The Theatre of Conor McPherson

«Right beside the Beyond»

by Lilian Chambers (Volume editor) Eamonn Jordan (Volume editor)
©2012 Edited Collection X, 332 Pages


Multiple productions and the international successes of plays like The Weir have led to Conor McPherson being regarded by many as one of the finest writers of his generation. McPherson has also been hugely prolific as a theatre director, as a screenwriter and film director, garnering many awards in these different roles.
In this collection of essays, commentators from around the world address the substantial range of McPherson’s output to date in theatre and film, a body of work written primarily during and in the aftermath of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger period. These critics approach the work in challenging and dynamic ways, considering the crucial issues of morality, the rupturing of the real, storytelling, and the significance of space, violence and gender. Explicit considerations are given to comedy and humour, and to theatrical form, especially that of the monologue and to the ways that the otherworldly, the unconscious and the supernatural are accommodated dramaturgically, with frequent emphasis placed on the specific aspects of performance in both theatre and film.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1 | The Early Years (Anthony Roche)
  • 2 | The Geography of Conor McPherson’s Plays: The City as Salvation or Hell? (Sara Keating)
  • 3 | The Art of Disclosure, the Ethics of Monologue in Conor McPherson’s Drama: St. Nicholas, This Lime Tree Bower and Port Authority (Clare Wallace)
  • 4 | Representing Sexual Violence in the Early Plays of Conor McPherson (Lisa Fitzpatrick)
  • 5 | Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas: A Study in Comic Anguish (Susanne Colleary)
  • 6 | ‘shame shame shame’: Masculinity, Intimacy and Narrative in Conor McPherson’s Shining City (Kevin Wallace)
  • 7 | ‘This is what I need you to do to make it right’: Conor McPherson’s I Went Down (Emilie Pine)
  • 8 | The Buoyancy of Conor McPherson’s Saltwater (Kevin Kerrane)
  • 9 | Issues of Narrative, Storytelling and Performance in Conor McPherson’s The Actors (Carmen Szabo)
  • 10 | Mysterium Tremens: Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol (Ian R. Walsh)
  • 11 | The ‘Sweet Smell’ of the Celtic Tiger: Elegy and Critique in Conor McPherson’s The Weir (P.J. Mathews)
  • 12 | The Measure of a Pub Spirit in Conor McPherson’s The Weir (Rhona Trench)
  • 13 | ‘Stumbling around in the light’: Conor McPherson’s partial eclipse (Ashley Taggart)
  • 14 | The Supernatural in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer and The Birds (Christopher Murray)
  • 15 | The Gravity of Humour in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer (Eric Weitz)
  • 16 | Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer: Male Pattern Blindness (Audrey McNamara)
  • 17 | Interview with Pál Göttinger (Mária Kurdi)
  • 18 | Para-Normal Views/Para-Gothic Activities in Conor McPherson’s The Veil (Eamonn Jordan)
  • 19 | Interview with Conor McPherson (Noelia Ruiz)
  • Biographical notes
  • Performances and Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Special acknowledgement to Dan Farrelly for his significant and patient work on this project and for his substantial and ongoing commitment in his roles as Chairperson and General Editor of Carysfort Press. We would like to thank the Arts Council for their continued backing of publishers like Carysfort Press, as their support ensures that publications like this one can happen. The Theatre of Conor McPherson documents, contextualizes and critically evaluates the writing and performance of work by a world-renowned Irish writer and director of film and theatre.

All excerpts from plays and screenplays by Conor McPherson are strictly protected by copyright and are reproduced with the permission of McPherson's publisher, Nick Hern Books: www.nickhernbooks.co.uk

Thanks to the Gate Theatre for permission to reproduce the image from its production of The Weir in 2008, directed by Garry Hynes and designed by Francis O’Connor, with Genevieve O’Reilly and Seán McGinley playing Valerie and Jack respectively. We also wish to thank photographer Anthony Woods for providing us with the image. Thanks to all our contributors for the work that they have produced to make this collection of essays the substantial volume that it is.

