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Revisiting The Designated Mourner in the Age of Trump

Wallace Shawn’s play is about intellectuals grappling with their country’s slide into fascism. Sound familiar?

Joan Marcus/Courtesy of The Public Theater

If suspension of disbelief is central to the theater, someone should immediately mount a production of Wallace Shawn’s 1996 play The Designated Mourner. Set in an unidentified country succumbing to political uncertainty, featuring a trio of anxious characters who are trying to make sense of it all, it is full of the kind of sentiments that I have seen on social media in recent weeks. And barring a new production, it’s a play that is satisfying to read, which is rare. There is not a lot of action. Three characters talk, mostly to us, occasionally to one another, and the only real plot is the recall of events that feel long past. And such events: the gradual, then very swift, unmaking of a society, the decimation of the educated elite occasioned by the rise of a new political order. In his review of the 2000 New York production, the critic John Lahr wrote that the play seems to describe what transpired across Latin America in the 20th century, but that “after the L.A. riots and the flight of the rich from Beverly Hills, it’s not so difficult to imagine it on our own doorstep.” Indeed.

The characters are Howard, an essayist-cum-poet with populist ideas, his daughter Judy, a brilliant, sardonic sort adept at cocktail party chatter, and her lover Jack. Jack introduces himself to us as the mourner of the title, the remaining member of the tribe left to remember those now gone. The play casts the audience not as voyeur but confessor, and we hear from Jack as changes in the country’s fortunes lead to Judy and Howard’s incarceration and, eventually, execution. Here’s Judy, witty as ever: “There were cabinet shuffles, over and over. And every time that the big governmental deck would be cut, more people we’d never heard of would rise to the top of it. Was it a card game or a card trick?”

It’s a text uninterested in realism that turns out to be persuasively real; much of what Judy has to say about the political situation will be familiar to anyone has followed the discussion surrounding Donald Trump’s election.

Incidentally, have you ever noticed the way that people are always asking, as if there would be a new answer each time, “How could this have happened?” “How can that have happened?!” “Why, it seems impossible!” et cetera. And yet, actually, the answer to those questions is always the same.

Judy (in its 2013 revival and the 2000 original run, she was played by the writer Deborah Eisenberg, Shawn’s companion) reminds us that human behavior is as complicated as we make it. “If you try to swat a fly, it moves out of the way. And humans are the same. They step aside when they sense something coming, about to hit them in the face.” Though maddening, Judy is often the play’s most reasonable character. When she describes being ushered from the safety of her father’s home by armed men, Judy’s words are dispassionate but chilling. She’s so reasonable, you’re sure she’ll be spared in the putsch. Not so, alas.

Howard, like so many great men, is an exhausting blowhard. Still, even a stopped clock, etc.—witness his précis of liberal politics.

I mean, all the judging, all the condemning, who’s superior, who’s inferior. “I was right,” and so on, are not terribly helpful to the people who might actually be falling victim to every sort of horror while you’re taking the time to debate these things.

This is one of the most apt descriptions of our time I’ve read; striking that it’s more than two decades old. How did Howard, well-born, come to be interested in the lot of the poor? Judy fills us in: “From an early age, he was always wondering, Why were certain people—the ones not from his background—systematically made to eat dirt and kept so far away from the songs of Schubert?” The lines are acidic, considering they’re directed to an audience likely familiar with the songs of Schubert. Howard’s realization of the existence of those made to eat dirt was occasioned by an erotic encounter with a poor girl. Well, the personal is political.

Howard may be a blowhard, but Jack is the one who does the bulk of the talking. His affection for Judy is as real as his distaste for her father. Despite their proximity, Jack does not see himself as one of Howard’s acolytes, because he’s not interested in the highbrow. Indeed, the country’s turmoil gives Jack occasion to embrace who he feels himself to be at heart: rather than read verse, he wants to watch television.

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 I mean, of course it’s important to say those things, because after all if you don’t say them then you really become simply a zoo animal…. 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?”

Jack knows enough to know that he lacks Howard’s comprehension of poetry, but Jack understands something that seems to elude Howard and Judy and the rest of their intellectual cohort: that the masses on whose behalf they’d speak are not interested in being spoken for.

These particular people—and you know, God knows why—well, they just don’t like us. They don’t like us. They simply don’t like us. So it’s not hard to see what will happen one day. There’s the majority, them, the minority, us, and the way they feel about us, great dislike, very, very great dislike. So, in other words, “enemies” are not exactly imaginary beings. They’re very, very real.

