Editor’s Note: Conor McPherson’s play The Night Alive is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, Feb. 3-Mar. 15. An abbreviated version of the following interview was published along with the full-length script of the play in the December 2013 issue of American Theatre.
Conor McPherson first got the inspiration for The Night Alive while pushing his daughter on a swing in the park. He saw a man helping a young woman into a room. The man became Tommy, who in the play is a middle-aged, divorced loner. One day, he takes in Aimee, a woman he finds battered and bloodied by her ex-boyfriend. Through their relationship, they find a small measure of hope, while dealing with their respective tumultuous pasts.
McPherson was born in Dublin in 1971. He frequently directs his own plays, including the world premiere of The Night Alive at the Donmar Warehouse in London (and its American premiere at Atlantic Theater Company, which opens on Dec. 12). His play The Seafarer, Dublin Carol and Shining City was published by TCG Books. A profile of McPherson also appeared in American Theatre in December 2007.
JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY: You did one production of The Night Alive [at the Donmar Warehouse in London] which you also directed, and now you’re remounting it at the Atlantic Theater [in New York City]. You have a significant history with the Atlantic.
CONOR MCPHERSON: We did Dublin Carol in 2003 and Port Authority in 2008. This will be my third one there.
How did the relationship with the Atlantic start?
[Artistic director] Neil Pepe rang me about 12 years ago now and said they really wanted to do my play Dublin Carol, and invited me to come and direct it. I got the chance to do it with Jim Norton, who I’d worked with before [in The Weir at the Royal Court Theatre in London; Norton will also appear in The Night Alive]. And to be honest with you, I could never understand why anybody would want to see that play. It’s about an alcoholic and it just sounds fucking awful, you know? He’s an alcoholic and it’s Christmas Eve and his daughter’s come to tell him his estranged wife is dying!
It’s funny, I remember a friend of mine came to see a dress rehearsal in New York. I said to him, “Who’s going to want to see this play?” He said to me, “Look, this play is not about an alcoholic. It’s about someone who’s basically saying ‘I can’t live here.’ Everybody has felt that.” From that moment, it taught me to think about my plays, and all plays, in the way of—what they’re about is one thing, it’s about a guy who meets a girl, but when they’re about something beyond that, that’s when they work. That moment also taught me to be a little more forgiving to my own stuff.
Isn’t it sort of a magic mirror and you get to look into it and say: “So this is what’s going on with me”?
I suppose, yes. That’s pretty frightening! And great, too, as time goes on. I’ve heard Neil Young talk about it—he says that his albums are a snapshot of a time and a place. Take Doubt, for instance—if all copies of that play were erased and you weren’t able to refer to any DVD of the show or the movie, and you had to sit down and write it, it would be very hard to find yourself in that place where you would have that same energy.
Oh, I’d never do it. It’s always the play that you could only write at that time and no other.
That’s it! For me, the Atlantic’s Dublin Carol was inviting me to go back to a play and to bring my own time and place to it, which was very interesting.
The first play of yours I was exposed to was The Weir, which I would describe as an identification of your territory. It was sort of a gathering swirling of clouds, out of which greater and greater clarity, force and direction were going to come in your subsequent works. The big thing that I keep noticing in your plays is this fight between good and evil.
First of all, you know exactly what I mean when I say that we very rarely sit down and think to ourselves, “I’d like to write about the struggle between good and evil.” Your best works come entirely unbidden, usually when you’re trying to do something else. This idea just pops into your brain and you can kind of just see it. Those are always the best plays. And, in a way, you’re trying to describe what you saw and not mess it up. If you can get halfway close to what you initially saw, that’s probably pretty good. So for me, the unconscious ones are always the best ones. If I say, “I’d like to tell the story of the history of Ireland in the last number of years,” no one cares! It’s that silly little thing that occurred to you where suddenly, everyone’s interested.
I wrote The Weir in about two weeks. I think it was Sebastian Barry who said to me, “The best plays are written in two weeks.” The play you’re writing for two years, there’s a problem.
There’s great truth in that. When people ask me, “How long did it take you to write that play?” I say, “Five weeks or my whole life, depending on the way you want to answer it.”
Did you spend a lot of time thinking about the structure of The Night Alive?
I was pushing my little daughter on a swing in the park and all I saw was this little room, and this guy bringing this girl in. I had the idea that this girl was going to come and stay, and this guy’s life was all over the place. Also, it’s nice to watch two people who don’t know each other get to know each other, because that’s easy to write! When you have a play with a married couple, what are they fucking going to say to one another? So I had this idea, and that was one play.
Ciaran Hinds and Michael McElhatton in “The Night Alive” at the Atlantic Theatre. (Photo by Helen Warner)
The second part of the story was going to be this whole other play—one of those plays set in Heaven, or Purgatory, really. And the people from the first play were going to be in this other play. Except they’d be playing different characters. And, at a certain point, God was going to come and explain everything. Part of that very strange and horrible impulse (which I thought was genius for about five minutes), was that it allowed me to play with the notion of an afterlife. Eventually, I was able to pull the second play into the first one and do it that way.
That happened to me on The Seafarer as well. I wrote a whole other play that took place before The Seafarer, andThe Seafarer was like the sequel to that play. But then I realized the prequel was horrible, so I got rid of that one and I just had one play. The Weir, I thought that was just the first act. I thought they were all going to come back!