My Dinner with André
Written by Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, an actor-playwright has dinner with a former theater director who has been experimenting with his life to try to awaken his consciousness from habits and conditioning.
Wally Shawn (Wallace Shawn) is wearing a suit and tie walking on a street in New York, thinking about his life as a playwright and how hard it is. He became an actor but does not get hired much. He has many bills to pay. He grew up in New York City, but at 36 he thinks mostly about money. He goes down and gets on the subway. His girlfriend Debbie is working three nights a week as a waitress. He agreed to have dinner with a man he had been avoiding for years. He is an old friend who helped discover his plays. Wally thinks about how something strange happened to Andre who traveled to Tibet and did unusual things.
Wally goes into the restaurant and has to wait for the table. He goes to the bar and asks for a club soda but accepts a substitute. Wally sees this is a nice restaurant which surprises him because Andre’s tastes used to be very ascetic. Wally recalls a story a friend George who told him how Andre was seized by uncontrollable crying while seeing Ingmar Bergman’s movie Autumn Sonata when the Ingrid Bergman character said she can only live in her art but not in the real world.
Andre Gregory (himself) comes in and gives Wally a hug. Wally remembers how when he joined Gregory’s theater company, he found that the actors always greeted each other with a hug. Wally says Andre looks good, but Andre says he feels terrible and laughs. Andre orders a spritzer. Wally is nervous and wonders if he can standing being with Andre for an entire meal. He says Andre was fat for a while, but now he is thin again.
A waiter shows them to a booth table, and Wally decides he will ask Andre questions because he finds that interesting. They look at the menu, and Andre has the waiter remove a vase with a flower. Andre and Wally both order the quail. Andre also orders fish paté, and Wally gets the potato soup. After they talk about their families, Andre begins to answer Wally’s question about what he has been doing lately.
Andre says that a Polish director invited him to come to Poland and teach, but Andre said he did not think he knew anything he could teach. Andre asked for forty women in unusual conditions playing instruments and speaking foreign languages in a forest. Andre says he could not refuse the offer. They met in a forest of very large trees with a stone slab they used as a table. They would sing and dance in the morning until eleven and then eat followed by sleep. Andre says his moorings were gone because they did not speak English. They sat around until someone decided to do something. Andre describes this improvisation as focused on yourself rather than a character. He says you had no one to hide behind. They would have to answer the questions Stanislavski asked about who you are, where you have been, and where you are going. Wally asks how they would play in this way. Andre says Grotowski had a beehive exercise, and he asked Andre to lead it with his group of people. They would be with a hundred people and see what would happen. Andre says there was a beautiful song by Saint Francis in which you thank God for your body and everything in your life. Andre says he decided that his group would be there singing this song when the other people arrived. People brought different things like a teddy bear, water, and candles. He says people started taking their jewelry off, and people gradually arrived. They sat with them and began learning the song. After an hour or so Andre grabbed the teddy bear and threw it in the air, and people exploded. Then they danced in two circles like American Indians. Andre says this was like a group trance and said it was like Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies in a way. He said it became like a human kaleidoscope. Andre kept trying to guide the process. They had a flute and drums. Sometimes the room would break up into six or seven things going on that were somehow related. He found he could put his left hand in a flame, and it did not burn; but his right hand could not stay in the flame for a moment. He was dancing with a girl, and he sobbed in her arms. She cried too, and then they joined the dance. Hours later they returned to the song, and that was the end of the beehive. They put on the jewelry and went to the railroad station and drank a lot of beer.
Wally asks him to tell him other things. Andre tells about another improvisation in which two people fell in love and got married. At the forest these two disappeared so that they could be alone together. A few days later they found them sleeping in the forest, and they showed up on the last day and thanked him. He says they understood what it was about. Andre says it had something to do with living. On the last day in the forest they had a Christening for Andre, and they played the roles of his godparents. Andre felt he had a new name. They sang Polish and Greek songs, and everyone danced for the rest of the night. Andre shows him a picture of him in the forest. Wally said he heard from his friend George that Andre looked like he had returned from a war. Andre says most of his friends thought there was something wrong with him. Andre says he felt what it was like to be truly alive, like Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass. He felt like he was connected to everything including death.