In his 2002 author’s note to the Dramatist’s version of the play (the edition I’ve quoted here), Shawn writes, “I’m not aware of any American play which was ever rehearsed for as long as Andre Gregory rehearsed this one.” That’s the nature of Shawn and Gregory’s long collaboration; they invest years in honing this most evanescent of forms. (It’s a mercy that they’ve documented some of it: Louis Malle shot their Uncle Vanya and released it as Vanya on 42nd Street; Jonathan Demme shot their A Master Builder; both were translated by Shawn.)

In a sense, The Designated Mourner forms a counterpart to the pair’s celebrated 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, also directed by Malle. (Shawn and Gregory share the credit for the screenplay.) Taken as bookends, these texts give us the world as seen by a youngish man and then a less youngish man—the long creep of what’s either pessimism or realism. Dinner is a fiction that doesn’t seem like one. It stars Shawn and Gregory as two interlocutors, Wally and Andre, who resemble their real-life counterparts; as Shawn’s introduction to the screenplay clarifies: “I’d have to distort us both slightly—our conflicts would have to be sharpened—we’d have to become—well—characters.”

Dinner is, like Mourner, mostly chat that describes lots of action: Andre’s sojourn in the Polish countryside with a troupe of actors, in the Sahara to create a play of The Little Prince, in India and elsewhere in search of … well, it’s never especially clear. But Gregory, or Shawn, or both, believe that this thing—transcendence, intelligence, beauty, meaning—exists out there in the wide world, if we seek it. Here’s Andre, describing being back in New York after a workshop in Montauk.

I took Chiquita to see this show about Billie Holliday. And I just looked at these show business people who know nothing about Billie Holliday—nothing, you see—they were really kind of, in a way, intellectual creeps, and suddenly I had this feeling—I mean, I was just sitting there crying through most of the show, and suddenly I had this feeling that I was just as creepy as they were, and that my whole life had been a sham, and that I didn’t have the guts to be Billie Holliday, either. I mean, I really feel I’m just washed up, wiped out—I’ve just squandered my life.

Feeling in the face of art; this is Howard’s true intelligence. In Mourner, Jack is in awe of Howard’s intimacy with great writers. “The way I might have picked up an article about the latest approach to cooking string beans,” Jack says, “he would pick up a book of poems by John Donne.” Ultimately, Jack doesn’t even envy Howard his intellect, his ease with the greats; Jack understands that art will not save us, and determines that there’s no less value in dedicating your attention to television and pornography.

In Dinner, Andre frets that he calls his doorman “Jimmy,” while the man calls him “Mr. Gregory.” “Now already, what is the difference between that and the Southern plantation owner who’s got slaves? You see, I think that an act of murder is committed in that moment, when I walk into my building … when I call him Jimmy, then he becomes a child, and I’m an adult.” This echoes, in Mourner, how Howard’s politics are a consequence of having once met a pretty girl. If empathy is just an exercise of ego, in Andre’s anecdote it’s not ignoble, however maddening. In Mourner, though, Howard’s person and politics seem condescending and almost indefensible.

Dinner is concerned with human relations in their most intimate—parent, lover, friend, guru—while Mourner elucidates how none of those matter in a world gone mad. Dinner is anecdote after anecdote about Andre’s experience with other people. It contains much poetry about the far-flung corners of the world, but is mostly a celebration of the fact that people can be bonded by friendship. Mourner, by contrast, shows us how easy it is to renounce those bonds. When Jack sees a photograph of Judy as she’s about to be executed, it occasions a fleeting crisis in which even his stash of porn magazines is no comfort. But then he strolls in the park and eats a pastry and feels restored.

Though it is deeply cerebral, Dinner is also a text of great heart, espousing a sincere faith in art as a conduit between life and feeling. It’s a queer but warm film, and closes with Satie’s melancholic but beautiful music. It’s hard not to feel stirred, as stirred as Wally himself seems, by all this heady conversation. Maybe life’s meaning exists here, between two souls. Mourner is considerably less optimistic about human relationships. As Jack says of the purge that kills Howard and Judy: “You have to understand that no one person plans these things: Person A decides the first thing, person B decides the second, you know, I mean, that’s just how it works.”

In his review of Mourner, The New York Times’s Ben Brantley noted, “What makes this production so unsettling isn’t any ‘it could happen here’(or ‘is happening here’) sensationalism.” Shawn’s pessimism is hard to take, and critics like Brantley may have once dismissed it as surely as the Trojans did Cassandra. I understand; I vastly prefer Andre’s notion that human communion contains the world’s beauty over Mourner’s idea that it leads only down the darkest of paths. The thing about Cassandra, though, is that she was right.