Nothing: Creating Illusions – Week 9

Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening is written by Wallace Shawn in 1986 as the preface to his play Aunt Dan and Lemon.

Shawn begins by discussing our reaction to watching the talks by historical tyrants and dictators,  and how the it can be similar to watching a comedy. Indeed, he points out the such reaction of ours is dramatically different and isolated from the original context – the suffering of people and tragedy of society in that particular time of history.

Once removed from the time and location where the powerful deceptions took place, Shawn suggest that it would be hard to imagine the magnitude of the politician’s impact on its original audience, therefore hard for the contemporary audience to experience the sense of deception.

Obviously, if we can make ourselves believe that all of Hitler’s words are lies, we can confidently conclude that he’s an evil person. However, once a fraction of his words start to appear truthful to us, then the whole picture we conjured up about him can so easily be called into question. The idea that Hitler loves his dog, for example, is in itself a trivial fact, but can crumble down our sense of certainty about what kind of person we believe he is.

Hence, the power of a play, as Shawn believes, is not merely to present a fully furnished little world for audience to peek in and comment on. He believes that the audience can feel more closely to the characters in the play if they had to think simultaneously and encounter the same mental confusions as the characters do. Therefore, if the playwright is to end the play with a certain answer, or a satisfying and rational ending, then it means that the audience’s task of untangling the their thought are cut short and their engagement with the story less intimate. So by concluding the play with sad ending and the main character failing to defeat her erroneous thoughts, the playwright hope to hand over the job to the audience, and make the struggle a shared experience.

Curiously, the reading reminds me of recent rendition of Shakespeare’s Othello at the New York theater workshop, directed by Sam Gold (I didn’t win a ticket to it but read about it a lot online).  In this production, the set designing revamped the “black box” theater and turned the entire space into one plywood enclosure –  even the seats are made with the same material as the “stage”.


The play now has a different theatricality, when the audience and the actors are perceptually in the same room and under the same light. As the director puts it:”In Othello it takes the form of this kind of dramatic irony, where the story is told to the audience by the antagonist, so they know before the other characters do what’s happening, and that makes the audience complicit”.

The removal of the stage’s fourth wall and the integration of performance space and the audience means the continuation of the play from the actors to the mind of the audience. I think this reconfiguration of theatre space is analogous to the unclosed ending of Wallace Shawn’s play.



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