Realism in Conor McPheerson’s Dramatic Art, Essay Example
In an increasingly globally connected society, the potential for the global circulation, reception and interpretation of literary works through various technologies has never been greater. McPherson’s plays represent the interests of Ireland in specific time periods and places but have broader meaning and significance as they offer insight into the human condition. History and the supernatural are prevalent themes of McPherson’s works – he incorporates older traditions of ghost stories and storytelling – yet places them in a modern world. The thesis will therefore consider the reception of McPherson’s plays abroad, particularly in a trans-Atlantic context. As noted by Grene (2000) ‘the Irish play is a distinct and distinctly marketable phenomenon’, which has worldwide interest. McPherson’s The Weir went from the Royal Court to Brussels, Toronto, a period in Dublin, back to London, and then to Broadway in 1999 (Grene, 2000), and yet, as Grene notes, The Weir is not really about Ireland. Rather, the weir itself (named after a local feature near Sligo Leitrim where the play is set), is a ‘metaphor for the controlled release of emotion through talk and story-telling among the five characters’, and is not to be considered as a mere symbol of a developmental stage in Ireland’s progress (Grene, 2000, p. 261). It is this raw form of emotion that has propelled McPherson’s plays into the global market and which underpins their favourable reception. Although the emotions of the plays are transferable to other times, places and contexts, McPherson did not employ these emotions in order to comment about nation or nationhood. As McPherson once said about The Weir, ‘I wasn’t concerned with geography or politics; I am from the Republic of Ireland and that’s where my plays have their genesis, but not from any need to address anything about my country’ (Grene, 2000, p. 261).
Conor McPherson’s plays were first performed at the dramatic society of the University College Dublin, where McPherson was educated. McPherson’s plays are connected through their shared emphasis on realism and the occult. The Weir (1997), which opened at the Royal Court, is orientated around the haunted life of a woman who has lost her daughter and has moved to the country for respite. St Nicholas, a monologue that came out in the same year, concerns a society of vampires, and Shining City (2004) involve the appearance of a dead character through a doorway. In McPherson’s The Seafarer (2006) the role of Irish history comes to the fore in the form of an 18th-century Hellfire Club who discover that the devil is among them. McPherson’s film The Eclipse (2009) featured the ghost of a man, and The Veil (2011) gave prominence to a haunted Victorian house in Ireland.
Through his realistic portrayal of ordinary events, within the vaguer context of the occult, McPherson deftly negotiates and transcends the boundaries between the local and the global. My research aims to explore how McPherson uses settings familiar to him in order to present personal and social questions of universal significance. Drawing from Liz Maynes-Aminzade’s work on “Macrorealism” –understanding subtle interconnections in the world and exploring imaginative connections between readers and viewers in different places and times – my research examines McPherson’s perception of other temporal realities and the techniques which he employs in order to express these perceptions. In Aminzade’s thesis, Macrorealism is defined as fiction that it set in a recognisable time and place, which features characters who are unaware of how they are connected to one another. In Macrorealist works, characters are unable to see how they are influencing one another’s lives, and instead this becomes a privileged perspective given to the viewer. McPherson’s plays offer this outsider perspective on the complex emotions that occur within the characters’ minds. He achieves this by at once dislocating his characters from, and yet entrenching them within, the specific time and places in which the plays are set. Aminazade identifies that we share an ‘ethical anxiety’ with the Victorians: ‘Namely, the fear that as the globe becomes more thoroughly interconnected, and as the division of labor becomes increasingly complex, we as individuals often become complicit — without even realizing it — in ethically dubious enterprises’ (Harvard.edu [online]. Macrorealism addresses the broader picture by identifying connections which exist between people which do not necessarily have any tangible form therefore establishing a more humane element that makes the plays more relatively reactive towards the actual situations that humans encounter on a daily basis.
