Irish playwrights have been all over North Texas stages in recent years. Conor McPherson’s ‘The Night Alive,’ currently at the Undermain Theater, is the third of his haunting plays the company has staged. Meanwhile, Martin McDonagh’s dark comedies have been presented by Kitchen Dog, WaterTower, Second Thought and Stage West — at least. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks takes stock of this Gaelic invasion with Justin Martin.
Justin Martin: I understand Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh have had something of a feud. Or at least a rather chilly exchange. What’s that all about?
Jerome Weeks: Conor McPherson has denied ever saying the insult that supposedly started everything a couple years ago. But the quarrel is interesting — if there is one – because it cuts to who they are, what being Irish means and what their plays do. Martin McDonagh is the most famous of the current crop of Irish playwrights. He made his big splash in the ’90s and early ’00s with a couple of trilogies, plays like ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ and ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore.’ They’re set in far west Ireland and give us this grim, funny portrait of isolated, violent people. And they’re known for their shock tactics. They’ve even forced theaters to up their level of onstage special effects. When WaterTower Theatre did ‘Inishmore’ four years ago, they brought in a specialist just to handle all the graphic bloodshed. That’s why I think of McDonagh as the Irish Quentin Tarantino.
I’ve seen ‘In Bruges,’ the 2008 film that McDonagh wrote and directed.
Yeah, OK. So you think the Tarantino comparison is fair?
If I remember correctly: hookers, dwarves, violence and cocaine. Yeah, it’s pretty appropriate.
I thought it was terrific, too, even lovely, despite all the shootings.
But back to this supposed feud. Martin McDonagh was raised by Irish parents – but in London. That kind of Anglo-Irish mix is pretty common in British literature. We Americans tend to think of writers like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde as veddy English, but on that side of the ocean, they’re clear on the difference. Both were born in Dublin. So when you combine Martin McDonagh’s London background with his penchant for portraying the Irish as brutal, backwoods loners, you can understand why Conor McPherson, who’s from Dublin, may have dismissed McDonagh with a slur. He called his writing “stage Irish.”
It’s an old insult. It means he just plays to the prejudices of the audience by depicting the Irish as drunken, loud and lurid. But then some Irish ex-pats took a little umbrage at the remark. It seemed to them McPherson was saying McDonagh himself wasn’t ‘authentically Irish.’
Well then, what about McPherson’s own plays?
He’s definitely subtler; he’s more about the mood of menace. There’s a reason he has often cited Harold Pinter — the master of unspoken menace — as a major influence. ‘The Night Alive’ at the Undermain has a perfect example of the differences between McPherson and McDonagh. There’s this vicious beating that happens in the play, and McPherson has it happen offstage. It’s still a jolt, but we only hear it.
Now, McDonagh would have put it front and center. McDonagh is all about showing us, sticking it to us, hammering away, making it so we can’t look away, whether that’s comedy or violence. Theater to him is about immediacy — being alive and present in the room when something happens. That’s made his work very theatrical, very exciting, especially for younger audiences.
But I also think that penchant for bigger jolts, more attention-getting effects is a reason he’s almost abandoned theater these days for film (although the word is he has a new play in the works for the Royal Court called ‘Hangmen’). McDonagh has even said he has little respect for the traditions of theater and more respect for film. And that preference for ham-fisted violence and comedy is also why, I think, with ‘Seven Psychopaths’ — the film McDonagh made after ‘In Bruges’ — he fell into the Tarantino trap of over-the-top absurdity. The bloodshed and the humor feel manipulative and cynical.
In contrast, Conor McPherson is about nudging and suggesting things – particularly otherworldly, unseen things. He has said, growing up in Ireland, you’re always aware of being on the far western edge of Europe. The Atlantic Ocean is the great beyond. So instead of the kind of ultra-splattery violence you get in Martin McDonagh’s writing, McPherson’s plays tap into the moodier, even melancholy traditions of the Irish ghost story. They’re all about what’s out of our control, what’s beyond.
It can be almost a tic in his plays, this need to imply there’s something else behind our accepted reality. McPherson himself has directed and co-written a film, called The Eclipse,’ came out in 2009. I think it’s seriously underrated by horror movie fans, people who want those big, gotcha, shock effects. The film actually conveys a creepy sense of loss, of unfinished emotional business of ghosts representing not letting go of this life. As they say, the movie casts a really nice pall.
At one point, a British novelist, played by Iben Hjejle, does a reading at a literary festival. And what she says sounds like McPherson’s defense of the ghost story. Her character reads about how seeing a ghost splits your mind between what’s real and what’s not and changes your sense of the world. The character in her story wakes up and sees this dim figure sitting on her bed with its mouth open and its eyes mournful. Open-mouthed, unspeaking apparitions appear throughout McPherson’s works: There’s a world beyond this one, it seems, but it can’t tell us much, we’ll never get the answers we really want. And the woman in the novelist’s story realizes, at that moment, fully for the first time, that she would die, her husband would die, all her children would die — and “that what she was looking at was reality.” Reality, in this case, means knowing — with complete, painful finality — about loss and death, about our suffering after death yet also knowing you’ll never know anything more. It’s a turmoil of insight and ignorance.
That’s why McPherson’s plays all have this disturbing unease — even as they take place in perfectly ordinary settings with average people being pushed by cruel events. It’s his way of seeing the world but it’s also a theatrical effect: The spooky, the otherwordly, has a bigger impact when it happens in this context of the utterly commonplace. Or even the harshly real.
That harsh reality is what’s lacking in the tone of the Undermain’s ‘The Night Alive.’ Directed by Dylan Key, it’s a good but not particularly vivid production. Bruce Dubose and Scott Latham play partners. Tey’re both middle-aged losers who work odd jobs together and live in this dead-end basement apartment. Yet the actors are both a little too sweet and funny. So the play feels slack. Here’s Latham’s character, Doc, telling Dubose, who plays Tommy, and Katherine Bourne, playing Aimee, about a mysterious coincidence, the kind his dreamy character is fascinated by:
Doc: “I heard, on the news that they were hoping the pope was going to be able to walk down to the graveyard by himself. And the next day, the pope was dead.”
Tommy: “What do you make of that?”
Aimee: “That’s insane.”
Doc: “Yep. Crazy.”
That’s kind of creepy.
Yeah, but in the atmosphere and buildup to that sort of thing, there’s not enough tension between Tommy and Doc or between Tommy and Aimee. There’s not enough spookiness or menace – even before the real violence comes. DuBose’s character should be such a wretched, glum guy that when this one ghost does finally appear, it should feel like a blessing from beyond. His life is broken up — just a bit, for just a moment. He’s given a vision, it’s a kind of spiritual thank-you for the one kindness he did in his dim world of haggling and getting-by.
The funny thing, though?
I think, hands down, the single best play, the finest production of any Irish comedy or drama in recent seasons, still is the Undermain’s staging of ‘Penelope’ at the City Performance Hall.
And that wasn’t by McDonagh or McPherson. It was by Enda Walsh. He’s probably the least known of the three — except for the musical, ‘Once’ — but I think he may wind up the most compelling, the most versatile playwright of the bunch.