When I first saw Wallace Shawn’s “The Designated Mourner” in an old dilapidated building on South William Street in New York City in 2000, I was mesmerized on many levels. First, the audience was limited to about 20 people and the whole building was the set. During the intermission, Shawn and the director, Andre Gregory, ate and talked with the audience. In pure Shawn-Gregory fashion, the traditional walls of theatre were broken down. It was one of the great theatrical experiences I ever had in New York.
In 2000, the world was a different place. It was before 9/11 and before the U.S. had become a total, locked down security state. At the time, I felt the play was set in an unidentified third world country somewhere in Latin America.
I carried a lot of personal baggage into the play back then. Perhaps, that was because in my network news days in the late 1970s, I was in a lot of trouble spots in Latin America, including El Salvador during the fighting and Nicaragua when it Gen. Anastasio Somoza was overthrown. I was even arrested by Gen. Manuel Noriega in Panama, so I knew the fear of looking into an Uzi. The Designated Mourner had special meaning for me.
Thirteen years had passed when I saw the new production of The Designated Mourner at the Public Theatre in New York City. Ironically, it was the same cast and same director as in 2000. Wallace Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine were all in fine form, but Andre Gregory, who directed this version, was not in sight at that performance.
Though the lavish use of words—which still flow over me like a gentle mountain stream—were the same as before, much has changed from 13 years ago. This time, the play seemed to be to more about the United States today rather than a Latin American country. Where before I never thought about the play reflecting our current life at home, this time I was obsessed with it throughout the production.
Since 9/11, so much is different. The cruel acts of third world governments in the last production easily translate to those who hold power in the U.S. today, regardless of political party. Political prisoners, government-sanctioned assassinations, domestic spying and killing those who write objectionable material no longer seems so far fetched here at home.
The audience also has changed. Many didn’t “get” the play and left at intermission. A man next to me said “the words are too dense.” Wallace Shawn has always been an acquired taste, but his language is rich, thoughtful and flows with a magical quality. He is one of the best playwrights working today. Yet, in today’s video-centric culture, his brand of playwriting may be beyond the range of many younger people in the audience. It’s sad, but the evidence was everywhere last night.
Shawn, as the narrator and husband of one of a group of intellectuals who are eventually all killed by the state, searches for a reason for the cruelty that man inflicts on his perceived enemies. He finally gives up, saying:
“After a while I just concluded there wasn’t any hope—an important insight. Was there anything, then, that I could expect to achieve in the coming years. Well, perhaps I could somehow train my mind to focus less compulsively on terrifying images of death and disease. Perhaps I could learn how to pass more easily from one moment to the next, the way the monkey, our ancestor, shifts so easily along from branch to branch as he follows the high road through the forest at night.
“Let me learn how to repose in the quiet shade of a nice square of chocolate, a nice slice of cake. A delicious cup of tea isn’t, perhaps, that hard to come by; the trick to be learned is just not to think of other things when you drink it.”
Going to the theatre in a taxi last night, I noticed a video camera aimed square in my face. It brought home the fact that we are now being recorded everywhere. The government reads our e-mails and even our snail mail. We no longer have any privacy and our freedoms are being eroded at a rapid rate.
So how do those of us who grew up in a more open time handle this vast intrusion of privacy by an all-powerful state? Shawn offers one piece of advice in the last line of the play. Perhaps he’s right—at least it’s a way to preserve our sanity in a losing situation.
“I sat on the beach for a very long time, lost—sunk deep—in the experience of unbelievable physical pleasure, maybe the greatest pleasure we can know on this earth—the sweet, ever-changing caress of an early evening breeze.”
I highly recommend The Designated Mourner. It’s a compelling theatrical event. It demands the total attention of the audience. Don’t expect light entertainment or you’ll be disappointed.