The Fall 2012 issue of Modern Drama features “The Canonization of Christopher Shinn: A Modest Proposal on Ethics” by Stephen Bottoms, the first major academic consideration of the body of the playwright’s work; it appears only a few months before Mr. Shinn’s new play, Teddy Ferrara, opens at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Prof. Bottoms’ excellent essay situates Mr. Shinn’s plays within Alain Badiou’s consideration of the role that ethics plays in theatrical presentation through the form of “traumatic realism” — and Mr. Shinn, who is among America’s foremost dramatists working in the realistic tradition, is well-served by it. The essay is likely to be a foundation for future scholarship on Mr. Shinn’s plays; it is available in full here for a nominal fee.
Obviously, the title is striking, and arises from the professional circumstances that led to Prof. Bottoms’ essay in the first place. “The Canonization of Christopher Shinn” is prefaced by an interesting first-person memoir that is in itself rather illuminating and indicative of the politics that drives the reception of mainstream American theatre to this day, both here and overseas; and because it deserves a somewhat wider dissemination than it might find among the readership of academic journals devoted to the topic of American theatre and drama, I present that preface in full below. And it, too, is about ethics, not about the law. Nobody involved, neither Methuen (a fine publisher of American plays of all kinds) nor the estate of the late Arthur Miller nor the very much alive David Mamet, acted illegally, of course. But the story does speak to the power of some individuals to marginalize the work of other individuals, through their perceived influence or importance, for any number of personal, political, or professional reasons — to make a pretense to a readership that the work of those other individuals simply doesn’t exist. What perhaps is most surprising is the extent to which Mr. Mamet apparently held effective veto power over both a distinguished academic editor and a major publisher as to which plays could be included in an anthology which purported to offer a representative sampling of contemporary American drama.
Again, I urge readers to the full essay, which is available here. The prefatory comments from Prof. Bottoms follow below the rule.
Sometimes, when a door has been left ajar, one needs to open it wide rather than force it shut. This article represents a belated attempt to respond critically and creatively to a series of events that took place at the beginning of 2008 and that have bothered me ever since. At that time, I was approached by the British drama publisher Methuen about editing a new anthology of four modern American plays for the general market. The two stipulations I was given for my selection of texts were that (a) I had to include some wellknown titles, in order to maximize sales potential, and (b) I had to choose from a list of plays already licensed to Methuen. At first, the latter condition gave me some concern because the available list included only plays by white, male authors — a worryingly unrepresentative sample. I was hooked, however, by the possibility of including a play by a contemporary dramatist whom I have come particularly to admire: Christopher Shinn.
Shinn’s coolly precise dramas of interpersonal tension were on Methuen’s books list partly because he has already found a receptive British audience through being championed by London’s Royal Court Theatre. His first play, Four, premiered there in 1998, and since then, four more of his works have had their first outings at the Court. In New York, his work has appeared repeatedly at an equivalent “new writing” venue, Playwrights’ Horizons, as well in other theatres (most recently, Picked premiered at the Vineyard Theatre in 2011). He has also won an Obie Award, has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and is the only American dramatist of his generation to have had collections of his plays published on both sides of the Atlantic by different publishers (TCG in the United States, Methuen in the United Kingdom). He thus seemed an excellent candidate to bring the proposed new anthology “into the present.”
After due consideration, I proposed to Methuen a quartet of plays placing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949, a required inclusion), David Rabe’s Streamers (1976) and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) alongside Shinn’s post-9/11 drama Where Do We Live (2002). This combination would allow me to frame my introductory essay as a discussion of the four writers’ differently contextualized dramatizations of troubled, white, American masculinity (at home, at war, and in business). My contact at Methuen initially responded with enthusiasm to this proposal, but in late January, 2008, I was informed that we had run into difficulties. Agents for Arthur Miller’s estate had apparently raised concerns over the proposed list because they had assumed that Miller’s work would be appearing beside that of recognized, canonical writers such as Mamet, Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams. I duly proposed a compromise, dropping Rabe in favour of Shepard — a suggestion again welcomed by Methuen. Several weeks later, however, in mid-March, I was asked to drop the Shinn piece too. This time I was informed (in an e-mail which I have been asked by the publishers of this journal not to quote from directly, for legal reasons) that David Mamet himself, as well as the Miller estate, had threatened to withdraw permission for inclusion in the anthology if Shinn was on the list. Attempts at explaining the rationale for the juxtaposition of these plays had, apparently, made no difference to this hard-line position. I reluctantly participated in some further to-ing and fro-ing over possible substitutions for Where Do We Live, but enthusiasm for the project had clearly waned on all sides. When I asked for an update in June, after a couple of months of e-mail silence, I was tersely informed that the anthology had been scrapped. And that was the end of that.
