In his 1981 film collaboration with director Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, the son of beloved New Yorker editor William Shawn, portrays a character not unlike himself. As "Wally" explains in the beginning, "I grew up on the Upper East Side. And when I was ten years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I'm 36, and all I think about is money." The real Wallace Shawn studied History at Harvard, taught English in India on a Fulbright Fellowship, and graduated with two degrees from Oxford. Back in New York, he worked menial jobs while writing what were then considered—even in the counterculture heyday of the 1970s—radical plays. They still are. Which is not to say they're inaccessible, or pretentious, or self-serious; on the contrary, Shawn's plays are simultaneously hilarious and jarring, lucid and haunting.

In the year before My Dinner with Andre was filmed, Marie and Bruce was produced at the Public Theater, starring Bob Balaban and Louise Lasser. (A year before that, Shawn made his film debut in Woody Allen's Manhattan.) This scabrously surreal play revolves around the titular married couple and their astonishingly dysfunctional relationship. In a preface to the script of My Dinner with Andre, Shawn succinctly sums up his work at that time: "I had generously shown on the stage my interior life as a raging beast." This month, The New Group is bringing back the beast under the direction of Scott Elliott (Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever); the production stars Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley as Marie and Bruce, and features a new script by Shawn. Last week, we met him in the lobby of the theater for a conversation.

So let's talk about Marie and Bruce, which you wrote thirty years ago? That's the truth.

I guess the first thing that struck me was... it had been about 10 years or so since The Designated Mourner, and you finally finished a new play called Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which was staged in London, not in New York. And when The New Group announced they were doing a Wallace Shawn play, I immediately thought, "Oh great, it's the new one!" And it's Marie and Bruce. Did you find that odd? I mean, well we shouldn't really discuss that. That's a complicated story that... it's still unfolding. I don't know what's going to happen with Grasses of a Thousand Colors, it's a much more complicated project, so we'll see what happens to it, if it's ever done, where and when. It's, uh... the story isn't over. I'm not even dead yet!

But Marie and Bruce also seems complicated to me, to stage it. There are a lot of moving parts, party scenes. I just mean that the story of Grasses of a Thousand Colors is... I'm not the only person involved. The issue of producing it is complicated. I don't mean the plot is complicated or the staging is complicated. But yeah, Marie and Bruce is a very complicated play, to stage. And anyway, I've re-written it dramatically I would say, so the staging is quite different from the way it was done when you were not born. I mean, it was actually produced thirty-one years ago, so it was written even a little bit longer ago.

Do you feel that it's still contemporary? To you, thirty years ago is like a completely different universe from today. To me it seems like last week, so, I am unfortunately unable even to comprehend the way that it might seem to other people. Scott is setting the play in the '80s, basically. But I observed certain aspects of life and certain others pass me by, so I didn't notice what people were wearing in the '80s and I don't notice what they are wearing today. I wear the same things, I think. In some cases, the very same garments. So. I don't know, I mean in my mind, the only one of my plays that is actually set in a particular time and place is Aunt Dan and Lemon and to me, the others are not set in a particular time period or a particular place. I don't say that they are, anywhere in the script, and in my mind they're not and I don't even think of them that way.

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Serge Nivelle
Do you remember writing Marie and Bruce, and the things that inspired it when you started writing it?

I do... I remember there's a long speech from one of the characters—there's a long party in the play and one of the characters, Herb, is talking about his boss. And I remember writing that passage, and how incredibly serious it was to me. But then by the time it was in the play, people found it funny. But Herb is really—you could say he is the only guest at the party who survived. Herb is still there [in the current version]. But most of the others are not there anymore and there are other guests who were not at the original party. But some of the other guests turned into other people and those who have photographic memories of anything that ever happened to them, and saw the play, or read the play, will notice that certain new characters are saying certain things that some of the old characters used to say.

So you don't feel that when you've written something, it's ever done? No, I keep rewriting all my plays. I keep rewriting them. All of them. People ask me, have you written anything new? And I frequently say, "Well, I'm just still writing the old plays."

Do you ever look at them, sort of step back and look at them as a whole? And think about common themes? Common attributes that they share? Well, I mean, it's not very... a couple of people have written about me and have mentioned that. But that is like a jinx. I look upon that as like a...a black cat walking across your path. This is bad luck. I want to be able to write, you know, freely, about whatever I'd like. And if I know that I'm repeating myself, then I can't go there. I'd rather be ignorant about it. I don't want to have to avoid certain topics because I've already written about them. I'd rather forget that I wrote about them and maybe I'll say something new about them if they seem to obsess me so much. And yes, certain things strike me.

