Interview: Conor McPherson
Something's haunting Ireland's greatest living playwright as he returns with 'The Veil'
The New York Times is the only newspaper which still has the power to kill or crown a show on Broadway. So when its chief critic Ben Brantley described Dubliner Conor McPherson in 2007 as 'quite possibly the finest playwright of his generation', those words had weight.
The occasion was the Broadway transfer of McPherson's last National Theatre commission, 'The Seafarer', an eerie and hilarious account of five poker-playing Irish drunks and their brush with the Devil. Hopes are high for McPherson's return to the National, where he is directing his new drama 'The Veil' - which reads like Samuel Beckett's take on 'The Woman in Black'.
Actually, there's something slightly eerie about the man himself. Red-haired, pale eyed and intense, he talks metaphysics like Englishmen talk the weather: as the well-known yet perpetually surprising climate of his existence. Where English writers are political, their Irish counterparts are poetical, concerned with being and nothingess not class and good manners. Does McPherson agree?
'It seems to be the case. The world has been a scarier place for Irish people for longer. British culture is more Lutheran. Poverty helped Roman Catholicism really take hold in Ireland: it heightens fear, guilt and feelings of failure, which sit very comfortably in the Irish psyche.'
McPherson attended a violently strict Catholic school before studying English and Philosophy at Dublin University. Like many of his peers, he feels indelibly marked by religion. 'It's what you're battling against. The belief you're inculcated with as a young person is difficult to shake, which is why prejudice is so endemic in the world.'
He is no dogmatist - he tends to write lost souls, oscillating on the brink of drink, depravity or revelation. But the supernatural element in his plays is, he says, more than a 'cheap shock'. 'Some people might look at my work and say it's ghost stories,' he says. 'But I think we live within a mystery. We don't understand what's beyond the known limits of what we perceive. I'm motivated by an existential longing to understand what the fuck is going on in life, really. What is all this?'
That's what's so alarming about McPherson and his plays - they peer into a void which many people prefer to avoid in favour of what we already know we know. But does he really live his life with such philosophical rigour? 'I think it's really important to. And a very normal thing. We've got to figure out, what am I? Why does anything exist? These are moral questions.'
Beneath the nifty specs and the directorial skills which helped him helm 'The Seafarer' from here to New York, there lurks a genuine existentialist. But McPherson's new drama, 'The Veil', is as much a history as a mystery. Set in 1822 in an Ireland afflicted by hunger, superstition and absentee landlords, it has the structure of a drawing-room thriller (posh protagonists, seances, a defrocked transcendentalist vicar called Berkeley).
But it is haunted by glimpses of history, pre-history and myth. Was he on a quest for his roots? 'Humankind has only been around for 100,000 years,' he answers, taking the long way round. 'And human culture is incredibly recent. When I was a boy I would hear stories about the fairies in the countryside which seemed very real to people - like the elemental force of nature personified, or like a hangover of another people we've forgotten. Why have they stayed with us? Why can't we let them go?'
It was Ireland's present slump, in 2008, that prompted this new play and gave the 40-year-old writer a local sense of identity. 'For the first time, I really felt that I was Irish. I'd always mistakenly felt that I was just a person, tuned into something more cosmic. But you realise you're down in the mud with the same ideas as everyone else.'
The financial crisis was pan-European but McPherson also experienced it as typically Irish. 'We never felt we owned our country, it was all: “Get what you can cos it'll be gone soon.” I could see we'd done it to ourselves. The self-destructiveness, the victimhood: where does that come from?'
As an ex-alcoholic whose singular contribution to drama was nearly cut short in 2001 when his overstrained pancreas ruptured, McPherson has an acute understanding of self-destructiveness: 'My plays are always very autobiographical.'
So what does he feel now when he revisits younger, darker plays? 'I move on. I usually direct the first production of each play, which is a way of finishing it. I used to think all my work was crap. Now I think, I couldn't even do that now, that's a whole different writer. Time makes me kinder.'
Certainly, 'The Veil' is on the cusp of a more domestic world than the all-male shenanigans of 'The Seafarer'. It's a family drama whose strongest characters are women - although all are haunted, women and men, by the idea of a child who has been lost or perhaps even destroyed. Does that reflect McPherson's own preoccupations?
'Yes. It reappears, I suppose, my life in my work. After seven years, my wife and I adopted a child. It's that feeling of, “Are you good enough?” To take the responsibility?'
Ten years after he almost lost it, this new Irish existentialist is on the brink of great change. That's why he has no new projects to announce.' I want to write or work from home now. For the first time, I don't know what's next.'