The form of Alternative Humanism as suggested in Stephen White’s writing, offers a whole new perspective of macro-realism in art. McPherson is often criticized to take on a different lead compared to his contemporaries. Nevertheless, his style in making plays is more based upon the Irish culture of showing not only the basics of the scenarios but including the grotesque forms of situations through adding a twist of conflict as well as humor to it. In this case, it is safe to say that when it comes to these forms of representation, McPherson does not fear to be labeled different so long as he is able to present his ideas the way he sees their real value in terms of serving as the mirror of real life events. As a playwright whose works first achieved recognition in the late 1990s, relatively little research has been conducted on McPherson in relation to other, better-known playwrights. Aside from reviews and interviews, there have been few books published focusing solely on the work of McPherson. Furthermore, the approach of applying Macrorealism to literature is a new field, so far only published in the works of Liz Maynes-Aminzade. Two valuable books to this study are Dissident Dramaturges by Eamonn Jordan and The Theatre of Conor McPherson ‘Right beside the Beyond’ edited by Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. The dramaturgical frames Jordan sets in his book will, in a way, guide me through this work. His reflections also on the economic, technological, social and cultural changes that radically altered the Irish society will help me read the work of McPherson within that context. The paranormal activities analysed by Jordan in the Veil in ‘Right beside the Beyond’ provide a good basis for my discussion of the supernatural in his work. Patrick Lonergan’s Theatre and Globalisation Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era is also of importance to this project in the discussion of the impact of globalisation on drama and theatre in a period of economic prosperity. Focusing on only four of McPherson’s plays, Christopher Hill’s master thesis on a changing Ireland in the work of McPherson is another inspiring resource for my study, even though our emphases are different since he looks at his plays from a historiographical standpoint. To set a point of comparison, the journal article entitled The work of the devil? Theatre, the supernatural, and Montaigne’s public stage by Emily Butterworth, shows a distinct representation of what is meant by expansive realism. In this journal, Butterworth tries to create a connection between the classical theatre stage compared to the more contemporary approach of presenting macro-realism elements as a form of depicting human basics into the scenario and making the transition of events in the story more fluid (125). This is where the connection between the then and now treatment of theatre art could be identified, thus setting a comparison between classical theatre art with that of the time of McPherson’s as he intends to make his presentations more of a mirror of the actual lives that humans have to undergo (127).
Where this work diverges from the current scholarship on McPherson is also in its theoretical approach. Rather than identifying general tendencies in Irish drama, or analysing the work of different playwrights, I will identify a single literary trope- Macrorealism and its implications in McPherson’s dramatic art. This work will cover all of McPherson’s plays with a particular focus on the period from 1997 to the present as it signifies his success on a global scale. As P.J. Mathews pointed out “The Weir now stands as an astute analysis of that transition in its exploration of a society caught between impulses of heroic isolation and willing submission to the forces of globalisation” (Jordan and Chambers 153).
In relation to the study I am aiming to complete, it could be noted that the works of McPherson thus provide a challenging yet worthwhile avenue of study for a Doctoral thesis in Drama. McPherson’s ability to negotiate the subtle yet complex relations between the national and the global – within an increasingly globally connected society – also makes his works particularly relevant. Therefore, this project explores the dramatic manifestations of macro-realist elements through a detailed analysis of his use of narrative, reconfigurations of time and space, and employment of supernatural elements and how these factors of drama has affected the way the modern generation of audiences interpret his works.
The plays of McPherson are emphatic of a social reflection, with regards to language, story and theatre. McPherson’s theatre is demanding of a teller of stories that must be listened to and appreciated within the context of the contemporary social space within the world. The construction of meaning within the work of McPherson is accordingly social in its nature, and is commonly shared between the audience and monologists, or between the audience within the plays and the storytellers (Brayshaw, 2013). Within McPherson’s plays, for example, monologues are employed not in order to carry time for the audience but rather to provide opportunities for deep and considered introspection, coloured with frequency by the existential exploration of the speaker. This position is made clear in the story John recounts in Shining City to his psychotherapist but is also apparent throughout the remainder of McPherson’s work. Stories are told by monologists that maintain a particular and palpable motivational regard to the suggestion of a narrative. Such a narrative is explicit in that it pertains to humans within the broader society. Accordingly, McPherson’s work is revealing of a global humanism and a particular concern for the collective understanding and individual investment in humanity and human nature. As Said (Said, 2004) maintains, “the essence of humanism is to understand human history as a continuous process of self-understanding and self-realization”. Accordingly, this process animates the fundamental drives of the characters McPherson creates (ibid.).
