By Isaac Butler
(1) There are certain fundamental assumptions about the world that The Designated Mourner contains that, at my core, I do not share. Chief amongst them is that the distinction between the different “brows” (high/low/middle) is a distinction that has value, and that one of those brows is better than the others, and that it’s the high one. For what Mourner is mourning is the death of white male high-brow monoculture. And while I’d be a fool not to admit that there were some positives to the reign of that monoculture, I don’t think it ending is a tragedy. At this point, it just is, and I’m way more interested in discussing the effects of this, and looking at what is actually going on.
(2) The Designated Mourner is, however, very very perceptive about the balloons that kept that monoculture afloat and prescient about the fact that they would all deflate or pop. As Jack, the main narrator (played by playwright Wallace Shawn) sheepishly (and then gleefully) admits, his interest in highbrow culture (within the play played by the poetry of John Donne) was almost entirely motivated by a mixture of guilt, social pressure and anxiety. Indeed, by the end of the play, in one of the show’s most riotous moments, he sets himself free by admitting he is a philistine and promptly shitting on a book in a bathtub. In this, the play, first performed in England in the late 90’s, is prescient. For in our current culture— one that has slowly removed the struts supporting the edifice of the cannon, one that, more and more, abandons core curricula in the humanities—those social stigmas around “low” culture are slowly evaporating. Again, whether you view this is tragic is up to you. I don’t. The Designated Mourner does.
(3) It’s definition of these things is a bit odd, however. A bit forced, perhaps. For in the world of The Designated Mourner, your choices are to sit around all day reading and discussing John Donne or reading pornography and masturbating. That’s the cultural binary at its core. You can read the Great White Male Poets or watch shit television in your hotel. There’s no in-between. This is—let’s just be honest here—a massive cheat. But it also helps simplify and clarify the matter. So let me just say that, yes, if all books were to vanish from this world and all people who care about books were to vanish from this world and all we did was sit around reading Hustler, I’d be upset. But that world is simply not plausible.
(4) Which may be why The Designated Mourner is a work of dystopian science fiction. It takes place in a New York City that’s been turned into a Stalinist hellscape filled with Uncle Joe’s constant purges of artists, academics and his own inner circle. Indeed, Jack’s father-in-law Howard (Larry Pine) is a kind of Osip Mandelstam figure, one who has fallen afoul of the powers that be for an early subversive piece of writing and is clearly doomed to be killed whenever the State gets around to needing him dead. That The Designated Mourner is an act of mourning high culture while also working within hoary (and until recently disrespected) genres is one of its more interesting tensions.
(5) The Designated Mourner’s other main fascination—and it shares this fascination with Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon—is with bourgeois hypocrisy. Jack laughingly tells us of Howard and his circle’s hypocrisy, while also revealing his own. For he has decided to spend his life remembering a kind of culture (and the people who cared about it) even though he hates that culture and those people. The hypocrisy of the middle class pops up again and again throughout the play, whether it be his secret enjoyment of porno over poems or the general public getting happier as intellectuals are exterminated. Both Mourner and Aunt Dan seem to view hypocrisy as some kind of mortal sin, as horrible and commonplace as lust, gluttony or wrath. This is the second assumption of The Designated Mourner that I do not share. Hypocrisy is commonplace, yes. In fact, it might just be the human condition. But is it really a sin? Is pointing it out really a worthwhile project for a body of dramatic work?
(6) It’s ultimately the audience’s hypocrisy that is the target. At the end of the play, after Jack’s lover Judy and her father Howard have both been executed, Jack recounts how, now free to read porn and wander central park all day, now finally honest with himself about himself (and about his lack of self), he is finally something close to happy. And indeed, the play seems to lighten for a moment, everyone laughing and having a good time—The Designated Mourner is riotously funny, something many members in the audience don’t seem to have noticed—until Wallace Shawn somewhat abruptly stands up, walks off stage and slams the door as hard as he can, a kind of fuck you to the audience for enjoying Jack’s dissolution. When Shawn peaks his head out to wave to the audience and thank them for coming, it’s the play’s most disingenuous moment. I’ve never heard “thank you” more suffused with loathing in my life.
(7) This play’s opinion of its audience is very, very low. We are Jack, reveling in the wallows of culture, spineless and weak in the face of creeping totalitarianism. We are Howard, consigning ourselves to irrelevancy in order to protect our social status, thinking that we have saved ourselves from the world that will eventually kill us. We are not the far more principled, brave and loyal Judy, played by Shawn’s real life partner, the writer Deborah Eisenberg. We are the targets. But The Designated Mourner is very clever about this. After all, it’s not exactly a bold stand to stick up for highbrow culture in a theatre where tickets cost over eighty dollars a pop. It’s a play that flatters its audience, gains its sympathy and then, slowly but surely, sharpens its knives. If you are the type of theatre artist who sits around going "theatre should challenge its audience!" (if you are, in other words, a lot like me in my mid-20s) then this is the show for you. I'm happy to see it as part of a theatrical landscape and also happy that it's not the dominant mode.
(8) (How any theatre artist who knows the history of the stage and its relationship to culture at large could believe that high and low brow are distinctions with any kind of real meaning is, again, beyond me. Sorry to keep harping on this.)
(9) Is The Designated Mourner good? This is a tough question to answer, for The Designated Mourner plays by its own rules. It’s largely a monologue play, braiding together the accounts of Judy, Howard and Jack, except when it isn’t. Those three voices tend to give interrelated pieces of information, except when they don’t. There’s never any thought given to more logical questions of how these people are able to speak to us, where we are, or what our relationship to the speakers is (and thank goodness for that). If you brought The Designated Mourner in to a creative writing workshop, it would likely get torn to shreds. It meanders greatly over the course of its nearly three hour running time. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to know what it’s about. You could make the argument for cutting the role of Howard in its entirely. But all of the above craft concerns are utterly beside the point. The Designated Mourner is so true to itself and what it wants to be doing that you can’t help but respect it. It invents its own vocabulary and craft and rules, makes no apologies about any of these things, and blazes straight ahead. It is also frequently beautiful and hilarious. And also hectoring and tiresome. These things are inseparable. You are free, in other words, to like it or not. But don’t forget: The Designated Mourner fucking hates you.