By Conor McPherson
My copy of The Seafarer isn’t really mine. It belongs to all of us. I picked it up from the New York Public Library in anticipation, even a hope, that I will be invited to audition for a production of it at a regional theater this fall. I had never read it and am only an actor and thus could not afford a theater ticket when it played Broadway.
I almost don't want the part.
On the back cover of this glossy edition NY Times critic Ben Brantley effuses that McPherson is “quite possibly the finest playwright of his generation.” Times theater coverage is never far from its own deserved critiques, and Brantley has never impressed me as a deep thinker. But the fact that this play was so celebrated during its New York run—and has been predictably licensed by the average TCG theater since—depresses me to the degree that I don’t care to do the google search at present. I’m just willing to assume Brantley’s quote was in response to The Weir and not this hackneyed, regurgitated slop.
We always nurse this impulse to elevate Irish writers, especially when they challenge us with obstinate ideas, brimstone politics, dense text, and especially unhealthy personal habits. But if the American theater is overdue in anointing the latest St. Patrick of the Boards, why can’t we just settle on Martin McDonough? A native Irishman, theater professional, supremely popular, and unlike the characters in The Seafarer, McDonough’s plays seem to showcase actual human beings undergoing experiences that ring as both universal and original.
McPherson, by contrast, spends 107 pages showing us five middle-aged Irishmen drinking., arguing, gambling, swearing, and regretting the past, all in heavy brogue. I half expected a Polish neighbor to drop by seeking help with a light bulb.
These stereotypes never have a chance at redemption, as they are left to struggle with a plot that has been told and re-told for ages, and in just about every medium starting with Dr. Faustus.
I am unable to say whether any production of the play has risen above its script, as I haven’t seen one. I suspect there are many reasons I has been so sought after. In addition to its stereotypical Irishness (which we praise as the grit of truth when penned by an actual Irishman), it has a small cast, a unit set, and roles for five men of a certain age who will get to put their energies into the Stanley Kowalski they never got to play (ah, there’s the Polish neighbor).
McPherson’s rather by-rote method of storytelling even includes the “monologue-that-will-make-sense-of-it-all- for-you” dropped somewhat obviously and indulgently in the middle of the play. As Sharky (what grown man of any age intent on respect and redemption would answer to such a name?) is harangued by Mr. Lockhart, the Mephistopheles/Scratch/Devil character, he learns that Hell is exactly like being
“… locked in a space that’s smaller than a coffin. Which is lying a thousand miles down just under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch black sea. You’re buried alive in there.”
And he goes on. And on, and on, much as my wife’s three year old nephew could with the same string of words and punctuation style. But McPherson’s desperate ploy to inject some meaning into his half-assed play is far less entertaining than watching the nephew do the monologue would be.
Now far be it from me to come off as politically correct. The Seafarer is not offensive. It is, however, extremely boring and tired. It will make you and everyone else wish you were in that little sub-coffined space instead. If The Seafarer had been the first play like this it might have been brilliant. But after a thousand times (at least), it is utterly unsurprising or insightful.
Come to think of it, Ben Brantley could be right that Conor McPherson may be the finest playwright of his generation. Because our finest playwrights don’t really have to try anymore once they reach the level of "finest." Williams wrote dozens of plays, but might as well have stopped after Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Arthur Miller had said all most people wanted him to by 1960. And Tony Kushner? Well he just had a celebratory season in his honor at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, as well as the premiere of his latest play. I don’t remember the name of it, but I bet Angels in America—all nineteen years ago of it—was more talked about.
So The Seafarer was likely—hopefully—composed in the shallow luxuries we afford today’s great playmakers. Conor McPherson told somebody he wanted to write another play. And somebody said they’d produce it, and they fully intended to. It wouldn’t matter what the subject matter was. So why not lift a morality tale that even Charlie Daniels tackled and recycle a bunch of characters from a third-rate nightclub act? I just wish it came with free peanuts.
Still, I hope I get the gig.
Still, I hope I get the gig.