The global context of the 2008 financial collapse has presented itself as a palpable force of influence in McPherson’s work, particularly with regards to The Veil and The Seafarer. Within such a context McPherson has come under criticism for losing sense of a reality which is objective, with The Veil as publicised ostensibly as a play that is characterised by the period of time following the global crash (Brayshaw, 2013). For example, the critical reception of The Veil in London was comparatively lukewarm. This has been considered in terms of reference towards McPherson’s rejection of materialism and an according reduction in the efficacy of McPherson’s flexibility; resulting in the failure of any naturalism that may have been intended (Lonergan, 2009). This has also been considered in terms of an equilibrium loss due to the decision McPherson made in the construction of The Veil using five female characters whereby none of his plays that came before had more than one female character (Brayshaw, 2013). Because associations that are attached to The Veil remain as extant references to the complexity of attitude towards the female form in The Weir, the naturalist context is overwhelmed by the forced proliferation of phenomena deemed to be supernatural. For example, whilst the focus within The Weir draws the attention of the audience to one spectral and dead child, the children that are considered spectral or dead in The Veil are well into double figures (McPherson, 2011).
Indeed, in an interview that took place prior to the premiere of The Veil, McPherson acknowledged that his response to the crash was characterised by a subjective dissonance and a fundamental change of tack:
I started making notes in late 2009 as Ireland had suddenly started to be in bad trouble. We had been through such a strange journey in the sense that we were poor, then we were told we were one of the richest nations in the world, then suddenly we were in the hands of the IMF. I realized the public can share a dysfunctional psyche, and that psyche can be generational. The Irish Famine is only five generations ago. I began to realise the mess we’d got us into must have come from some tremendous trauma. For the first time, I accepted I am Irish. Up till then I’d always felt European and a citizen of the world. (Costa, 2011: 25)
The rapidity of decline for Ireland, from prosperity in the contemporary global economy into the state of poverty that before the crash was considered in historical terms, has adjusted the understanding of McPherson in terms of his attitude towards the world and the place of humans, himself included, within (Anderson, 2014). This transition from cosmopolitanism to nationalism is outlined in an interview within which McPherson examines the nature of the psyche in terms of its dysfunction as a causative element of the collapse:
It got me thinking: just what is this glitch in our psyche that’s got us back to this state of poverty? It’s almost as though we were happier being bankrupt, as though being the victim is the most comfortable place to be for a country that was colonized. I’ve always felt very free of history, but now I’m older I feel we have to deal with these generational psychoses and traumas. I’m Irish, this is my history. (McPherson, cited in Allfree, 2011: 124)
Such overt enthusiasm towards the historical appears at first encounter as fundamentally anti-Marxist in its delivery whilst moving further from the tenets of materialism. McPherson does not site the causes of the economic crash as consequences of poor spending or economic mismanagement, nor does he blame it on material conditions. Rather, McPherson rediscovers the power of determinism that the family embodies, making the economic downturn expressive of the collective. Such a collective maintains the power to transform the reality of material (Heusner, 2011). This notion is made apparent in The Veil, in which a séance, the first event considered to be paranormal, becomes the causative function of a collapse of a property in the slum. This remains in parallel with the generalised rejection pertaining to objectivity that was pushed through the materials publicising The Veil prior to its release. Accordingly, McPherson acknowledges that many similar principles that are named as targets of realism in the original sense by Toril Moi remain. Written by McPherson, “Journey into the Unknown” was released by publish prior to the premiere of The Veil, and makes attempts to vindicate the “noumena” (the notion pertaining to an idealised reality that is perceptible to human senses yet exists beyond the world) belief of Kant through the use of quantum physics (McPherson, 2011). The suggestion is made in this text that reality can only be a construct of mentality that must be prolonged and maintained by a belief within the collective, resulting in the position that human life is in fact a faith function:
Thus believing is essential and we do it all day, every day—for instance, we have to believe our life is worth living. When this capacity fails, a person becomes profoundly depressed because, without belief, meaning is impossible and a meaningless life is impossible to live. (McPherson, 2011:21)
Arguments of humanism have been criticised for various issues such as universalised rhetoric pertaining to the limitless bounds of humanistic reason; and postmodern theorists have been quick to counter such positions. However, Honig (2013) has asserted that “Humanism has in recent years been making a comeback” (Honig, 2013). Such a turn in the modern global sphere is far more critical than its forbears and demonstrates acuity towards to limitations of the human rather than its capacity in terms of infinity whilst maintaining a focus on those facets and customs which make humans unique. White (2009) articulates the nature of these concepts within the context of postmodern thought:
Postmodernists tend to view as deluded those who are still wedded to the conviction that their ethical-political commitments are securely grounded in some foundational “metanarrative”… Foundationalists typically reply to such tendentious characterizations with the equally tendentious counter-charge that while postmodernists smugly congratulate themselves, they fail to notice that they are slipping into the abyss of nihilism. (82)
The embrace of humans as creatures which are distinct and the according revival of humanism makes acknowledgement of the actions of humans in terms of their distinct consequences. As such it becomes a global imperative through works such as those produced by McPherson to appreciate with a new purview the human condition in terms of its limitations, capacities and ethics. Indeed, whilst McPherson’s may comprise blackguards, drunkards and crooks, they are at once demonstrative of an adherence to such an understanding, even given that the purpose of which may only be to assist them in their own understanding of their self and their actions (Wallace, cited in Chambers & Jordan, 2012). Indeed, as the narrator implies in Rum & Vodka, emphasises the argument of Butler (2006) through which it is stated that:
…we are not separate identities in the struggle for recognition but are already involved in a reciprocal exchange, an exchange that dislocates us from our positions, our subject-positions, and allows us to see that community itself requires the recognition that we are all, in different ways, striving for recognition. (19)
Contrastingly, it would appear that McPherson expected the rundown house which features so prominently in The Veil would assist the audience in their journey beyond the limitations of naturalism. As McPherson clarified, such setting of the period “automatically heightens everything” in order to allow the spectators of the works such a liberation so as to “enjoy the melodrama” of the situations that are presented to them using language that is also “slightly larger than life”. It would also seem to appear that the choice of aesthetic and cultural setting of the Irish Gothic was able to reintroduce the political nature of Shining City and The Weir. Honig (2013) makes note of the big house within the time period of 1822 that explores “Ireland’s troubled colonial history” (ibid.) with an inevitability that is overtly palpable. Indeed, The Veilitself was rejected by two London theatre critics, Michael Billington and Charles Spencer, who were each longstanding exponents of McPherson’s dramatic works. It was suggested by Spencer that in a contemporary setting the work may be considered as excitedly uncanny becomes deteriorated in the period context to the point of cliché and nonsense (Spencer, 2011). This sentiment is echoed by Billington, who addresses the haunted house as a metaphor for the nation of Ireland, maintaining that:
The house itself stands for an Ireland haunted by the memory of economic catastrophe and staring, as it does today, into the unknown. (Billinton, 2011: 49)
That The Veil is also described by Billington as “Irish Stew” is also suggestive of the return for McPherson to old Ireland as a journey into nationalist debate for the audience and the play’s characters (Billinton, 2011). The Veil provides an entrance into a period that is steeped in sources pertaining to the Irish gothic of the nineteenth century. Factors such as the big house (which is deteriorating), the troubled estate, famine, agrarian violence and infant mortality, are all represented as expressions that are now obsolete yet still pertain to the grievances of history (McPherson, 2013).
The supernaturalism that has come to be so heavily associated with McPherson’s works is accordingly eschewed from The Veil, whilst lacking the appearance of survival with Ireland before or after its periods of prosperity (Jordan, 2010). This is not to say that the play is not necessarily effective. As McPherson acknowledges, there remains in his view a situation that could be considered by onlookers in terms of “certain incomprehension” with regards to the reception of The Veil, which is suggestive of the position that the play may “at some point” become “one of my favourites (McPherson, 2013).