Finally, many thanks to Conor McPherson for agreeing to be interviewed for this project, for the range, generosity, insights of his plays, for the keen articulations of his points of view in the media and other fora, and for his ongoing commitment to the processes of rehearsal and performance; and perhaps above all, for his interests in and respect for audiences around the world.

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Conor McPherson has produced an extraordinary body of work over the last two decades and more. Born in Dublin on 6 August 1971, McPherson has worked as an actor, screenwriter, film and theatre director and most of all as a playwright. He first came to prominence in the early 1990s at Dramsoc – University College Dublin’s Drama Society.1 Having graduated, McPherson’s early work was produced by Fly By Night Theatre Company.2 His major breakthrough came after two productions at the Bush Theatre in London. The Bush did a production of This Lime Tree Bower (a winner of the Stewart Parker Award) which opened on 3 July 1996, having been previously co-produced by Íomhá Ildánach/Fly by Night Theatre Company on 26 September 1995 at the Crypt Arts Centre, Dublin. Perhaps even more significantly, St. Nicholas opened at the Bush Theatre on 19 February 1997, with Brian Cox in the lead role, a work which McPherson wrote while he was attached to the theatre under the Pearson Television Theatre Writer’s Scheme.3 McPherson appears to have been making the most of the many opportunities that were coming his way at the time.

A commission from London’s Royal Court Theatre led to the multi-award winning production of The Weir, which opened on 4 July 1997 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Directed by Ian Rickson and designed by Rae Smith, The Weir is the work which has established McPherson’s international reputation. (The Weir transferred to the Royal Court Downstairs, St Martin’s Lane, in London’s West End, on 18 February 1998 where it ran for two years, with a number of cast changes throughout the run.)4 Dublin Carol, also directed by Rickson and designed by Rae Smith, opened on 7 January 2000, and Shining City also premiered at Royal Court’s Theatre Downstairs on 9 June 2004 with McPherson directing.5 ← 1 | 2 → More recently, The Seafarer (2006) opened at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium in London on 28 September 2006, with McPherson again directing. When the play reached Broadway, with McPherson continuing to direct the work, it was nominated for Tony Awards in the category of Best Play and Best Director, having earlier received nominations for Best Play for both the Laurence Olivier and Evening Standard Awards. Further, Jim Norton won a Best Supporting Actor Olivier Award 2007 and a Tony Featured Best Actor Award in 2008 for his performances as Richard Harkin. His most recent play The Veil received its first production at London’s National Theatre’s Lyttleton auditorium on 4 October 2011, with McPherson directing.

McPherson’s stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds received its American premiere on 29 February 2012 at the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, directed by Henry Wishcamper, who had previously directed Port Authority for New York’s Atlantic Theater Company in 2008. This adaptation of The Birds was first performed at the Gate Theatre in Dublin on 25 September 2009 during the Dublin Theatre Festival, with McPherson directing, and with Sinead Cusack and Ciarán Hinds in the lead roles.

At this stage of his career, one can see the broad range of theatre companies with which McPherson has worked in London, namely The Bush Theatre, The Royal Court and London’s National Theatre and there is an obvious pattern of premiering work in London before transferring it elsewhere. Indeed, the Gate Theatre’s production of Port Authority opened at the New Ambassadors on 22 February 2001 in London, before transferring to Dublin on 24 April 2001. (Normally, the tendency for an Irish writer is to open a play on the island and hope for a transfer to places like London.) At the Gate Theatre, McPherson has established a very good working relationship with Michael Colgan, the theatre’s Artistic Director. Shining City also transferred there in September 2004. Come on Over was performed at the Gate from 2 October 2001 as part of an evening of three plays, alongside Neil Jordan’s White Horses and Brian Friel’s The Yalta Game. A production of The Weir which opened on 12 June 2008, also at the Gate, directed by Garry Hynes, was warmly received. The Gate had already staged a production of the play a decade earlier in 1999. Additionally, in 2000 McPherson directed Endgame for the Beckett on Film series, having already directed a production of Endgame at the Gate in April 1999. ← 2 | 3 → McPherson also directed Billy Roche’s Poor Beast in the Rain there in April 2005. Until more recently, McPherson’s relationship with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre has been somewhat less fruitful; a production of The Seafarer on the Abbey Theatre stage in 2008 was a homecoming of sorts. McPherson had directed Eugene O’Brien’s Eden initially at the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre in January 2001. This exceptionally successful play had national and international tours, and eventually played on the Abbey’s main stage.