The whole experience, however, continued to rankle with me. Was the canon now policing itself, excluding putative newcomers? I had not, for my own part, even been thinking of the anthology in canonical terms, but it seems that others had. And while it was one thing, perhaps, for the Miller estate to be over-protective about its properties and the company they might be seen to keep, I was perturbed that a living playwright such as Mamet might prevent his work appearing alongside that of a younger counterpart. Of course, I had no way of knowing for sure that this was indeed what had occurred: those e-mails from Methuen might well have presented a somewhat slanted version of events. But what particularly struck me was a coincidence of dates. In the very same week, in mid-March of 2008, that David Mamet had allegedly withdrawn approval for the anthology, he had (indisputably) published an article in the Village Voice — “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” — in which he came out as a conservative (a conversion later elaborated on in his 2011 book The Secret Knowledge). Inevitably, perhaps, I began intuiting connections between Mamet’s proclaimed commitment to the political status quo and his alleged commitment to the canonical status quo.
The Voice article offered a retrospectively politicized rationale for Mamet’s own drama: the “view of human nature [that] has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years,” he wrote, is that people are fundamentally “greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt.” It follows from this that any organized attempt at working toward a greater good is doomed to failure: “I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.” The best to be hoped for, politically, Mamet proposes, is a settlement such as the U.S. Constitution, which enables people to co-exist in their essential selfishness. “[W]e in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances,” he asserts, and liberal voices of discontent such as those on National Public Radio (or “National Palestinian Radio,” as he terms it) should simply “shut the fuck up.”
Mamet’s argument invites all kinds of obvious rebuttals, but I want here to invoke political philosopher Alain Badiou and his short book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (English translation, 2001). To posit, as Mamet seems to, that “[e]very collective will to the Good creates Evil” is, for Badiou, an example of “sophistry at its most devastating” (13). It is to behold the insufficiency, or “void,” of the present situation and to pronounce its “plenitude” (68). For Badiou, such cancerous logic constitutes, in itself, a species of evil (71). Not only that: Mamet’s position declares, in effect, the end of politics, and for Badiou such specious arguments are linked analogically to rhetorical declarations about the end of theatre that have frequently been heard in recent decades. In his Rhapsody for the Theatre (English translation, 2008), Badiou proposes that — insofar as theatre is a public forum for the expression of thought — it shares with politics an ontology of the present, of ongoing process: “[T]hey can exist or not but they cannot come to an end” (192). The live encounter of theatre carries an unpredictable, potentially disruptive energy that has always had to be carefully monitored and contained by state authority.
Now, it might seem a stretch to relate such ideas to the exclusion of a playwright from a drama anthology. Yet anyone advocating the plenitude of a canon whose newest entrants are Mamet and Shepard (both now well into their sixties) would surely be papering over a self-evident void (on which, more in a moment). We might also ask, in Shinn’s case, whether the foregrounding of political debate in his plays breaks some conservative law of dramatic etiquette. Badiou’s analogy of theatre and politics seems particularly apposite in thinking about Shinn’s plays, since his writing so clearly represents an ongoing attempt to think through the politics of our present cultural moment. So what might it mean for America as a nation if he were to be admitted to its dramatic canon, rather than being required to “shut the fuck up”? Shinn’s attention to underlying states of personal and communal trauma might, at the very least, demand a reappraisal of Mamet’s complacency about America’s “wonderful and privileged circumstances.”
His plays suggest an ethical imperative to listen, even to voices that may trouble or disturb, and to respond, even to events that call us out of our closets and comfort zones. It is for this reason that, reflecting on the questions left hanging by this small story of the abandoned anthology, I finally decided to forego scholarly discretion and share it.