BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 JUN 17
Featured in
Issue 188

Death Drive

A new play by Wallace Shawn examines what it means to survive in today’s society

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 JUN 17

‘How far is instinct from a thing like belief? Not far, apparently. At what point is believing so close to knowing, that any difference between the two isn’t worth the fuss, finally?’

Carl Phillips, Dirt Being Dirt (1959) I once asked the sadist of an S&M performance team why she didn’t mind hurting her masochist partner. She said, ‘It’s not my body.’ A more noxious response, ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you,’ sustains the corny, ‘I’ll be your mirror,’ metaphor. No disrespect meant, Nico’s 1966 rendition was great.

As much as any person who ever lived, Sigmund Freud wanted to understand human behaviour: why people couldn’t be rational, control themselves, caused pain to others, wished to dominate and destroy. Destructive impulses include self-destructive urges: a murderer may be committing suicide. Mildly weird behaviour emerges from a lower pay grade neurotic, whose failures demonstrate an incapacity to apply Occam’s Razor. The neurotic instead chooses, but also doesn’t, a labyrinth of complicated operations that prevent achievement.

Inhibitions and sublimations check the eternal wish to be ‘His Majesty, the baby’. But lust simmers, and panting arousal burns a hole in psychic walls. The neurotic, tempted, goes toward the opening. But it is closing. Or the thrill wasn’t worth it, and he wants a do-over. Stuck again, with no satisfaction. Anxiety hammers, a clotted, cyclic energy pushing toward stagnation. But there are excellent drugs now to dull anguish, so it’s a good time to live. Still, the brevity of human life, once upon a time, has its appeal to all kinds of chronic sufferers.

Neurotics watch the borderline and worse characters – grandiose, amoral, indifferent – forge ahead. They plot their schemes, giving others the big ‘Fuck you.’ Everyone may have been presented with a ticket for the show but few get the great seats, near the stage. The super-egoical – who politely check their coats so as not to take up too much room, trying not to impose – later can’t get them back, even with a ticket. Most people sit in the back of the theatre, very much in the dark.

In Wallace Shawn’s play Evening at the Talk House (produced in London in 2015; premiered in the US this year), the characters come together at the eponymous club. Under the guise of a ten-year anniversary party for the production of a play, in which all were involved, they’re having a party. Since that play closed, they lament, theatre has died, and its death makes the party a wake. As the banter, jokes and talk go on, one after another, all tell what they’ve been up to. A mysterious past is alluded to, and a mordant creepiness creeps along.

Surprise comes in blurts. Suddenly, a woman tells the group, sitting on couches, lounging with a drink in hand, that she’s been killing people who are not quite right. The line is lobbed like a grenade; it doesn’t explode completely, but might later. The particular ‘bad’ acts that result in a person’s being killed are not specified. It’s kind of acknowledged that the person was, well, deserving. A few characters look shocked, but then the facade, or true face, wears off. Nothing caused it, but a decision was made by higher-ups for the execution.

In the New Group’s New York production of the play, director Scott Elliott conducts the party convo adroitly, subtly; he keeps it casual, which ramps-up the chill. People come and go, à la T.S. Eliot, talking of acceptable barbarism, while the group’s unsettled scores pile on. With each revelation of a murder, as each character exposes him- or herself, Shawn builds his play, an architect for the new normal. This comedy kills.

Everyone is following, or supporting, the dictates of a vicious social and political order. It’s the near future. Recognizable, and recognizably off, and, for a pessimist, not so far from today – the best kind of sci-fi. Polluted values are like carbon monoxide, no one sees or smells it. Society has been or is adapting so as not to notice.

People want to live, mostly they do. Some can’t adapt and die. Primo Levi eloquently, without peer, described his survival in Auschwitz. He knew what he was adapting to and, for the rest of his life, questioned his capacity for having that ability. Forever, Levi stood with those who couldn’t. Nowadays, and this is cynical, they’d be called ‘losers’.

Life would be simple if money were the root of all evil. Wanting to survive is not evil, though it comes with stipulations or caveats. Usually how one behaves is called ‘character’. But survival has many primitive, irrational parents. Evening at the Talk House sharply ponders, through its guileless and guileful characters, how people are adapting now, and, most urgent of all, to what B

Main image: Wallace Shawn, Evening at the Talk House, 2017. Courtesy: The New Group; photograph: Monique Carboni

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.