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How the culture wars killed free expression

Christopher Shinn, the writer of new political play Now or Later, explains how campus censorship strangles debate.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

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In America and Britain, theatre has become a notable battleground on questions of free speech and free artistic expression. In 2004, the controversial play Behzti was cancelled in Birmingham after Sikhs protested that the play offended their community, while in America religious fundamentalists have objected to The Crucible and My Name is Rachel Corrie on similar grounds.

American playwright Christopher Shinn has followed, often in exasperation, the on-going discussions and debates on the rights and wrongs of staging controversial plays in the West. He decided to do something artistic about it: write a play called Now or Later that tackles campus censorship through the very topical lens of the American presidential elections.

Shinn’s play is set on the eve of a presidential election. The Democrats are on the point of victory when news breaks out, via political blogs, that the would-be new president’s homosexual son, John, has gone to a party dressed as the prophet Mohammed and his friend as the gay-baiting evangelist Pastor Bob.

As footage of the party circulates around the globe, sparking riots in the Muslim world, John is under immense pressure from presidential advisers to make a public apology. While John insists on the importance of free expression, and also that he was attending a private party, his friend Matt points out that he could be responsible for deaths around the world. Principle and pragmatism collide to fascinating effect. Staged in real-time, Now or Later carefully explores the anguish and arguments of this very contemporary concern.

When I meet the man behind Now or Later, he is dressed in casual t-shirt and jeans and overseeing the play’s final rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. The Royal Court discovered Shinn 10 years ago – when he was just 23 – meaning that most of his plays, such as Dying City and Other People, have been premiered there, too. The theatre’s director, Dominic Cooke, has programmed the play to coincide with the run-up to the real American presidential elections. Now or Later couldn’t be more timely.

‘I think the first thing I wanted to do was give myself a formal challenge’, says Shinn carefully, ‘which was to write a play in real time and then I started to think, what could happen in real time that is interesting and dramatic? And in politics today, with blogs and 24-hour news channels, things can happen very rapidly. So I started thinking about politics in order to find a subject that was fit for formal challenge… In my mind, I had politics, power and issues of freedom of expression and, as a dramatist, I’m always looking for conflict.’

Shinn says that in Now or Later he is exploring conflicts and clashes between the West and Islam. As he puts it: ‘With Islam, it is perceived that the current administration is responsible for suffering in the Muslim world’, says Shinn, ‘and therefore there can be no criticising of that world or how Muslims might experience that. The end result is to limit the conversations that Muslims can have about that themselves.’

Nevertheless, Shinn’s well-crafted central protagonist in Now or Later, John, is motivated just as much by exposing the censorious nature of Ivy League students, as attacking Muslims in and of themselves. Surely, I ask him, the problem of censorship has its roots within the liberal left rather than any external threat to ‘Western values’? ‘Yeah, I think you’re right,’ says Shinn. ‘I think in many ways American campuses are a distorted and extreme way of dealing with problems in US culture. The left-wing ideology in these campuses doesn’t seem to be related to the way the world is. The antics on campus almost have a feeling of play acting, as it’s so divorced from people’s lives. Nevertheless, the Ivy League students are the future politicians and opinion leaders so it’s worth examining how they’re getting a distorted picture of how the world is working.’

As a left-wing champion of free speech, and a fan and reader of spiked, Shinn is exasperated that it is often the left who are now the loudest advocates of blue pens and artistic clampdowns. He reckons that there was a sea change in universities back in the 1990s that has now become politically mainstream.

‘As a gay man, I found the left’s fight for free expression very beneficial’, he says, ‘but that crossed over into identity politics. From there it was important to privilege the subjectivity of people who had previously been oppressed and marginalised. But instead of this emphasis on a diversity of voices, there became an unspoken rule whereby only people who experienced something, whether as a gay man or black woman, were allowed to speak about it directly. This created a real fracture where these oppressed groups, rather than finding commonality, separated out. These different groups ended up in these retreats which itself created paranoia and bad blood.’

Shinn’s work seems to belong to a lineage of American playwrights and artists, from Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer through to Philip Roth, who offer an unflinching examination of the gaping holes in American society. Although European liberals love to dismiss American culture as rather candy-floss and dumb, no other Western nation produces art that is not only self-aware and self-critical, but resists the temptation of self-loathing. Shinn’s work is no exception.

‘Yes, it is one of the really good things about America’, says Shinn cheerfully, ‘it thrives on that self-critique. You know, you even see it in relation to the Bush administration where a lot of extreme policy has been moderated due to the ongoing critiques and debates. The real strength of American culture is always in searching for ways of moving on from difficulties. That’s something I’m proud of within America and what I want to achieve in my work as well.’

Naturally enough, Shinn has been eagerly following the US presidential election and is neither cynical nor goggle-eyed about Obama. ‘He has no track record so people are projecting all kinds of things onto him’, says Shinn. ‘The Democratic Party haven’t yet been in a position whereby they are explicitly running to the right in order to appeal to swing voters.’ And as Now or Later deals with the question of a presidential candidate’s children, the play unwittingly anticipates the furore surrounding Sarah Palin’s pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, who is under pressure to conform to conventional morality. As Shinn says, ‘yes, all that does evoke the play in general, as it deals with children, sexuality and lies.’

At heart, though, Now or Later is a timely, not to mention, expert exploration of how censorship, and perhaps the need for self-censorship, is acting as a straitjacket within Western culture and politics. Although the play might seem a little didactic, Shinn doesn’t marshal the audience into accepting any conclusive argument. Now or Later provokes thought rather than stymies it.

‘It is one thing to believe in freedom of expression,’ he says, ‘but that may lead to the death of other people. So the play is asking: would you be responsible for that? And then what happens afterwards? So how badly do you believe in freedom of expression?’

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Now or Later by Christopher Shinn runs until 1 November at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London. For further details see the Royal Court Theatre website.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill thought The Arsonists at London’s Royal Court Theatre was a firecracker of a play. Rob Lyons described Frost/Nixon as ‘an intellectual Rocky’, while Patrick Marmion found Black Watch to be like porn for the theatregoing classes. Nathalie Rothschild disagreed with the censorship of a promotional poster for the play Fat Christ. Or read more at spiked issue Theatre.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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