The Future Is Near

March 4, 2017 | 2

Wallace Shawn has written a new play, and it’s unsettling to watch. In it, a group of wealthy, middle-aged party hosts reveal their roles in a dystopian future, where political murders, random beatings and censorship are all commonplace. In an essay for The New York Review of Books, Francine Prose reviews the play in the context of Shawn’s other works.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He lives in New York.


  1. This, from the NYRB review of the play, by Wallace Shawn, in question…

    “Little by little, the harrowing details of life under the current regime begin to emerge. There are frequent elections and a rapidly-growing “Program of Murdering” that’s been put into place because “it attracted an awful lot of voters,” especially in rural areas. The characters bicker politely about how many lives are being lost as a result of the Program. Annette asserts that the Program is necessary, unavoidable:

    It’s like something one does behind one’s back, so to speak—like something slightly unpleasant that one does with one’s ass once a day or so without paying it really a lot of attention…I’m making an analogy between dropping some waste into the toilet, you see, and dropping a few small bombs onto certain targets, you know, dropping some rather small bombs onto certain people who pose a threat to us, all rather casual, and then you wash your hands and return to the table, and there you have your Program of Murdering.

    Annette is quick to reassure Tom, who idly frets about the challenge of being sure that the right individuals are being murdered; later Ted mentions that school children are being trained to target “people who represent a serious danger.”


    “But what makes the play even more chilling is the historical moment in which it is being performed. Evening at the Talk House was first staged in 2015 at the National Theater in London. That was before Brexit, before the election of Donald Trump, at a time when the drama may have seemed more like a reminder of a disturbing reality (the drone program, for example) than an account of where the brutalization and demagoguery now set in motion might lead.”

    …is eerily chilling for the spin it attempts to put on Shawn’s obvious message(s), which are not a matter of Shawn’s “uncanny prescience” (to paraphrase Prose’s tone) but about the *NOW* of when Shawn wrote the piece, just as Orwell’s 1984 was about 1948. The way Prose underplays the drone program (ie The Murder Program), in a parenthetical aside, is an almost a pitch-perfect enactment of the horrors which “Evening at the Talk House” theatricalizes.

    But I’ve seen that defensively-distancing effect before, with audience members tittering at passages, being performed by Shawn, in readings that clearly aren’t intended to be funny… or “confirming”… for the target audience at all. Even in the most intelligent auditors, these days, a self-protective incomprehension too often kicks in, when needed, and the audience takes on the ironic duties of the damning performance itself.

    “Living theater” indeed.

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