Brett Foster

Stumbling Around in the Light

On Conor McPherson.

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In the subsequent collection, Plays: Two, we find McPherson rising to full confidence in his early phase. The hallmark play here is The Weir, whose huge success in London's West End in 1997 conferred upon him an international reputation. The play begins with a series of awkward interactions between characters in a far western Irish pub, but soon they are telling one another increasingly potent, emotionally dizzying ghost stories.

This second collected edition boasted two other formidable plays. The first is Port Authority (2001), again featuring male characters, three speakers each of a different generation, and again in unapologetic monologue mode. (The stage direction basically says the men are speaking in a darkened theater.) No other McPherson play feels as saturated in regret and missed connections as Port Authority—at least until one reads the adjacent play, Dublin Carol (2000). Haunted by its Christmas Eve setting, which McPherson would soon use in The Seafarer to brighter effect, Dublin Carol demonstrates the lonely terrors of the alcoholic: how such a compulsion inevitably destroys everything, including every relationship the addict holds most dear, and the "sickening disgust" that results. This play also displays McPherson's characteristic blending of careful attention to realism with supernatural or theatrically estranging elements. For example, one stage direction sets a scene with great specificity—"office on the Northside of Dublin, around Fairview or the North Strand Road"—and yet works its Christmas setting and its symbolically named characters (Noel, Carol) toward what Ian Walsh calls a secular version of Everyman and other medieval allegorical plays. Overall, Karen Fricker's description of the characters' monologic performances in Port Authority applies just as well to John in Dublin Carol: "stories of men trapped by their own self awareness, too weak to be good in their lives but smart enough to know how bad they are."

Walsh's and Fricker's essays are among the many readable and informative critical studies in the first such collection devoted to the playwright and his works, The Theater of Conor McPherson: 'Right Beside the Beyond.' Those wishing to know more about McPherson will find here two essays treating St. Nicholas, no fewer than four showing exclusive or partial attention to The Seafarer, at least one or two essays apiece on The Weir, Dublin Carol, Port Authority, Shining City, The Veil (co-editor Eamonn Jordan's essay on The Veil was particularly illuminating, helping me to appreciate better the contemporary national dimension to this perplexing recent play), and The Birds, and also a handful of essays devoted to his films, including his production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame. In early interviews, McPherson often expressed indebtedness to Beckett, both dramatically and philosophically. In the current collection's interview, however, which concludes the volume, the interviewer states, as if it were a piece of conventional wisdom, that McPherson's later plays evince a "deeper metaphysical engagement."

This essay collection will be an essential book for anyone interested in McPherson, to be set alongside Gerald Wood's monograph Conor McPherson: Imagining Mischief and an excellent interview with the playwright in Jody Allen Randolph's Close to the Next Moment: Interviews from a Changing Ireland. Though he is still relatively young, McPherson is old enough to have a sense of his own growth as a person and a writer. "Youth is great place to be, where you have no fear of the consequences of your life," he says in the collection's interview. "I had no insight into myself or the world." Sober and a new father now, he finds himself in a world quite different from that of his early writing days in Dublin and London. Those with knowledge of McPherson's personal life may be inclined to mark a further division in his career, roughly dividing it in half: the plays fueled by drink and those that emerged from sobriety.

Alcohol had long been central in McPherson's plays. One early introduction concludes, "See yas at the bar!" and he attributed some of his early success as a writer to "doomy gloomy hangover energy." The blackout-drinker's tale in Dublin Carol proved to be a dark personal prophecy. On the night of the London premiere of his next play, Port Authority, in 2001, McPherson collapsed and faced a ten-week hospitalization for pancreatitis, so thoroughly had drink wrecked his body. The plays that would follow, and that are now collected in Plays: Three, were experiments of sorts. McPherson said he was not at all sure he would be able to write effectively without alcohol's inspiration. In a related remark in the foreword of this present book, McPherson says that good writing requires a recklessness, whereas self-consciousness is the "enemy of art." On the other hand, he seems always to have had a rather humble view of how he, and we, manage to get through our lives. "I was one of those guys who stumbled around in the dark for a long time," he said of his drunken past in a 2008 Chicago Tribune interview. "Not that I'm stumbling around in the light now." Likewise, the Tribune theater critic Chris Jones has nicely summarized McPherson's characters in Port Authority as "familiar with the difficulty of holding it together."

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