McPherson has the determination, confidence, skills and self-assurance to direct the premieres of many of his own plays. It is a task that most people would be encouraged not to do, as playwrights are generally seen to be too close to the work, or they are regarded generally as being less likely to be creatively interpretative of their own work and thus more prone to the construction of a limited or conservative mise-en-scène. In many respects McPherson is often quoted as seeing the directing of the work as a completion of the writing project, as there is ample opportunity to revise and reconfigure the work during the rehearsal period.6

In the same year as The Weir garnered international acclaim, his film script for I Went Down (1997) was also well received critically. I Went Down got the Spanish Circle of Screenwriter’s Award for Best Screenplay and the San Sebastian film festival award for Best Film. This was followed by Saltwater (2000), an adaptation of This Lime Tree Bower, which McPherson wrote and directed. Saltwater won the CICAE Award for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival. In 2003 The Actors opened, which McPherson again wrote and directed. The Eclipse, directed by McPherson and co-written with Billy Roche, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009, where Ciarán Hinds won Best Actor Award. Additionally, at the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards in 2010, The Eclipse won Best Film and Best Screenplay Awards and Aidan Quinn won Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Film. The film also won the Méliès d’Argent Award for Best European Film at the Sitges, Catalonian International Film Festival in 2009.7 In terms of film, McPherson made a cameo acting appearance in I Went Down and appeared briefly in Inside I’m Dancing (2004) and in the TV series Paths to Freedom (2000) and Fergus’s Wedding (2002). He also wrote some of the music for The Actors and worked on the score for The Eclipse, with his wife, the painter and musician, Fionnuala Ni Chiosain.

An awareness of how plays impact on audiences comes through again and again in McPherson’s comments on the writing for and ← 3 | 4 → directing of theatre. And of course, it is his consistently expressed admiration for actors and designers that comes across in almost all his reflections on the making of theatre.8 Engagements with McPherson’s strikingly rich body of work is aided considerably by his willingness to commit to interviews and give considered responses to detailed questions, to write opinion pieces, and to offer reflections on the art of playwriting. His engagement with emerging writers and directors at a number of University programmes in Ireland and America, including University College Dublin’s Masters in Directing and Drama and Performance Programmes where he is currently Adjunct Professor, displays a willingness not only to encourage new work, but to contribute positively to the training environments of upcoming practitioners.

In this collection we have gathered an array of very interesting voices, who sometimes share common perspectives, but are also now and then at odds in their responses to the work. The reader is encouraged to negotiate with and between these opposing points of view. The approaches here vary from the explication of text to broad theorizing in relation to gender, from reflections on issues of morality to analysis of the monologue form, from the consideration of space to discussions on the supernatural and dramaturgical considerations of more complex consciousnesses beyond the real, and from reflections on comedy to considerations of approaches to direction and conditions of performance. (As many of the plays have been published in very different forms, page references are to the specific publications, as our contributors had used the published versions of plays that they had at their disposal.) As editors, we decided not to cover the very early plays, but even with these exclusions, and as with any edited book like this, there remain obvious gaps. Regardless, this collection marks over two decades of substantial, significant and landmark output, and interrogates critically work that has been produced around the world in a variety of ways and in many different contexts.

Anthony Roche captures the early career of McPherson during his time in University College Dublin (1988-93), where he studied English and Philosophy for his undergraduate degree, before going on to complete an MA in Philosophy. During this period, apart from his academic development, McPherson effectively achieved an unstructured, extensive and decisive early training in theatre and performance. Roche’s reflections on the hot housing, informal and formative influences of academic and student life on McPherson are ← 4 | 5 → matched by his astute reading of McPherson’s MA major thesis ‘Logical Constraint and Practical Reasoning: On Attempted Refutations of Utilitarianism,’ a work which is in the words of Roche ‘a strong-minded and robust defence of the theory of utilitarianism, arguing that people undertake goals in life not because they are trying to be objectively moral but to satisfy their own wants and desires.’ In many ways that academic thesis provides a philosophical backdrop to much of McPherson’s work to date.

