The Haunted Stage: Conor McPherson on His Plays
In a series of award-winning plays Conor McPherson has shocked theatergoers. Here he talks about his new play The Night Alive, on drink, being a romantic, and the meaning of grace.
“It’s a question of always trying to wrong foot the audience,” the award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson told me on the phone from Dublin. “Then you suddenly up the stakes exponentially, and they’re like, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t see this coming.’”
That’s pretty much what McPherson did to me in the winter of 2008, shortly after I sat down in the third row at the Booth theatre to see The Seafarer, the story of a boozy Dublin Christmas Eve poker game in which a man’s soul is at stake. It turns out that Mr. Lockhart, the lone stranger at the card table, is actually the Devil himself. Thanks to that quaint suspension of disbelief that one brings to the theater, Mr. Lockhart gave me something I don’t typically enjoy: a good scare.
Mind you, I am not a religious man. Quite the opposite. Yet as the Devil/Lockhart—brilliantly played by Ciarán Hinds—described what awaits sinners in hell, I knew what it might be like to be a child in a church as a fire-and-brimstone priest puts the fear of God into an innocent heart. In hell, Lockhart says…
You’re locked in a space that’s just under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch black sea. You’re buried alive in there. And it’s so cold that you can’t even feel your angry tears freezing in your eyelashes and your very bones ache with deep perpetual agony and you think, ‘I must be going to do…’ But you never die. You never even sleep because every few minutes you’re gripped by a claustrophobic panic and you get so frightened you squirm uselessly against the stone walls and the heavy led, and your heart beats so fast against your ribs you think, ‘I must be going to die…” But of course….you never will. Because of what you did.
It’s not unusual for vampires, fairies, ghosts and other supernatural types to show up in McPherson’s work. He first reached Broadway in 1999 with The Weir, an evening of increasingly poignant, alcohol-fueled otherworldly tales told in a remote Irish pub by four men and a young woman who is new to the area. St. Nicholas, written in l997, captures the self-loathing of a burned-out, middle-aged Dublin theater critic who ends up in London living with a group of vampires. More recently, the Veil, written in 2011, is set in 1822 in a haunted house in the Irish countryside.
McPherson’s ability to create numinous worlds is only part of his genius. There’s also his gift for conveying enduring truths through the use of seemingly ordinary language, as in the aforementioned theater critic’s description of his poisoned relationship with his “fat tracksuit wife”:
She knew better than to try and touch me. And I’d remember that I loved her once, when we were young. We used to sit in her house and everything outside was made for us. All we had to do was keep holding hands. And I couldn’t even do that.
That McPherson wrote those lines at the age of 25 is a measure of his great gift for channeling the inner voices of his fellow Dubliners.
This is the same gift he brings to his latest work, The Night Alive, which debuted at the Donmar Warehouse in London and recently transferred to The Atlantic Theater Company in New York where its run has been extended to February 2. The play is notably free of supernatural thrills, and only one out of the five characters bursts forth with alcohol-induced revelations. This time, McPherson achieves his haunting effects in different ways.
The Night Alive is the story of Tommy, a middle-aged near-wreck of a Dubliner who scrapes by doing odd jobs with the help of his slow-thinking friend Doc. Tommy is separated from his wife, and largely estranged from his children. As the play opens, he’s gone to the aid of a stranger, a young woman who’s bleeding from an assault he witnessed. Tommy has brought her back to the squalid room he rents in his uncle’s house. Their uneasy relationship—which is interrupted by a horrifying visit from the woman’s deranged boyfriend—lies at the heart of the play and culminates with a faint hope of transformation.
I began my conversation with McPherson by asking what inspired The Night Alive.
RKF: Can you describe how you first got the idea for The Night Alive? I read that it began when you saw a man and a woman who were clearly in distress…
CM: Usually the idea for a story comes when you’re doing something different from writing. Your mind is wondering. I was just looking after my daughter, just playing with her in the park. And yeah, I just saw this man and women and I could just see this room in my mind. But I think there was something, too, of Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker: that idea of a room full of crap and someone bringing a stranger in. I’m not doing myself any favors by saying “I saw Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker in my mind and thought I had an idea for a new play.” …I suppose in my plays there are a lot of people who have nowhere to go. In that kind of situation the characters can talk to each other. They don’t know each other very well. We can get to know them at the same time that they get to know each other. So that’s what I remember for the initial inspiration for The Night Alive. But then you have ideas for things and they don’t really amount to anything. So it’s very difficult to know which are the ones that stick.
