“A morality which has within it no room for truth is no morality at all”

” . . . But the thing is, you know, let’s face it, there’s a whole enormous world out there that I don’t ever think about, and I certainly don’t take responsibility for how I’ve lived in that world. I mean, if I were actually to confront the fact that I’m sort of sharing this stage with the starving person in Africa somewhere, well then I wouldn’t feel so great about myself So naturally I blot those people out of my perception. So, of course, I’m ignoring a whole section of the real world. . . . Of course we all know that the theater is in terrible shape today. I mean, you know, at least a few years ago people who really cared about the theater used to say, ‘The theater is dead.’ But now everyone has redefined the theater in such a trivial way. You know, I mean, I know people who are involved with the theater who go to see things now that—I mean, a few years ago these same people would have just been embarrassed to have seen some of these plays. But now they say, ‘Oh, that was pretty good.’ It’s just incredible. And I just find that attitude unbearable, because I actually do believe that the theater can be very important—it can actually help people come in contact with reality. Now you may not feel that at all. You may find that absurd.”
—Wally in My Dinner With Andre by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory

If contemporary drama is as ailing and derivative as many are finding it, no one has yet observed the extent to which our theater has been up against a new form of competition and a new influence. Though oblique and amorphous, this new kind of theater is intense and pervasive. It has nothing to do with a script per se, but the importance of the costume and characterization—and especially attitude—has become even more pronounced, as if to compensate for the absence of other, more conventional theatrical elements.

In this new version of theater, the very notion of a stage has been replaced by a sense of environment. Even the concept of the Fourth Wall has become obsolete as the roles that used to separate the spectator from the spectacle have been thoroughly broken down. The supreme examples of this new genre of theater occur today in what are generally perceived as “decadent” contexts—the late-night dance clubs that tend to come alive after midnight and would lead a spectator to believe that at least half of America is unemployed, the other half independently wealthy. Nor is it irrelevant to note that this new theater is decidedly self-conscious and amoral.

Though it undoubtedly has references which a cultural scientist could trace back to the stages of Attica or even earlier, a more direct harbinger for this revolutionary state of theater emerged in the early 1970’s, in a seemingly meaningless movie called The Rocky Horror Picture Show. More to the point, it wasn’t the movie itself that mattered so much as the cult following that evolved around it, usually at midnight showings on Friday nights in major cities throughout the country.

As you may or may not recall, during those midnight screenings, members of the audience would position themselves in front of the screen and act out musical numbers along with the performers on screen. Many others would remain in their seats. But even from that more traditional vantage point they would often mime along with the actors; or at appropriate moments they would employ the various props they brought with them (for example, opening their umbrellas when it started to rain on screen to protect themselves from the real water that was being sprayed by their neighbors in the auditorium).

In retrospect, the Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon appeared as some sort of spontaneous cultural combustion that consumed the clearly delineated lines between audience and spectacle. The viewer suddenly became some weird variation on a theme, at once a voyeur as well as an exhibitionist, while the very definition of theater was assuming new proportions and ground rules.

In the intervening dozen or so years since The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this new kind of theater has metamorphosized yet again. Now it can be found in the numerous clubs and discos that have become our new temples of performance and diversion—places where people go as much to be seen as to see or to dance, where everyone is both “on” stage and “off” stage at the same time, and where an identity can be assumed (and shed) with the same facility that actors change clothes.

This new theater can best be observed at places like Area, which features different themes every few weeks and hires people to perform or assume tableaux in the midst of the festivities; or Palladium, which used to be theater and now uses honest-to-goodness stage settings as backdrops to the dance floor; or Limelight, which is literally a converted church; or the Saint, which offers fashion shows and performance pieces while everyone present is involved in a performance of their own, for themselves and for each other.

Superficially, anyway, Wally Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon has absolutely nothing to do with the kinds of theater I’m describing above. It uses actors and actresses who interpret a script on an utterly conventional stage before a conventionally seated audience. But on a much deeper level, this controversial drama only begins to make sense in the climate of the new theatrical context that has spilled over into other aspects of our culture, a culture which often confuses image for substance and rhetoric for ideas.

Quite justifiably, many have accused Aunt Dan and Lemon of not behaving as a play ought to. It is more a series of disquisitions and unsettling monologues on highly charged moral and political topics than it is a play with exposition, plot, interaction, and resolution. In some respects, it is reminiscent of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, but it is even more disturbing than that abrasive work was, since it has coyly presented itself in serene and ingenuous tones. More than anything else, it seems to have redefined the role of the audience. Like so many plays of the past 20 years. Aunt Dan acknowledges the audience’s presence to an extraordinary degree. But despite its evident hospitality, it refuses to be either hospitable or direct in its wicked insinuations and implicit accusations. It incorporates the audience into its scheme at the same time that it degrades and insults each and every member by compelling them to conclude that they are as incapable of “compassion” as the next person, and by equating Nazi genocide with the extermination of cockroaches in one’s own kitchen.

