Today we will look at an unpublished work, The Medium Is This by Dan Schneider. This may well be the most brilliant meta play ever conceived and it was delivered on the author’s mailing list just last week. I didn’t pay a cent for this PDF, but I absolutely would have. It requires a considerable amount of reflection to talk about, but I think I have given it some time to sit with me. Danny Wagner is Schneider’s ‘in’ into the play, and it is through him that the writer deals with life in profoundly existential ways. Wagner, like Schneider, is a writer. He breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience, to ask if they know where ‘Miss Froy’ is, as she seems to have vanished (Miss Froy is a woman from a Hitchcock film, called The Lady Vanishes, by the way), and he engages with the other characters as the writer of the play itself. Now, all these techniques in less skilled hands would come off as gimmicky, but with Schneider, it does what structural techniques- toying with the form- MUST do in order to succeed: give deeper insight into the characters than otherwise would be achieved without them. Anyway, after the opening chat with the audience, we see Danny wake up in the bed of a girl named Marissa, and she becomes his companion throughout the rest of this long, but not over-long, production. I must say she is one of the most delightful creations to read about, as fleshed out and interesting as even protagonists in other works only dream to be.
TMIT gives insight into a man in his fifties, who is in flux between the now and the past, dwelling on memories and people who, despite their seeming irrelevance, find their way into his mind, and by getting behind Danny’s eyes we are given a new perspective on our protagonist. I commented in my post How to Write Great Fiction that a character must have an internal, and not only an external, life. In order to communicate the internal life, the reader should be, well, made into a homunculus of sorts, seeing the world through their eyes. Danny Wagner has the most complex internal life of any fictive human being I have yet come across and as a result, even the most mundane conversations, the likes of which Jess (Danny Wagner’s wife, yes he is married) in the play would rail against as being boring or pointless, in fact, contain many layers of meaning.
In a novel, the narrator usually speaks retroactively. This is traditional storytelling, but when we are dealing with the autobiographic aspect of a first-person narrator, the past tense can be illuminating. The narrator exists then, but also now to reflect on then. In a portrait play like TMIT, it is essential to have these moments of reflection. While most plays take place in the present and require monologues to provide this dimension, TMIT uses the discussion of memory in dialogue. This is a brilliant device, as it allows the whole thing to flow organically between drama and contemplation.
There is an interesting part when Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is brought up in an excerpt of one of Danny Wagner’s reviews on Omniversica (Dan Schneider’s on Cosmoetica), and the review is tied in with one of the overarching themes of the play, the rose-colored lenses with which we look back at the days of yore. The passage is projected onto a screen for the audience to read on their own. This courage to sometimes stop everything and have the characters do nothing for a few minutes is a hallmark of Schneider’s relaxed style. He rushes nothing, doesn’t force anything, and often allows moments to just wash over you, like in a Tarkovsky film. You get a lot of time to think, which is good as there is plenty to think about. The ending consists of two Scene 13s (excluding one of the alternate endings) and it brings us back full circle to the beginning, but with a very crucial difference, setting up the next play from the perspective of young Marissa.
I will be doing more reviews on Dan Schneider’s work- albeit unpublished material- in June. Maybe I should have done this in September of course, cause I call it ‘Schneider September,’ but then again that would be tacky as hell- I’m not going to start doing Mishima Mondays. Anyway, check out the man’s work, it is worth your time. And if you are interested in sites like mine, that are concerned with film and literary criticism, and/or if you enjoy reading essays, Cosmoetica is where you ought to be. Either way, if you can get your hands on it, you should read The Medium Is This which distills a lot of Schneider’s own thoughts on art, plays, and the play itself, within the play itself.