Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654
Conor McPherson (muhk-FURS-uhn) was a graduate student at University College, Dublin, when his first play, Rum and Vodka, was performed there in November of 1992. By the end of the 1990’s, he had become the best-known and most highly praised Irish playwright of his generation.
Earlier that year, McPherson and friends from various universities in Dublin had founded the Fly by Night Theatre Company to produce experimental plays, of which McPherson’s quickly proved the most successful. His next play, The Good Thief, was presented in the 1994 Dublin Theatre Festival, and his third, This Lime Tree Bower, won him a London literary agent and publisher. Asked to serve as writer-in-residence for the Bush Theatre in London, McPherson wrote St. Nicholas, a dark, dour monologue delivered by an aged theater critic in the thrall of vampires. The Weir opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1997 and enjoyed a lengthy run there and, subsequently, on Broadway. The Weir won a number of important awards, including the 1999 Olivier Award for Best Play and a New York Critics Circle Award that same year. His screenplay for the crime film I Went Down (1997) was awarded Best Screenplay of the Year at the San Sebastian Film Festival. These awards and the success of The Weir in productions in numerous countries transformed McPherson from regional playwright to international literary celebrity in a year’s time.
It is ironic that McPherson’s success began in fringe venues, for despite the trappings of experimentalism in his plays, they are at heart conservatively Celtic in spirit as well as in form. Indeed, it is this mix of old and seeming new that defines McPherson’s art and positions him as a synthesist in the manner of James Joyce. Much as Joyce did in his masterworks Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), McPherson treats Irish folklore and folkways in methods that seem strikingly innovative at first viewing. Rum and Vodka, The Good Thief, and St. Nicholas are all minimalistic monologues in which one character sits alone on stage and speaks directly to the audience. This Lime Tree Bower is a series of three monologues, delivered by three different characters. The Weir, though more conventional in featuring five characters who interact with one another and engage in traditional dialogue, is structured around six set-pieces: uninterrupted monologues in the form of stories told by the patrons of a small pub in rural Ireland. This stripped down dramaturgy without pretenses at first suggests the distancing techniques of Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett, twentieth century playwrights who were eager to draw attention to the essential unreality of theatrical spectacle.
However, McPherson seems to shatter conventions, not so much to expose the artifice of theater as to draw the actor and the audience together into an intimate, conversational relationship. As he writes in the preface to St. Nicholas: “With one actor talking only to the audience, what we have in front of us is a guide. He’s telling us about somewhere outside the theatre, not trying to recreate it indoors.” Thus, the theater becomes principally the meeting place where the actor and the audience are brought together. The play is a story occurring not only beyond the proscenium but beyond the theater—in a world evoked for the audience by the storytelling skills of the actor. By thus consciously and conscientiously choosing to “tell” plays rather than “stage” them, McPherson is drawing on the deep and ancient oral traditions of Celtic lands. One critic has called The Weir “an exploration of the very act and meaning of storytelling itself.” The same claim could be made about the entire corpus of McPherson’s work.
His reflective monologues, haunted by such legendary creatures as fairies, ghosts, and vampires, are truly Joycean in theme, illustrating the recurrence of ancient myth and symbol in the mundane lives of contemporary characters and the hope of revelation and discovery (epiphany) through the freely flowing narration of memory.
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