As an ardent fan of the work when it premiered here last November, fresh from the Royal Court Theatre in London, I was looking forward to the subsequent production that opened in late March. Aside from a change in all but one of the seven cast members, the newer production would share the same director, the same scenery, costume, lighting and sound designers with the original version. It would even be performed on the same stage space at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall. And most importantly, it would be the same play.

The same play that Frank Rich in the Times had christened “the most stimulating, not to mention demanding, American play to emerge this year”; even as he explained that it is “about how literate, civilized societies can drift en masse into beastliness and commit the most obscene acts of history.” The same play that John Simon ridiculed as a “poor, unappetizing worm wriggling around the stage and pretending to be an iconoclastic play though it merely offends against taste, intelligence, and basic hygiene as it waits for someone to step on it and put it and its captive audience (no intermission, of course!) out of their misery.” The same play that Robert Brustein found “impossible to evaluate . . . in dramatic terms.” The same play whose author admitted he “intentionally set out to leave the audience frustrated and unsatisfied.”

So why, I must wonder aloud, is my response to this new production diametrically opposed to what it was originally? How can I be so disappointed that I even feel ashamed by my earlier enthusiastic reaction? Though Kathy Whitton Baker, as the anorexic and wistful narrator. Lemon, is not as effectively sedate or graceful as her predecessor Kathryn Pogson, and though that fine actress Pamela Reed, as the pontificating and influential Aunt Dan, is not as firm nor as eccentric as Linda Hunt in the same role, neither departs fundamentally enough from the previous interpretations to account for so radically different a response to the play itself.

In his last major work, the film My Dinner With Andre, co-written with Andre Gregory, Shawn presented a dialectic which prompted hyperbolic comparisons with Plato and with Shaw. With that film, Shawn recalculated the medium of the scripted dialogue by creating a sort of fictional documentary.

In his dinner with avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory, Shawn came across as the pragmatist to Gregory’s hardened idealist. The plot was confined to their meeting for dinner at an “expensive” restaurant; but under the circumstances, the very idea of a “plot” was obliterated, replaced, or engulfed by the conversation they had instead. The theme of their discussion is the nature and quality of theater in contemporary society, and the very possibility or improbability of life in the contemporary world. What struck some as stimulating seemed sophomoric to others. Still, it was generally conceded that the film succeeded in making the viewer feel like a guest at their table. The true test of My Dinner With Andre‘s durability as a work of art would be to recast the two roles and see how it fares. But the very notion of two other actors portraying Wally and Andre becomes preposterous and unfathomable.

Upon first viewing, Shawn’s session with Aunt Dan and Lemon seemed that much more invigorating than his dinner with Andre. As he claimed in an interview with Time, “At the risk of sounding self-pitying, the project taxed my resources to the limit and sometimes beyond. It took more brains than I had, and to figure out how to write it, I had to borrow some of next year’s brains and the next year’s brains as well.”

In Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn offers both more and less of a “plot” than in his previous work. It begins when the effete and wasted Lemon, short for Leonora, addresses us from her armchair in her London flat: “Hello, dear audience, dear good people who have taken yourselves out for a special treat, a night at the theater. Hello, little children. How sweet you are, how innocent. If everyone were just like you, perhaps the world would be nice again, perhaps we all would be happy again.” Strictly speaking, all that transpires is simply part of the story that Lemon imparts, which she claims is “everything about my life.” Her life, it would seem, is nothing more than her abiding memories of the eponymous Aunt Dan, short for Danielle, who was a friend of Lemon’s parents and who became the overriding influence on Lemon. In fact, even Lemon’s parents are recalled only as they relate to Aunt Dan; and the remaining eight characters are all figures in stories told in turn by Aunt Dan, as relayed here by Lemon.

As we soon learn. Lemon’s mother met Aunt Dan when they were in college together and became instant friends. Dan went on to become “one of the youngest Americans ever to teach at Oxford.” Lemon’s earliest memory is of when she was three. Aunt Dan was already a fixture in her family constellation and became for Lemon, if not exactly a surrogate parent, then at least a preferred one.

Although perhaps we should bear in mind that the entire play is refracted through Lemon’s unusual vision. Aunt Dan is also presented as an extremely eccentric figure. She is posed as a brilliant intellectual who dwells on her respect for Kissinger: “You see I don’t care if he’s arrogant or boastful. . . . You can hardly call him a frivolous man. . . . That look on his face is there because he has seen the power of evil in the world.” In another instance, she defends her admiration for Kissinger in one of many extended monologues: “I’m simply saying that ifs terribly easy for us to criticize. It’s terribly easy for us to sit here and give our opinions on the day’s events. And while we sit here in the sunshine and have our discussions about what we’ve read in the morning papers, there are these certain other people, like Kissinger, who happen to have the very bad luck to be society’s leaders. And while we sit here chatting, they have to do what has to be done. And so we chat, but they do what they have to do.”

