Wallace Shawn, prince of New York
By Wickham Boyle
Wallace Shawn Wally to many, and Wal to his longtime love, extraordinary writer Deborah Eisenberg is the face, voice and mind behind a myriad of ventures.
The son of much revered New Yorker editor William Shawn, Wally grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan before moving on to Harvard and Oxford, where he studied history and then economics and philosophy. He went on to be an English teacher in India before returning to the United States, meeting experimental director Andre Gregory, of My Dinner with André fame, and diving into a life in theater, movies and television, even though, in true complicated Shawn fashion, he doesnt own one.
There is seemingly nothing Shawn wont try, from the silliest voices in Disney productions to the most profound, personal theatrical works that are darkly humorous, political, sexually charged and almost always controversial.
I have known Wally for years, from a shared life in the theater and Downtown living. A favorite household story surrounds Wally in 1987 when he played the villain Vizzin in the mega-hit Princess Bride. In this movie there was, of course, a handsome prince who gets the princess and makes her his bride. My then three-year-old daughter wondered, Why is Wally not the Prince? Why did they not see that Wally IS the prince? Children adore Wally because he sees them as the innately intelligent beings they are and never condescends to them. To my daughters loving protestations Shawn replied, Oh, one day you will know why Wally is not the prince and that day will come soon enough.
He is prince enough to those who have witnessed the dazzling breadth of his career: 72 films, author of 4 movies, 38 television appearances and many drama awards for his incredibly wrought, provocative plays that include A Thought in Three Parts, Marie and Bruce, Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever and The Designated Mourner.
This season alone, his play/opera The Music Teacher debuted, which was composed by his brother Allen Shawn and ran for three months at the Minetta Lane Theater. His new translation of Brecthts classic Three Penny Opera, produced by the Roundabout Theater, is currently at the former Studio 54 space and is selling out.
I caught up with Wally Shawn in an interview by phone from his digs Downtown.
You have had such a varied career in everything from high culture to pop culture. Describe what thats been like.
Well, my pop culture career is really fading out. I dont think they like me in pop culture as much as they used to, but if they want to be entertained I am here to entertain. Even funny faces become tragic as they age; the voice however seems to remain relatively the same. So my high culture and pop bifurcated career still continues on, however my agent at William Morris lost interest in my body but they still represent my voice. They see me as a contender from the chest up.
You have been a dedicated Downtown resident for years. Why did you choose the West Village?
I first came to the Village at 13 after growing up on the Upper East Side and said to myself, Look at this! It was a momentous day in my life, comparable to getting on a boat and going to China it was remote like a different country. I was very excited by being on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal when Café Figaro was on the West side of the street [now it is on the East side]. There were, I guess you could call them Bohemians and Beatniks everywhere. I have always had a good feeling about the Village since that day, so Ive had a positive orientation to be in that area. When I was first with Deborah, she lived on Leroy Street. We have been in the Village now for well over 20 years.
Whats the difference between creating a work from scratch, like The Music Teacher, and translating a classic like Three Penny Opera?
I put so much time into Three Penny and I did a complete rewrite on Music Teacher, so by the end, they both felt like mine. The first version of The Music Teacher came from 20 years ago
[And since] Scott Elliot [the director of the Roundabout production] approached me about Three Penny in December 2004,
it has been mostly me and my own English text, so I forgot that Brecht wrote it I felt that I wrote it. I take sad pride in something I didnt do. Its rather pitiful.
Your play Marie and Bruce has been filmed and is in post-production. When do you think it will be finished?
I am told that it will be released [this year] and there are people who actually believe it will come out. We have a great cast [Mathew Broderick and Julianne Moore] and the movie is fabulous. You have to take my word for it [now].
Two years ago, you gathered some other thinkers and writers together to create a journal called The Final Edition: Volume One, Number One, The last issue, which featured work by yourself, Deborah, Noam Chomsky and downtown futurist Jonathan Schell. What was the impetus for it?
It was a response to the state of the nation at the time and anyone who would read it today would find it apropos. I suppose I could say that Final Edition was a great success, as now 70% of Americans agree that the country is going in the wrong direction. The problem is that nothing has changed in terms of what is actually [being] done, but so far minds have changed. Now [we] are threatening Iran. So this is a puzzler for writers and thinkers like me. What to do and where are we going?