I’m not so sure that Wallace Shawn is the man to make me feel guilty about moral voids. There’s something endearingly frivolous about Wally-the gnomish Wally and amusing character actor who appears briefly in countless bad films to say lines like, “Well, well, well!” Or: “No talking in class!” And there’s his opposite-the serious Wally and political playwright with a liberal conscience, whose apparently nice, bourgeois characters speak unacceptable thoughts like, “And I must admit, there’s something I find refreshing about the Nazis.”
The Nazi line is from Aunt Dan and Lemon , Mr. Shawn’s 1985 play now revived by Scott Elliott’s enterprising New Group at the Clurman Theatre. His horrible premise, in a nutshell, is that the German death camps had a point . The playwright himself doesn’t believe this, of course. As his bedridden, anorexic young heroine, Lemon (short for Leonora), puts it: “There’s something inside us that likes to kill. Some part of us. Why wouldn’t that be so? Our nature is derived from the nature of animals, and of course there’s a part of animal nature that likes to kill. If killing were totally repugnant to animals, they couldn’t survive. So an enjoyment of killing is there inside us.”
It’s an extraordinarily simpleminded, reductive argument. But it’s not the frivolous Wally who’s making it. The deadly serious, guilt-trip Wally is making it, and his point is that civilized societies are no different in the violent, self-serving essentials than Nazi Germany. Mr. Shawn intends to provoke us into identifying with the sick, bedridden heroine of Aunt Dan and Lemon -to see something, at least, of our civilized selves in her.
“In polite society,” Lemon goes on about the pleasure of killing, “people don’t discuss it, but it’s enjoyable-it’s enjoyable-to make plans for killing, and it’s enjoyable to learn about killing that is done by other people, and it’s enjoyable to think about killing, and it’s enjoyable to read about killing, and it’s even enjoyable actually to kill, although when we ourselves are actually killing, an element of unpleasantness always comes in.”
True or false? Do you buy it? Do you see yourself ? For myself, the man or woman who has never had a violent feeling-or wished to kill someone, preferably a partner-has never truly lived. But Mr. Shawn’s smug, all-inclusive pieties in the name of “honesty” give a liberal conscience a bad name. His kernel of undeniable truth that the violence of the strong and callous dominates the weak doesn’t mean we’re all no better than serial killers or those “refreshing” Nazis. But look how the sweeping argument is justified in the degenerate moral void:
“It’s no different from the fact that if I have harmful or obnoxious insects-let’s say, cockroaches-living in my house, I probably have to do something about it. Or at least, the question I have to ask is: How many are there? If the cockroaches are small, and I see a few of them now and then, that may not be very disturbing to me. But if I see big ones, if I start to see them often, then I say to myself, they have to be killed.”
Well, you get the message. No one contradicts it in the play. (Disagreement-or guilt-is up to the audience). Aunt Dan and Lemon is scarcely a play in the formal sense, more a series of long, windy monologues that take place in London during the Vietnam War. Aunt Dan (short for Danielle) is meant to be the brilliant intellectual of the piece, a right-wing, American-born Oxford don and murky bisexual who’s infatuated with Henry Kissinger. “A simple man, Lemon,” she describes him lovingly to her disciple. “A simple, warm, affectionate man.”
Now, we know that allegedly brilliant people can be utterly stupid. (Look at the historian and Holocaust denier, David Irving). But Aunt Dan takes the strudel. We need a dialectic with muscle and intelligence, but Mr. Shawn gives us only an empty-headed teenager with a crush.
“You see, I don’t care if he’s vain or boastful-maybe he is!” she simpers about Mr. Kissinger. “I don’t care if he goes out with beautiful girls or likes to ride around on a yacht with millionaires and sheikhs. Alright-he enjoys life! Is that a bad thing? Maybe the fact that he enjoys life inspires all his efforts to preserve life, to do what he does every day to make our lives possible.”
Mr. Shawn’s Oxford professor and her sick, child-like disciple speak with the same voice, the same platitudes. The irony shows more with Aunt Dan, that’s all. The ambling, plotless evening includes a subplot of graphic porn that threatens to dominate everything else. It concerns Mindy, a free-spirited London girl or hooker (and lover of Aunt Dan) who drugs and strangles some lowlife after mutual blow jobs. It’s a sordid world, right?
The link Mr. Shawn makes between a loveless, “civilized” society and violent pornography is as labored as his clumsy cockroach metaphor. It lingers on the porn with a lip-smacking prurience and leaves us indifferent. There you are-Mr. Shawn will no doubt claim-it all goes to show how desensitized we’ve become! We, too, are Aunt Dan and Lemon.
But that is the goading low debate and double bluff of the play. It’s like opposing President Bush and being accused of not being a patriot. If you aren’t engaged by Aunt Dan and Lemon , you’re failing to see the truth about yourself. If you can kill a cockroach, why not a human being?
Lemon is played by the spooky Lili Taylor (in an anachronistic Les Miz T-shirt); I found Kristen Johnston too young and jolly for Aunt Dan. Some of the British accents are all over the map. Nor is Mr. Elliott’s direction always tightly in focus. It took flighty Mindy an eternity, it seemed, to tie her drugged victim to the bedposts before subsequently schlepping him offstage in a plastic bag.
My colleague Michael Feingold of The Village Voice points out illuminatingly that The Last Letter at the Lucille Lortel Theatre is the answer to the questions posed by Aunt Dan and Lemon , and though he’s more generous about Mr. Shawn’s play than I am, he concludes that it’s “tiny by comparison.” For The Last Letter is no second-hand “debate,” but a shattering testament to a world of terrible suffering.
Set in a Nazi-occupied village in the Ukraine, the short, hour-long play is a Jewish mother’s letter to her son beyond the barbed wire about her last days in the ghetto before she’s executed. Adapted from Vasily Grossman’s epic novel, Life and Fate , it’s a remarkably clear-eyed monologue resisting easy sentiment and performed by one of our very finest actresses, Kathleen Chalfant.
Grossman’s own mother-a schoolteacher-died in a Nazi massacre, and The Last Letter is his imagined link to her. But, alas, the adapter and director, filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, has overplayed his hand by encouraging his lighting designer, Donald Holder, to “paint pictures” in arty light and shadow. At times, it’s as if there are two actors onstage: the ham role played by a hundred intrusive lighting effects and the central role played by the great actress. But in the end, nothing can overwhelm Ms. Chalfant’s performance, which is so pure and unadorned that she doesn’t even seem to be acting. She simply and humanely is . She is evidence of what tragically was and still will be. She is the truth.