Artistic Ancestry

Working in the theatre the term “beg, borrow and steal” is bandied around like nobody’s business. This means that stage pieces like furniture and company props from past seasons continuously pop up on other stages around the city. Words are also recycled (like the lifted Shakespearean lines in The Droll). Then there’s the much-mentioned maxim that there are only seven stories. Every great writer comes from a long lineage of other great writers who paved their way. Chances are, there’d be no Sondheim without Shakespeare (there’s no West Side Story without Romeo and Juliet).

Katherine Bourne as Aimee and Bruce DuBose in THE NIGHT ALIVE by Conor McPherson

When asked about the artistic shoulders on which he stands, Conor McPherson immediately listed Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet and Arthur Miller. (When McPherson was 18, he remembers having “just read Mamet and [trying] to copy it” because he was so “impressed… by … that language…and wanted to capture something of it. McPherson who has been called “one of the true poets of theatre” and “the greatest dramatist of his generation” has been compared to Chekhov, Beckett and Pinter, and actually used Pinter’s The Caretaker as his “template” for The Night Alive.


I just saw this man and women and I could just see this room in my mind.  But I think there was something, too, of Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker: that idea of a room full of crap and someone bringing a stranger in. I’m not doing myself any favors by saying “I saw Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker in my mind and thought I had an idea for a new play.”  

The number of similarities between the two plays is almost absurd. The stage directions in The Night Alive call for a room that is “cluttered and messy” with miscellaneous things “spilling out” into the room or “piled into corners,” not dissimilar to Pinter’s description of the room in The Caretaker that is filled with “boxes,” “more boxes,” and also “boxes”. Then the opening image of The Night Alive involves a man inspecting the cluttered room until he hears voices offstage and hurries away. Throughout the play, from the relationships between characters “who have nowhere to go” to the gift of new shoes that just don’t fit, bits and pieces of The Caretaker are present throughout McPherson’s The Night Alive.

More amazing than the number of similarities between the two plays, is how incredibly different they are. Even though McPherson used The Caretaker as his so-called “template” for The Night Alive, the play feels wholly his. The poetry of McPherson’s language is gorgeous and striking, not in spite of his influences, but at least partly because of them. A little imitation in art might be unavoidable, but it might also be something to celebrate. Only by understanding their influences can artists fully embrace the resources in their ancestral arsenal. Why reinvent the story when you can invert it, smash it to pieces and sew it back together again to create something wholly unexpected?

~Abigail Birkett, Emerging Artist

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