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.
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, and The 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!
That’s so interesting. You paint a big thing and then you erase half of it and say, “That’s it.” InThe Night Alive, a character comes into the play who is the physical manifestation of evil incarnate. I was sitting in my apartment in the middle of the day reading the play, and I got frightened! You have marked out this territory of the supernatural. As in The Seafarer, it’s a card game on the edge of the abyss. Where does that come from?
I really don’t know. I remember when I was a little kid, I was always interested in ghosts and scary things. If I want to rationalize it, it’s probably a search for God. I can see this picture that we’re all standing in, but what is outside the frame? I’m actually really worried about it!
I think, in the theatre, that kind of stuff works because there’s something so religious about the theatre. We’re all sitting there in the dark, and there’s something about how the stage glows in the darkness, which is such a beautiful picture of human existence. What’s really interesting is the darkness that surrounds the picture. I’m always trying to bring the darkness onto the stage.
Many people like to write plays with younger characters, because it’s very energetic. I always like to write plays about people who are quite old and sort of tired, but they still haven’t gotten anything figured out. The stakes somehow seem higher, and time is running short. For me, that’s just very dramatic.
There’s a beautiful question that the older character, Maurice, asks of Tommy: “Where is that beautiful boy? Where is the goodness in the young boy that I knew?” It circles around a question about such a flame: Does it go out, or is it still there? Can you find it again?
Absolutely—it’s a yearning. They’re all yearning for something. On the simplest level, The Night Alive is trying to deal in emotions rather than ideas. It asks questions. It’s almost like a Nativity play for me, where the human beings are really yearning for the transcendent. And that seems to come for them in the shape of the idealized feminine, which comes into their world, and she sort of shakes everything up.
There’s this Dickensian quality as well. There’s a real villain and a transmogrifying (to use a nice big word) feminine element. But you’ve updated the Dickens heroine, and she’s been funkified while still having the same effect.
I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head. When I had the very first idea for the play, I saw it as a kind of Charles Dickens story. You’re the first person who’s ever said that. It’s funny, in this day and age, to do a play like that—it’s very old-fashioned and traditional. I don’t know if that’s risky or if it’s very outdated. I don’t know—it’s almost like a fairy tale.
I would say of a goodly amount of your work is, it’s modern with an antique light shining on it. It’s the patina of nostalgia but completely unsentimental at the same time. In Shining City, there was a statement at the end of the play, that moral relativism is bullshit and there actually is a right and wrong. There are consequences for our actions and we must answer for them. And I thought, “Wow! A moral voice! I hadn’t heard it in a long time.” It woke me up!
The last moment of Shining City was the first idea that I had. And I met people who’ve said, “I didn’t like the ending.” And the ending to me was the whole play! I think as human beings, our capacity to live within a fiction is very necessary. It’s also quite fascinating that we all construct this kind of world that we live in with our edifice past, jerrybuilt present and our beautiful future all mapped out. And it bares some relationship to truth in some ways, but in other ways, it’s just what we need to live.
I sometimes think that depression is the lack of capacity to generate that narrative. That’s when life loses its meaning and people become kind of lost and de-energized. In the theatre, what it manages to distill is that capacity. We all wonder why theatre works. It should be awful! “Okay so they’re going to act out this story and we’re going to go with it.” Our capacity to invest such meaning so quickly, especially when a play can flow quite well, it can knock you out! So when we can play with that energy and pull the audience in so they can generate this illusion, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, crash something into the play, it can be the stuff of nightmares. I know films can do it. But we don’t expect it so much in theatre, and yet, when it happens in the theatre, it can be 10 times as memorable.
That thing that happens in the present tense in front of you, there’s nothing like it.
Yes. It sounds easy, doing something really memorable. But it’s really hard. We’re always learning. In the theatre, the things you learn are so small and basic, but they’re hard-won.
Theatre is a horrible, ugly old woman with a beautiful daughter. That’s all I can think of to encapsulate that. Over the time that you’ve been doing this, you’ve been writing these plays and you’ve been directing them. And then the other part, where you go and you see the play, your own play. And over that time, experiencing your life, your feelings or your visions through the eyes of others, has that changed you?