RKF: How do you get from the initial inspiration to starting work on a play?
CM: It’s a kind of a mystery. In a sense it’s very painful because you’re always dealing with the possibility of failure. So I always try to give it a lot of space. I sort of pretend to myself that I’m not writing. I just will make little notes. And I find that if I keep scribbling little notes, that’s something that I’m going to continue with. And then once you’ve done that for a while—maybe even a few months really—then maybe you start to dip your toe into a few lines of a first draft. But there again, I’ve always in a way fooled myself by sort of thinking, “I’m not actually writing this. I’m just making notes for a first draft.” So it’s almost anything to avoid writing. But then usually after a while—when you’ve got about twenty pages written—you realize that, okay, this is a first draft.
RKF: Do you work on a new play every day?
CM: When I write a first draft of something I tend to only write a little bit every few days maybe.
I wouldn’t try to just write it all in one go because--as Beckett says in Endgame--“No forcing, no forcing.” It’s fatal. I always just like to let it percolate. And the best little things come quite unbidden. The more unusual and strange the things that happen are, the more unexpected the audience will find them, too. Whereas if you’re treating it in a very linear way sitting at your desk and it has a sort of neatness about it, the audience can get ahead of it. So it’s always good that every couple of pages, the audience really doesn’t know what’s happening and why it’s happening. That’s always much better than it all following a logical pattern. I like a play to be quite messy and even to sort of test the audience’s patience sometimes.
RKF: Can you give an example of that?
CM: In The Seafarer, I always remember I liked watching the first part of that play when they’re [the characters] really only getting ready for breakfast. And not an awful lot is happening. They’re stumbling around in this stupid situation. I like to feel the audience thinking, “Where is this going? When are they going to start to do something?” And then the play goes woof, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I had no idea it was going to be this kind of a play.”
RKF: Well, in The Seafarer, the audience initially has no idea that one of the characters on stage is actually the Devil himself.
CM: Yeah, and you go, “He’s actually going to be the Devil? And you’re really going to try and do that?” It’s a question of always trying to wrong foot the audience…getting them into a place of near complacency almost. So they’re like, “Okay, I get it.” Then you suddenly up the stakes exponentially, and they’re like, “Oh shit, I didn’t see this coming.” I always see a play a little bit like weather systems. You’ve got like a nice sunny morning. Then you’ve got, “Oh it’s a very stormy afternoon.” And “Oh my God, now it’s a really horrible night.” And, “No, no, now it’s a nice kind of day here.” And if you can keep that going, after about an hour or so they’re just hopefully locked into it.
RKF: When Jim Norton was performing in Port Authority [which consists of monologues by three distantly inter-related characters] you told him that the characters couldn’t leave the stage until they told the truth. Is that true of all your characters?
CM: I guess not particularly. With that sort of play—with Port Authority—all that happens is that they say stuff. So it has to feel to the audience that something is revealed otherwise it would be awful. But I think with things like The Night Alive, it’s probably better if no one really says what they’re thinking. Because what can you say to the audience that they don’t already know? All you can do is ask questions, really. My feeling with plays is that what’s really happening in the play has to be underneath the play, beyond the play, and not really in the language of the play. It’s really in between all the words. It’s really just a feeling. You’re trying to communicate a feeling. And if you do that, then that’s real. Because I think anybody can communicate an idea. We’re all quite adept at understanding ideas. But sharing a feeling is a whole other thing. If you can reach that place…I think that’s what plays should be trying to do. You’re supposed to walk out of the theater feeling different, not thinking different. Not thinking. So I don’t know that my characters have anything to say, really. They talk a lot, but I don’t really know that there’s a huge amount of wisdom.
RKF: Your play St. Nicholas is something of an indictment of theater critics. Were you afraid of incurring the wrath of the critics when it was produced?
