The Designated Mourner

“These people, and God knows why, well, they don’t like us. They don’t like us. They simply don’t like us.”

That’s Jack from Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, a film I’ve watched more than once this week. That phrase rang in my ears the night I watched the election results from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump was going to win! Of all the reasons we were already starting to hear about why, I had to fixate first on one plain truth. Working class men in Erie and Kenosha really don’t like us coastal “elites.” So much that they’ll shoot themselves in the foot just to spite us.


By the next morning friends were texting and emailing hopeful quotes from Gandhi and Hafiz encouraging me to stay hopeful, but I went straight to Shawn. The whole film is on YouTube now, but if you don’t feel like watching it, it’s about a disintegrating marriage in a fictional post-coup America: If Chile in ’72 happened in New York today…

Jack is an unabashedly low-brow writer married to the daughter of a leading liberal intellectual. The first thing he tells us about his father-in-law Howard is what a capacity for contempt he has when he judges others, describing the pleasure with which Howard wins an argument by comparing it to a knife going into his body being twisted gratuitously.


Wallace Shawn in the stage version.

Wallace Shawn knows how to savage liberal intellectuals. (While Judy’s giving her account of the coup, she takes a moment to describe how perfect the chutney complements the cheese at the last get-together.) On stage he played Jack in this play himself, but the film version is a good chance to see Mike Nichols act.

By the end of the film (spoiler alert!) he describes shitting on a book of poetry. It’s all about the release a person feels giving up any high brow aspirations, the accommodations we make with crass culture – in this case writ huge by the fictional coup setting, but really about all our lives. It feels a lot more prescient than ever.




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