On Wallace Shawn's The Fever
by Jon Rachmani
One almost feels decadent in mentioning that Wallace Shawn's performance in the current revival of his one-person-show, The Fever, is beautiful. This is because the play works unremittingly to break down any connection between amoral beauty and bitter but much-needed social and economic truth. And yet it does that in the context of a play that is beautifully written, beautifully performed.
The Fever is the confession of a person, who can be played by an actor of either gender, who has lived a life of idle pleasure and, since a series of vacations to impoverished countries in revolutionary upheaval, has gained a cutting ambivalence about his way of life. His story-telling is fluid and multifaceted, moving us rapidly from anecdotes about his charming friends to memories of conversations with revolutionary socialists to quasi-fantasies about everyone in America suddenly gaining class consciousness to being interrogated and tortured because of the material facts of his life in a dream of post-revolutionary America. Scott Eliot's direction complements the movements admirably, using notional, disorienting lighting changes to move the audience through various stages of identification with the character to increasing horror at the implications of his realizations about his culture. The set, a five foot wide slice of a tastefully decorated urban living room, cut off sharply on either side, environed by the unadorned expanse of the stage, amplifies the effect still further.
The dramatic tension achieved is greater than in most one-person narrative performances because of Shawn's use of jolting and often sickening contrast. "I wore the clothes which were pulled from the bodies of the victims when they were raped and killed. But I love the violin. I love the music, the dancers, everything I touch, everything I see," is one of many leaps that brutalize the audience as they follow along, wincing, with the character's psychic battle between aesthetic pleasures and material reality. This schizoid condition finds no resolution, besides an uneasy and bitter rest at the end of the self-indictment that the play rapidly becomes. The degree to which each audience member will be empathically moved is a function of how much she identifies with the narrator. Shawn works to keep this effect to a maximum, rather than let us sit back and watch what is an otherwise morbidly curious character study, and this is demonstrated by a rather successful trick: in ads for the show, and when you order your tickets, you are told that you are invited to "Join Mr. Shawn for a sip of champagne one half hour before the performance." You arrive early, along with almost everyone else, and dressed a little more nicely than usual. You get to stand on the stage, drinking from a glass stem, hoping at the very least to fit in as fellow audience members mill eagerly around the central figure of Shawn. Cries of "Well, I read in the Times ..." and "Wally, I am so impressed by your commitment to ..." abound. It is only once he has primed the crowd that everyone sits down, the audience claiming their seats, Shawn the stage. He jokes about having gotten everyone drunk enough to enjoy his play, and we all laugh, taking in the casual, friendly tone established by the supposed aperitif. His work is deft, and the change in mood is striking after the play as the audience leaves the theater in an atypical near-silence that rings of shame.
Indeed, many adjustments have been made to the original playscript to heighten the pain of its impact. What's most apparent is that where in the original script the narrator is lying on a hotel bathroom floor, feverish and vomiting, in the revolutionary country he's visiting, this staging puts him comfortably back in his elegant sliver of a living room, in an armchair, sipping wine and dressed in coat and tie, inwardly tormented by his experience but clearly not giving up his toxic way of life.
In retrospect, though this is a powerful piece of political theatre, the problem with its dichotomy as an artistic gesture is a lack of ironic tension. Where even such impassioned attackers of the so-called misuse of art as Plato in The Republic were ready to denounce poetry that lacked a sound ethical principle, there was a strong dose of irony in such denouncements. Is Shawn rather in agreement with the late Tolstoy who could state that Uncle Tom's Cabin was greater literature than King Lear without acknowledging through some ironic consciousness that, while perhaps morally defensible, such a position still constitutes a frustratingly narrow compromise? Furthermore, radical Marxian artists with a keen sense of aesthetic dignity can do more, can find beauty and truth reacquainted after some serious hard work, the outstanding cases being such writers as Toni Morrison and Bertolt Brecht. The irony of putting on this play, of charging a considerable sum for tickets, of giving such a nuanced performance, could add great richness if Shawn was willing to bring it to the surface -- the notion that we are being moved to shame and self-awareness about culture through high art itself, not by reading an essay or watching a documentary. Instead, there is a real sense that Shawn, brashly declaring before the show, "I'll be wearing a microphone, because in a lot of plays you can't hear what's happening, and I want you to hear what I'm saying," is determined to show the bourgeois consumption of art up for what it too often is: not some delicate ritual that attracts deeply-feeling people, but just another accouterment to those who are getting away with theft -- coming to see his show might be immoral, but he appears to disdain the fact.
His narrator ends the play with the plain and undeniable comparison: the maid who cleans his hotel room has no choice. Today she cleans and goes home to poverty and filth. Tomorrow the same. And on till she dies. The narrator each day lives in comfort. And the same on and on. She has no choice about her circumstances, but he does. He could give away all he has, become poor as well, share food and comfort those around him. But the vision is neither revolutionary nor hopeful. He thinks: "If I could accept hardship, accept discomfort -- why not suffering, prison, and even -- ? -- " What's been set up amounts to an unbreachable gap: either addiction to comfort and protection or bloody martyrdom. These are thoughts of a character who's determined to be a fanatic whichever direction he goes in. The very hope of resistance needn't be a saint's journey, but rather that of people with a sense of practical change. Not the denial of all material well-being, but its common possession by its rightful inheritors. If The Fever is meant to be a work of political theatre, it serves at once to define and indict the self-dubbed urban aesthetes, but cannot fill those indicted with much more than fear and possibly paralyzing guilt. However, as an image of a character split off from his own capacity to love by a deadened process of rabid consumption, and by extension a portrait of what much of American culture has become, the play is fantastic. And however it's interpreted, it's a tremendous stimulus to difficult thoughts.
Shawn's intentional ignorance of some of the complexities of social circumstances, of economic conditions, and certainly of the deeper value of art can come off as crude and perhaps distasteful, but considering the urgency of the ideas behind them and the dramatic immediacy they lend his work, it's clear that he knows what he's doing and is determined that at least a few of the people who see his show will no longer be able to stand themselves. Still, those arriving with an open but critical mind might just come out changed for the better.
Through March 3rd
at Theatre Row
The Acorn Theatre
410 W. 42nd.