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August 21, 2013


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Both Designated Mourner posts make reference to Jack deciding to dedicate his life to remembering the intellectuals. I don't believe this to be supported by the text. The role of the designated mourner, as described by Jack, is someone assigned to carry out a mourning ritual when there are no remaining loved ones to do so, but he doesn't suggest anywhere in the text that I can see that this ritual is to be carried out in perpetuity. Moreover, Jack says at the end:

"The bit of paper wasn't very big, but it burned rather slowly, because of the cake crumbs. I thought I heard John Donne crying into a handkerchief as he fell through the floor -- plummeting fast through the earth on his way to Hell. He name, once said by so many to be 'immortal,' would not be remembered, it turned out. The rememberers were gone, except for me, and I was forgetting: forgetting his name, forgetting him, and forgetting all the ones who remembered him."

This suggests to me that Jack has not made a decision to spend his life remembering the readers of Donne, but rather the opposite.


Hey Mac,

Obviously I'm going on just seeing it once cold and never having read it, so I defer to you. Although Iw ill say, if that's true than the play is far less conflicted about its subject matter than I thought, far more didactic and, I'd argue, less interesting.

David Cote

All due respect, Isaac, but I'm kind of stunned by this post. It's beyond reductive: There's so much simplification, misreading and assigning of single-layer authorial intent, it reads like a projection-filled rant. I know the intersection of art, culture and politics is your bag, but this post makes me think you can't distinguish between a complex work of art and a Brookings Institution position paper.

Jack explicitly frames the notion of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" as an antique and not terribly true (however useful) dichotomy. That he uses this distinction to explain his moral and human failings should speak for itself. He is the classic unreliable narrator. No, scratch that: his narration is fairly reliable. He's an unreliable human being. He's a shit. Likewise, Howard and Judy are both decent folks and somewhat useless cultural parasites. Their lives are rich and beautiful but part of a system that wants to destroy them. In the play's "society" (scare quotes because Mourner is so allegorical) there are various class types: liberal aesthetes like Howard and Judy; murderous government tools; the "dirt eaters" who presumably want revolution; and then there's Jack. Jack kinds of drifts through the various classes. If you think he speaks exclusively for Shawn, or if what he has to say about Donne versus porn should be taken at face value, then you've completely misunderstood the play. It's not an elegy. It's not a celebration. It posits that our cultural decisions inform our moral character, but not in any proscriptive or even calculable way.

Think Shawn's attitude toward "high" or "low" culture, disenfranchised people or bourgeois hypocrisy is naive or clichéd? Fine, but don't try to distort a big, baggy, magnificent piece of writing for the theater because it makes you feel or think two things at the same time.

Of course, I write as someone who loves the piece already. My review is here: http://www.timeout.com/newyork/theater/the-designated-mourner

Adam Feldman

For what it's worth, I'm 100% with David here. The play described above has very little to do with The Designated Mourner as I see it. I also must take specific issue with the claim that Aunt Dan and Lemon "seems to view hypocrisy as some kind of mortal sin," which is not just wrong but exactly the opposite of what Aunt Dan and Lemon actual portrays, which is a world in which hypocrisy at least testifies to the straggling survival of a real value system to be violated guiltily, in contrast with the insouciant and much, much more dangerous NON-hypocrisy of the two title characters.

George Hunka

I was unable to see the production, but also feel this analysis was unsatisfactory; in the play there is also some very disturbing material about family and sexual relationships (the possibly incestuous relationship between Howard and Judy, for example) and how they are affected by cultural assumptions. And the name of John Donne isn't merely dropped as an example of "high culture" but has a very specific meaning in the context of Jack's character and the extent to which art of any kind, whether it can be characterized as high or low, can broaden human experience and make us susceptible to compassion and love; high/low culture is a false dichotomy, and it is this dichotomy that is under attack through the play. (Indeed there is a scene in which Jack describes Howard having a very good time at a popular play or film of some kind. Jack believes that Howard is being condescending towards the audience at the film, but Jack, as others here have said, is profoundly unreliable; and Jack is far more hostile to the "high art" he doesn't understand than Howard and Judy are to what Jack might describe as "low art.") Anyway, more here:


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