, very real. But I’ll tell you something interesting about enemies. You see, at least this is how I feel about it. I’m sure you know that rather nasty and not terribly thought-provoking old saying that "the enemy of my enemies is my friend." Well, what’s much more true to my sense of life is that the friend of my enemies is for sure my enemy—even though, in a funny way, my enemies themselves don’t bother me that much. And at various moments, I can even work up quite a bit of respect for them, looking at it all from a certain point of view. It’s that thing of people whom you actually know and with whom you actually live deciding consciously to become the friend of your enemies that can get you really terribly upset, because your enemies are trying, after all, very hard to kill you, no matter what you may happen to feel about them.
And this is where things with my wife and my father-in-law really became so difficult, because they had worked themselves around to being so horribly appalled by the selfish, rich people with bad taste, who they saw encroaching everywhere on their perfect existence, that they ultimately decided that the people whom they actually ought to like were—yes, that’s right—precisely the ones who were sitting around making plans to slice our guts out—or, in other words, to perform that gesture cleverly referred to by our enemy-loving writers as the disemboweling of the over-boweled.
AMY GOODMAN: Wally Shawn performing The Designated Mourner, and he performed that for Glenn Greenwald in Brazil. Will you be going to Russia to perform it for Edward Snowden?
WALLACE SHAWN: Well, I don’t know him, you know. We’re not—Glenn, I know a little bit.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Wally Shawn, thanks so much for being here, Obie Award-winning playwright, noted stage and screen actor, a mainstay on the New York theater scene.