For the most part, Aunt Dan’s sentiments are not exactly illogical, nor are they easily refuted, which becomes part of Shawn’s carefully calibrated deception. Shawn presents genteel people in an overly gentle package that has the cadence and the mood of a fairy tale or a bedtime story for adults. But such gentility is offset by the casual references to some of the most troubling and distressing issues that threaten civilization today. Shawn has penned a paradox, really, wherein the charming and demure Lemon alludes to her obsessive “reading about the Nazi killing of the Jews,” and her subsequent casual remark that “today, of course, the Nazis are considered dunces, because they lost the war, but it has to be said that they managed to accomplish a great deal of what they wanted to do. They were certainly successful against the Jews.”

This serves as a prelude to the more scandalous diatribe she offers during her closing monologue. As before, the shock value is increased because the lines are delivered by the ostensibly innocent and lovely Lemon. As with other fragments I have lifted from the text, I quote at length to convey a sense of Shawn’s style:

So it becomes absurd to talk about the Nazis as if the Nazis were unique. That’s a kind of hypocrisy. Because the fact is, no society has ever considered the taking of life an unpardonable crime or even, really, a major tragedy. It’s something that’s done when it has to be done, and ifs as simple as that. . . . Now when people say, “Oh the Nazis were different from anyone, the Nazis were different from anyone,” well, perhaps that’s true in at least one way, which is that they observed themselves extremely frankly in the act of killing, and they admitted frankly how they really felt about the whole process. Yes, of course, they admitted, it’s very unpleasant, and if we didn’t have to do it in order to create a way of life that we want for ourselves, we would never be involved in killing at all. But since we have to do it, why not be truthful about it, and why not admit that yes, yes, there’s something inside us that likes to kill. . . . Because if there’s one thing I learned from Aunt Dan, I suppose you could say it was a kind of honesty.

Shawn’s theme is not so much society’s need to kill in the name of Right, nor the absence or atrophy of “compassion” in today’s self-serving world, nor even as the jacket-copy to the published version of the script suggests, “the ease with which good and bad become reconciled in the human mind.” Rather, it’s an indictment of the inherent hazards of influence. At the end of Lemon’s initial monologue, she claims, “To me what matters really is the people you knew, the things you learned from them, the things that influenced you deeply and made you what you are.”

In the larger sense, the entire play is merely a demonstration of Aunt Dan’s influence over Lemon, which the audience infers can represent a microcosm of Shawn’s influence over us. But the loophole in Shawn’s scenario is that, unlike Lemon, we need not succumb. What I appreciated the first time I saw the play was the connection Shawn made between a naive disposition and weighty or corrupting matters, as well as the ingenious way he packaged his insights. What I came to realize the second time around is that Shawn’s own politics are more suspect than they seemed, and more directly manifested by the words he has given his characters to speak. Though he condemns his heroine by default, and also by default he implicates us in the process, he offers no viable alternative to the deplorable state of affairs he finds surrounding him.

On the premise that this is a fiction and that one should trust the teller and not the tale after all, Shawn’s appendix to the published script seems more reliable and decisive a resource for determining his stance. In “On the Context of the Play,” he begins by describing the human motive for comfort and by saying that “what in fact prevents me more than anything else from feeling really comfortable . . . is actually the well-intentioned ethical training I received as a child. My parents brought me up to believe that there was something terribly important called morality.” So far, so good. But he proceeds over the course of the next 20 pages to employ a Cartesian mode arguing for the abolition of morality. “As I write these words, in New York City in 1985, more and more people who grew up around me are making this decision; they are throwing away their moral chains and learning to enjoy their true situation: Yes, they are admitting loudly and bravely, we live in beautiful homes, we’re surrounded by beautiful gardens, our children are playing with wonderful toys, and our kitchen shelves are filled with wonderful food.”

Shawn’s primary motivation as revealed here is guilt; but surely there are more constructive ways for coping with guilt than Shawn grasps, as even Freud allowed, and as even Woody Allen would probably agree (it’s not for nothing that Shawn reminds us of a Woody Allen without laughs).

“Because,” according to Shawn, “the difference between a perfectly decent person and a monster is just a few thoughts,” and since “morality is only a few thoughts in our heads,” and considering that “all of our attitudes flow into action, flow into history, the bedroom and the battlefield soon seem to be one,” there can be no position we can afford to take. But as most thinking and feeling creatures realized long ago, no position is still a position of sorts. Amorality cannot be divorced from morality as Shawn might prefer to imagine. Finally, Shawn undermines himself and serves as an instructive example for ah of us by showing how quite possibly those who take morality to the nth degree might very well be left with what appears to be no morality at all.

At its worst, Aunt Dan and Lemon can be dismissed as the cumulative rebuttal to the hundreds of liberal-minded articles that have appeared in The New Yorker, that bastion of “correct” thinking for which Shawn’s father, William, has served as editor for 40 years or so. If only his father had consented to publish his articles, then perhaps we would have been spared what amounts to a not-so-innocent—though terribly naive—piece of political theater.