Q: Say Henrik Ibsen comes back from the dead for one evening to have dinner with you. What does that conversation look like? Are there particular questions you’d have for him?
Wallace Shawn: Obviously I’d be flattered that Ibsen would take the trouble to do that, but I think I’d very quickly conclude that he had somehow misunderstood who I was, and as the hour for the dinner approached, I would undoubtedly become more and more anxious. Ibsen was comfortable at home with his wife. He was comfortable in the company of very young women in their teens or early twenties. He could occasionally be comfortable in the company of young men who admired him and who knew how to accompany him without bothering him with conversation on the long walks through the countryside that he enjoyed. And he was sometimes comfortable, if there was plenty to drink, with larger groups of men whom he’d known for a very long time, though such evenings often ended in unpleasant quarrels.
What he would not have looked forward to was a long dinner with one other man his own age, a man he didn’t know who also was a writer. Ibsen certainly did not enjoy discussing his plays, and when others offered their opinions and insights about them, he was usually annoyed and would often irritably rebut the views that were being presented to him. He absolutely hated shallow discussions of trivial topics, and he was not someone who read a great deal, so any attempts on my part at amusing remarks about the celebrities either of his period or mine were sure to displease him, and any hope of soliciting his views on the writings of Philip Roth or Selma Lagerlof was also doomed. The truth is, there was almost nothing I could offer him that would be something he needed or particularly wanted.
The only subject that might conceivably have brought
the two of us together was actually the art of acting. Ibsen was a connoisseur of acting. He loved good actors, and so do I, and I do think we might have had a very relaxed and enjoyable and quite un-self-conscious conversation if we’d been able to discuss different actors whose performances we’d both admired, to describe to each other performances that one of us had seen and the other hadn’t, to exult in the greatness of these great men and women. For as long as we stuck to that topic, it could have been very interesting and a lot of fun.
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