In England, you know, let's not deny it, the Royal Court Theater honored me by doing almost all of my plays in 2009, so I actually saw sort of all my plays, at least everything since 1970. So I saw 40 years worth of my plays and indeed I did notice—some were fully staged and some were readings, but the readings were quite brilliant and marvelous and so were the staged productions. So I actually got to see my life's work, you could say. And of course I noticed certain things that were you know repeated. Not just preoccupations or subject matter, but even images and phrases, to be honest. So then I tried to forget that I had seen all of them.

One thing that strikes me—and it's not the only thing—but, let's talk about sex. Go ahead.

I feel like someone who doesn't follow theater might be surprised at some of the things "Wally Shawn" writes about in his plays. It doesn't strike me at all as gratuitous, but for a society that has hang-ups about sex, it can be um, what's the word...I don't know what my question is, except to ask you where this comes from, this explicit discussion or articulation about sex, [which] seems to be something that you are exploring in Marie and Bruce and other plays.
What do you mean? Psychologically?

In any sense. As a playwright. Well, I mean, I suppose it's possible that I am the only one on our planet who's interested in the topic and, uh, you know, I'm just revealing how abnormal I am. But I had sort of thought up until this point that this was a driving force in human life, as well as in animal life, and that it was also a central preoccupation of people's consciousness. And of course it's interesting because it is something that is filtered through all of the distinctively human mechanisms such as individuality, thought, the self—but it actually comes from the operational structure of mammals that preceded human life. So that's quite interesting.

In other words, digestion is much more... compartmentalized in our lives, I would argue. People are not as preoccupied with digestion, they don't all express it differently, each person. I'm sure that a gastroenterologist would see different categories of digestion among people, but it's not obviously connected to what people would call the Soul or the Personality. But sex is intimately connected to each person's Soul, to their Personality, to the choices that they make. And yet, it comes into the Soul directly from Nature. It's not made up by humans, the way poems are. It's not something that we humans have created, like plays, constitutions, biology, textbooks. Sex was invented before we were invented and it suddenly springs up and it comes right in our own houses and has a powerful effect.

I don't think it's that surprising that people would write about it. Indeed, I've written a whole essay on the topic of writing about sex, with that title.

What I think is striking is there is so much sex in the culture, like there's this machine that produces images and movies and it's all sex, but then when a writer, such as yourself, with such precise language writes about it in the theater, then it seems that everyone—well, not everyone, but some people, are alarmed. I'm wondering if you were aware of that and as you were writing it, on some level thinking that it's good to provoke people in this way? It doesn't really affect me that way. I mean, personally. When I see a play that deals with the subject of sex or read one, I'm just...interested. It doesn't bother me. I suppose that there are many ways of writing about sex that I don't enjoy, that might repel me. Maybe each person has his own very individualized areas in which the subject can be accepted or else the subject seems...distasteful.

Obviously, theater is public. The only thing I can think of that I've written that was provocative is when the character of Robin appears in my play Grasses of a Thousand Colors, within about ten seconds she says, "Well, I'm sure most of you married people here tonight have certainly had a love affair or two in the course of your marriage. After all..." Then she looks out at them and says, "Oh, well maybe you're not quite ready to talk about that." Publicly talking about sex is a little bit inflammatory at times because something not ordinarily discussed publicly is being discussed. So people are possibly thinking, "Oh yes, I recognize what is being discussed on stage but I don't want the person sitting next to me or the person in front of me or behind me to know that I've ever had these feelings or done these things or whatever." You know? So there is something a little bit inflammatory about that, I suppose.

For me, I learned from the very first plays of mine that were ever performed, I learned very quickly my own enormous preference to have an audience full of people who understand what I'm doing and enjoy it. I felt that way from the beginning, and I still feel that way. It's not amusing or fun for me if people don't understand what I wrote or appreciate it. That's just my destiny that I've had an awful lot of people sitting there who don't like what they're looking at and they don't appreciate it and they don't understand it. I'm sorry they came, I'm sorry they didn't like it. I don't enjoy [it] if people don't like what I write; I don't get any fun out of that.

In fact, it makes me unhappy and it's depressing and I wish it hadn't happened. Not everybody is the right audience, and if they're not getting anything out of it, I'm sorry they came. There might be some people who are vaguely in the middle. Maybe there might be some people who don't quite get it but they get something and they're intrigued and they want to see another one by me and that would be great.

