Wallace Shawn on our infinite potential

wallace_shawn.jpgWallace Shawn is an award-winning playwright, serious actor and essayist who, paradoxically, is known best by the general public for his role as an evil villain in “The Princess Bride.”

As such Shawn is all too aware of how one person can embody many different, even conflicting, possibilities and characters.

In Shawn’s essay “Why I am a Socialist: Is the World Really a Stage?” (which you can read in The Huffington Post) he writes about the particular ability of an actor to draw upon their ability and imagination in order to embody so many different characters and what, in turn, this says about all our human potential. I found the following excerpts particularly compelling:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him…

…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’s nonfiction collection Essays is now out in an expanded paperback edition that includes “Why I Call Myself a Socialist: Is the World Really A Stage?”

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