Conor MacPherson

LifeWorksCriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferencesNotes

Life
1972- [var. 1971]; b. Dublin, of family with Co. Leitrim roots; raised in Coolock, Co. Dublin; fired by seeing his cousin Garrett Keogh, acting in Dublin in 1962; ed. UCD, where he went on to write an MA diss. on “Logical Constraints and Practical Reasoning”; author of This Lime Tree Bower (1995), a monologue ‘collage’ for three characters, one a lecturer called Ray, another a teenager called Joe, much about sexuality and the abuse of sexual power; successfully premiered at Dublin Fringe Festival; St. Nicholas (1997), about a drama critic who has disgraced himself;
 
directed his first film based on Paddy Breatnach’s raucous comedy I Went Down (1997); wrote The Weir (Abbey, 4 July 1997), a ghost-filled drama set in desolate bar in Leitrim-Sligo, with Jack, Brendan, and the city-dweller Valerie for monologic characters - the last visited with visions of her lost child; commissioned by the Royal Court Th. (London), where it was directed by Ian Rickson; afterwards moved to the Gate (July 1998) and later produced as La Fille de Dublin in Paris; opened in NY Walter Kerr Theatre (1 April 1999), with Jim Norton [Jack], Brendan Coyle [Brendan], winning the Olivier award in London, Kieran Ahern [Jim], Dermot Crowley [Finbar] and Michelle Fairley [Valerie]; issued Dublin Carol (Dublin Th. Fest. 2000), with Donna Dent; directorial film debut with Saltwater, an adaptation of This Lime Tree Bower for the screen, prod. Rob Walpole (Sept. 2000), in which Michael Caine plays a lead; hospitalised with pancreatitis brought on by drinking, 2002;
 
forthcoming Port Authority, the latter structured as the monologues; directed Endgame for Beckett on Film series; directed The Actors (2003), based on a story by Neil Jordan and with performances by Michael Caine and Dylan Moran; Shining City (Royal Court Jerwood Th., 2004), dir. by himself; also at Abbey (Sept. 2004); Hard to Believe (Riverside 2003), the monologue of John Foster, a counter-intelligence officer in Northern Ireland; premier of The Seafarer, National Theatre, London (28 Sept. 2006), a Christmas gathering of four men and a stranger, with a card game and supernatural overtones; played at the Abbey Th., Dublin, Dec. 2009; a play concerning Sharky, a sailor who returns to Dublin to care for his blind brother; schedule to open in New York, but closed by theatre strike, Nov. 2007.

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Works
This Lime Tree Bower
(London: Nick Hern 1995); St. Nicholas and The Weir [Royal Court Th. Prods.] (London: Nick Hern Books 1997); 3rd edn. (1998), 50pp.; Shining City (London: Nick Hern 2004), 78pp.; Play: Two (London: Nick Hern Books 2004), 220pp.; The Seafarer (London: Nick Hern Books 2006), 111pp.

See James Joyce, Exiles, with notes by the author and a new introduction by Conor McPherson (London: Nick Hern 2006), xvi, 112pp. [Note also edition introduced by Stewart Parker.]

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Criticism
Monographs
  • Gerald C. Wood, Conor McPherson: Imagining Mischief (Dublin: Liffey Press 2002), 200pp.
Articles & chapters
  • Scott T. Cummings, ‘Homo Fabulator: The Narrative; Imperative in Conor McPherson’s Plays’, in Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatre, ed. Eamonn Jordan (Blackrock: Carysfort Press 2000), pp.303-10;
  • Donald Clarke, ‘Fighting Demons’, interview-article], in The Irish Times, Weekend (May 2003), p.7);
  • Clare Wallace, ‘Conor McPherson: solitary micronarratives’, in Suspect Cultures: Narrative, Identity and Citation in 1990s New Drama (Prague: Litteraria Prengensia 2006) [chap.; qpp.];
  • John Wilson Foster, ‘The Weir: Inheriting the Wind’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (Dublin: IAP 2009), pp.48-56;
  • Cormac O'Brien, ‘The Afterlife of the anti-Hero: Postmodernist Fantasies of Manhood and the Hierarchy of Masculine Agency in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer’, in Irish Masculinities: Reflection on Literature and Culture, ed. Caroline Magennis & Raymond Mullen (Dublin: IAP 2011), [Chap. 11] pp.161-74.

