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General News    H3'ed 2/3/11

Wallace Shawn, Are You Smarter Than Thomas Jefferson?

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The Peace of Death

Even those of us who were selected out from the general group have our role and our costume. I happen to play a semi-prosperous fortunate bohemian, not doing too badly, nor too magnificently. And as I walk out onto the street on a sunny day, dressed in my fortunate bohemian costume, I pass, for example, the burly cop on the beat, I pass the weedy professor in his rumpled jacket, distractedly ruminating as he shambles along, I see couples in elegant suits briskly rushing to their meetings, I see the art student and the law student, and in the background, sometimes looming up as they come a bit closer, those not particularly selected out -- the drug-store cashier in her oddly matched pink shirt and green slacks, the wacky street hustler with his crazy dialect and his crazy gestures, the wisecracking truck drivers with their round bellies and leering grins, the grim-faced domestic worker who's slipped out from her employer's house and now races into a shop to do an errand, and I see nothing, I think nothing, I have no reaction to what I'm seeing, because I believe it all.

I simply believe it. I believe the costumes. I believe the characters. And then for one instant, as the woman runs into the shop, I suddenly see what's happening, the way a drowning man might have one last vivid glimpse of the glittering shore, and I feel like screaming out, "Stop! Stop! This isn't real! It's all a fantasy! It's all a play! The people in these costumes are not what you think! The accents are fake, the expressions are fake -- Don't you see? It's all --"

One instant -- and then it's gone. My mind goes blank for a moment, and then I'm back to where I was. The domestic worker runs out of the shop and hurries back toward her job, and once again I see her only as the character she plays. I see a person who works as a servant. And surely that person could never have lived, for example, the life I've lived, or been like me -- she's not intelligent enough. She had to be a servant. She was born that way. The hustler surely had to be a hustler, it's all he could do, the cashier could never have worn beautiful clothes, she could never have been someone who sought out what was beautiful, she could only ever have worn that pink shirt and those green slacks.

So, just as Thomas Jefferson lived in illusion, because he couldn't face the truth about the slaves that he owned, I, too, put to use every second of my life, like my beating heart, this capacity to fantasize which we've all been granted as our dubious birthright. My belief in the performance unfolding before me allows me not to remember those dreadful moments when all of those babies were permanently maimed, and I was spared. The world hurled the infant who became the domestic worker to the bottom of a pit and crippled her for life, and I saw it happen, but I can't remember it now. And so it seems quite wonderful to me that the world today treats the domestic worker and me with scrupulous equality.

It seems wonderfully right. If I steal a car, I go to jail, and if she steals a car, she goes to jail. If I drive on the highway, I pay a toll, and if she drives on the highway, she pays a toll. We compete on an equal basis for the things we want. If I apply for a job, I take the test, and if she applies for the job, she takes the test. And I go through my life thinking it's all quite fair.

If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it's not bearable. It's not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed. These happen to be things that I just can't think about. And most of the time, the factory workers and domestic workers and cashiers and truck drivers can't think about them either. Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them -- that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that's what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it's the peace of death.

Actors understand the infinite vastness hiding inside each human being, the characters not played, the characteristics not revealed. Schoolteachers can see every day that, given the chance, the sullen pupil in the back row can sing, dance, juggle, do mathematics, paint, and think. If the play we're watching is an illusion, if the baby who now wears the costume of the hustler in fact had the capacity to become a biologist or a doctor, a circus performer or a poet or a scholar of ancient Greek, then the division of labor, as now practiced, is inherently immoral, and we must somehow learn a different way to share out all the work that needs to be done. The costumes are wrong. They have to be discarded. We have to start out naked again and go from there.

Wallace Shawn is an Obie Award-winning playwright and a noted stage and screen actor. He is co-author of the movie My Dinner with Andre and author of the plays Marie and Bruce , The Fever , Aunt Dan and Lemon , The Designated Mourner, and Grasses of a Thousand Colors . His nonfiction collection Essays (Haymarket Books) is out now in an expanded paperback edition featuring "Why I Call Myself a Socialist," as well as in an audio edition. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast video interview in which Shawn discusses the political role of the writer, among other things, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Wallace Shawn

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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