University of Illes Baleares, Spain
by E. Guillermo Iglesias-Díaz. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Critical Companions, London, 2019. 248 pp.
The “Conspicuous Communities” in the subtitle of Eamon Jordan’s The Theater and Films of Conor McPherson (Critical Companions, London: 2019) deserve a chapter of its own (Chapter 6), mostly devoted to Weir which, apart from being the “best known of the plays”, according to Jordan is also a compendium of the recurrent types (those “conspicuous communities”) that populate many of McPherson’s works. In this sense, Weir acts as some sort of summary to return to some of the arguments the critic has dealt with in the previous chapters, namely, McPherson’s ability to both embrace and subvert recurrent images of romantic, pastoral Ireland; the uncanny as destabiliser of realistic settings; the deconstruction of male narratives by a female character; or McPherson’s tendency to make his characters “violate or refuse to abide particular norms” (146) in relation to gender roles and/or neo-liberal ideals. For all these reasons, the chapter may be understood as some sort of conclusion which, bearing in mind it is the last chapter as far as the critic’s analysis is concerned (Chapter 7, “Critical Perspectives”, is a group of articles by several authors, plus an interview with McPherson by Jordan himself), fits perfectly well in the overall structure of the text.
Jordan’s work is highly recommendable for those with an (academic or otherwise) interest in theatre in general or in McPherson’s artistic production in particular, and worth appraisal for several reasons. In terms of form and structure, the well-cared edition by Critical Companions offers a balanced and structured text, not only among the different chapters, but also inside each one of them, with an Introduction advancing concisely the issues developed throughout the following pages and a Conclusion summarizing with precision the main ideas of interest in each case. In the same way, it is very useful, too, the Index in the final pages, where you will find easy access to the different topics, although, just to mention some minor black spot in terms of design, the location of the endnotes at the end makes it a little cumbersome when you want to consult them.
In the general Introduction, Jordan offers an overview to McPherson’s work and what the author considers some of his peculiarities as, for instance, the fact that he is an Irish writer born, reared and still resident in his native land, an unusual case for an author (allegedly, one of the most successful playwrights in the world) whose work has been “adapted/translated into many different languages” (200). According to the critic, it is also noteworthy the fact that McPherson “has directed the first production of every other new work”, assuming all the risks of staging them, “in the highly competitive London theatre scene”, where there “is little tolerance for anything less than the highest production standards” (2) and the public is very demanding, even in the case (or more even so) of successful, reputed writers.
The appeal of McPherson’s plays worldwide is celebrated and Jordan explains it in terms of the relation of Irish locations and characters whose circumstances and experiences are consistent with those of “many who live in urban centres elsewhere” (8). In this sense, despite his “refusal to be pigeon-holed as an Irish writer” and his intention “to resist his categorization as an Irish writer” (8) in order to be considered a cosmopolitan author, McPherson’s work is undoubtedly Irish and signalled internationally as such. In this sense, having into account that the author “sees spectators as co-creators […], affording audiences ownership of the works” (7), I miss in Jordan’s analysis more references to the reception of McPherson’s productions in Irish media or by the general public, especially, having into account some harsh criticisms in his plays about, for example, the Celtic Tiger era or stereotypes related to (and, to a certain extent, naturalized by) the Irish people.
Balanced as the work is, attending to the number of pages of the different chapters, one can notice there are three questions of particular interest to Jordan: McPherson’s use of the monologue as narrative form; the uncanny and supernatural in a good number of the plays; and the relation of the individual within the family or community.
In Chapter 1, “Monopolies of Self/Terms of Endearment”, Jordan praises McPherson’s success with the monologue form, present in his earliest plays, an enthusiasm the critic is not shy to show when he points out that these works are considered “exceptional achievements by anybody’s standards” (10). The chapter follows the structure already commented and, in the “Introduction: Stories and their telling”, the author focuses on the importance of the narrative act for both the community and the individual, quoting for instance Richard Kearney when he states that “telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating” or even more important, because “while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living” (19). Jordan’ brilliant, if only too brief, analysis of the fundamental role of narratives in any given community goes on to show how it is through narratives that our experiences are remembered, configured and shaped, “coordinating, linking and consolidating events”, but also preparing ourselves for “future possibilities” (19). Class issues play a significant role and the Celtic Tiger, neoliberal policies and the people who suffer the consequences are recurrent topics in most of McPherson’s plays: in this sense, Jordan’s class approach is sharp and thought-provoking. What I miss, however, is a deeper analysis on some other issues which, in my opinion, deserve attention, such as gender relations or McPherson’s bitter criticism to some of what can be defined as ready-made tropes attributed stereotypically to the Irish, namely, the role of Catholicism in the shaping of their individual and collective identities; Irish alleged irrational behaviour and certain tendency to outbursts of violence (with the Troubles as the maximum expression of it); serious troubles with alcoholism; or Irish “natural” talent for and enjoyment of music.
