The Designated Mournerby Wallace Shawn
The Designated Mourner premiered in England at the Royal National Theatre in April. It is a harsh and poetic play about the pursuit of beauty in brutal times; a profoundly moving and engaging work.
The balding, rubber-faced Wally Shawn is best known in the U.S. for comic supporting roles in such movies as Clueless and The Princess Bride. Arthouse movie fans know him for having co-written and starred in the cult hit My Dinner with Andre. But to serious theater junkies around the world, Shawn is considered one of the most creative and confrontational American playwrights of our time. Unfortunately, Shawn's home country is too busy staging anything by England's worst export ù Andrew Lloyd Weber ù so Shawn had his latest play produced in London with Mike Nichols and Miranda Richardson. Luckily for those of us stuck here, the play's raw, stripped-down format (no set, no movement, just three characters speaking at the audience) translates extremely well to the page.
A dystopian fable set in the vague future, the main character, a grating, infuriating man named Jack, recounts how everyone who read John Donne was executed, including the play's other two characters, Jack's wife, Judy, and her father, Howard. Jack married into the intellectual elite, but was never comfortable with being "a highbrow." Through the course of the play he tells the audience how he came to unburden himself of all intellectual pursuits, how he learned to love the immediate world made up of celebrity magazines and empty sex. The routine round-up of intellectuals ù who were blamed for inciting the poor to rebel ù is chillingly recalled. By the end Jack is the only one left who knew any of them, hence the title ù which refers to the ancient tribal custom where one person was selected to mourn for the rest of the clan. "I thought I heard John Donne crying into a handkerchief as he fell through the floor ù plummeting fast through the earth on his way to Hell. His name, once said by so many to be 'immortal,' would not be remembered, it turned out. The rememberers were gone, except for me, and I was forgetting; forgetting his name, forgetting him, and forgetting all the ones who remembered him."
Shawn has created a sort of neo-Fahrenheit 451, a mundanely cruel and empty world that is terrifyingly plausible. It is a crime that so few Americans will see this provocative play, but if there is any justice, this scintillating book version will be read and remembered. -- Salon
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Meet the Author
Wallace Shawn is the author of "Our Late Night" (OBIE Award Best Play) "Marie and Bruce", "Aunt Dan and Lemon", "The Designated Mourner", "The Fever", among other plays, and the screenplay for "My Dinner with André". He has translated and adapted "The Threepenny Opera", "The Master Builder" and "The Mandrake".
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