In an essay entitled “Sound and Fury” in the 27 May issue of the Economist, Christopher Shinn writes about the role of madness in artistic creation:
When I write a play, I try to access something in me that feels beyond my control, a traumatic inner space where painful feelings and images of loss, longing and rage lie in wait. When this process becomes unbearable — that is, when I begin to feel “mad” — I haul myself to the computer and begin to write until I’m depleted. …
I don’t think the goal is to find the right balance between our sanity and our madness, so much as it is to be able to go deeper into our madness with each artistic endeavour. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of our most valued works put madness front and centre in the most naked and aggressive way: think of Lear’s complete psychic collapse as he loses his kingdom, or Quentin Compson’s near-incoherence on the day of his suicide in The Sound and the Fury. These are just two examples of writers who were able to build a psychic strength that allowed them to travel to the weakest, most vulnerable, most terrified and shattered parts of their psyches. One can’t find this kind of depth or truth in their early works. These achievements are the result of a lifetime of brave and fearless work — not just the achievement of balance, but of the capacity for relentless pursuit.
Great art isn’t just about finding the balance between madness and sanity; it’s about pursuing the most powerful madness, but having the strength to not succumb to it.
When I wrote about Mr. Shinn’s Dying City in 2007 (a play which he discusses at length in his essay), I touched upon a few of the themes I am exploring in my “American drama after 9/11″ project; those thoughts, along with a few others on Shinn’s early plays, appear below.
Dying City. A new play by Christopher Shinn. With Rebecca Brooksher and Pablo Schreiber. Sets and costumes: Anthony Ward; lighting: Pat Collins; sound: Aural Fixation; stage manager: Roy Harris; casting: Daniel Swee. Directed by James Macdonald. A production of the Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, under the direction of André Bishop and Bernard Gersten. 90 minutes, no intermission. 15 February-29 April 2007.
Christopher Shinn‘s new play Dying City, which opened at the Royal Court last year and opens at the Lincoln Center Newhouse Theater this week, is a coruscating meditation about the individual in history that cuts both ways: it lays the question of responsibility for world events precisely at the feet of the torn and wounded individual. Set in a downtown New York apartment in July 2005 and January 2004, the two-actor three-character play splits this torn and wounded individual several times in its attempt to discern the roots not only of contemporary warfare but also of a numb social malaise that permits the war to continue even in the face of majority disapproval. An ambitious play, as are all of Shinn’s domestic meditations. The production meets the ambition more than halfway, but falls slightly short of the mark.
But truth be told, Shinn sets the challenges to its performers and production very high. Kelly is an Iraqi War widow, packing her downtown New York apartment for a move; appearing at her door the night before her departure is her late husband’s brother Peter, an actor whose own personal sense of trauma has led to his abandoning a Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey into Night in mid-performance. He appears on Kelly’s doorstep bearing not only his own emotional baggage, which he wishes to share with Kelly, but also a set of emails from his late brother Craig. The play engages a series of flashbacks, the same actor playing both Peter and Craig, to delineate the personal cruelties and passive characteristics of a domestic sadomasochism; ultimately, Shinn locates within Craig a long-simmering predilection to violence and an inability to embrace and love the Other, be that Other a woman, a country or a world, a seed of destruction sown by the other traumatic war of our time, the conflict in Vietnam, and perhaps all those wars that have come before.
This is a provocative play that in its form and 90-minute running time forecloses easy ideological resolution. In twinning the brothers Peter and Craig, Shinn ensures, even in Peter’s seeming differences from his brother (his homosexuality, his artistic ambitions), the continuity of the genetic and psychic threat; Kelly has fallen since Craig’s death into a cocoon of media-saturated ironic numbness. She reacts only to Peter’s twin psychical threats to her: his appearance a reminder and confirmation of Craig’s tendency to humiliate the Other (Abu Ghraib is also in play here), and his status as an agent of reproduction, reawakening Kelly’s memory of a desire for children. Kelly, at the end of the play, refuses both, but she is a woman with few resources for self-preservation left.
This isn’t the first two-performer, three-character play Shinn has written. His 2001 play The Coming World, also featuring a pair of twin brothers, now seems a run up to this more textured work, but both the more complex texture and the device of twinning male characteristics (Edward Albee says he is also writing a play about identical male twins now; there must be something in the air) are challenges to which the performers and production don’t entirely rise. Pablo Schreiber’s Peter/Craig, their contrasts well-delineated, is a convincing creation, but Schreiber’s transitioning from one to the other is sometimes fraught with a sense of contrivance; how many times, after all, does a scene have to end with a character running into the next room to take a phone call? The young Rebecca Brooksher is burdened with the heavy responsibility of the moral and ethical nexus of the play and as the carrier of her own victimhood, and sometimes these burdens seem to paralyse her not only as a character but also as a performer. James Macdonald’s otherwise sensitive, nuanced in-the-round production on a revolving platform occasionally emphasises this paralysis, to me, too strongly; in a few scenes, Brooksher’s Kelly stands rooted to her spot for minutes at a time, the stage turning slowly under her, until you begin to feel that even the psychically paralysed need to shift their weight once in a while.