Nevertheless, truth is that in Chapter 3 Jordan includes one of those aspects Irish people are so often related to, the world of “Convergent Realities: Ghosts and the Uncanny” (65-90). As the critic points out, “no Western tradition of writing seems to be as obsessed with the uncanny and the paranormal as the Irish”, a statement I would totally agree with if we leave aside the oral and literary tradition in South America. In any case, the analysis of the plays is preceded, once more, by a wonderful introduction, making a summary of the common fears we all suffer from as individuals, “fears about the dark, failure, attractiveness, adequacy, motivation, disorder, even success” to smoothly transition in the paragraphs below to some of McPherson’s plays, such as Eclipse, Girl, Alive or Shining, where the author treats illness and accidental death, mental health issues or car crashes. I’ve found particularly interesting the relevance of the chapter to the present moment, with mentions to successful TV series as Stranger Things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Walking Dead and the link it is established between, on the one hand, the supernatural and the horror as a film/literary genre and, on the other, moments of socio-economic crisis (see Note 1, 211), a connection that specialists have already pointed out in relation to the Warner golden years in the 1930s (after the economic Crack) and, later, during the years of the Cold War and the popularity of science-fiction and horror films. There are in this chapter, too, some in-depth analyses of the films by McPherson (81-90), although, occasionally, there is too much plot-telling (82-4) and I miss, once again, a sharper focus on gender issues.
Chapter 4, about “Apocalyptic Dispossessions”, deals with the relation of home to identity formation, self-discovery, inheritance or belonging; but McPherson also relates home to conflict, rivalry, rejection and/or repression. In the case of Ireland, all these questions are marked both by British colonial rule for eight centuries and the processes of Irish self-determination and national re-construction, too. The four plays analysed in this section are set in Ireland and in the USA and, in one way or another, the four of them deal with how “asset stripers, financial predators or vulture/ventures capitalists pick over the bones of a vulnerable economy” (94): in The Veil, the action takes place in Ireland, during the “big economic crash following the Napoleonic wars”, with the Lambrokes’ dire situation at the centre of the narrative; The Night Alive takes us to the first decade in the 21st century, when Ireland suffered the consequences of the excesses of the 90s and the Celtic Tiger; The Birds is a re-reading of Daphne Du Maurier’s novella, the one adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock, although McPherson’s play “has little in common with either the novella or the film” (92), described by Jordan as some sort of alternative dystopia: while the usual proposal is a “return to pre-industrialized societies in the aftermath of some devastation” (92), in this case there is no possible coming back to a blissful past; finally, in Girl from the North Country, McPherson uses the title of Bob Dylan’s 1963 album to portray the lives of several characters during America’s Great Depression, showing a deep “understanding of Dylan’s ability to shift focus, amalgamate rival perspectives or coalesce worlds in unusual ways” (114). The analysis of Girl seems to me a wonderful finale to this chapter, with a precise dissection of the songs, the process of selection followed (not all of songs come from the album which gives title to the play) and the characters they depict, all of them suffering in one way or another “apocalyptic dispossessions”, from the owner of a boarding house facing bank repossession, to the guests in the boarding house or the African-American adopted daughter who “experiences blatant, rampant racism” (106).
Appreciating as I do Jordan’s work as a whole and, in particular, his concise and detailed analysis of the plays from a class perspective, I must confess my favourite is Chapter 7, where the author includes an interview with McPherson and “Critical Perspectives” by two different authors (and a brief review which I find of little relevance, beyond the fact it was published in the New York Times). In the conversation between Jordan and McPherson, we can read about acting and the different roles in his plays, the writing process, the playwright’s opinions about the inclusion of straight references to Irish politics in his plays or the “biblical echoes in the names” of some of the characters (161) although, once again, despite the relevance and prominence of women in his plays, the question of gender roles is hardly touched. It is here where I find the first of the “Critical Perspectives” most enlightening: Lisa Fitzpatrick does an excellent job analysing the “representation of haunted and haunting female characters” (164) in The Weir, The Veil and Paula. By relying on Freudian theories, the author links in the introduction of this subsection the women in McPherson’s plays to the uncanny, to that which “ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light” (165), pointing out how “from some of his [McPherson’s] earliest works the focus of a male character’s grief and regret takes the form of a girl or a woman” (165). Given the space constrains, this is not the place to deepen in the thought-provoking ideas introduced by Fitzpatrick: suffice to say here I found in these few pages many of the issues in relation to gender that I missed in Jordan’s analysis throughout the previous pages, from “significant or troubling experiences” (166) between the men and women in the plays, to episodes of straight violence against women, or “child sexual abuse” (167). It bears repetition that I would have loved to read more about McPherson’s plays from a gender perspective but, as consolation prize, I find Fitzpatrick’s analysis really original and insightful.
All in all, I believe Jordan’s work on McPherson’s theatre and films is rigorous, thoughtful and honest, approaching the “conspicuous communities” inhabiting the fictive world from different perspectives, in a delightful edition and with a style which makes the act of reading a pleasurable experience, something which is not the rule when reading a piece of critical work.