A college president wrote an essay recently about good teaching, and one of the lead instructors reminded me of the role I had played in that undergraduate experience. A small role it was, just one class session. A colleague and I gave our rendition of the 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre.
The improvisation wasn’t my idea, but I participated gladly, taking cues from my partner, a distinguished professor. After reading the president’s essay, I thought it was high time to do what I should have done prior to playing my bit for the students, that is, read the screenplay.
I did, and it was an eye-opener. The film’s theme is basic but elusive: a personcanbenefit from spending time with a fundamentally different person.
Today, we would classify My Dinner as a reality film. Two colleagues—Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory—play themselves in a loosely based autobiographical enactment. But their performance is devoid of the theatrics associated with today’s reality shows. What film viewers get instead is the simplest of engagements—110-minutes of two people conversing over dinner.
The protagonists are opposites. Shawn is steady, reliable, and predictable. Gregory is creative, boisterous, and dramatic with flair. After working together on New York City-based theatrical endeavors, Shawn continued working at his craft. Gregory left the NYC scene to embark on a worldwide tour to discover the meaning of life and, more importantly, “to find himself.”
No two peas in a pod are these two, and Shawn has no complaints that the collaboration is over. But, alas, Gregory returns to town and wants to rekindle the relationship. He has so much to tell Shawn about where he has been, what he has been doing, and the impact on his life. Shawn resists at first, giving excuses, but (in the end) he agrees to meet Gregory for dinner. And, voilà, we have the eponymous title, ‘My (Wallace Shawn’s) Dinner with Andre.’
Too many of us surround ourselves with people who are just like us. The outcome? In so many social/political/life circles, the drumbeat never changes, and the tune is pretty much the same.
As the film unfolds, we observe a rhetorical transition—from two people talking at each otherto two people talking with each other. Understanding, even appreciation for the other, follows. Slowly—mind you, slowly—monologue turns to dialogue.
Gregory begins by talking and talking (he has so much to say), and Shawn listens and interjects periodically. As the film unfolds, Shawn’s responses expand in number and length. He begins to understand why Gregory is the way he is, and Gregory gains new insights into Shawn. And in the very last scene—on the cab drive home—Shawn looks at familiar surroundings both reflectively and with a fresh set of eyes. The film ends with Shawn eager to tell his girlfriend Debby “all about his dinner with Andre.’
How refreshing! And how relevant it is in today’s world. Too many of us surround ourselves with people who are just like us. We can also work hard to wall off ourselves from those who are different. The outcome? In so many social/political/life circles, the drumbeat never changes, and the tune is pretty much the same.
When that happens, there are few opportunities to be influenced by those who march to a different drumbeat and whistle other tunes. Ironically, we divide the world into our people and those (other) people and then complain about how the world is divided. All the while, we help divide it.
How can you tell that’s happening? Here’s one way. Even though an issue or a situation could have any number of explanations, we have a predetermined, strongly held, single answer. We’ve given that answer before, and it’s the identical answer others in our social circle give. So common is what I’ve just described that two examples came across my desk literally minutes before writing this paragraph.
My Dinner gives us an alternative. Shawn learns that revelations are possible if another person nudges you out of your comfort zone. As Gregory put it in his preface to the screenplay, “The shortest distance between two points may not be a straight line.” Difference, not commonality, helps us become a more (you fill-in-the-blank) person. Most of us know that in theory, and some express it in rhetoric, too. But putting it into practice? That can be a very different story.
People have Eureka moments when they discover the value of diversity. Just today, I read a Letter to the Editor in the local paper written by a man who concluded that systemic racism (my words) can be countered by (drum roll, please) establishing relationships and friendships with people of other races. While that might seem obvious to many, expressing it has high value because people need to hear/see others say it. But because many of us don’t establish those relationships, the letter-writer concludes, “Our great country has some urgent work to do.”
And one way of thinking about ‘urgent work’ isn’t just engaging with diverse others but opening up to them. A theme that emerges as the film progresses is how much ‘acting’ is going on in their lives—not just performing in the theatrical sense but acting across all dimensions of their lives. That circumstance bothers Gregory tremendously. “I’ve been a performer. I haven’t been living,” he asserts. But the very thought of presenting his ‘authentic self’ frightens Shawn. “I don’t have a clue about how to pass this test,” says Shawn. “Of course, it isn’t really a test, but I see it as a test, and I feel I’m going to fail it. I mean, it’s really scary. I just feel totally at sea.”
To several film reviewers, that’s the film’s primary takeaway. “The act of sharing ourselves makes us real,” one critic wrote. “It’s scary and uncomfortable, and it leaves us open to all sorts of dangerous things, but it’s the only way to live.”
But living that way isn’t the only issue. There’s when. One film critic rivets attention on the protagonists’ life circumstance, interpreting My Dinner as “a calm tragedy about the lugubrious magic of middle-age.” Gregory and Shawn, he continues, have discovered that "middle-age is about cultivating self as an art piece, whether corybantic or subdued, with a poisonous bushel of disappointment at the core.”
But it would be a mistake to conclude, wrote renowned film critic Robert Ebert, that there is a definitive answer to be discovered from analyzing the dinner narrative. “I made a lot of notes about Andre's theories and Wally's doubts, but this is not a logical process,” Ebert concluded. “It is a conversation in which the real subject is the tone, the mood, the energy. Here are two friends … urging the other to wake up and smell the coffee.”
And that, I would submit, is why we really need each other, especially those who are both different and willing to share their thoughts and feelings with us. We must, of course, oblige.
What I remember most about our classroom rendition of My Dinner is that we agreed that only our opening exchange would be choreographed. Seconds into the skit, we lost ourselves in conversation, listening (really listening) to the other, being influenced by thoughts and feelings—some familiar, some not.
The more I thought about that classroom experience—especially after reading the screenplay—is just how much America could benefit from experiencing millions upon millions of Dinners with Andre.
Written with thanks to lead instructors, Laura B. DeLind and Terry Link, and to my ‘dinner partner,’ Richard Bawden. You can listen to this essay on my podcast channel, Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear.