A fever for a better world

February 16, 2012

Sherry Wolf considers the questions raised by Wallace Shawn's play The Fever.

WHETHER YOU know it or not, you know Wally Shawn. He's that funny, round-faced guy in Woody Allen's Manhattan and a hundred other movies like The Princess Bride, My Dinner with Andre and Clueless, and TV shows like The L Word and Gossip Girl.

His signature nasal voice, which elicits peels of laughter even if he's just reading a menu, brings to life Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story movies, the diminutive boss in The Incredibles and characters in so many other kids' flicks.

Wally is the quintessence of a great character actor. He can morph into any part and manage to steal a scene with a nod or a look--equally magnificent as a space alien or a Hollywood producer, or perhaps they're not so dissimilar. He is that rare artist-actor who more famous names pretend to be on chat shows and more pretentious fare like The Actors Studio.

I first met Wally in the audience sitting next to author Arundhati Roy at St. John the Divine cathedral in Manhattan listening to a discussion about the antiwar movement and the elections with Naomi Klein and my editor at the International Socialist Review, Ahmed Shawki, in 2004.

Wallace Shawn occupying Wall Street
Wallace Shawn occupying Wall Street

It wasn't at all surprising to see him there because to watch him in movies and on TV you know immediately that this is not some vacuous Hollywood twit. His humor is too deep and biting, his smile is playfully ironic in that way people who are taking it all in seem to project. He was immediately likable.

I've gotten to know Wally over a few late-night conversations at the International Socialist Organization's annual Socialism conference in recent years where he's become a regular attendee, whether he's speaking or not. Wally's as avid a participant in discussions on LGBT liberation as he is at the talks on Jackson Pollack or Leninism. Mostly, he asks questions, and he appears to absorb the responses as the philosopher-playwright that he, in fact, is.

Last night, I saw him read his Obie Award-winning play, The Fever, in a packed small theater whose audience included Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History co-author/producer Anthony Arnove, Capitalism Hits the Fan author Richard Wolff, Zinn's son Jeff, several leading members of Jewish Voices for Peace and an assortment of New York's left-wing theater crowd, as well as a good bunch of young Occupiers.

What you can do

Wallace Shawn's next New York City appearance will be at Dance New Amsterdam on Saturday, March 3 at 7 p.m., when he reads from his book Essays on "Why I Call Myself a Socialist." Tickets are $15 and available on the Web.

The Fever gripped me in a way few plays do. Not just because Wally manages to thread Marx's theory of "commodity fetishism" and musings on guerrilla war tactics into an hour-and-a-half-long Kafkaesque meditation about class privilege and its discontents. But because there's something mesmerizing about a self-conscious bourgeois reckoning with the contradictions of his life--and the system that makes his lifestyle possible.

GROWING UP the Manhattan-dwelling scion of The New Yorker editor William Shawn, Wally is a don of the literary New York bourgeoisie. I'm glad he rejected his intended life's course as a diplomat after Oxford--Wally would have made a terrible professional equivocator. But then, don't they all?

Now in his late 60s, Wally occupies a unique position in the world of the 1 percent's intelligentsia. Whereas most self-reflection of that caste tends toward the moral imperative of charity, Wally's performative musings lead us to broader social conclusions. He is a man of privilege whose aim is to question the entire edifice that allows privilege to rule the world, or even exist.

No wonder the New York Times critic Charles Isherwood thought The Fever was a "corrosive exercise in theatrical conscience-baiting." Incapable of delving beneath moral indignation--the plague of the self-conscious rich--Isherwood refuses to acknowledge the scathing critique of a system, not just the roles of individuals in it.

A systemic critique is far more dangerous to the rich than a personal one--individuals can alter their behaviors, but a system based on inequality can only be uprooted to cut out the pervasive cancer. In essence, that's what Wally is talking about. And he even throws in nods to MLK as well, with a Why We Can't Waitesque indictment of the limitations of reforms. Not just their snail's pace, but the fact that their realization must be the work of the powers that be.

In The Fever, Wally has an interesting insight on Marx, also born the son of a Jewish bourgeois. He notes that Marx became a follower of the poor, not the other way around, as it's usually perceived. One-percenters flatter themselves by presuming the top must precede the bottom; Wally grasps the essence of Marxism lies in that biblical incantation: The first will be last and the last will be first.

The self-satisfaction of the arts is even taken down a peg. Wally writes that this play will change nothing, that shifting consciousness alone will change nothing. That until ideas take on a material force, they are just ideas. It is a humble acknowledgement that this wonderful play will change nothing at all.

Well, except to remind us how some of the best cultural works can make us feel and think in ways that embolden us to act. And for that Wally Shawn is my favorite bourgeois Marxist.

Further Reading

From the archives