The Fever

On days when I’m seeing a Fringe show, I generally put my button on when I get dressed in the morning and leave it on all day. It’s more convenient that way. Yesterday I was riding the Metro and a lady of a mighty age squeezed in next to me. She looked at my button. She was obviously unfamiliar with its meaning. Suddenly, though, it dawned on her. “Fringe,” she said, smiling brightly. “You’re a Republican, aren’t you?”

Well, yes I am. And so here is my Republican, pro-capitalist take on Wallace Shawn’s The Fever: it is a big ol’ pile of liberal guilt, and not a particularly interesting one at that.

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In The Fever, a narrator (Pat O’Brien) – whose history shares many points in common with Shawn’s – is visiting an impoverished nation. He is a man of some wealth with an easy life; he frequently goes to the theater or the opera with his similarly-situated friends, and his opinions on art of all sorts are sought out. He grew up in an affectionate household where learning was prized and nothing was denied him, and now he is visiting places where there is much deprivation, in order to learn about it.

The impoverished nation he is now visiting is beset with internal strife. He is sleeping in a hotel there when suddenly, he wakes up in a sweat. The electricity is out; rebel forces have apparently disabled the power plant. Our narrator is gripped with a powerful impulse to vomit, which he does once he reaches the toilet. Kneeling before the porcelain god, he realizes he can’t get up. Suddenly, a rebel breaks in and kicks him in the head. He is dragged to a cell and beaten and tortured.

While so degraded, he comes to several realizations. The chambermaid, whose failure to clean his room so disturbed him earlier, must (he imagines)live in dire poverty in a miserable neighborhood. How can he make a thousand times what she does a year? He’s not a thousand times more valuable.

And even if he accomplishes more than she does, is it not the advantages that the rich texture of his upbringing gave him that is truly responsible? He thinks of a beggar he saw earlier. He gave her some money, but now he thinks, why didn’t he give her all of his money? He has several other insights, but you can probably guess what they were.

Having come to these insights, our narrator is returned to his bed, much as the narrator in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is allowed to sail again once he learns to love all the unlovable creatures of the sea.

Well. Wallace Shawn is a brilliant writer, a provocative playwright, and within his niche, a fine actor (he was the little squeezable guy in “My Princess Bride” who kept saying “inconceivable”). In terms of social utility, he is probably worth a thousand times what a chambermaid is worth. He makes about ten times my salary, and I say without hesitation that in terms of social utility he is at least worth ten of me. In turn, the great left-hander Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers is worth several multiples of Shawn, and the late Steven Jobs was worth several multiples of Kershaw. This is not my opinion, it is yours, Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public, who go to Shawn’s plays, who buy Dodger memorabilia, and who purchase iPhones.

And while Shawn had the advantage of a lovely upbringing – his father was one of the founding editors of the New Yorker – many people similarly raised end up playboys, wastrels, or, worse, lawyers. On the other hand, Jobs was abandoned by his biological parents. His adoptive parents were a mechanic and a payroll clerk. They were a loving family, not wealthy, but many successful people come from broken homes. Barack Obama’s father abandoned him, as did Gerald Ford’s; Bill Clinton’s stepfather was an abusive drunk, and most recent Presidents had rotten fathers.

The Fever
by Wallace Shawn
55 minutes
at Main Stage – Goethe Institut
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets


If we stopped having operas, Shawn’s character realizes, we could use the money to feed starving children. He thus shows that he believes the world economy to be a hydraulic system, where every plus somewhere is a minus somewhere else. But I think it’s a little more dynamic than that. What do you think? If we shut down Glimmerglass Festival, would more children eat well? Or would the only economic effect be that more artists are out of work?

Politics aside, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show? About as interesting as listening in to someone else’s confession. Whether or not you take the narrator’s sins seriously depends on your own views, butthere is always dramatic value to sitting in on a confession and observing a character’s pain. The Fever, though, never goes beyond that. It is mostly argument. Notably, the narrator does not go home, give all his worldly goods to the poor, and live a life of poverty himself, sans opera. Neither did Shawn.

The veteran actor Pat O’Brien – so brilliant in Under the Lintel – does a good job in capturing the narrator’s gradual onset of horror and self-loathing. In the production I saw, his delivery was – by his own admission – a little ragged, as it was the first time he had done the monologue in public. It should get better as time passes.

O’Brien, in his own skillfully worded confession, avers that the play will not be for everyone. He’s right. It wasn’t for me. But your results, as always, may vary.

Take me to the DCTS 2014 Capital Fringe Guide

Tim Treanor About Tim Treanor

Tim Treanor is a senior writer for DC Theatre Scene. He is a 2011 Fellow of the National Critics Institute and has written over 600 reviews for DCTS. His novel, "Capital City," with Lee Hurwitz, is scheduled for publication by Astor + Blue in November of 2016. He lives in a log home in the woods of Southern Maryland with his dear bride, DCTS Editor Lorraine Treanor. For more Tim Treanor, go to


  1. Yvonne Caruthers says:

    The Fringe’s program listing of the “The Fever” says the play “will challenge the consciences of the most liberal of theatre-goers.” It succeeds brilliantly. Several audience members sitting near me were astonished at the end to learn that the play was the work of Mr. Shawn (who apparently performed it for family & friends in NY….(squirm)), as it was delivered so personally that it was easy to believe the words sprang forth from Mr. O’Brien’s soul. And how thought-provoking to watch this play at a time when many people are examining questions of income inequality, and what constitutes a living wage.

    O’Brien is a remarkable actor who has a wide dynamic range, daring to even whisper his lines at times. The audience seemed riveted to every word, in fact it was the quietest Fringe performance I’ve attended this summer.

  2. Susan Galbraith says:

    Oh, dear. While I haven’t seen the show and am not likely to, being out of town on business, including reviewing, I am thinking Mr. Shawn and Mr O’Brien both might be smiling like cheshire cats that they provoked such a strong response. I will follow this carefully to see how others weigh in.



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