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Commentary

Victoria White
Mel Gussow
Hal Jenson
Ben Brantley
John Lahr
Jack Krull
Brian Singleton
Ian Kilroy
David Nowlan
John Wilson Foster
John Stokes
Eamon Kelly

Victoria White, ‘Telling stories in the dark’ [interview-article], in The Irish Times (2 July 1998), with b&w photo-port.; in it McPherson talks about ‘curiosity about people […]. When I was growing up I found the people around me funning, or I found them intriguing, or I was sorry for them. If there was a teacher at school everyone hated, or a priest who was very strict, I would feel sorry for them’; directed This Lime Tree Bower with Fly By Night and Iomhá Ildánach Th. Cos., Dublin Theatre Fest. Feringe, 1995, in which a teenager, Joe, witnesses a rape that appals him but also ‘turns him on’; McPherson speaks of ‘that sense of not having control and gaining control again, in order to be happy. It’s great fuel for stories.’; ‘my characters tend to idolise women’; relates that the play is based on memories of his grandfather living alone in Leitrim: ‘the loneliness struck me./ I wondered, what is it like living with grief in a place like that?’; ‘the play is about breaking the oridinary world and allowing the supernatural to flow in, and finding out what your fears atre’; ‘the men are slightly hysterical. There is the hysteria of thing tht your life might change and you might fall in love. It’s a hand fuel for stories, the electricity created by sexual fears. I thing when people meet a member of the opposite sex, they’re thinking: “Am I going to be attracted to this person”? On charges of peddling an image of Ireland: ‘I’m getting away with an image of Ireland in which Dublin is very far away. but really, Ireland has become much smaller. With the new roads, you shoot up there in an hour and a half.’ Further: ‘I have been in bars like that one in the play. It’s not all like that, but there are those places […].’ Commenting on resemblance to Lughnasa (Friel) and Leenane (McDonagh): ‘In fairness, mine is closest to reality’. On McDonagh: ‘because of his unique style in interviews, he’s taken a lot of flak’; read a lot of Stephen King; involved in new Wave bands in teenage; working on scripts incl. one for Paddy Breatnach on small-town police dept. in Georgia, another for Neil Jordan; bring St. Nicholas to Geffen Th., Los Angeles.

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Mel Gussow, ‘From Dublin to Broadway: Spinning Tales of Irish Wool’, in NY Times (1 April 1999), Arts Sect., pp.1, 3: quotes the playwright [here called McPherson]; ‘The Weir is about some people who are reminded of their situation in life, of who they are, and they either face up to it or they don’t’; it is about ‘the act of telling somebody something’; ‘ explains the title, ‘On one side it is quite calm, and on the other side water is being squeezed through. Metaphorically the play is about a breakthrough. Lots under the surface is coming out. It’s resonant of two worlds, the supernatural and our ordinary world apst and present. I though it was a gerat title, but 90 per cent of the people I’ve met just don’t know what a weir is.’ Mellow cites Sebastian Barry’s view that MacPherson is the only Irish playwright wtih a ‘gift for structure’, which MacPherson reinterprets as ‘an instinct for pace’; ‘I find monologues liberating […] I think the freedom they afford is great, just the simplicity of it and the images that people are creating themselves. [... &c.]

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Hal Jenson, review of The Weir, in Times Literary Supplement (18 July 1997), described in a positive notice as being set in Sligo pub and collating increasingly chilling stories about supernatural events as told by the characters.

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Ben Brantley, review of The Weir, in NY Times (Weekend, 2 April [1999]); ‘beautiful and devious’; ‘a moment arrives, and it’s hard to say exactly when because you’ve shed all sense of time, when you realise that you have strayed into territory that scrapes the soul […] the loss and loneliness that eventually haunt every life.’; notes departure from ‘ultimate cliché’, viz., “it was a dark and stormy night”; compares swappage of stories to Decameron; ‘the stories of The weir emerge out of an organic flow of conversation among longtime friends, partly prosaic exchanges […] remarkable whenyou think of it how little of this talk is merely atmospheric filler […] lyricism a matter of steady accumulation’; ‘monologues of the Weir are really dialogues between the narrator and listener, just as every play is a dialogue between itself and its audience […] by the end [we have] fully and transportingly joined in the conversation.’