With the early successes of the monologues like Rum and Vodka, The Good Thief and This Lime Tree Bower, many in the theatre and academic communities wondered about the viability, even validity, of monologues as theatrical pieces, worried about the apparent closing down or erasure of character interaction and conflict. Additionally, the relationship between monologue and gender has raised a whole series of complicated questions that the works themselves do not set out to answer. In his Author’s Note to Three Plays, McPherson says, ‘The first problem for the actor performing these pieces is probably “Where am I”? “Where is the play set”? I’ve made up my mind about this. These plays are set “in a theatre.” Why mess about? The character is on stage, perfectly aware that he is talking to a group of people… The temptation may be not to launch a one man “performance,” to “act things out.” But such a performance will never be as interesting as one where the actor trusts the story to do the work.’9 As McPherson is always keen to suggest that the monologues are set in the theatre, this fact alone raises fundamental issues about the monologue form itself. In this volume of essays the monologue form comes under particular scrutiny.

Although regularly set in a theatre as McPherson suggests of the early monologues in particular, Dublin proves to be a significant marker not only in the early work, but almost throughout all of the plays and films. Given particular focus in the plays is Dublin’s north side, in particular, areas close to Raheny where McPherson grew up. Places like Baldoyle, the Bull Wall, Clontarf, Dollymount Strand, Fairview, Howth, Kilbarrack, Killester, Malahide, Phibsboro, and Sutton are referenced. Numerous Dublin public houses, some landmark ones, are also mentioned in passing. Other familiar Dublin locations like Bachelor’s Walk, Merrion Square, and Trinity College are thrown in as if the co-ordinates of the space give an initial spatial specificity that more often than not dissipates as the plays progress. Sara Keating identifies the evolution of McPherson’s relationship with the fringes or borders of his home city, evident in ← 5 | 6 → his early monologues, a connection in Keating’s words which moves ‘to a deeper metaphysical engagement with a more provisional city in his later work.’ Those senses of ‘metaphysical engagement’ and of a ‘provisional city,’ link in with many of the theories proposed by urban geographers and sociologists on issues of space, residuality, identities, marginality and the transgressions and mobility between and across spaces and boundaries. Keating suggests that the work has both contextual tendencies and equally its opposite, for through the defamiliarization of these spaces, and through the admission of the uncanny, the otherworldly, the ‘habits and routines’ of the everyday and the familiar are alienated, estranged or disenfranchised.

That sense of spatial disorientation or dislocation links in with issues of marginalized masculinities and femininities, which are subordinated in different ways, we may add, but persistently they are ones that are very much at odds with the dominant cultural imaginary. Sometimes the city is the space to be evaded or fled from as in The Good Thief, sometimes Dublin holds out the possibility of a homecoming of sorts as in the case of St. Nicholas and sometimes it is the place to be abandoned for an isolated west of Ireland as in The Weir. For Valerie, in this play, the west is a space of sanctuary and re-integration, fundamentally opposed to the city, which is aligned with decay, loss and dysfunction. For the male-centric monologues it is often sex that appears to be the siren call to a world elsewhere, which is often perceived ‘as more sexually and socially liberated than their own,’ as in Rum and Vodka and in Port Authority, as Keating instances.

