Christopher Shinn

Come and Lead Me Unto These Sorrows

Playwright Christopher Shinn sits down with Dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson to talk about An Opening in Time

Diner in Wethersfield, CT
Diner in Wethersfield, CT. Photo by Mike Keller.

Elizabeth: The script of An Opening in Time begins with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: “…Come and lead me/Unto these sorrows.” Why that particular quote?

Chris: I love The Winter’s Tale. My sense is that this is the play where Shakespeare writes frankly about his difficulties in truly loving. I found this self-scrutiny inspiring and decided to copy it and write a play in which I explored my difficulties in loving through a variety of characters. I chose that quote as an epigraph because I feel like that’s what not only The Winter’s Tale does as a play—it leads us into sorrow—but it’s what Shakespeare was doing in writing the play: leading himself into his sorrows.

I wanted the readers of An Opening in Time to be prepared to enter their own sorrows through the play, but I also wanted to suggest to them that the play was my attempt to confront my own pain. 

Elizabeth: What led to the writing of this play? 

Chris: I was at a challenging place in my life on a number of fronts and I began to think about plays in which it seemed to me writers were facing themselves squarely. Not only Shakespeare, but Chekhov and Ibsen were also on my mind. In their more mature plays we also see characters who seem to be stand-ins for their authors. The self-scrutiny and self-critique are palpable. I took inspiration from these works—that one way to deal with a difficult time in life is to try to face it through the creation of a work of art. Although An Opening in Time is not literally autobiographical, the conflicts and traumas the characters grapple with are familiar to me.

Elizabeth: You did a fellowship with the American Psychoanalytic Association a few years ago. What—if any—impact did that have on your thinking and writing?

Old Wethersfield Burying Ground
Old Wethersfield Burying Ground

Chris: When I was in my mid-20s my father died and I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, because I understood that I had denied the reality of death up to that point in my life. Becker referenced some psychoanalytic writers and that got me into that world. I was fascinated by analytic theory because the question of human motivation—especially hidden or disavowed motivation—was central to it. Motivation is central to drama as well. So immersing myself in this world was like learning a new vocabulary for the central questions of my world. 

The fellowship allowed me to see these concepts and ideas about motivation in action, as analysts discussed their highly dramatic cases. What I suppose impressed me most was hearing about the depths of human suffering that remain more or less hidden in our society. The psychic agony we typically only see in tragic dramas plays out in therapists’ offices every day. This gave me more confidence that I could represent the tragic areas of the human psyche in my playwriting work, and that audiences would be able to connect with these characters, see them not as unique outliers but as everyday people.  

The playwright's childhood home in Wethersfield, CT.
The playwright’s childhood home in Wethersfield, CT.

Elizabeth: You grew up in Wethersfield,  but this is your first play since Four to be set in the Hartford area. How did this play come to be so grounded in Connecticut? 

Chris: At the time I began conceiving of the play I was dealing with illness and for whatever reason had profound memories of my childhood landscapes. I realized at some point that a precise sense of geography based on personal experience had been central to so many literary works I loved. I had never set a play in the real landscape of my everyday youth, and I had a strong sense that if I were to access that emotional and literal territory within, something very personally rich would emerge. Hopefully I have found a way to translate my deep experience of place into something universal and true.