One day Andre was walking in a field, and he thought he heard the voice of The Little Prince. That day he got a letter from a woman telling him about the word “taming,” and he found that was the most important word in the book. Andre wrote a reply and went to his brother’s house, and he found a Surrealist magazine. He saw an illustration of the letter A from Alice in Wonderland. He also found handprints that included Antoine Saint de Exupéry who wrote The Little Prince, and he wrote that he was a “tamer of wild animals.” He found the issue came out in May 1934, and Andre was born on May 12, 1934. Andre says that today he finds that book fascistic with its masculine love. He thinks there is something wrong with it, and Wally laughs. Wally asks if he was going to do a play based on The Little Prince. Andre says he decided to go to the Sahara desert with two actors and a Japanese monk. He was in a peculiar state then and would see birds flying out of his mouth. He would sit alone in the country for days but do nothing but write in his dairy, and he was always thinking of death. In the desert he kept thinking about the same things, especially his wife Chiquita. One day he heard Kozan singing, and he thought he had something to teach him. He would meditate with him, but he would think about his wife Chiquita. He says the desert was cold. One day he and another guy ate sand and threw up because they were so desperate. He says it was like a last chance or something. Andre says he went on impulse in those days.
Andre says he brought Kozan home with him, and he stayed for six months. He taught his whole family from his bag of tricks. He could push on his fingers and rise out of his chair. He would massage Chiquita by walking on her back. He would play with their children and had them giggling. Andre says he doesn’t think he liked his children at all. After a couple of weeks Kozan would not even talk to the children. He began wearing Gucci shoes and eating more than Nicholas. Now Kozan was eating beef. Andre was trying to do the prostrations they did at the monastery. One day they went to a Catholic church on Long Island. Andre says he no longer could get a job teaching. He saw a huge man in the congregation, and he could not make the creature go away. He thought that he came to comfort him on Christmas Eve to show him that this was just part of the journey and that he is okay.
Wally asks Andre if he saw the play The Violets Are Blue about people being strangled on a submarine. Wally asks what happened next. Andre says he was thinking of going to India. Kozan left, and Andre got the idea of having a large flag wherever he worked and that they would lie on it at night. He thought it would pick up vibrations. He went to a flag maker who seemed to connect with it. Two weeks later he went back and thought the flag was strange and powerful with the Tibetan swastika. Andre wanted to have his close friends sleep with him on the flag, but Chiquita thought the flag was awful. She threw a party for him, and she had him get the flag. When Andre opened the flag, she ran out and vomited. Later he gave the flag to a woman who came and told him that she saw things in the flag. She told him to bury it because it has the devil in it. He says he gave it to her, and she burned it in France.
Andre says he went to India, but he found nothing. At home he heard about the community of
Findhorn in Scotland, and he heard they grew vegetables there that were very large. He says they would talk with the insects to have them eat only some of the vegetables. He says they gave names to the iceboxes and other things so that they would treat them well. Andre says he would see what was alive in the leaf. He ran in the woods and would laugh and cry. When he got home, he was seeing things. On the plane people had animal faces. Things were exploding. He went to Belgrade to meet with Grotowski, and they talked in his hotel room all night until eleven in the morning. Andre says he did all the talking. Andre says that on Halloween they each prepared an event for the others. At midnight they gathered on a cliff, and it was very cold. Three people came wearing white sheets. They set up a table with paper, pencils, wine, and glasses. Everyone was to make out their last will and testament. After about two hours one at a time they each went with them to a potting shed and down steps to a basement filled with white light. He gave them all his valuables, and they took photographs of him naked. Then the naked bodies huddled together in the cold. They were carried a long way on a stretcher. He felt himself being lowered into the ground. They had dug six graves, and he could not describe what he was going through. They covered them with a canvas and shoveled dirt into the grave so that he felt like he was being buried alive. After a half hour he was resurrected, and they danced until dawn. Then they filled up the graves and went back to New York. Then he felt like he did not want to do these things anymore.
The next winter he told his agent that he wanted to direct plays again. The waiter brings the quails, and Wally says he did not know they were so small. Andre says he is repelled by his own story. He says he is like Albert Speer, and maybe he should be prosecuted too. Andre says he thinks everything he has done is horrific. He says death is always done alone. He is dubious about how he has lived his life recently. He says three people in his family were sick or died. He says last week he had a Norwegian director over for dinner, and he thought he was just a stuffed shirt who bored them with stories about his mother. He says his laugh was horrible, and he could hear the pain in his life. Finally he had to tell him to leave. It was like he had died in his living-room, and he cried. Then he saw someone getting an award on television looking at his friends malevolently, and he thought that man is him. He realized his whole life was a sham and that he has squandered his life.