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John Lahr, ‘The Bayjaysus Factor’: the haunted Celtic stammer of Conor MacPherson’s The Weir’, review in The New Yorker (April 1999), pp.101-02; commences with misgiving about ‘the blathering stage Irishman’; concentrates on the treatment of the child’s death; acknowledges that MacPherson ‘plays this manipulative card to strong effect’; ‘anyone who has lived through a child’s death […] knows that it is a grief beyond words; dramatists like MacPherson, who is now twenty-seven, fondly imagine otherwise’; criticises Valerie’s unburdening of herself to a ‘roomful of strangers’; her monologue ‘dramaturgically suspect’; ‘the moment is meant to show the blessings of community, but it’s sentimental, bogus, and unearned’; praises jack’s ‘aria’ of being hard-shouldered when he turns up at the wedding of his ‘lost young love’; regards his story as a ghost-story in spite of his denial; ‘By the end of the evening MacPherson, who has an informed heart and an unerring ear, manages to engineer a sense of fellowship in the group […] but, with the exception of Jack, the characters as individuals are overlooked. […] For all the well-crafted talk and well-observed bonhomie, The Weir is finally a shaggy bog story.’

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Jack Krull, ‘When Irish Guys are Beguiling: finding poetry in a pub’, review of The Weir, in Newsweek (12 April 1999): links MacDonagh, Barry and MacPherson as playwrights of the Celtic Tiger; ‘in The Weir almost nothing happens, except the revelations of the human heart’; ‘The Guinness tap may be broken, but the blarney tap works fine. McPherson dispenses it generously, and then with stunning effect coaxes out the true poetry concealed within’; cites artistic dir. Ian Rickson, and actors [as above]; ‘when they embrace at the curtain call, you feel your own shoulders encircled and warmed.’

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Brian Singleton, ‘Am I Talking to Myself?’, in The Irish Times (24 Feb. 2001), Weekend Review, anticipating the opening of Port Authority at the Gate Th., Dublin (24 April): writes of a critique of the use of monologue at the centre of so many recent Irish plays: ‘[Eugene] O’Brien, [Neil] LaBute and [Conor] McPherson deny their characters any reprogramming, any compasionate or even dispassionate listener.’ Further: ‘since the action has already happened, the characters are unaware of each other, and their narratives are unchallenged, the drama is removed from embodiment and re-enactment and relocated in the gaps in the characters’ perceptions and in the tensions between the multiple truths’ [end].

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Ian Kilroy, ‘Learning to be Happy: Conor McPherson, a storyteller who tackles the same themes again and again, is riding a wave of popular acclaim’, in The Irish Times (30 Sept. 2000), Weekend, p.5. Kilroy article includes comments from Dermot Moran [UCD], remarking on McPherson’s his interest in ethical and moral choice, and quotes the playwright at some length: ‘I’m usually writing about the same things all the time, people who are looking to connect with other people. And maybe feeling guilty that their own selfishness is getting in the way. People that are looking for some kind of salvation. Dublin Carol is really just about the difficulty of someone accepting the community around them, and allowing themselves to be part of it, and allowing themselves to be happy.’ Further, ‘I think all stories have a healing function because what they say is that you’re not alone. If a play or a production of a play works, what it does is it defines the community. Because at the beginning of the night everyone goes in and they’re all separate people and the actors are separate to the audience. But by the end of the night, if the thing has worked, everybody comes out feeling that they are all on the same team. You feel human, and it’s OK to be human. It’s trying to give you a sympathetic view of people that you may even consider your enemies.’ Further, ‘There’s an awful lot of inarticulacy in my plays; very often the most inarticulate character is the one that people are drawn to, more and more. Brendan, the barman in The Weir, he hardly says a thing, and yet people are just drawn to his plight. So I think I’m trying to distil exactly what it is that people are trying to say. So all those ums and aghs and pauses in the plays are just looking for, I suppose, the poetry of inarticulacy.’

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David Nowlan, review of Dublin Carol at the Gate, in The Irish Times (5 Oct. 2000), based on comparison with Royal Court premier: ‘The gentle melancholy which suffused the play in the Royal Court is replaced with a sense of combat, as if there might be something to fight about. / Yet tale of John Plunkett awaiting his nemesis in the undertaker’s office where he had worked for years remains essentially the same.’ Likewise, ‘acquiesence’ is replaced by ‘feistiness’ in role of his daughter while ‘even Mark, his young apprentice […] is here prepared to argue against the advice from Plunkett that might have sent him down the same lonely roard as his mentor was travelling for most of his life.’ Nowlan feels ‘[t]he play is enriched and deepened by this new emphasis’; praise of John Kavanagh as Plunkett; Donna Dent as Mary; Sean MacDonagh as Mark.

