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The laureate of intractable conflicts

Clemency Burton-Hill talks to the American playwright Christopher Shinn about his new play about a US presidential election night in the era of MySpace and YouTube

10 September 2008

12:00 AM

10 September 2008

12:00 AM

Looking every inch the Brit that he isn’t, American playwright Christopher Shinn takes a bite of a sandwich in a Shepherd’s Bush rehearsal room on a rainy summer afternoon and confesses that, although grateful, he still finds it ‘a mystery’ that it should have been London’s theatrical community, rather than New York’s, that made his career. For his latest play, Now or Later, recently opened at the Royal Court, will be his fifth to premiere in London before going anywhere near his own continent, about which he relentlessly writes.

It’s not that Shinn, 32, is not successful in his native country. Quite the contrary: the author of nine critically acclaimed plays, he is the winner of an Off Broadway Theater Award for playwriting and the recipient of numerous grants including the esteemed Guggenheim Fellowship. His work has been performed all over America. It’s just that London, almost always, seems to get there first. ‘Something about my plays seem to make sense to a British audience,’ he smiles, a little shyly. ‘And English playwrights made sense to me — Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond. Their more naturalistic plays felt like reality to me, more so than many American playwrights.’

As someone fascinated by human psychol-ogy — it would have been his alternative career had the writing not taken off — Shinn admires, above all, the ‘integration of the social and the psychological [in English theatre] that we don’t quite have, I think, in America, where the psychological is seen as separate from the social and the political.’ He cites Tennessee Williams as an example of this curious disconnect in American drama. ‘He was a political person, but he didn’t write political plays.’ With a bemused shrug, he wonders why. ‘Perhaps there’s something repressed about the human experience, and any play that threatens to undo that repression is too scary to us as Americans? Or else, we just don’t see ourselves as being shaped by the social and the political.’ Which would surely be impossible, I suggest, and he agrees. ‘Of course. And it’s a paradox. Take the election: we’re obsessed with the human stories, you know, Where I Come From, My Struggles, What My Parents Were Like. And yet, really digging deep, getting under the skin of the political and social issues that define us somehow feels “un-American” because it reminds us of differences and divisions we don’t like to think about.’

Shinn certainly bucks this trend: difference and division are his bread and butter. If many liberal theatre-going Americans — and by extension, subsidy-seeking American playwrights — are, as he argues, ‘not comfortable thinking about the ways we’re different [but] only want to think about the ways we’re the same’ — he is the opposite. Believing that the very nature of reality involves ‘intractable conflicts’, he explains that his job as a playwright is ‘not to take sides — but to as thoroughly as possible explore both sides of the conflict, looking for contradictions, blind spots, weakness. If reality were simple, if there were a right or wrong, we wouldn’t have the conflicts we have.’

The shifting of moral sands and the problem with asserting one’s ideological super-iority over others at times of conflict goes directly to the heart of Now or Later, which takes place on election night in America. In its cast of characters there’s a Jew, a homosexual and a black woman, just some of the cultural types explored within the play’s wider context (in which Shinn’s ‘intractable conflicts’ are brought starkly to light). And then, there’s the white male would-be President trying to appeal to them all. ‘There’s that joke in America, you know, that everyone says they’re middle-class,’ Shinn chuckles. ‘Rich people say they’re middle-class, very poor people say they’re middle-class. And everyone votes emotionally anyway, on personality, not policy. So candidates run on the centre, they hide their ideology, transform it into something all sides can agree upon.’

John Rowe, the Democrat President-elect of Shinn’s play — which takes place in real time, as election results start rolling in — is certainly fond of this strategy. His Senate voting record, as is recalled during the course of the play, is proof enough: ‘We still triangul- ated,’ admits his adviser, resignedly, of this presidential campaign. Such triangulation seems to have done John no harm, though: as he, his family and team station themselves in a hotel to watch proceedings, everything appears to be going swimmingly: he soon takes Ohio; Florida looks inevitable. ‘Maybe now people will start having a good time,’ quips his wife, in a moment of perfect dramatic irony. Because then something unexpected happens. A blurry photograph of the candidate’s son, John Jnr, at a college party, emerges on the internet and is swiftly followed by video footage from that same party. Within moments the controversial images fly, as they would, through the blogosphere and social-networking universe, and panic in the hotel ensues. As the drama rapidly opens out from the personal to the familial, the national and beyond, huge issues come into play: freedom of religion, expression, sexuality. Human power and frailty. Hypocrisy. Folly.

Now or Later is no political satire; John Jnr is no thinly veiled Chelsea Clinton, no Meghan McCain. What is at stake on this particular November night is something both very specific — the mechanics of a US election taking place in a changed media landscape — and something perhaps more universal. Watching the play, which at moments is extremely funny, I also find myself deeply moved, particularly by the father-son relationship. Dominic Cooke’s direction of his superb cast, which includes British actors Matthew Marsh and Eddie Redmayne as Johns Snr and Jnr respectively, is beautifully nuanced, and the production is unobtrusively stylish. But despite the play’s humour, and its achingly contemporary currency — ‘I don’t know if anything is really private any more,’ observes one character in a fitting reflection of the influence on modern political process of blogs and websites such as MySpace and YouTube — it strikes me that Shinn’s taut meditation on power, family, freedom and weakness seeks to tap into a more ancient tragic tradition.

Indeed, Shinn — who lists on his own MySpace page Aeschylus and Ibsen as ‘heroes’ — has previously described writing about tragic themes as a ‘democratic responsibility’. Talking to him, a young man with a wise old head on his slight shoulders, you suspect he takes such ‘responsibility’ very seriously indeed. He was a vociferous critic of the New York Theatre Workshop’s decision to cancel a production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie last year due, as the authorities claimed, ‘to the nature of the subject and the possibility that it could offend many people’ (the play described the death of an activist who was killed by Israeli Defense Forces bulldozers in Palestine). The possibility of causing offence to people — or rather, the quasi-Voltairean right to cause that offence, through one’s freedom of expression — is something analysed with compelling intellectual force in Now or Later. But as John Jnr’s friend Matt says: ‘It’s so hard to think about this stuff. It’s so huge…’. Expect to emerge with your head ringing; just don’t expect to know which side to take.

Clemency Burton-Hill is contributing
editor of The Spectator. Now or Later is at the Royal Court Theatre until 18 October (

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