Brett Foster

Stumbling Around in the Light

On Conor McPherson.

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Sometimes unevenness in an author's collected volume can be a sign of great accomplishment. Take the third volume of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson's collected works. Two of the plays, The Birds and The Dance of Death, feel less central to the McPherson canon because they are adaptations or translations (of Daphne Du Maurier's short story and August Strindberg's play, respectively). McPherson says in the foreword to The Birds, "I like it because it really feels like someone else wrote it." A third play, The Veil, is a work that seems very much "against type" for the Irish playwright, known for his small casts of mainly male characters in contemporary settings, and often in the mode of extended monologue. Conversely, The Veil is set in an Irish manor house in 1822, as social instabilities erupt. It is a period piece with a large ensemble and prominent female roles. In the foreword to Plays: Three, McPherson admits that it was met with a "certain incomprehension" when it premiered at the National Theater in 2011.

With a séance scene, a "Big-House Gothic" setting, and a general atmosphere of the occult, The Veil does fulfill one central expectation for a new work by McPherson—a fresh, often startling handling of a supernatural presence or visitation. The ghosts or spirits that often haunt this writer's plays become at one level little parables for the powers of theater, where a willingly believing audience encounters a conjuration of sorts, imaginative and yet embodied by actors, a dream in a little room. The supernatural, for McPherson, should also remind us of a human being's place in this world—we are, he says in one interview, "animals who can talk, and think because of that they know everything." McPherson attempts to present on stage "the magic of being alive, the magic of being conscious, the mystery and the miracle of that, the complete unknown aspect of all of that which is so necessary to live our lives."

Three plays—two adaptations and a puzzler. So far, so average, a suspicious reader might say. I would promptly invite such a reader to consider the first two plays collected here, Shining City (2004) and The Seafarer (2006). Then tell me what you think. Here's what I think: as a regular playgoer, I will simply say that performances I have been fortunate to see of The Seafarer (in a celebrated production by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater) and Shining City (in a surprisingly powerful staging by a local Chicago theater company) are two of the most pleasing, thrilling experiences I've had in any theater in the past decade. Both plays enjoyed strong openings in London before transferring to New York for successful Broadway stints. Both received Tony nominations for best play that year, and the actor Jim Norton (a McPherson regular) won a Tony Award for playing the blind old man Richard in The Seafarer. Both plays also received high praise from the New York Times' Ben Brantley and other prominent drama critics. Late last year, Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal identified The Seafarer as the "best new play I've seen in the past decade."

If this were not impressive enough, McPherson often directs his own plays as well, saying his work benefits from the give-and-take between director and actors. McPherson seems to be an actor's playwright—one sensitive to both the struggles and the promises and possibilities of those who bring his characters to life onstage. Similarly, interviews suggest that McPherson is unusually open-handed and flexible when it comes to the ongoing evolution of his script during rehearsals.

Plays: Three, then, presents a precocious playwright (McPherson is not yet 43) who has roughly a dozen important plays behind him and, in this collection, two plays that display a writer in his prime: Shining City and The Seafarer can look forward to many future stagings and revivals, and it is hard to imagine these plays not coming to mind fairly immediately whenever McPherson and his peculiar powers as an artist will be discussed. If they ensure that the collection as a whole feels like a rattlebag of sorts, then fine—most of us would kill for such unevenness.

If Shining City and The Seafarer characterize this third collection of plays, his first two collected volumes can be differently summed up. Reread today, Plays: One now looks like an "apprentice" collection, featuring a handful of early plays pointing toward better things. The volume concludes with St. Nicholas (1997), a two-act monologue spoken by a self-hating theater critic (!), rancid from alcoholism and wracked by love, who encounters and eventually comes to serve a company of London vampires. Plays such as Rum and Vodka and The Good Thief reflect the lacerating language and underworld settings of David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, two early influences, and overall they reflect the "lad culture" prominent in British drama of the 1990s. A final play, This Lime Tree Bower, was expanded and adapted into the film Saltwater, one of a handful McPherson has made as both writer and director.

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