THROWING THE AUDIENCE OUT OF THE BOAT

"I've watched my own play and I've thought, WOW! That guy is accusing me of something terrible! And I think he's right! What am I gonna do about it?"

Indeed. Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon" (opening April 8 at Taper, Too) is such an uncompromising piece of theater that you imagine Shawn must have sat down and written it in one blazing stream.

Instead, says Shawn, "it kind of snuck up on me." All Shawn had at the beginning was the image of an insidious older woman talking to an impressionable girl. What the woman said would have something to do with the mountains of stuff that Shawn was reading about the Nazis and the Holocaust.

And, oh, yes, Henry Kissinger would be in there someplace.

For several weeks, this was all our playwright knew about the play he was working on. Maybe it didn't want to be a play at all. Maybe it was just pages.

But then the pages started to connect. Aunt Dan and her circle began to tie in with people that Shawn knew: nice, educated people who had decided to give up feeling responsible for the world and to start enjoying its fruits. Shawn envied that decision and distrusted it.

The surprise was how strongly he felt about all this! Without question, he had hit a nerve. But when "Aunt Dan and Lemon" opened last season at New York's Public Theatre, there were plenty of people who didn't get it. There were also plenty of people who did get it, and who hated it.

That's likely to be the reaction at Taper, Too as well. "Aunt Dan and Lemon" isn't meant to send the audience home happy.

Now in private, Shawn is a man who likes people to be happy. At a real restaurant table, he's as considerate and companionable as he seemed in "My Dinner With Andre." (Appropriately, we spoke in a quiet chop house on a Sunday afternoon, with the waiters setting up for the evening meal.)

But Shawn also wants people to think. And with "Aunt Dan" he has devised a particularly compelling way to make them do so--not unlike the swimming instructor who throws his pupils out of the boat.

"Aunt Dan" may be the most daring play of ideas ever written. Up until now, every such play has provided at least one character who represents the author's position.

Not here. The snake--Aunt Dan--has all the lines. And how skillfully.

She defends her view of the world--what she would call the real world! What a master she is of the striking analogy that doesn't quite apply; the logical leap that doesn't quite follow; the epigram that puts everything in a nutshell by leaving something important out. She's a brilliant demagogue, and it's not surprising to find her brainwashed protege, Lemon, making a case for Hitler at the end of the play. Why, she argues, are Americans so self-righteous about the Nazis? What did they do to the Jews that we didn't do to the Indians? And they weren't hypocrites about it.

There's an answer to this--but it's up to the audience to provide it.

Yet in the printed version of the play (Grove Press, $6.95) you provide an afterword that makes your position very clear to the reader. Why do you want to leave the theater audience on edge?

Because I don't want them breathing a sigh of relief and going home and thinking, well, we have had a very interesting evening, and now all the problems have been solved.

I actually believe that what we Americans are doing in the world is wrong. So, even though I have this moderately affable personality in person, I have no interest in leaving an American audience feeling great. I don't think they should feel great.

You speak in the afterward about the slipperiness of language--that we need to be aware of the slippery analogies that people use to defend certain actions. In a way, the play gives us practical exercise in spotting them.

Yeah. The play is absolutely packed with sophistries of different kinds. With false arguments. It's absolutely packed with them. But they're constructed as cleverly as I construct them.

With the implication that this is not the healthiest thought process in the world being demonstrated?

Right!

I read this as a very pessimistic play. We see some supposedly nice people involved in some fairly alarming practices, like murder, and defending them as being part of the nature of things. Do you believe in evil? Is that a living idea for you?

I do believe that there is a potentially demonic person inside each one of us that we have to guard against. But that doesn't make me pessimistic, necessarily. There's a mystery about why some people turn out to be cruel and other people turn out to be kind. But clearly it's possible to imagine a world where more people turned out to be kind.

It has something to do with the amount of money coming into the house, doesn't it?

I'm not sure. I've visited some villages in India in which the peasants were extremely poor, but the society seemed to function well. At least people were not absolutely crazed with rage, as we see on the streets of New York every day. Ask me about this when I'm 53. I'm not close to understanding it.

Yet you feel you've got an alarm signal to give in "Aunt Dan."

Yes. There are certain things that I have figured out. I'm quite prepared to say that for us to have people tortured and murdered abroad in order to further our interests is wrong, and that if I'm benefitting from this torturing, I have a problem.

In the afterword, you discuss your friends who threw away their liberal guilts in the 1980s and suddenly said: "Hey, go for it."

The self-confidence of that! Anyone reading this play in 100 years--if the world lasts 100 years--will know it was written in the first years of the Reagan Era.

I guess that's why I think you're a pessimist. You seem to give us the choice between being a guilt-ridden liberal who can never fully attend to his being, or a fox who lives for his smarts and his appetites.

Well, if I have to choose, I prefer, of course, the guilt-ridden liberal. But only if he does something with his guilt. If he acts exactly like the self-satisfied conservative, except for his knapsack of guilt--who cares whether he carries the knapsack?

How come the bad guys in this play are women--Aunt Dan, her friend Mindy, Lemon?

Hmm. Well, Lemon's mother is a very decent person, and she's a woman. And you could say that all the evil in the play sort of starts out with Lemon's incredibly tense father, who is trapped in the wheels of capitalism. But I don't know. The characters came to me as women--that's all I can say.

Lemon and Aunt Dan are voyeurs, which is rather nasty.

But in a way we all are. I mean, the play really does raise this rather mean question: Do we, the readers of the newspaper, actually get a thrill out of bombing Tripoli? Do we think, Boy, we're powerful! Look at what those weapons can do!

It's interesting to write about weak people who fantasize about strong people. Hitler himself was someone who started off weak and undoubtedly continued to think of himself as weak even as he was squashing other people. . . .

Let's see what the special is.

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