Crritic! The Structure
of Aunt Dan and Lemon
(A Response to John Simon)
By Martin Harries
Aunt Dan and Lemon
By Wallace Shawn
410 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
"The third scene has Mindy, a money-hungry
call girl, taking home Raimondo, a Hispanic cop in playboy disguise,
having oral and missionary sex, then elaborately tying him up
and vengefully strangling and disposing of him in a plastic
bag. The scene, though hardly convincing, has the virtue of
being almost wordless, and thus a pleasant respite from the
Shawn word-mongering. The thing ends with Lemon's five-page
soliloquy in defense of the Nazis. If anyone can detect a connection
between such sophomoric shock effects and justify six further
irrelevant minor characters, he's a better man than this critic,
and a more accomplished mystagogue than this author."
-- John Simon, New York magazine,
January 19, 2004
To my knowledge no one has taken up the challenge that closes
John Simon's vituperative review of the New Group's production
of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon. Perhaps this is
because his invitation is barbed: only a mystagogue could be a
better "man," so the critic who detects connections has, Simon
implies, already surrendered to a theatrical mystery cult. ("Mystagogue"
as slur! It could be on the list of curses passed back and forth
by Didi and Gogo.)
I am not especially interested in any test
of critical manliness. I fail, I pass, whatever. I remind Simon
that a critic might not be a man at all. I am, however, determined
to show that in his thrashing he has blindly identified a nexus
crucial to understanding the disturbing structure of Aunt
Dan. The very energy with which he disavows any connection,
with its combination of machismo and pre-emptive condemnation,
suggests the energy a certain repression requires. The play has
a structure. How we respond to that structure is, as this energetic
disavowal attests, a vexing question. To argue that it has no
structure is to refuse to acknowledge those vexations at all.
For those who have long since lost patience
with the drama section at New York magazine, let me summarize.
Aunt Dan and Lemon, as Simon points out, is not rich
in action: the scene in which Mindy (Brooke Sumner Moriber) strangles
Raimondo (Carlos Leon) is one of the few that are not staged conversations.
Simon is unable to detect a connection between this murder and
the scenes of conversation and polemic. The conversations are
largely about the necessity of violence, especially state violence
as sponsored by Henry Kissinger; Mindy's strangling of Raimondo
is the play's single instance of physical violence. So I can sharpen
the question at hand: What is the connection between Mindy's murder
and the state violence that is the play's constant topic of conversation?
Everyone with the evident exception of
Simon knows that Aunt Dan is about seduction. Ben Brantley,
for instance, begins his review of this production: "A very skilled,
very scary act of seduction is taking place in a red velvet room
on West 42nd Street." That seduction begins as the audience settles
in to its chairs: Lemon (Lily Taylor), with a beguiling mixture
of curiosity and nerves, checks her spectators out, as if counting
them, slightly nodding sometimes as though approving of someone's
choice of seat. In the course of the play, Lemon frequently addresses
the audience directly in a brittle English accent surprising to
hear from the mouth of this American actress. There is nothing
covert about her persuasion, her seduction.
The plot's central seduction, however,
is between Aunt Dan and Lemon. Aunt Dan (Kristen Johnston), an
American teaching at Oxford but not, in fact, Lemon's aunt by
blood, preaches a creed that asserts the necessity of state violence
to preserve the comforts of life in the overdeveloped world:
Don't you understand that you and I are
only able to be nice because our governments -- our governments
are not nice? Why do you think we've set these things
up? I mean, a state, policemen, politicians -- what's it all
for? The point is so we don't all have to spend our lives in
some ditch by the side of the road fighting like animals about
every little thing. The whole purpose of government is to use
force. So we don't have to.
Aunt Dan fails to persuade Lemon's mother
(Melissa Errico), but Lemon takes comfort in Dan's stories. Away
from Lemon's parents, Aunt Dan and Lemon continue their discussions
in a small house in her family's garden that Lemon has made her
own. Scott Elliott stages these scenes largely on the bed that
dominates center stage, a fitting venue for their strange intimacy.
