Exit Stage Left

So this essay by Wallace Shawn made the rounds almost exactly a year ago. It's one perspective on why so many artists, actors particularly, tend to skew toward economic liberalism or, in his case, socialism.

But economics isn't why I linked it. I linked it because of this part:

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....

And as I walk out onto the street on a sunny day, dressed in my fortunate bohemian costume, I pass...the grim-faced domestic worker who’s slipped out from her employer’s house and now races into a shop to do an errand, and I see nothing, I think nothing, I have no reaction to what I’m seeing, because I believe it all.

I simply believe it. I believe the costumes. I believe the characters. And then for one instant, as the woman runs into the shop, I suddenly see what’s happening, the way a drowning man might have one last vivid glimpse of the glittering shore, and I feel like screaming out, “Stop! Stop! This isn’t real! It’s all a fantasy! It’s all a play! The people in these costumes are not what you think! The accents are fake, the expressions are fake -- Don’t you see? It’s all --”


Every now and then I'll be walking to the office I choose to work at from the car I chose to drive, wearing the jacket and shoes and pocket hanky I bought for myself, and for just an instant, I wonder where I am and what the hell happened. Whose life is this, whose jacket? Who cast me in this? Why do people expect me to walk into this office and sit down and do this job, don't they understand that we're only reciting this script we've never read because we've all (insanely) agreed that it's real?

Shawn's mob of characters abides in me too. Sometimes they won't shut up. There's an athlete, a doctor, a salesman. A preacher, a murderer, a philanderer. A politician. A musician. A homeless addict. A writer, ker-chortle ye not, and dozens where each of them came from. They're in there, these men, waiting only for circumstance to let them out.

The really loony thing is that I don't want any of them to solidify and become permanent, not even the one that I let out every day for everyone to see. I want to contain them all, give each the fullest range of expression I can allow without hurting anyone. I don't think it's fair that any of them should be favored over the others, not even this one that's worked out pretty well for me so far, because I love all of them, even the scary ones and the bastards.

George Saunders was in a plane he knew was going to crash. And he caught the eye of the woman sitting across the aisle, and they held hands as the plane went down. They held hands because they knew each other, though they had never spoken before.

You see things for what they are when they're about to end. You see the costumes, and you think maybe you could change them just as easily as putting on a new jacket. Or, hey, maybe try nudity for a change, if that's even possible.

It doesn't take tragedy or crisis to show us this. Anything that jabs at the center of us is enough.

Usually it's a new thing. A song you never heard before that sounded as if it were plucked from the sky. Someone farting in the middle of a eulogy. Your son swimming nude across your freshly-shellacked hardwood floor. The cat leaping onto your ass mid-thrust. Or, maybe, the wind catching you just right as you're crossing your office parking lot.

Every now and then I'll hear a guitarist bend a string a certain way or a harp blower curl his tongue back and suck hard or, shit, something like Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, and I know that at the center of me is a factory that forges that exact sound from my liver and my terror and my semen and my shit and my joy. Stories do it to me too.

I know that sound is in there, I can hear it echoing off my spleen, and I need to let it out of me now now now or I'll burst. But it passes. It's like finishing sex without getting to come, but it passes.

Then comes a welcome quiet, and I forget for a while. As Shawn points out, to live with this conscious knowledge every moment of your life would be unbearable, would paralyze you, would make even the daily chores that sustain your life seem absurd. It would lead any sane person to think themselves mad. I sure as shit feel crazy admitting all of this to all of you. But I've got to figure a way to let that sound out, don't you?

To understand it is to understand that so much of what transpires, so much of what we think of as The Way Things Are is what it is because we agree that it is, and therefore there's little that can't be piped to /dev/null and replaced with something new. You just have to get enough people to agree to change their clothes, that's all.

It's not quite that simple, of course. There's work to be done first, a new set to be built, new costumes to be sewn and fit. But I suspect it begins with a conviction: I'm not going to play this part any more.