The plot of Wallace Shawn’s “The Designated Mourner” is fairly simple for a three-hour play.
The protagonist (Shawn) finds himself as the designated mourner for a tribe of people that no longer exists. His job is to light the ceremonial pyre and begin lamenting the loss. The play opens with this simple description and then we hear in lyrical detail exactly what led to this sad state of affairs and who this lost tribe might have been.
I first read Mr. Shawn’s play roughly 15 years ago and it struck me as a dystopian ode to the coarsening of society. The play felt like a commentary of cultural values, rather than current politics.
What a difference 15 years and the Trump administration make.
“The Designated Mourner” currently remounted at REDCAT as part of their “Urgent Voices” series, feels like the theatrical embodiment of Masha Gessen’s warning us to stay awake in the face of totalan autocracy. The theatrical experience, while still oddly distant, feels painfully current.
The play chronicles how a society dissolves into chaos told through three voices. Jack (played by Shawn), his partner Judy, and her father, Howard. Howard is heir to a political dynasty of sorts: the son of a powerful man, with powerful friends.
Howard seems destined to become another powerful man until he takes up the more bohemian role of a writer. In his early days he writes apparently scandalous polemics – little damning political books that brand him as a threat for life. Later, to avoid being noticed, he takes up poetry (because, after all, no one reads poetry). The play revolves around the destruction of the elite, literary, liberal world that Howard represents.
Through interlocking monologues, we learn how a world slowly gives way to a new regime. Young know-nothings suddenly take over the government, thought and reason recede, lies become truth.
Mr. Shawn’s world is not our own, but it doesn’t feel like fantasy. Fifteen years ago, I read it as literary hyperbole. Last week, there was a more ominous feeling, perhaps even a sense of potentiality.
The length of the piece, which I found challenging both then and now, takes on a performative, if ironic, challenge: in the face of all these words and subtle decline can you stay awake? (A few of the audience members succumbed momentarily on opening night).
For the most part, the clever and sarcastic writing keeps you up. If you’re a lover of language, the show is intoxicating, but there is a hangover. It’s that same joy of being caught in a really sarcastic, self-aware conversation with someone who knows how to turn a phrase.
The tragedy at the end of “The Designated Mourner” is that the protagonist doesn’t seem to fully realize the destruction of the world through his very own words.
I couldn’t help but think of all the clever tweets that fill our timelines each day – the witty jokes about our own demise, the inciteful barbs directed at the decline of societal norms. What do all those tweets add up to?
“The Designated Mourner” plays at REDCAT downtown through May 21st.