If Keating’s primary focus is on space and its significance in terms of character, mobility and boundaries, Clare Wallace examines in particular the relationship between the monologue form and the centrality of disclosure to questions of ethics in three of McPherson’s monologues. Wallace highlights what she regards as ‘the pivotal quality of ambivalence that might serve to distinguish modern monologue from its predecessors,’ so that there are not clear distinctions between a revelatory, authentic truth and lies. The innate performativity of the monologue complicates matters further. What this achieves, Wallace notes, is ‘narratological and by extension ontological provisionality, uncertainty, or even failure.’ Wallace’s impressively argued work also contends with issues of agency and the implications of the absence of moral clarity. ← 6 | 7 →

Susanne Colleary’s consideration of St. Nicholas places emphasis less on ethics and morality and more on the ‘comedy of entropy’ and how this might be negotiated with an audience in performance. Colleary cleverly selects McPherson’s comments on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) and identifies the relationship between these comments and his own work, particularly recognizing the need for delusion or a pipe dream to maintain lives, and a ‘need to be able to laugh at the absurdity of it all.’10 The irony of course is that the main character in St. Nicholas is a journalist and theatre critic, who joins a sect of vampires and agrees to procure victims for the group’s blood lust.

Across the body of McPherson’s work, male identities are shaped fundamentally by their experiences with women, but the regular lack of prominence given to women characters, even their absence is often regarded as one of the persistent features of the body of work. This Lime Tree Bower has three male characters and Port Authority likewise. The Weir has four men and one woman, Shining City has three male characters and one female one, Dublin Carol has two male and one female roles. The Seafarer has an all male cast. In Come On Over there is one male and one female character and in The Veil there are three male and five female roles.

In Lisa Fitzpatrick’s article on the early work she looks at acts of violence perpetuated by men on women, but notes that these remain off stage; there is neither enactment of violence on stage nor are there graphic details of such violation. This feature makes the work very different to the work of Mark O’Rowe whose monologues Howie the Rookie (1999), Crestfall (2003) and Terminus (2007) contain lucid and lurid descriptions of rape and violence, and the rhythms of the language are informed to some extent by the way that these traumas are detailed.

Whether it is having sex with a sleeping wife Maria in Rum and Vodka or the rape of the child Patience by Matthew in Come on Over, Fitzpatrick considers both the patterns and dynamics of sexual violence in the work and also the invisibility or obscurity of women generally. Fitzpatrick links both the dramaturgy of the plays and the role of the spectator through Jill Dolan’s work on subjectivities, ideologies and performance, and argues how ideology most commonly ‘denies subjectivity to female characters and positions the male characters at the centre of the action as protagonists and antagonists, with the female characters in a range of supporting roles and, often, functioning as objects of transaction ← 7 | 8 → between the men.’ In a way then the plays are tested against this type of ideological dispositioning. In The Good Thief, Greta is swapped, exchanged and transacted between a number of gangland figures, but it says less about the problems of dramaturgy and more about how, in this underworld, sex is particularly commodified, women are easily objectified and subjectivity and agency are seen primarily in terms of woman’s exploitation of “erotic capital”. Indeed Anna exchanges sex for the life of the narrator. In this instance, the trope of woman as sacrificial victim appears apt, but it moves well beyond that stereotype, because she also sexually betrays the narrator.

Kevin Wallace discusses issues of masculine shame in Shining City, noting the failures of communication, self-knowledge and self-reflection. Wallace argues: Every attempt at communication is hobbled by redundant, formulaic phrasing (‘you know,’ ‘you too,’ and ‘good luck’),’ something that McPherson picked up from David Mamet as much as from Anton Chekhov. Dramatically, interrupted expression, unfinished exchanges, the lack of desire to complete a negotiation are often far more potent in the theatre than clarity and closure. Wallace interrogates both the performance of confession and that of therapy, and evaluates notions of exchange, displacement and intimacy therein, using the work of Ariel Watson. A ‘performance of intimacy’ in view of strangers does not of course mean that the characters can benefit from the transactional qualities of play, which are less voyeuristic and safe, and more participative and potent. The therapist does not normally actively partake, whereas in play there is an expectation for all parties to be adequately versed and committed to such a performance. In much of the McPherson work the male characters seldom summon any spirit of play, or participate in any significant status shifting, as they are locked into modes of existence that are predominantly destructive.


X, 332
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2012. X, 332 pp.

Biographical notes

Lilian Chambers (Volume editor) Eamonn Jordan (Volume editor)


Title: The Theatre of Conor McPherson
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342 pages