The manner in which McPherson’s work is received, when acknowledged within the context of Ireland after the 2008 global financial collapse, is yet to be fully known. As maintained by Chambers & Jordan (2012), the quarry of private and public corruption leading from the collapse may itself “suggest that many of those local prosperity and wealth gains were driven by spurious speculation as much as by anything else” (Jordan, 2010). Since the occurrence of the financial crash, the years which are no described as ‘boom’ appear not as realistic as they once did. The financial collapse has retroactively assigned any periods of prosperity as unreal and spurious in their promise (White, 2009). Accordingly, the historically-rooted universe created in The Veil may, in time, provide a more adequate representation of the reality and unreality of what can be paradoxically considered as beyond late capitalism. In such circumstances prosperity that is unequal becomes generated by further obscurity pertaining to manipulation that accordingly removes wealth with greater and greater ease from property and labour markets (McNulty, 2015). Indeed, it has been proposed that the farther globalisation reaches, the greater the necessity to ensure “the construction and maintenance of public faith” in the capitalist ideals (Benjamin, 2007). Whilst the financial collapse the destruction of a house can each be acknowledged in The Veil as actionable by immaterial pressures, future will tell as to whether or not these results are unrealistic.
Whilst McPherson’s characters are representative of the global renewal of humanism they do not demonstrate a commitment to such ideals pertaining to the human condition in any way which is necessarily determined or stubborn. Contrarily, they make themselves known to be defined loosely in terms of a journey through which meaning is constructed; a progression that is delivered through a journey of monologue which appears primarily for the edification of the audience (Genter, 2010). Indeed, as Wallace maintains that these characters are:
…telling stories about themselves [which] seems to give his men a sense of control, a power over their place in the world, their history and their identity. (cited in Chambers & Jordan, 2012: 48)
The characters McPherson presents in his works are provided to the audience through the global context of revelation pertaining to a requirement for sociality and a limit on their ability to self-determine that is made distinct (Wallace, cited in Chambers & Jordan, 2012). Indeed, as White (2009) continues:
[The] exemplary late-modern individual carries her most fundamental commitments in a ‘weak ontological’ fashion. (43)
This notion makes a priority over concepts that pertain to the other and the self but plays down conviction in terms of its absolution (White, 2009). Rather than an unflinching devotion to a certainly of ontology, such a figure’s remaining projection of understanding of the self is perhaps better regarded as:
…a traveller who has a rough sense of the direction in which she must head but is also crucially dependent on the insights of those she meets along the way for clues as to her ultimate destination. (ibid: 25)
The global positioning of McPherson’s characters remain unsettled in this context, via a lack of foundation in modernity nor allowing liberation from any prior or palpable investment in social structures and according metanarratives. Indeed, as White (2005) maintains, they are representative of “the ethos of the late-modern citizen”. Such an ethos, according to White, is encompassing of insights pertaining to philosophies which themselves form a departure from key modern insights (Watson, 2008). However, simultaneously to this, they are also denied the necessary self-confidence or liberation from the commitments of the modern global context that have on occasion joined responses that are defined as postmodern in their approach.
To note, the following questions are the queries to be used in this research as a primary guiding point as to how the research shall be tackled accordingly [to provide a more constructive form of analysis on McPherson’s works and contributions to modern theatrical art]:
Question 1: The theory that establishes the pattern of understanding behind the ethos of modern citizens in relation to how they view theatre as a form of art and representation of human life creates a more distinct indication on how an improved conceptualization of humanism is defined and realized. Through observation and research, how does this theory relate to the current audiences and the way the respond to presentations that they view under the direction of distinct personalities like McPherson who rely so much on the value of human reality? Do modern creations of McPherson relate fully to the value of the theory that identifies with the ethos of modern audiences in consideration to contemporary theatre art?