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John Wilson Foster, ‘The Weir: Inheriting the Wind’ [Talk given in Vancouver Arts Club before its staging of The Weir, 28 Oct. 2002], in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture, Dublin: IAP 2009): ‘At first I thought that the mildly disrespectful references to the priests in The Weir (1997) were a reflection of the new cynical attitude to the Catholic Church in Ireland. The disrespect shown by Martin McDonagh’s characters (shocking to even this Protestant) certainly is part of that new cynicism (even when McDonagh purports to be depicting the Ireland of 1934). But in The Weir what seems like disrespect is really an allusion to the age-old clash between the church and what were once called ’the elder faiths’ of Ireland and to the weakness of clerical power when up against the power of the pagan Otherworld and the forces of darkness that predate Christianity. McPherson doesn’t make heavy weather of this, but it is a dramatic idea as old as two famous Irish plays of the early twentieth century: The Playboy of the Western World (1907) and Riders to the Sea (1904), both by John Millington Synge. It is as if for these writers literary history carries as much weight as contemporary reality; they are revising and updating literature as much as reflecting the changes and innovations in the society around them. / So here amply in The Weir are what we associate with Ireland through her literature - Catholicism and Celticism, poverty and a countryside green in daylight, dark and foreboding at night. [...] Valerie has been educated is Dublin City University [but t]he characters who stayed put in their Sligo or north-west Leitrim obscurity are from an older but still modern Ireland, the Ireland that began in 1951 when the weir provided electricity to the countryside. They carry within themselves the conflict between that modernizing Ireland [49] and the Ireland of flights of fancy and belief in fairies. [...]’ (p.49.)

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John Stokes, ‘Devils You Know’, review of Shining City, in Times Literary Supplement (25 June 2004), p.17: ‘Conor McPherson’s new play is preceded by country and western music from the 1970s, the emotional harmonies of The Eagles and of Neil Young filling the theatre with airy anguish. When Shining City formally begins, these turn out to be the preferred musical tastes of Ian, a man now in his mid-forties, as he prepares his scruffy new office in a Dublin suburb (a church steeple prominent through its high window) for a visit the purpose of which is not immediately clear. Only after a while do we realise that lan is a psychotherapist and that his visitor, the somewhat older John, is a patient overcome by guilt following his wife’s death in a car crash during a period of estrangement. John believes that her ghost has now returned with vindictive intent. [..] As in The Weir, Dublin Carol and Port Authority, MePherson writes about today’s haunted men, burly crybabies, thoroughly sick of themselves, who seek forgiveness from women who seem, in comparison, to be frighteningly strong. Such men kill time in lonely, transitional places: pubs, B&Bs, empty buildings, anywhere but home. Although capable of speaking about themselves at great length, it takes time for them to get up to speed. Initially they pause before embarking on sentences that never finish, that sometimes barely start, that tail off with a pleading “you know”. Often the interlocutor does seem to know; for all its incompleteness this intimacy of exchange suggests shared patterns of experience. The continual use of “fucking” as a noise rather than a word, as a verbal intensifier, registers a darker intensity or collective neurosis. At the same time McPherson, who also directs, foregrounds actions whose clumsiness betrays a similar lack of emotional security: Ian tries to open a bottle of wine with a knife; he attempts, and fails, to wrap up a teddy bear in a neat parcel.’ Identifies Shining City as being ‘among the first dramas of the text message, of temporal disorientation and sexual promise’.

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Eamon Kelly, review of The Seafarer, in Books Ireland (Sept. 2007), p.179: ‘[…] an all-male ensemble […] a modern Christmas story that concentrates on four men gathered for Christmas Egve whose lives have been blighted by alcohol abuse. Expertly written dialogue and engrossing scenes portray the type of mind games that alcoholics indulge in; needling spite and insinuating bullying; directed in this instance against one of their number who is trying to lay off the drink. The men are visited by a mysterious stranger, a well-dressed business-man type, who has come along with one of the men on the promise of a game of cards through Christmas Eve. And here the story takes a supernatural turn setting up act two for a game of cards with a sinister underlying twist. When the story takes this unexpected turn from the grotly realism of these men’s lives into totally story territory, the imagination awakens to it, wanting it. […] The story then does a sweet turn along the way in act two, giving the impression that the supernatural element could be a delusion of the protagonist who is attempting to quit drinking; a symptom of the DTs; only to shift yet again to show that all four drinkers may be targets of the supernatural force in their midst. The play ends on a redemptive note, in keeping with the festive season, with shades of the near-miss fate of Scrooge.’ Kelly further writes: ‘Realism is fine, but there’s nothing like an oldfashioned story. […] The whole thing is beautifully done, though for me the redemptive ending seemed like a fairly arch sleight of hand with all signposts of the play pointing towards a grimmer ending. Nevertheless, another virtually faultless performance from McPherson.’ [End.]

