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‘The Designated Mourner’: A Play on Authoritarianism, Restaged for the Trump Era

A scene from "The Designated Mourner," with Wallace Shawn, left, Larry Pine and Deborah Eisenberg. (Jordan Riefe / Truthdig)

A scene from “The Designated Mourner,” with Wallace Shawn, left, Larry Pine and Deborah Eisenberg. (Jordan Riefe / Truthdig)

“The Designated Mourner” is a story with staying power. Written in 1996, the world premiere of the play was staged in London, directed by David Hare and starring Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser. A year later, it was adapted to film with the same director and cast before it opened at The Public Theater in New York City in 2000, directed in that production by Andre Gregory and starring playwright Wallace Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg and Larry Pine.

The same group reunited for a 2013 revival and is now bringing the show to downtown Los Angeles’ REDCAT through May 21.

With a three-hour running time, the drama is set in a single room, where Jack (Shawn), his wife, Judy (Eisenberg), and her father, Howard (Pine), a celebrated poet and author of anti-government essays, address the audience and each other with their account of a free society gradually succumbing to an oligarchic dictatorship. Concerned he might be considered guilty by association, Jack is mildly sympathetic to the new regime on account of his resentment toward Howard’s elitism, as well as his hope that the crackdown on anti-government forces representing the downtrodden will safeguard his comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

“Each time you do it, the audience is a different character,” Shawn tells Truthdig about his landmark drama. “The response of people to the play in 1997 and 2000, and the response that people may have this week is going to be, possibly, different.”

The son of former New Yorker Editor William Shawn, the 73-year-old playwright was raised in Manhattan and educated at Vermont’s prestigious Putney School, Harvard College and Magdalen College, Oxford, studying politics, philosophy, economics and Latin. He has appeared in the Woody Allen classic “Manhattan,” as well as “The Princess Bride” and “Vanya on 42nd Street,” among other films. His 1985 play, “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” has been called a cautionary tale against fascism, and 1990’s “The Fever” decries U.S. support for brutal anti-communist regimes. “Evening at the Talk House,” which premiered in February, imagines a government drone program manned by unemployed artists.

His work with director Andre Gregory dates back 40 years, before they joined forces for their landmark collaboration, “My Dinner With Andre.”

“His plays have always been rehearsed over a period of years,” Shawn says about Gregory’s method—inspired by such theater legends as directors Jerzy Grotowski, Konstantin Stanislavski and Bertolt Brecht. “We would work for a couple of months, and then we would all go about our lives and do various things. And then we would return and work for another couple of months. I think our first rehearsals were in ’97. So yeah, we’ve put in a lot of hours over the decades.”

As for “The Designated Mourner,” in the Donald Trump era, the play feels more relevant than ever. Twenty years ago, Americans were unconcerned with the prospect of dictatorship taking hold at home. Back then, the narrative, set in an unspecified time and place, might have mirrored events in numerous Latin American or Eastern European countries in the 1950s. In 2013, the revival squared conveniently with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s concerns about income inequality.

“When we first did ‘The Designated Mourner’ in the year 2000, many people asked me, ‘What did that violence in the play symbolize?’ I said it symbolized itself—violence,” Shawn recalls. “In later years, most people realized that, yes, political violence is very real. Trump is a would-be authoritarian ruler. We’ll see how that turns out. Maybe he’ll really become one, or maybe he won’t get away with it. But that’s his preferred style or tendency. So that makes him a bit like the president in the play. Trump’s anti-intellectualism parallels the anti-intellectualism of the main character of the play, Jack. And Trump’s hatred of the elite is a little reminiscent of Jack’s feelings about his father-in-law.”

“The Designated Mourner” serves as a pointed rebuke to the notion that “it can’t happen here.” While some believe that our system of checks and balances will safeguard against autocratic rule, others, including the Bush administration’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, have warned about the president declaring a state of emergency and suspending the Constitution.

Shawn has similar concerns. “The checks and balances at the moment look frighteningly weak. Of course, the Republican-dominated Congress is a very, very weak check on Trump. I think the Supreme Court is not a strong check, either. So [Trump is] quite right when he believes that the press is a possible danger to him. And, of course, so is the public.”

If the machinery of government and increasingly questionable mainstream media cannot shield us from dictators, salvation might come in the form of art and culture, whose ability to inspire thought and empathy reaches people of all stripes. But Shawn sees even these essential elements of civilization in retreat. “The dialogue in ‘The Thin Man’ may not teach sympathy, but it was very smart,” he says. “The Marx Brothers are incredibly smart. You’re seeing something in those films that is helping you to become smarter. And I do think that is a dangerously missing element in a lot of popular culture.”

He strikes a pessimistic note when it comes to American voters and how history repeats itself. “This is part of the reason that somebody like Trump or Bush or Reagan could be taken seriously and be elected. I think it’s a very, very serious fact that people are much, much less intellectually refined than they could be.”

Jordan Riefe
Contributor
After studying Mandarin in post-Mao China, Jordan got into the film business as a camera assistant working with directors like...
Jordan Riefe

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