The role played by theatre and film artists within Western society is a paradox. On the one hand they are a source of entertainment and education for the masses, and on the other a key contributor to and beneficiary of one of the biggest, most influential industries within capitalism. It is from this lonely tower - "the mansion of arts and letters" - that Wallace Shawn writes his series of essays.
Shawn is both a successful film actor and an established playwright. He credits his liberal US upbringing for his concern with the world and the arts. He is caught between a stark awareness of the injustice of a system based upon profit and the temptation to drift into the land of art and luxury. This book is likewise split into two parts, "Reality" and "Dreams".
In "Reality" Shawn explores issues of patriotism, imperialism, war and class with a sense of irony and imagination. In one essay he writes a fearful and paranoid letter from the US to the "Foreign Policy Therapist" in the wake of 9/11. In another he creates a fake US magazine, Final Edition, which exposes the blood-hungry war in Iraq. He strips the imperialist US down to its brutal bones. "Why I Call Myself a Socialist" is almost childlike, as it seems to cry, "We are all the same at the end of the day, aren't we?" It is here that Shawn fails to set aside his seemingly guilty conscience in exchange for an argument for socialism. He is intellectually won to the idea of socialism but has no way of moving his feet.
It is in "Dreams" that readers might find themselves drifting into REM-sleep. Shawn plays splendidly with words and throws an array of thoughts up into the sky, but he goes no further. "Dreams" touches on subjects of interest to a milieu of people who may desire to know what Shawn thinks about poetry, theatre, sex and aesthetics. However, individuals unbeknown to Shawn or his writing are in danger of being distracted - most likely by the real world.
Shawn's essays are, at their best, witty and refreshingly honest. At their worst they are a bit dull but harmless. You are better off getting a copy of one of Shawn's plays, which combine the best of both his worlds: reality and dreams.
Essays is published by Haymarket, £9.99