The Designated Mourner

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The Designated Mourner
Directed by David Hare
Written by Wallace Shawn
Produced by David Hare
Donna Grey
Starring Mike Nichols
Miranda Richardson
David de Keyser
Cinematography Oliver Stapleton
Edited by George Akers
Music by Richard Hartley
Distributed by First Look Pictures
Release date
  • 2 May 1997 (1997-05-02)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$ 63,000

The Designated Mourner is a play written by Wallace Shawn in 1996, which was adapted into a film directed by David Hare in 1997.


The film, which follows the play's script closely, is based on the original London stage production directed by Hare and has the same cast: Mike Nichols as Jack, Miranda Richardson as Judy, and David de Keyser as Howard.

The North American premiere of The Designated Mourner was staged in March 1997 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, directed by Les Waters, and featuring David Shapiro as Jack, Martha Lavey as Judy and Nicholas Rudall as Howard. Andre Gregory subsequently directed a stage production in New York City in 2000, and a radio play, both of which featured Wallace Shawn as Jack, Deborah Eisenberg as Judy, and Larry Pine as Howard. The play was revived in 2017 at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater). [1] The production was directed by André Gregory, featuring the same cast from the 2000 New York production and presented by Alex Westerman. The play was ranked the 10th greatest American play of the past 25 years in a 2018 list by The New York Times critics. [2]

Plot synopsis

The play takes place in what seems to be the present or the near future, in an unnamed Western country that is undergoing political conflict similar to what occurred in many Latin American countries during the Cold War: a ruling oligarchy with fascist tendencies, threatened by a communist guerrilla movement based in the lower class, is imprisoning and executing anyone suspected of subversion, including writers and intellectuals who have no direct connection to the guerrillas.

One of the latter is Howard, a respected poet who wrote political essays in his youth; his daughter Judy and her husband Jack are also at risk of becoming suspects by association. Jack, an embittered English professor, is the play's chief narrator. He is generally uninterested in politics, but is somewhat sympathetic toward the government's murderous acts, for two reasons: he secretly resents Howard as a representative of "highbrow" culture, and he fears that his middle-class world would be wiped out if the rebels succeeded. As political repression worsens, Jack withdraws from his family and from reality. Howard is killed due to an arbitrary decision by the government, Judy is arrested and subsequently executed for unclear reasons, and Jack, after recovering from his nervous breakdown, is left as the sole survivor of Howard's literary circle.

There is no visible action in the play or the film; the three characters describe their memories in separate fragments of monologue (as in Samuel Beckett's Play ), with brief scenes of dialogue between them.

Though the play is generally more realistic than Shawn's previous politically charged work The Fever, it focuses on the characters' emotional lives and leaves the civil war in the background. As a result, many reviewers of the play and film have been unclear as to whether the assassinated characters were killed by the government, for sympathizing with the rebels, or (as Jack fears) by the rebels, for being privileged academics. A close reading of the play suggests that the rebels (if they even exist) have not gained power and that what has occurred is a purge by one faction of the regime. Writing in Time Out New York about the conclusion to the film, Andrew Johnston (critic) stated: "The film's final scene, in which Jack has an epiphany that inverts the one experienced by Winston Smith at the end of 1984, is sublimely harrowing. Like all great political art, Mourner offers no easy answers; instead, it uses the bond between the audience and the characters to jerk us out of our apathy and remind us that it's always later than we think." [3]

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  1. "REDCAT Theater: André Gregory directs Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner".
  2. "The Great Work Continues: The 25 Best American Plays Since 'Angels in America'". The New York Times. 31 May 2018. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 17 April 2020.
  3. Johnston, Andrew (1 May 1997). "The Designated Mourner". Time Out New York.