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Quotations
Original Sin’ [Conor MacPherson reflects on his fellow Irish playwrights’ debt to their country’s Catholic culture’], in (Guardian Weekly, 15-21 Feb., 2001), concerning his direction of a reading of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange; remarks, ‘Irish plays tend to explore the inner workings of the human being, how it feels to be alive and the difficulty we have in communicating our feelings. British plays veer more towards journalism. … / And I began to think about why a small country such as Ireland has produced so many great playwrights. It’s extraordinary … [Cites Synge, O’Casey, Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Friel, Tom Murphy, Billy Roche, Sebastian Barry]. Their plays have shaped the way people think and are performed all over the world. Why the disproportion? / Although some of the above were Protestants, I think it has something to do with growing up in a predominantly Catholic culture.’ Speaks of growing up in a predominantly working-class area where ‘the same teachers who taught us religion also physically attacked us’; ‘became used to being hit by an adult every day’; ‘If this constant reinforcement of your badness and guilt happens to you at such a vulnerable age, it seems to me inevitable that you are going to start thinking about the quality of your character … [a]nd that starts you thinking about character in general. About characters. / The storytelling tradition in Ireland is still strong. Stories allow you to go through experiences virtually, without having to face the consequences. You identify with the character. “What if I did that? How would I feel? How would I cope?” In this way it’s therapeutic. It’s helpful. / And I suppose that’s the difference between English and Irish plays. Protestants are told they’re free to protest. So playwrights argue that their work has a political validity - Pinter, Hare, Brenton, Edgar, Wesker, &c. - whereas Irish writers are mostly a bit scared. If there’s a message, it’s a simple one: “I know you’re afraid of dying alone in a ditch. I am too. Let’s be together.” And maybe that’s way Irish plays have a universal popularity. Because we all die alone. And we’ve been told that since we were babies. And it was beaten into us.’ [p.18; END]. Note photo. ill. of Michelle Fairley and Jim Norton in production of The Weir.]

Will the Morning After Stop Us Talking to Ourselves?’, [feature-article] in The Irish Times (3 May 1008) [Weekend]: ‘[…] For a few years I drifted into writing monologues. This wasn’t a conscious thing; I just found that monologues could take the inner/outer, public/private vibration to a place where I could achieve an intimacy that seemed very satisfying. Brian Friel wrote the rulebook for the modern Irish monologue with Faith Healer (1979). / But it wasn’t until the 1990s that a younger vanguard of Irish playwrights suddenly embraced this form: Enda Walsh in Disco Pigs and Bedbound; Eugene O’Brien in Eden; Mark O’Rowe in Howie the Rookie; Marie Jones in A Night in November; the list goes on - we were all at it. I’ve returned to (or drifted back to) a more traditional form of playwriting in recent years, but when I look back now it seems that the era of these monologue plays coincided with the momentous changes Ireland underwent during the Celtic Tiger years. And I wonder if this proliferation of monologues had to happen somehow? It may be argued that Irish plays became intensely personal in a radical attempt to preserve and explore our sense of identity during such an unprecedented transformation of our society. / Even senior playwrights such as Tom Murphy (The Alice Trilogy) and Sebastian Barry (The Pride of Parnell Street) came to explore the monologue form in their own unique ways. Irish drama went “inside” because our stories were fragile, because everything was changing. Religious custodians lost respect due to a sense of betrayal over sexual scandals and cover-ups. Our political leaders became mired in the now ubiquitous tribunals into corruption. The old war with the traditional enemy was over. We were no longer victims. So who were we?’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Reviews”, infra.)

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Notes
Joe Penhall, Blue/Orange, offered at the Project Th. by Rough Magic on 2nd Dec., 2000, was directed by MacPherson (Irish Times, 23 Nov. 2000).

The Seafarer (2006): a Christmas gathering of four men and a stranger, with a card game and supernatural overtones, and concerning one Sharky, a sailor who returns to Dublin to care for his blind brother.

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