American playwright and actor, born 1943.
Although popularly known as the co-author of the film My Dinner with Andre, and as a character actor, with notable roles in Manhattan, The Princess Bride, Clueless, and the Toy Story franchises, Shawn will most likely be remembered for his intellectual contributions to American theatre.
There is not, and to my knowledge has never been, a playwright like Wallace Shawn. His plays are not the least bit entertaining, nor were they intended to be. They are the intellectual equivalent of dining on razor blades.
Shawn's main theme, running throughout his work, is the "barbarism of polite society." This may take the form of despicable characters who never change (Marie and Bruce)... or characters in The Fever or Aunt Dan and Lemon who come across as charming and likeable, and then present well-reasoned articulated defenses of the bombing of Cambodia, or the exploitation of Third World countries, in the name of comfortable American privilege. And then, after raising unanswerable questions of ethics, religion, or sex, the play ends. There’s no opposing view. And the audience leaves the theatre feeling disturbed (Many critics, even within the theatre community, misunderstood Aunt Dan and Lemon as an apologia for the excesses of the Reagan administration).
My style as a human being is to indulge people who need to escape. Yet I insist on confronting them as a playwright. It's quite embarassing, it's quite unpleasant, it's quite awkward. (Shawn, in 1988)
Shawn's plays lack well developed plots. His characters don't grow, don't learn. They don't even change over the course of the play. (Shawn freely admits he knows nothing of plot or character development, and confesses that when he started writing for the stage it never occured to him that a playwright needed qualifications). The relationships between characters onstage are only important in so far as they illustrate an idea or allow Shawn to do his real work: to get the audience to confront the material presented directly (In this, his work has been compared to Bertold Brecht's).
In (Shawn's work) the primary relationship is not between characters but between the play and the audience, with the play operating less as a sparkling symposium than as a loaded gun.
That's not to say that Shawn can't write. His plays are very funny. And smart. They're just not your usual Off-Broadway fare.
If the theatre in your town puts on one of Mr. Shawn’s plays, go and see it. So that next time you see him in a movie, perhaps as the "homonculus" of Manhattan or Vizzini in The Princess Bride, you’ll ponder the mystery of how such an innocuous looking man can unleash such fierce inner demons upon the world.*
Cheney, Matthew. Review of Four Plays: A Thought in Three Parts, Marie and Bruce, Aunt Dan and Lemon, the Fever by Wallace Shawn. Amazon.com. <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0374525358/002-7788217-3595222?vi=glance> (2 May 2003)
Moore, Michael Scott. "Shawn Behaving Badly: Wallace Shawn Festival." San Francisco Weekly, 23 September 1999, <http://www.lastplanettheatre.com/productions/reviews/wallaceshawn/review2.html> (2 May 2003)
Rosenstein, Brad. "Wallace Fever." San Francisco Weekly, 14 October 1999. <http://www.lastplanettheatre.com/productions/reviews/wallaceshawn/review1.html> (2 March 2003)
Savran, David (ed.). In Their Own Words. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.
Slavin, John. "Tribute to the NY master of middle-class guilt and angst," The Age, 25 October 2002, <http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/10/24/1035416931464.html> (28 May 2003)
Temple University Press Web Site. <http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1328_reg_print.html> (28 May 2003)
* One television role allowed Shawn to appear as "twisted" on the outside (in his physiology) as theatre critics have described him on the inside (psychologically): on the series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Shawn was cast as Zek, the Grand Nagus of the Ferengi.