[Sighs] I don’t think so. If it’s taught me anything, it’s that I’m not clever as I thought I was. There’s a life cycle of a play, where you can be very excited about a new play, and of course it’s incredibly absorbing during a rehearsal and very exciting and nerve-racking. And also you’re wondering, “What the fuck? Why have I done that to myself?” when you’re putting on a new play because it’s incredibly painful! And then when it doesn’t work, it’s almost a relief and you can walk away from it, saying “Oh we tried” or “Thank God! I’ll never write another play.” And then if it does kind of work, it’s “Okay, we did something and it’s nice for the cast, and it’s great to see an audience enjoying it.”
But then you’ve got to walk away. You walk away and probably for 10 years, it’s very hard to want to go back to see that play. But then something happens after 10 years, for some reason it’s being done again and you see it, and you actually see it for the first time.
That’s true. To bring up Dickens again, it’s like the experience in A Christmas Carol. At the same time, when you see a play you’ve written sometime later, it’s like a ghost speaking to you from the past, the present and the future all at the same time.
It’s amazing. It’s actually amazing. I always thought that my plays were so flawed that all I could do was paper up the cracks and walk away before it fell down. But when you go see something that’s still alive after all that time…. This is the horrible irony isn’t it? When I was 24 writing plays, I was thinking to myself, “People thought that play was good, I’m only learning! Wait till I’m 54. Wait until I really know what I’m doing!” And of course, 20 years go by and you kind of go, “Jesus! I wish I knew what that kid knew about writing plays! That young guy seemed to be able to just do it!”
You’ve been on a metaphysical journey for your whole artistic life, and these plays are a pantomime of your journey. Where do you feel you are on that journey with The Night Alive, and where do you want to go next?
What’s good about The Night Alive is it’s a supernatural play with no ghosts. I see it as containing something of the supernaturalism of everyday life, as opposed to being a play with something scary or literally metaphysical at its heart. I’m quite pleased with it because I think there’s something in it that you can’t put your finger on. My whole mantra when I’m directing plays or working with people on plays is: A play has to stay ahead of the audience. But the problem of course is that it’s very difficult to do that, because the audience is so intelligent. And I always say, if you can stay ahead of them for about 40 percent of the time—or if there’s 20 or 30 minutes of the play that does that, then that’s a very good play. The Night Alive always just manages to stay ahead of the audience. What the play seems to be about keeps changing. What kind of play it is keeps changing, all the way to the end. And even after the play is over, it changes.
Where am I with that? I have no idea. And I think that’s okay! Jesus, I would hate to know where I am. I’d hate to say, “Yes, I know that I’m in the first stage of my middle period.” But I will say one thing: What happens as a playwright is, you get a great run for 10 to 15 years, writing all of the low-hanging fruit; all of the strong ideas are there. But should you do it for your whole life? There are very few playwrights who get better as they get older. So I am in that place where I’m wondering. I have no ideas for another play.
Well I can tell you your future now: You’re gonna write a lot more plays.
[Laughs] Oh, shit!
But it’s great! I think you’re supposed to go through these patches where everything dies. It’s like winter, creatively. I would say in your play, there’s very much a pointing towards Nativity, the birth of something new. I can say this with utter confidence that you’re going to be writing plays for a very long time, as God wishes you to.
I suppose one of the great privileges of doing what we do is we really don’t ever know! You sort of have an idea of maybe what your next 12 months is kind of looking like. Because you’re saying yes to this and you’re talking about that. But beyond that, you have no idea.
It’s true. I’ve gotten to a point with what I’m doing, that when I realize I have a full-length play in me, I’m very grateful and astonished. I don’t expect it. It is the birth of something new.
When that starts to just come to you and you’re just scribbling those first little notes, that’s all you’re doing. But when you find that you’re kind of doing it a lot. That’s the best time.
Somebody said once, “God speaks in a very low voice, you have to shut up if you want to hear.” Those little sounds, those little impulses, that’s where the gold is.
Of course the play, because it’s hardly even an idea, it’s so perfect! It’s so beautiful! Of course, the more you realize it, the worst it gets! There’s simply no other way. You’re hanging onto the sort of hope that you’ve got 20 percent of that initial loveliness somewhere scattered through it, if you can. And if you have that, you’ve done well.
John Patrick Shanley is the playwright of the Pulitzer-winning Doubt: A Parable. His newest play, Outside Mullingar, will premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in January 2014.