On a Clear Day

From Christopher Shinns On the Mountain, Sophocles wavers in the distance

But Sarah's no easy nut to crack: her stubborn refusal to fully own up to her past—which in the end means to see her daughter, who's quit school and feels so unloved and depressed she's on Prozac—is steeled by a huge injection of fear. Owning her past means realizing—as Jaime puts it in one of the play's many eruptions of the demotic poetry of Generation Y speech—that "who you were then, like, is why you are who you are now." (Out of the mouths of Radiohead listeners . . .) It takes a breakup with Carrick, a hookup with an ex-heroin addict and a final confrontation with Jaime before Sarah breaks down utterly and, in a cathartic release of pain, begins the agonizing process of putting past and present, her severed pieces of self, back together again. The final scene is a demanding, formidable challenge to any actress, and Susannah Schulman is on the cusp of making it live as it should: it's the kind of soul-revealing role that actresses clamor to get, and then they often wither when they realize what they've gotten themselves into. Same thing goes for the audience, who may get more than they bargained for when they went out for their pleasant evening of theater.

"Humankind cannot bear very much reality," Rilke wrote, and the reality-obsessed Shinn piles it on here.

* * *

Theater is forever sounding its death-knell. Beseiged by ever-evolving techno-sexy dramatic forms such as film and video, knowing their own honorable conventions have been ground down to tasteless powder by TV, writers and directors in the theater often feel compelled to join 'em since they can't beat 'em, incorporating more of all that jazz-backscreen video, punishing music, lasers, irony-clad narratives that genuflect like crazy to mass-media forms, angels swinging from the rafters. Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily. Christopher Shinn's mentor when he was at NYU's program in dramatic writing, Tony Kushner, is a brave practitioner of experimentation, and Shinn was a student of Kushner's in 1993 and 1994, when Angels in America broke big. Shinn could have followed in his teacher's footsteps. He also could have decided to go into the more lucrative world of film, but after getting a load of the Tarantino-adoring faculty and students on the film side of the program, Shinn, who is gay and finds the macho posturing of hetero artists heinous, decided to trust his instincts and go his own way.

His way, it turns out, is elemental and "classical." "Structures have been in place," he says, "for thousands of years now about what makes a good play." You learn about them by being "informed by the canon of great works," he says. "That doesn't mean you can't radicalize that or subvert it—you can . . . [but] there's a bit of hubris in thinking you can re-invent the wheel. . . . The structure of human life, the structure of being a subject on the earth, hasn't really changed in thousands of years, and that's why those old plays still resonate—more than resonate, they can still terrify. That's the tradition that I see myself in. I'm a part of this tradition that's been built over thousands of years, and I am the recipient of all the wisdom that's come before me."

(T.S. Eliot couldn't have put it better. Actually, he did say it better, just slightly, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," which I kept begging Shinn to read.)

Now this isn't an attitude you see every day among your common, garden-variety voice of your generation, which is typically brash, fuck-the-canon and eager to burn away the evidence that any great writer lived before he or she did. (Actually, "he": women writers never talk this way.) This willingness to trust and submit oneself to the tradition while boldly exploring the deeply troubling personal emotions that made Shinn want to write in the first place is what gives On the Mountain, this most realistic and "everyday" of plays, an almost-mythological edge. Seeing it makes one feel, in fact, that the everyday is mythological, that we do, every day, enact private narratives that are packed with shareable feeling, rife with larger significance involving grander narratives than we know. Shinn is one of the few young writers out there, writing in any form, who come to their work with a sense that "reality" can be captured (as opposed to ironically mimicked or surreptitiously evoked) and, best of all, that it can be captured onstage, where whatever web of illusion is being weaved, real people move around in real space in real time. In the use of iPods and the Internet, Shinn may be as up-to-date as you want to be, but his sources are sturdily, elementally ancient, and when you climb your way up On the Mountain, you can see all the way to Sophocles.

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