Wally asks how he could say that. Andre says he may be in an emotional state now, but he is finding the world more upsetting. He says seven people told him how wonderful he looked; but one woman said the opposite, and he talked to her about her problems. He says she could see him in clarity because of what he had been going through. The others did not see him but his clothes and external things. He says they are living in a dream world. Wally says they only see a few things they want to see. Andre tells about how he went to the hospital to see his dying mother. He says she looked like a survivor of Auschwitz. He says a doctor went into her room and came out beaming about how wonderful her arm looked. Andre says he saw only her arm; he was existing in a dream and psychically killed them by taking them into the dream. He says they were driving his father crazy. Andre says people are walking around in a fog like zombies or unconscious machines. Rage is building up inside.
Wally says it does and then leaps out inappropriately. He tells how when he was playing a cat, other actors told him things that really upset him. One said he could not hear with that costume on, and he found that those remarks were very hostile even though they liked him. He says the hostility was left over from some previous experience. Andre asks Wally if he expressed his feelings, and he says no. Andre admits he can’t be direct and says weird things. He tells about how he could not be honest with friends of his mother. They all acted as if nothing was happening to his mother. Later Andre found himself saying odd things to others. Andre says Tibetans would never act like that, but for us this is common behavior. He says Africans probably would have treated them as dangerous animals. He says these are typical evenings for us. People are talking in symbols and floating in a world of unconscious feelings. People then speak in a secret code. Wally says people talk about their fantasies about famous people that are grotesque. People talk about the girl with Ted Kennedy who died in the car, and they would be laughing. Wally says he knew someone who traveled farther in Chicago than an immigrant who came to this country.
Andre says that Grotowski said that performance in the theater has become superfluous. We live in a world in which people are trying to live up to people’s fantasies about how a father or an artist should look and behave. They seem self-confident, but they are very mixed up about their lives. They read these self-help books, and Wally agrees that people are hiding things from themselves and others. We don’t talk to our friends about what is really happening because we put the priority on our careers. He says people turn their mind off for years and go on automatic pilot. Andre says goals and plans are not reality. Wally says they are not reality but a dream life. Andre says if they concentrate on their goals, then they live by habit. Today most people operate by habit. He says Marlon Brando sent the Indian woman to accept his Oscar, but those things don’t happen anymore.
Andre tells about Roc who helped found Findhorn. He was a great mathematician, and he prided himself that he had no dream life or fantasy life. Andre says one day he saw a fawn, an imaginary creature. He got to know it and other creatures by talking with them. They asked him if he would like to be Pan. Roc said he would, and that began him on the journey that led him to the people who started Findhorn. He would change habits by doing things like doing everything with the left hand instead of the right. Andre says we need to ask ourselves if we are really hungry, or are we just stuffing our faces. He says the Buddhists make people taste each bite of their food.
Wally asks if we live in the dream world because we do so many things every day. He says he and Debbie got an electric blanket, and he wonders what it is doing to him. He says his dreams are different, and he feels different in the morning. Andre says he would never sleep under an electric blanket. Andre says if you feel the cold, you think of other people and many other things. Using the electric blanket is like being lobotomized. He says we are animals. Wally says he would never give up his electric blanket because New York is cold. He says he is looking for more comforts to protect himself because beatings are everywhere to be avoided.
Andre says comfort can lull you into a dangerous complacency. He heard of the wealthy Lady Hatfield who only ate chicken because she loved it so much; but her body was starving, and she died. He says we are not getting the nutrients we need because we don’t know ourselves, and we don’t see how our actions affect other people. He asks if he has read Martin Buber’s book On Hasidism, and Wally says no. Andre says he talks about how people’s spirits change and that prayer is the action of liberating enchained spirits. Every action should be a prayer or a sacrament in the world. Andre says if we saw what we do, we could not stand it. We do not see how we treat others. Andre refers to how he calls the doorman “Jimmy,” as if he were a child.
Wally says that when he taught Latin, he was treated like a dog by literary people. They would just walk away from him. He says if Debbie told people that she was working as a secretary, it was like she had told them that she was serving a life sentence for child murder. Wally says he thinks of himself smugly as a nice guy. He feels self-satisfied and does not think about the world out there. If he thought about starving people in Africa, he would not be happy. In a play he is trying to share his bits of reality with an audience. He says they all know that the theater is in terrible shape. They used to say it was dead, but now it has been redefined. He finds it is very superficial, but people says things they see are “pretty good.”
