Christopher Shinn: An Author's Note

In the winter of 1992 I watched Bill Clinton finish second in the New Hampshire primary and declare himself “The Comeback Kid.” I was smitten. This guy had charm and drive and no one like him had ever run for president in my lifetime. So I decided to volunteer for Clinton’s Connecticut campaign. The primary was coming up and there was very little staff in the state, so I was chosen to ride along and direct a campaign worker to Bradley International Airport late one night to pick up the candidate. I was told there was a good chance I could ride back to the hotel with the Governor.

That night was a debacle. I-91 was under construction and I didn’t recognize the familiar exit. I got us lost on back roads miles away from the airport in pre-GPS days. I don’t even think we had a map. Ultimately a convenience store worker directed us to the airport and we greeted a thankfully-late Clinton as he came off the plane. I did not get to travel with the candidate. The campaign worker I rode back with treated me to a silence stiff with annoyance.

Despite that, I’d been bitten by the political bug. A year later I applied to Boston University with the idea that I’d study political science, and it was a close call before I committed to NYU’s playwriting program. As I studied the Aristotelian unities (which would come in handy when writing Now or Later fifteen years later), I lived out a parallel fantasy life as a political advisor. The Clinton presidency coincided with my young adulthood, and over time I became interested as much in policy as politics.

The two come together in Now or Later. I wrote the play at the start of the 2008 primaries, acutely aware of how policy is impacted by politics. I was fascinated by Obama’s rejection of the individual mandate in Hillary’s health care proposal (following his embrace of a single-payer model just half a decade earlier). I also remember wondering how his strong statements against Guantanamo would translate into specific policy changes if elected president, and as a gay man, I was especially interested in parsing his statements that marriage is between a man and a woman. Writing Now or Later allowed me to interrogate these dynamics.

My frustration with our politics found its voice in my young protagonist, John. There are ways one writes a play and then there are ways a play writes oneself, and in exploring this character and his family—its history, its conflicts and its traumas—this other, more unconscious, play emerged. Four years after its world premiere, I see more clearly how these two plays are one, however split I felt subjectively in the act of creation.

The tension between the political and personal is challenging to think about. Harold Pinter thought deeply about it, and comments he made when he won the Nobel Prize are fascinating. He began his acceptance speech by saying, “In 1958 I wrote the following: ‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’ I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?”

Pinter felt that you could arrive at the truth when contemplating political issues but that “truth in drama is forever elusive.” I disagree: because the personal and the political are so intertwined, and because we experience all reality through psyches shaped by fantasy and illusion, I feel we can never arrive at a final truth, an ultimate understanding of why something happened—whether on an historical level or in an artistic realm. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t make judgments (both Pinter and I do just that); it means that one should always recognize that one’s understanding of self and world is partial and prone to self-deception—something Pinter did not believe when thinking as a citizen.

Now or Later was written at a very specific time, both for the world and in my life, and returning to it four years later is fascinating for me. On the political level, seeing what has changed—both substantially and superficially—has strengthened my sense of what’s timeless about its questions (and lack of answers). On the personal level, the characters’ yearnings and maneuverings feel even murkier to me. To revisit the play is to face what I believed then, what I believe now, and what I suspect I might believe in the future.

It occurs to me that the play itself dramatizes the process I am engaged in: the difficult work of deciding what the truth is now—while leaving room for other truths later.

— Christopher Shinn


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