Upstairs at Lincoln Center, Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia is also examining the role of individual agency in world history, as his Russian revolutionaries set the stage for the Bolshevik revolution. Downstairs the problems, because contemporary, are more acute and less dispensable as entertainment. In biting off perhaps just a little more than it can chew, Dying City nonetheless still is one of the most ambitious and urgent of Shinn’s works, its blood surging violently beneath the surface of its fragile domestic flesh. It’s a blood that Stoppard’s more elegant tropes and gestures lack. But it’s a blood that the theatre needs to let, in the attempt to heal.
PETRA: … You asked me once, you said are you in pain? And I lied. I said no. And I’m in pain because I am not loved. You see. And artists–there’s so little love to go around–the promise of love is so fleeting and inconsistent so to get noticed–people do–what they do is–just like you cheated on your wife, you see it in art too, the terror of not being loved, safe art, meaningless art, pandering art, commercial art, outrageous art, can we sell it, can I sell myself, will I be rewarded with money, with prestige, with recognition–all those things which are, which are perversions of love–and let me tell you. If there were more love to go around. And more consciousness and less fear. People might make beautiful things. Beautiful things. What are all those horrible disgusting movies with violence and anger and, you know, I mean, they’re cries for help! You look at a Quentin Tarantino movie, you know, this man has never been loved. He has had no experience of love in this life. Art, the art can never be better than the person who made it.
MAN: Well you have to love yourself, don’t you? Isn’t that the hardest part?
PETRA: You know what? That’s New Age bullshit. You can’t love yourself. You go and try. One is a fiction. Reality exists when the other person walks into the room. Life is other people.
MAN: So is hell, or so someone said.
PETRA: Well then so is heaven.
MAN: Do you think you’ll be loved?
PETRA: I’d better.
Other People (1998)
Even before 9/11, Christopher Shinn’s characters spoke with the voices of traumatised exhaustion, of anxious surrender (and now I think of it, this characterizes the sound of a Christopher Shinn play as well). Locating the politics of post-capitalism in small everyday gestures and dialogue, his plays brook no closure: before the curtain has risen, something has happened, something has broken the world of possibility. His young artists, drug dealers, businessmen and hustlers are already tired, even if they don’t know it. Some recognize the world as a world in which the possibility of love has grown narrower, less likely; this realization, though, brings them no comfort as they are compelled to continue to seek, and even to jeopardize their own integrity in the process of finding it, or (more likely) a reasonable facsimile of it. Wholeness is impossible.
What makes Dying City a transitional play in Shinn’s body of work is its refusal of sex as a temporary escape from post-capitalism. Ecstasy is now firmly a trade name instead of a source of sensual wonder. In his first plays, including his very first, Four (1996), characters could find at least momentary connection and communication, even comfort, in a love expressed through physical coupling. In his lighter works, such as the 1998 urban relationship comedy Other People, Shinn found difficulty of connection even in more bemused moments of flirtation and comic dislocation.
It’s hard to say whether 9/11 came as a surprise to Chris or as confirmation of his perspective, that all this market-driven alienation and subsumed violence would have exploded in some manner in any event, the War in Iraq as inevitability instead of ill-conceived adventurism. What seems different now is that, as Dying City indicates, the crisis is too intense, too omnipresent, that individuals need to begin seizing the responsibility for their own needs, for love as well as everything else, and exercising the will and desire for their own completeness. It’s too late to wait any longer; if the end hasn’t already arrived (and, in a sense, it has), it’s too near to refuse happiness and loving contact. It is an integrity hard-won in a play about personal, artistic and professional achievement like the 2002 What Didn’t Happen, Shinn’s urban-professional-on-the-beachfront-porch comedy-drama; it is an integrity, and acceptance of personal responsibility for the world, just beginning to be perceptible by the central character Stephen in Shinn’s most successful dramaturgical achievement to date, the 2002/2004 Where Do We Live.
With Dying City at the Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theatre, Chris moves one step closer to a commercial Broadway run. If drama on Broadway (itself a sharer in post-capitalist illusion and spectacle) is to break from the pre-9/11 solipsism in which it has been sunk for decades, its producers and its audiences will similarly have to take responsibility for their own experiences in the theatre, demand that the theatre ask larger, open questions that deny ideological closure. That a Chris Shinn play is running at Lincoln Center is a very good sign indeed. Whether the commercial theatre can further open its arms to the challenges that Chris presents to the theatregoing culture–for that, we will have to wait and see.