It reminds me of something in The Designated Mourner where the narrator, the character you played in the production on Wall Street, was talking about how he was clever enough to understand that certain poems were worthwhile and worth reading but not quite clever enough to understand why, to really grasp them. Are you aware of what your intention is when you're writing plays? Or does your intention change from day to day? Is there some thing that you are conscious of that's been [there] throughout your life when you're writing? Well, I mean, for me personally, writing itself is a challenge. 90 percent of the time I suppose what I'm actually doing is making the thing that I sort of have already written better, to write it better—make it clearer. Instead of pointless waffling, to make the sentence worthwhile. That's what I'm spending my time on. The Fever was a play with more of a purpose. I wanted to persuade and convince. My other plays are, to be totally frank (because after all, what you write is not seen by that many people who would have contempt for what I'm about to say), I look at it as an artistic activity. That's what it is for me. I mean, you know, people might say, "Well, isn't that unbelievably pretentious! That's mind-bogglingly pretentious!" I might not say that so publicly because people might have contempt for it. This is ridiculous perhaps, but I see this as an artistic activity.

Why do you think it's ridiculous? Why do you think people would have contempt for you? Well! [Laughing] A play is not ordinarily seen as an artistic work. A painting is an artistic work or a quartet is an artistic work. It's pretentious for somebody in theater to say that that's what they do. But that's the only explanation for the way I write. My behavior during the process of writing only makes sense in that kind of a context. I don't say that I understand ART; I don't think I probably do, I don't think I probably understand what real artists do. Painters, musicians or poets. I'm probably more like a hanger-on of art who admires it from a distance without really understanding it and imitates the process that he imagines a real artist goes through. I really don't know. But I mean, that's the model for what I do! And that's why it takes me so many years to write a play. Because I think I'm creating some kind of artistic work.

In other words, I'd be delighted if after my death somebody said, "Well actually, he was doing the same thing that you know, Arnold Schoenberg or Gauguin did. His process was like theirs." And, uh, you know, that'd be great! I'm a very ambitious person, I want to be appreciated. But I've, to some extent, given up on the thought of being appreciated while I'm around to enjoy it. Except by a handful of people who are so few in number that I have to suspect they might wrong. So I actually put a lot of stock into this idea of after-death, which I used to think of as just funny, but now I'm quite serious about it! It's not that I think, "Oh, I am so great that people after death are sure to admire me!" It's more...my luck in being appreciated while I'm alive is not as great as I would like it to be, so maybe there is this other thing that I can shoot for.

And let's be frank. I am very fortunate. I am very, very fortunate. And there are thousands and millions of people who would envy me. It's just that I'm a very, very ambitious person and I come from a background where acceptance was—let's say, I grew up around people who were writers and some of them were very, generally, appreciated; they had a lot of appreciation. I grew up with ridiculously high expectations, so I am today complaining about what anybody else would be very, very grateful for. And I myself am grateful on good days. But on bad days I'm ungrateful.

That makes sense. I understand. I'm honestly, I'm very worn out as we speak today. I don't have the energy to lie.

It's my lucky day. Ha!

Are you still making changes to the play? Working with the cast? Well, you know, there's a point at which actors really do not want changes. Because, and I'm speaking as an actor myself, there's a mythology. You don't particularly want to know that the writer could just put anything in there. You have to sort of believe that these are the things that the characters really say. It's—there's a magical element to this. Actors don't want to think that the writer can just go in there and just put anything into the character's mouth! At a certain point, you feel this is just what the character said. And you think, "Why did he say that?" And in one way or another, you figure it out.

And if the writer comes in and says, "Oh, no, no, the character didn't say that let's say this instead"—it's vaguely nauseating. It's like, you know, a kind of violation of your intimate, private self! It's not nice. It's like the writer ran into your bedroom and messed it up! Or went into your briefcase and started fiddling around in there. At a certain point you really shouldn't change things. [I might] put in a few extra words because the staging might require them, because suddenly because of the way something is staged, something needs to be clarified that on the page didn't need to be clarified.

When you were just talking about actors changing things, it reminded me of when I spoke with Josh Hamilton a few years ago, and he was talking about working with you in Hurlyburly. He said he enjoyed it so much because unlike some actors, when you would do a scene or deliver a line in a way that would make you laugh, you wouldn't do it in the same way. You would want to change it. Well, that's working with Andre Gregory. Andre would be repelled by trying to repeat what you did the night before because the audience liked it. You're not supposed to be thinking about the night before, you're supposed to be living in the moment. If you are thinking about the night before or about the audience, you are certainly not living in the moment, I mean you're not by definition. Scott Elliott was completely open to my basically playing my part differently every night. He enjoyed it.

So Andre, speaking of him, are you at liberty to discuss the project you've been working on with him? I hope that within this year or so we'd be able to show our work. I mean, we've been working on Ibsen's play, The Master Builder, since 1997. It would be nice if the public could see that. And we're ready to show it to them, pretty ready, pretty close to being ready. Close to being ready but it's too—we do need help, as with Grasses of a Thousand Colors, a lot of things have to come together.

Is it your translation? Yes, it's my version and my translation.

And you're performing it? Yes, and I'm acting it. I play the Master Builder.