Andre asks if he sees the dilemma. He agrees that is what the theater should do. He refers to a tragedy with Pentheus in which someone is decapitated. He says they should get a head and pass it around the audience so that people would realize it was real. He says Gordon Craig asks why gold and silver is in the great cathedrals when actors could be wearing them. He says that people perceived Eleanor Duse as though there was light around her. Bertolt Brecht created exciting things in the theater, but the excitement did not overwhelm people by creating a distance. Andre says people today are so asleep it is very hard to know what to do in the theater. Even if you put on serious plays like Wally watches, it shows their dream world and superficiality. Andre says that does not help to wake up a sleeping audience. They know their lives and relationships are difficult and painful. They see things on the news, and the play may show them that their perception of the world is accurate. Andre says that his Christening was a beautiful piece of theater, though it was created just for him.
Wally asks if it is impossible to wake people up except through some strange experience in Poland or on Mount Everest. He says there must be periods when people learned in other ways. He says a novel by Jane Austen showed people some reality. He asks if New York is as real as Mount Everest. Wally says life in a cigar store may be real. Going to Mount Everest becomes irrelevant. Andre says the problem is that people can’t understand the cigar store. He says in the future people may let themselves be castrated just to experience something. Andre says we are all bored now, but the process that creates this boredom in the world may be self-perpetuating brain-washing created by totalitarian government based on money. This is more dangerous than one realizes. It is not just a question of the individual surviving; but when one is bored, one is asleep; and one who is asleep will not say no.
Andre says he met a Swedish physicist who does not watch TV or read newspapers because everything we hear about these days turns people into robots. At Findhorn he met a tree expert who always carried a backpack because he did not know where he would be. He says this old man thinks that New York is the new concentration camp in which they are both guards and prisoners. They no longer have the capacity to see the prison they have made or to leave it. The man gave him a seed and told him to escape before it is too late. Andre says he and Chiquita feel like they should get out; but the whole world is going in this direction, and so they don’t know where to go. Andre thinks it is possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of energy before the human being was extinguished. There are just robots walking around now, and there is almost no one left to remind them that there once was a human being with feelings and thoughts and memory; but now history and memory are being erased, and soon no one will remember that life existed. He says Bjornstrand feels there is almost no hope because we are going back to a savage, lawless, terrifying period.
Andre says the Findhorn people see it differently, that there will be pockets of light springing up in different places that will be like invisible planets on this planet. As we grow colder, we can take journeys to these invisible planets, refuel for what we need to do on the planet, and come back. They believe there has to be centers where they can reconstruct a new future for the world. Bjornstrand told him that these centers are growing up everywhere now, and what they are trying to create is a new kind of school or monastery. Bjornstrand calls them islands of safety where human beings can continue to function as an underground during a dark age like the mystical orders of the church did in the Middle Ages. Their purpose is to preserve the light and culture to keep things living. Andre says we need a new language of the heart, a new kind of poetry between people. To create that language we will have to learn how to go through a looking-glass to a new consciousness where you can understand everything.
The waiter asks if they want dessert, and they both order an espresso. Wally also asks for an amaretto. Andre tells him about a building at Findhorn that was designed by someone who never built anything before. Some wanted it to be like a spaceship that extraterrestrials could contact. He says the architect meditated and decided they should have a roof not connected to the building. Yet they have gales in Scotland, but the idea was that the roof would be built so that it could go up when they wanted it to. Andre says the gales blow, but it does not blow off.
Wally gives his response to all this by saying that he is just trying to pay his rent and his bills. Occasionally he and Debbie will go to a party, and he tries to write little plays. He enjoys seeing other plays and reading reviews about them. He does errands and crosses them off the list. He enjoys reading an autobiography and drinking coffee in the morning without a dead cockroach in it. He does not feel the need for anything more than this. He says Andre is saying that no one has a good life these days but that they need these outposts. Wally asks why they can’t just enjoy the daily pleasures. He does not really know what Andre is talking about. He cannot accept the idea that they should reject western civilization and accept some weird thing. He says people could believe anything during the Middle Ages, but by the development of science things came to be known, though they can still be revised. He says we understand the universe better now. Wally refers to what happened to Andre as just a coincidences. He says he reads a fortune cookie and thinks about it, but his reason realizes that it does not have anything to do with him. It is just basically a joke. He does not believe in prophecies or omens because that would mean that the future is sending messages back to the present. He does not guide his life by odd accidents.
