The Designated Mourner

Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

By Albert Williams

Gil Scott-Heron sang that the revolution would not be televised, but in Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner it is. Jack–the protagonist of this odd, darkly comic, and ultimately chilling cautionary tale–can recall the day he saw his wife Judy killed on-screen, one more victim of the public executions aired as part of a bloody cultural revolution in which the downtrodden “dirt eaters” of an unnamed nation have overthrown its liberal elite. “All human beings have a need to hear stories,” Jack rightly notes, and TV is the revolution’s perfect conveyor of information: companionable, graphic, utterly democratic in its broad appeal, “a blank face [that] looked expectantly into mine,” Jack says, “a familiar framed screen which held inside it colors, songs, characters, drunkenness, love, beauty.” Magazines, with their profiles of “healthy, well-exercised, rather young actresses,” and newspapers, in which “once in a while you get to read about someone you know,” are OK, but for real life nothing beats TV. It’s so much easier to understand than the plays and poetry admired, even written, by smugly superior elitists–like Judy and her father, Howard.

Both Howard and Judy are dead when The Designated Mourner begins–though they’re onstage alongside their “designated mourner,” Jack, offering their views on how, but not why, their “very special little world” came to an end. For Howard, a onetime writer of radical tracts who turned to the less controversial (because less comprehensible) form of poetry in order to survive, it was a matter of gradual diminishments in the quality of life–the closing of an espresso bar in the park, the chopping down of a grove of trees–until one day a brick came through the window. For Judy, it was the emergence of new faces in positions of power, people “who dressed in new colors–those chalky colors, yellow and pink and various greens–and lived in new neighborhoods, and even ate in new restaurants with new styles of cooking.”

But history is written by the survivors, and for Jack the purge brought a welcome increase in honesty–for the problem with life before the revolution was always the lies that filled it. Like the murderer Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger, whose deadpan candor The Designated Mourner sometimes brings to mind, Jack always tells the truth. An affable guy, he can laugh disarmingly as he speaks of friends who looked right at him when they said, “If God didn’t like assholes, he wouldn’t have made so many of them.” Easygoing and chatty, he gets ticked off only at other people’s hypocrisy. Bursts of resentful anger punctuate his description of his father-in-law’s sarcasm about fellow cultural commentators, and a strangely detached sadness marks his account of his sex life with Judy, a sheltered, privileged woman too inexperienced to know that (as Jack freely admits) he’s a lousy lover. A turning point in Jack’s postmortem–for that’s what The Designated Mourner is, a coolly objective analysis of how Judy and Howard died in the cultural revolution–comes when he recalls his TV-viewing epiphany: “As I sat in the darkness and watched the screen for hour after hour I thought to myself, Well, at some point we have to draw some distinctions–don’t we? I mean, pardon me, but shouldn’t there be some distinction drawn between the things we say, the lies, the ‘I like poetry,’ ‘I like Rembrandt’ on the one hand…and then on the other hand things that are true, like ‘I’m watching this very nice screen right now, I’m watching it, and I’m enjoying it’?”

Not that Jack’s some sort of tube boob. He’s a reasonably well educated guy–a former student of English literature who “went downhill from there,” he says with a laugh–and his language skills are great, which is part of what makes this visually static production so interesting. Jack’s no dumber than a lot of guys; he’s just more honest than most about his self-absorption and more eloquent about his contentment with a world that panders to the complacent isolation of a man–and a culture–wrapped up in pure, amoral sensation. “The greatest pleasure we can know on this earth,” he rhapsodizes in the play’s conclusion, after having casually described the death of his wife and her father, is “the sweet, ever-changing caress of an early evening breeze.”

In his critical biography of Wallace Shawn, Writing Wrongs (to be published in May by Temple University Press), W.D. King notes that “liberals have traditionally made a strong separation between the public and the private realms, as well as between the political and the psychological.” Shawn–son of former New Yorker editor William Shawn and scion of the liberal elite represented by Howard and Judy in The Designated Mourner–remains deliberately vague about the play’s politically turbulent setting, even as he skillfully probes Jack’s growing alienation from the people around him. We know nothing about the ideology of the “new regime” that has swept in lowbrow cultural reform, except that (as Judy says) they’re younger than the “herd of swine” they displaced; it’s not even clear whether these are leaders in government or simply the current crop of hotshot talk-show hosts. It could be a South American, African, or eastern European dictatorship of the right or the left; it could just as easily be a capitalist, consumer-driven America run ever so slightly amok. The patterns are as much those of Mao’s China as of Hitler’s Germany, or of Orwell’s 1984. When Jack reminisces complacently about his growing lack of interest in the poetry of John Donne and preference for TV, the blissful know-nothings of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine come to mind–but so, of course, does 1997 America. In the best tradition of speculative dystopian literature, The Designated Mourner takes place in the future–the better to shed light on the present.

Structured as a series of alternating monologues–with the characters sometimes interacting, sometimes listening to one another, and sometimes sitting lost in their own memories–The Designated Mourner recalls Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, which Steppenwolf mounted to such fine effect last season. Where that main-stage show used dim, moody lighting to suggest the internal landscape of a blind Irishwoman, this studio production–a U.S. premiere staged by British-bred, California-based director Les Waters–reflects its central character’s candor by making the setting a pristine white room with high slit windows (immaculately designed by Dan Ostling and lit by Christine Solger, whose use of myriad angles of light and shadow suggests a much longer passage of time than the play’s 95 intermissionless minutes). If heaven had a room for panel discussions it would look like this–but so might a brainwasher’s interrogation chamber. The three storytellers sit at a nearly empty table like a trio of Spalding Grays or guests on a news-affairs talk show.

The mismatch between Jack and Judy, not to mention Jack and Howard, is perfectly conveyed in the three actors’ fine performances. David Shapiro as the self-centered Jack (a role played by Mike Nichols in the play’s world premiere last year at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain) is straightforward and outgoing, but with a dry, slightly sardonic edge that recalls Shawn’s own film performances. Martha Lavey’s Judy is dreamy and rarefied–she’s like a doe gazing into the headlights of an oncoming car when she describes the inevitability of her class’s demise. And in the too small role of Howard, Nicholas Rudall perfectly suggests a very real type of aging intellectual–the sort of patronizing patriarch who responds “so sensitively to the most obscure verses and also to the cries of the miserable and the downtrodden, sometimes virtually at the same instant, without ever leaving his breakfast table,” as Jack puts it. In withering lines like that, Shawn turns a cold, penetrating light on the dying out of a “high” culture whose remaining proponents are too weak, too shortsighted, and too self-indulgent to react to the danger they’re in, as well as on the relentless rise of a mass culture that knows little of the values of the past–and cares even less.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Designated Mourner stage photo by Michael Broslilow.