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A Wry Requiem

March 24, 1997

First Look Pictures

Under the credits Kathleen Ferrier sings the haunting lament from Gluck's Orfèo. A man's voice says:

I have to tell you that a very special little world has died and I am the designated mourner. Oh, yes, you see, it's all important custom in many groups and tribes. Someone is assigned to grieve, to wail, and light the public ritual fire. Someone is assigned when there's no one else.

Thus begins Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner (First Look).

This is a film only because it was filmed. It must have been somewhat more comfortable as a play—it was presented last year at the National in London—if only because, at least since the early works of Peter Handke, this form of presentation has become familiar. The Designated Mourner is a piece for three speakers, who sit at a long table facing the audience and only occasionally acknowledge one another's presence. (This film was made with the original cast on weekends during the run of the play, at a studio outside London.) So the piece depends for its life on the quality of the writing and the speaking; and it achieves this life because the writing is insidiously superb, and the speakers are always compelling.

The twin themes are harsh political tyranny and the waning of traditional culture. Shawn certainly doesn't gloss over the first theme, but he seems to have chosen it as a means of italicizing cultural decline. Unlike most other works on these persistent subjects, Shawn's approach is oblique as well as direct, witty as well as horrified. The mourner he has designated is a lightweight who likes being a lightweight, a soufflé Spengler, dryly wistful rather than bumptiously tragic. This tone gives the work something more than novelty: we don't have to brace ourselves for an onslaught of woe, we are seduced into compassion.

The place is unnamed, but a tropical country is suggested. The three people are the mourner, Jack ("You can sum me up in about ten words: a former student of English literature who went downhill from there"); Judy, his sensitive wife; and her father, Howard, an intellectual celebrated for his contempt of the world. Of course there is more to each of them than these basics: the embroideries of their selves, which they provide in the film's ninety minutes, are, like most such embroideries, highly relevant.

The three are not viewed alike. Howard, played by David de Keyser, is more or less the crotchety old egotist we might expect. His daughter, played by Miranda Richardson, is vulnerable and passionate—again as we might expect. But Jack, in tenor and concern, is not what we might expect. Though he is caught in the same climate of oppression and is well aware of cultural withering, he talks about these things, and his love affairs and other troubles, with a detachment that seems to protect him. Shawn says that when he was writing Jack he was thinking of the man who plays him here, Mike Nichols. Perfect. (Doubly apt because at times Nichols even sounds like Shawn.)

Nichols makes his film acting debut here. He is known chiefly as a performer of theater satire and as a director of clever plays and films—clever, whether or not they were comic—and his very presence here confirms the timbre of Shawn's lone survivor. Jack is the only "inauthentic" one of the three, the only one who keeps on scrutinizing himself. At one point he says:

Then I asked myself, Well, what about that noise I always hear, that intolerable noise which comes from somewhere inside my head? And I realized consciously for the first time that, rather like a singer who accompanies his own singing on the piano or guitar, I accompanied my life with a sort of endless inner tinkling, an endless noodling or murmuring—a sort of awful inner murmuring of reportage and opinions, idiotic arpeggios of self-approbation.…

And this is the man—slightly bored, slightly bored with himself, yet sufficiently concerned to see the gallows humor of his place as mourner—who tells us of the arbitrary five-year imprisonment of Howard and Judy by the brutal government, of their murder after their release. In their own ways, they themselves have recounted their harassment and suffering, but it is given to Jack to describe these matters fully in his own way. Late in the film he tells us that he was reading newspaper accounts of political executions, with photographs, and he saw that one of the victims was Judy. "I was lost," he says, immediately shifting to consideration of himself.

Where was I? Blinded, you know, like a caught fish jumping about on the floor of a boat. And the funny thing was that aside from sweating and sort of panting—well, more or less exactly as people say when they speak about such moments. I didn't know what to do. I mean, literally, what to do—stand up, remain seated, stay in, go out?

So he reached for the porno magazines on the table next to him.

The film's director was David Hare, himself a dramatist and a film writer-director (at his best with Wetherley). Hare directed the National production of Shawn's piece, and here he does what he can to limber it into cinema. Most of the time he keeps us closer than the theater could bring us, with two-shots and close-ups and profile shots. He alters the lighting as he goes, and sometimes he cuts to different shots of the same face while the person is speaking. Richardson puts on sweaters: Nichols gets a different table, a café table, for the conclusion. But, wisely, Hare does not obtrude effects: he does just enough to tip his hat to the film medium without pretending that, generically, this is a film.

Wallace Shawn has been having two careers. As actor, he has been in numerous films, mostly in minor parts. His most notable work was in his own play/film, My Dinner with André, and his valiant struggle with the title role in Vauya on 42nd Street. As a dramatist, however, he has impressed from the start. I wasn't much taken by his version of Machiavelli's Mandragola, but his own plays—such as Marie and Bruce, The Hotel Play and Aunt Dan and Lemon (which has thematic links with this new work)—have been wonderfully disturbing. In all of them he has worked toward an idio-syncratic view of character and of form: toward distilled, pungent language. And in all these aspects The Designated Mourner is engrossing.

At the end Jack is in a park café. He eats a piece of pastry: then, as a "public ritual fire" for a lost culture, he burns the bit of paper that the pastry came in. "The bit of paper wasn't very big, but it burned rather slowly because of the cake crumbs," he says, sitting at the table, burning the paper as he tells us about it. Now he thinks he hears John Donne, who has been mentioned earlier in the film

plummeting last through the earth.… His name once said by so many to be "immortal" would not be remembered, it turned out. The remembers were gone except for me, and I was forgetting, forgetting his name, forgetting him, and forgetting all the ones who remembered him.

Then, as Gluck returns to the soundtrack, Jack sits on a park bench, trying to make the most of what is left, in himself and the world. Again, he addresses us:

What were we waiting for? The appearance of the Messiah? Was all this nothing? I was quite fed up with the search for perfection. And rather amazed by all that I had—the lemonade stand with its lemonade, the café with its irritable customers and staff, the squirrels, the birds, the trees.… I sat on the bench for a very long time, lost—sunk deep—in the experience of unbelievable physical pleasure, maybe the greatest pleasure we can know on this earth—the sweet, ever-changing caress of an early evening breeze.

Thus ends this play/film—on a lyrical note of revised values, of consoling accommodation, with a civilization shrugged away.

Note. The Designated Mourner is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (103 pp., $19). I suggest seeing the film first; then, when you read it, the actors' voices will be in your ears.