Andre asks if it is all meaningless, how he can decide things. Wally responds by affirming the value of scientific experiments that can be verified by repetition. Andre says that giving yourself over to the unconscious can be very dangerous because of what it opens you up to. He has to learn to be a priest, a doctor, and he is not. He says science has not solved all their problems, but it is in fact destroying things. Wally agrees that modern science has been dangerous. Wally says what disturbs him is that the whole point of his workshops was to enable people to strip away every scrap of purposefulness from their lives in order to discover pure being. Wally says he objects to that purposelessness. Having purpose is part of our human structure. If he sits at home with nothing to do, he reaches for a book. Andre says Debbie is there. Wally asks what it means for two people to do nothing. Either they do something separately or together.
Andre asks if that makes him nervous, and Wally says it seems silly to him. Andre says in Tibet when people come over for tea, they just sit there without saying anything, and it does not bother them. Andre says you can do all sorts of things while being dead inside. If you are living mechanically, you have to change your life. This is true in one’s work too. He says if you live with someone in one little room, it can be very real and alive. You can go on the road, but Andre prefers to stay in that room. He believes you need to ask yourself if your marriage or your work is still alive. Andre says he realizes how he has acted various roles without really hearing other people or really being with them.
Andre says when he was in Israel, he had a picture of Chiquita when she was slim and beautiful. Last year he saw her face in the picture as sad; he had never really looked at the picture. He thought that for eighteen years he had not really been living except in his work in the theater. Now he says he gets annoyed when people annoy him. He realized that he always wanted to be with Chiquita. He says if you cannot react to another person, there is no action or interaction. Then he does not know what love means except duty, obligation, sentimentality, and fear. He laughs and says he had to put himself into a training program to learn how to be a human being. He did not know how he felt about anything or what kind of people he wanted to be with. He had to stop performing all the time and just listen to what was inside him. He believes a time comes when you need to do that. Maybe you need to go to the Sahara, and maybe you can do it at home; but you need to cut out the noise.
Wally says he does not like those quiet moments. He says it may be fear of his own aggression or unconscious impulses; but if things get too quiet, he has a feeling that he is going to be revealed. He can do tasks, but he does not know how to just be a human being. He can pass tests if he puts in the effort needed; but he does not know how to pass this test. He finds it very scary.
Andre says he can imagine a life in which we create a monumental task each day. If you feel like walking out on someone, you could do it. They would react, but it would be a life of such feeling. In the workshops he led he found people easily fell into enthusiasm, celebration, joy, wonder, abandon, and tenderness. He asks if we could live like that.
Wally says he thinks that the moment of contact is what scares us, the moment of being face to face with another person. He says it is strange that we find it so frightening.
Andre disagrees because there are good reasons for being frightened. He says the human being is a complex and dangerous creature. If you really start living each moment, that is quite a challenge. If you really reach out and are in touch with another person, that is what he strives for. Wally says it is pathetic if you don’t do that. Andre says the problem is that the closer you become to another human being the more mysterious it becomes. You have to relate, but you are relating to a ghost or something. Andre says we are ghosts and phantoms, and we have to confront that fact. We have to accept that we are alone, and we have to accept death.
Wally says when you are alone, you are with death because nothing is obstructing your view of it. He says that Heidegger said that if you experience your own being fully, you will experience the decay of that being moving toward death.
Andre says that in the sexual act there is that moment of complete forgetting. Then in the next moment you go back to thinking about the usual things. They come back quite fast because we are afraid to stay in that moment of forgetting which is like death, like people who are afraid to go to sleep. In interrelating we do not know what will come next, and that is like death. Andre believes that is why people have affairs. For a while you feel an intensity, but it gives a semblance of a firm earth. Having a real relationship with the same person for many years is also sailing into the unknown. People hold on to roles as father, mother, husband, and wife because they seem to provide firm ground. These are ephemeral.
Wally notices that they are the only customers left, and Andre pays the bill.
Wally takes a taxi home and notices buildings and the memories connected to them in his mind. When he got home, he told Debbie about his dinner with Andre.
This drama explores human psychology and experience in the modern world through the experiences and perceptions of a theater director who went on an adventure of exploration of the human spirit through challenging oneself to experience new things and unusual people. The playwright has a different view that accepts his life and a more scientific perspective that differs from the other’s mysticism. The conversation reflects current efforts by people in the New Age consciousness to open themselves up to transcendental experiences, and this is contrasted to the superficial lives of people who survive in the material world by following a set of habits.