An intense fascination with the supernatural pervades the work of Irish playwright Conor McPherson. His potent, spellbinding plays are rife with spirits and demons from the netherworld. In The Weir, a barroom full of lost souls swap increasingly disturbing ghost stories. In St. Nicholas, a vitriolic theatre critic gets caught up with a coven of vampires in suburban London. And in Shining City, hailed as one of the best new plays in New York last year, a guilt-wracked and self-loathing man keeps seeing the phantom figure of his dead wife lurking in the dark recesses of their house, with the startling climax leaving audience members gasping in shock.
The Seafarer, the 36-year-old playwright's third and latest play on Broadway (opening at the Booth Theatre on Dec. 6), finds one of the characters facing off against the devil himself. Inspired by the old Irish myth of the Hellfire Club, the drama revolves around a ragtag crew of drunks playing poker one Christmas Eve at the home of the despondent, troubled Sharky (played by David Morse), who has recently returned to Dublin to care for his blind, irascible brother, Richard (Jim Norton). When one of the men, an ominous visitor in a camel-hair coat and expensive suit, turns out to be the devil incarnate, Sharky must engage in a high-stakes game of cards to save his very soul. And the play features a terrifying monologue that describes hell as a permanent and crippling form of self-loathing.
Despite the seemingly bleak and unsettling nature of The Seafarer, McPherson maintains that it's his most optimistic play yet. "I see it as a very warm play. It's supposed to be like a thrilling roller-coaster ride. I wanted the suspense to be palpable and enjoyable. But we need yin and yang, both the highs and the lows. I've written other plays where I just trawl right through the lows. So this one sort of is trying to redress the imbalance. We need to go into the depths to pull it into the hopefulness, which I think the play is ultimately suffused in."
McPherson's preoccupation with ghost stories and the supernatural world has long served a deeper purpose. The phantoms in his dark fables function as metaphors for his characters' battles with their own inner demons — as they struggle against loneliness, alienation and with the seemingly fruitless quest to connect with other human beings. "I find that [these spirits] open interesting little doors into the real world, for how we cope with things that aren't supernatural — just our own natural fears, our own natural unfinished business and our own natural everyday sense of the unknown as we grope through our lives." Although McPherson is a lapsed Catholic who rejected his religion as a teenager, he has always been interested in the deeper philosophical questions about the nature of the human experience. "I had a sense from a very young age what an exceptional opportunity it is to be alive and to be conscious. So I've always been struck by ideas of 'What exactly is existence? What exactly is the universe? Where did it come from?' To me, those are the real interesting questions — the idea of the afterlife or death or what's beyond our life. You can squabble about all the other stuff while we're here [on earth], but without knowing where we've come from or where we're going or if that even means anything — shouldn't we think about those things to live?"
In crafting The Seafarer, which he will also direct, McPherson largely eschewed writing the riveting extended monologues that have become staples of his plays. "I think this play is a more conscious effort on my part to really dig in and write a traditional, well-made play, with a beginning, middle and end," he observes. "It's like someone who plays the guitar or the piano but has never gone for lessons. They might have a natural kind of ability, and they can bash out a tune. But there comes a point where you want to formalize what you know and take it to the next level."
All of McPherson's plays, he admits, could be seen as efforts to exorcise his own deep-seated anguish and self-doubt. This is, after all, a man who once claimed to have a "nuclear reactor of anxiety" churning inside of him. And like his liquor-sodden characters, he has fought his own battles with alcoholism. Seven years ago, McPherson collapsed and was rushed to the hospital with an inflamed pancreas on opening night of his play Port Authority in the West End. He spent two months recovering, and the episode spurred him to quit drinking. "I was sick and I had to stop. And that was it. It just ended for me. I'm very grateful that that happened, actually. At the time, it was obviously very frightening. But as I look back now, I think, 'Wow, I was actually very lucky.' From that point on, I had a huge incentive just to get back to a steady place and get on with my life without [drinking]."
McPherson, who now lives in Dublin with his painter wife, reveals that his anxiety level has been turned down a notch in recent years. "I think if you've had any sustained kind of stability in your life, you begin to trust the natural progression of your life. I'm becoming calmer and learning to trust things more. And although I'm not trying to address anything particularly biographical in this play, in terms of its feelings and its moods, it's a good representation of where I am emotionally right now."
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.