Question 2: In consideration with the theory suggested through projects in humanization, what specific elements in theatre art most likely depicts reality at its best? How does humanizing a particular story created in pen comes out to life in depicting the facts and real factors that make up life’s most convening elements especially found relative towards making the art itself more acceptable, appreciated and well responded to by the target audience? Has McPherson’s works capture the importance of the value of humanization that basically improves the concept of narrative in plays and the consideration on how each play provide a mirror image of life’s reality at its best form?
Methodology and Structure
This dissertation will be based on secondary research, with a more minor component of primary research. My secondary research will take the form of books, academic journals, newspapers, and periodical databases. Primary research will include interviews and data collected from specific sites and settings which will enable me to accurately convey the spirit of place. I will visit a number of archive collections in Dublin and go on tours of the pubs and buildings which are familiar to McPherson.
Cross referencing the results taken from the written reports from the collected researches and the results derived from the survey/interview and the observational pattern of research completed for this study, would create a more viable foundation of information that would best create a more responsive process of discussion that would basically involve a more interactive form of presentation [especially involving the reaction of the audience or the readers into what is being presented to them in this research]. This process will further validate the information included into this research.
The research will be divided into four chapters:
- McPherson, Ireland, and his Plays
Targeting students and the general reader, this introductory chapter will set the context for the discussion of McPherson work. I will provide brief synopses of the plays included in this study and their reception. Representations of a cosmopolitan Ireland are also relevant to understand the transformative status of the country, a phenomenon that underlines the themes selected by McPherson. In this section, it will also be considered how Irish culture and the very approach to theatrical art in the country affected his works and the way he interprets life’s realities and brings them to life through plays.
- Macrorealism: How McPherson interprets the Legacy
This chapter defines Macrorealism and explains the relevance of the genre to the works of McPherson. By applying the process of Generic Participation, I will explain how his plays fit into the new genre. McPherson develops this approach by placing his characters in moral and social dilemmas which reflect the anxieties of modern day life, and by implicitly suggesting that subtle interconnections between characters, settings, and place can be remedial. Accordingly, this section of the research shall also invoke a presentation on how the theories of alternative humanism as defined by Stephen White ought to be a distinct foundation as to how modern legacy of macro-realism is found to be strongly expressed in the works of McPherson.
- The use of narrative in presenting the realist value of the supernatural
The chapter will identify the ways in which the supernatural adds a different dimension to McPherson’s realism and opens up new ways in which to conceive the workings of Macrorealism. It will explore the supernatural elements of McPherson’s plays, which are manifested through his preoccupation with the occult. This chapter will also explore the different ways McPherson uses to amplify supernaturalism in his plays. Reconfiguration of time and space through the use of narrative will be guided by the application of the basic forms of the theories presented in the presentation of projects in humanism as it does imply a more defined guideline on how the extraordinary elements in a play highlights the real value of reality, simplicity and human values set in a rather exaggerated but more expressive point of interpretation.
- Shaping modern Theater through Technology
This chapter will consider the ways in which McPherson makes use of technology and staging in his plays for dramatic effect. Stylistic features in his drama such as light, music, and space juxtapose emotional conflicts and accommodate the audience’s preference for real settings. (Statage directions and descriptions) mostly text based interpretations if not given the chance to see the performances. In this stage of the discussion, accommodating reaction from participants in the interview/survey process to be undergone by the researcher shall be added into the data, thus presenting a more workable pattern on how technology’s value is further established in terms of how it helps in improving the ways by which plays are performed on stage and their message better brought out for the public to interpret.
The concept of modern theatre has almost been constantly compared to what has been achieved in the past by performers and especially playwrights in making an impact to the thinking and perception of their audiences. Each playwright has a distinct style; somehow, each style corresponds to a certain pattern of a distinct course of narrative that is used to improve the value of the play itself. McPherson’s work has been both celebrated and criticized through time. At this point, it is hoped that an examination and exploration of his work would provide a more constructive pattern of understanding on how macro-realism and its components in determining dramatic development in modern theatre has been used to represent a higher and more valuable determination of human realism. The distinction of the then-and-now status of such complementary process of representing a classical form of art for a more modern generation is intended to be shown in this research as the bridge between ages the makes works such as that of McPherson’s to be legendarily valuable for all generations of theatre audiences.
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