CM: I guess it’s almost like an attack. If you’re afraid something’s going to attack you, you go and attack it. So I think it was more that. It was like, “I’m going to attack you first before you can even say whether or not I can write plays.” Which is mad, but you know, I was 25. Well, I suppose those plays work—and the Weir as well—because they’re almost entirely kind of unconscious plays. That’s the thing. But now I can’t write that unconsciously any more. I know too much. I’ve experienced too much. But when I was young—when people are young—you don’t know anything. You think you know things, but you don’t really know fuckin’ anything. So you write a play in ten days, and it’s just pure energy. I used to think, “When I learn more about writing plays, I’ll probably write better plays.” But the problem is you realize that’s not the way it works. As you get older, the more you think, the more you stink, really. Because unless you’re a highly original thinker, off the scale with your insights and perceptions, it’s very hard to tell an audience anything really. The audience shares a kind of intelligence when they’re sitting together. It’s like a kind of super-computer. And it’s very hard to beat it, to stay ahead of it.
RKF: In many of your earlier plays, the characters drink to excess—which tends to stimulate the conversation. Yet in The Night Alive, only one character has too much to drink. Did you make a deliberate choice not to repeat yourself?
CM: Not consciously, really. It’s a powerful force in drama when a character drinks because it unleashes the unconscious onto the stage. And the unconscious is always far more interesting than the conscious because it’s more unpredictable and truthful. But now that I myself haven’t had a drink for—I guess it’s 13, 14 years—I realize that actually the unconscious is still a massive force whether you’re drinking or not. And so I suppose I don’t need it as a tool on stage so much.
RKF: Here’s a question suggested by my wife. How do you define grace?
CM: That’s a very interesting question. I’ll tell you, grace is the absence of pain. That’s it. It’s that simple. When you think of it that way, you realize how much we live in grace. It’s when you hear that expression, “There but for the grace of God go I,” you know. I mean, all it takes is for you to have one little accident, one little…your health, or anything like that…and you think, “Oh fuck, how lucky have I been to be without this for so long?” But of course there’s all kinds of pain. So it’s the absence of physical pain, but it’s the absence of psychic pain. It’s the absence of worry and anxiety…all painful experience. So in the absence of any of those, that’s grace.
RKF: Jim Norton—who has appeared in so many of your plays—says that at heart you’re a romantic. Do you agree?
CM: Yeah, I do. I really do. I know how difficult life is for lots of people, but at the same time
we’re just lucky to be here. You’re lucky to be conscious. You’re lucky to be inside looking out and going, “What is this?” It’s a massive privilege, and we don’t have it for very long. Life is short. And that’s all you get, I suspect. So yeah, I do find it hard not to be sort of optimistic. It’s funny, but as I get older, even though I feel anxious about things, I always feel like I have a reason to keep going. And I think that’s being a romantic. Because what that’s intrinsically saying is that life has meaning because if your life is completely meaningless and going nowhere and it just has no direction, it’s impossible to live it. And that’s depression. But to feel that anything is imbued with meaning, well that’s a massive gift. And it’s also very mysterious. I think you’re only one step away from believing in God if you believe your life has meaning. But I don’t think you have to be able to articulate it or express it in language, it’s just enough to be getting on with your day with an absence of psychic pain and physical pain. That’s a good day.
RKF: David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the things that inspired you to be a playwright. Do you admire other American playwrights?
CM: You have to admire Eugene O’Neill. You know he’s kind of an amazing writer—crazy, crazy, amazing writer. He’s from an age when the theater was really important. You could write these big three or four-hour plays. People wanted them. It’s sort of a different time. You feel a power in his work. There’s a supreme confidence in the audience in his work. He’s amazing. Arthur Miller, too, was a big inspiration to me. I saw Death of a Salesman when I was about 16. I think it speaks to everybody at some time in their life. That’s certainly another big one, yeah.
RKF: Why do you think that the theater—which is something of an antiquated art form—continues to thrive at a time when technology rules and people pride themselves on their short attention spans?
CM: Well, I think theater does something that nothing else can. It’s sitting there in the dark watching this thing unfold. It’s almost like a magical thing. Even though it’s the least technological of the storytelling art forms, it’s the most magical. It draws an audience into a kind of a trance—into a kind of magical, communal place which no other art form really does. Film sort of does all the dreaming for you. It’s quite passive. It’s lovely, but you drift into the dream. The camera shows you everything you need to see, and the music tells you everything to feel. Theater is more…you’ve got to meet it halfway. You’ve got to bring your own dream world to it to make it work. Because you have to invest in it and allow it to live and breathe. And the audience sort of brings it to life. And there’s something about that which I think—on quite a primary level—people find quite exciting.