By the play's end, Lemon has elaborated on Aunt Dan's arguments
about necessary violence to the extent that she delivers that
closing "soliloquy in defense of the Nazis." Aunt Dan, we learn,
dies just as Lemon enters adulthood, but Dan's seduction, at once
political and erotic, has succeeded, and Lemon's identification
with her is complete.
The play's central plot, then, however
fractured by narration and flashbacks, is this erotic story. The
question Simon's provocation poses -- the question of the relationship
between Mindy's strangling of Raimondo and the plot involving
Aunt Dan and Lemon -- could be clarified by asking whether the
play repeats this structure of seduction. It does. The structure
informs the play's address to its spectators and is also at the
heart of the incident involving Mindy. The pattern is circular:
Aunt Dan speaks of violence and seduces Lemon; Mindy commits an
act of violence and seduces Aunt Dan.
Kristen Johnston, who plays Aunt Dan as
though the world were too small to contain her, narrates a complicated
story of swinging London. In a flashback, the play stages Mindy's
mercenary seduction of Jasper, an American tourist. Jasper has
won a hundred thousand pounds at a casino, and Mindy sells a night
with herself for a large percentage of his loot. Dan watches the
two having sex, and when Jasper has fallen asleep, the naked Mindy
tells the story of Raimondo, which the play also stages. Mindy
strangles Raimondo for money, on behalf of a friend who has identified
Raimondo as a police informer. Dan falls hard for Mindy -- "this
naked goddess" -- and the two spend a week together.
There are important differences between
this affair and Aunt Dan's seduction of Lemon. Where Aunt Dan
certainly desires a convert, it is not clear if Mindy intends
to seduce Dan at all. Indeed, intentions beyond hunger for cash
don't seem important to Mindy, at least in Moriber's performance.
This Mindy has delegated all affect to her short yellow dress
and her long black boots. Her blankness partly disguises the structure
I have been pointing to: in a more alluring performance, one owing
less to Antonioni's frigid version of 1960s London in Blow
Up, the audience might feel the power of attraction more
This production does, however, draw attention
to the ways Mindy is Lemon's partner, and also her opposite. Mindy's
instrumental sexuality and feral lack of conscience are the flip
side of Lemon's "innocence." Mindy murders Raimondo on the same
bed where Lemon talks with Aunt Dan. Where Mindy's fling with
Aunt Dan is sexual, short, and grounded in the frisson of the
narration of an act of violence, Lemon's relationship to Aunt
Dan is erotic without being sexual. It's of long standing, and
established around the fascination of an argument about violence
others perform on one's behalf.
Aunt Dan sleeps with Mindy because Henry
Kissinger, the great object of her fantasies, is otherwise occupied.
But her attraction to Mindy also muddies her defense of state
violence, since Mindy's murder takes the life of an agent of the
state, a police informer. Thus the Mindy episode also suggests
that the root of Dan's attraction to her lies in sadism, a sadism
also present in Dan's admiration for the man of the world who
knows that North Vietnamese villages have to burn for our sake.
There is yet another invitation and seduction here: we can disavow
this sadism if we like, pathologize Dan, and celebrate our own
Would it be possible to stage Aunt
Dan and Lemon in such a way that Mindy seduces not only Dan
but also the audience? We've fallen for killers before. Such a
staging might emphasize the point which this continuously thought-provoking
production makes in any case: that the audience -- this
audience, this well-meaning, mostly liberal or even left-leaning
crowd, in this revamped "Live Burlesk" theater -- has
already been seduced, long ago, into forgetting the state violence
that, we are assured, makes our comforts safe.
Aunt Dan and Lemon is the rare
political play addressed to the audience it in fact has. If anything,
it has gained in timeliness since 1985, when it was first staged
in London and New York. Aunt Dan defends pre-emptive state violence
and recalls the seductiveness of a private murder. The play's
force does not lie only on the surface of its long speeches, but
in the structure that ties speech, memory, and action together.
There is no obvious key to this structure. Except of course in
the memories, fears, desires, and resistance that tie us to state