A theater is a room where the dead speak. Whispers from productions past echo through the space, retelling stories written across continents and centuries. With each new production, a play finds new life for a brief moment, and,then, at the end of the run, the play again ceases to be. Because plays cause characters from history books and distant memories to manifest in the room with us, fascination with ghosts is inherent in the structure of theatre. From Aeschylus to the Scottish play to The Night Alive, the stage is no stranger to ghosts and their stories.
When asked about the ghosts in Undermain’s production history, artistic director Katherine Owens explained the fascination of putting ghosts onstage, saying, “we’ve gone to the moon and back, but we haven’t gone beyond the grave.” From The Shining to The Walking Dead, many mediums investigate the boundaries of life and death, but the theatre, Owens says, is the only medium that can “bring us ghosts who are breathing the same air we are.” The experience of ghost stories in a theater is intimate and immediate.
Irish playwright Conor McPherson was intrigued by “ghosts and the unseen and unknown, from a very young age.” This, he thinks is perhaps partly due to the “ghostly imagery” in his Catholic upbringing and Ireland’s relationship to the infinite unknown. Because Ireland spent “1000 years at the edge of Europe” not knowing what was beyond, but thinking about it – a lot, the “‘beyond’ became internalized in [the country’s] psyche.” His plays have brought to the stage ghost stories swapped in monologue over pints on a windy night in a small Irish pub in The Weir, a clan of seductive vampires who entrance and employ an embittered theatre critic in St. Nicholas, and a poker game played with the devil in The Seafarer.
In his exploration of theatre’s power to transfix and horrify, seduce and shock, McPherson’s plays are characterized by a series of sharp right turns, A practice McPherson describes as “always trying to wrong foot the audience.” This allows him to “suddenly up the stakes exponentially” in a matter of moments to take the audience on dizzying journey where there is no way of knowing what he has coming on the next page, in the next sentence or before your next breath.
If we can make an audience laugh, frighten them, invite them to sympathize with the characters, then we have taken the audience somewhere deeper into themselves. And it’s a great honor and privilege when an audience goes to those places.
This wild journey is not merely for the sake of experiencing the unexpected; he is “trying to communicate something “the unsayable,” something entirely beyond words that lives beneath the text. In McPherson’s Shining City (where a ghosts appears in one of the aforementioned shocking right turns), priest-turned-therapist Ian, counsels a bereaved and guilt-stricken man haunted by the visage of his wife who died in a horrific car accident. Though he doesn’t believe in ghosts, he confesses that there was a time that he “would have given anything to see one. Just to know that there was … something else”. The “unsayable” that McPherson is trying to communicate, churns underneath the surface of all his plays. He imagines that “it’s ultimately some form of a search for God, or the ultimate answer, or a sense of meaning” borne from the fact that we “live in mystery” and know nothing about where we come from or why there’s a universe.” McPherson himself doubts that there’s any kind of an afterlife and finds comfort in that thought, saying that he wouldn’t want to be conscious forever: He believes that there is
…Something very sad about that but also something beautiful, the way tragedy is beautiful. Death and decay are part of what makes our lives meaningful. Human beings will not exist forever. We’re a little speck of dust in an inhospitable environment, with just a little thin atmosphere keeping us going, which we’re destroying. But does that make it meaningless? I don’t think it does.
This attitude is a quintessential Irish cocktail of bleak honesty infused with an unfaltering optimism. In The Night Alive which (won 2014 Best Play from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle), this bleak Irish optimism permeates the sea of darkness in the characters’ lives. More than in his other works, fleeting pockets of humor and warmth surface again and again amid the tumultuous elements of “cosmic” supernatural darkness that we’ve come to expect from McPherson.
The play, which takes place in Dublin as the last of fall turns into the dead of winter, is “almost a grown-up Nativity play,” MacPherson says, complete with “all the motifs about giving shelter to someone who needs shelter and featuring three wise men, none of them very wise here.”
In the final months of the year, when the wind bites and the nights grow long, we we reenact traditions and conjure up memories of loved ones and ghosts of Christmases past. The “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago” exist side by side. “The good thing about Christmas”, says The Night Alive character Doc, is “no one can turn you away. You see a light, and in you go.” It is in the coldest months of the year that we find the most warmth, sharing a brief moment of light in the ever-increasing darkness.
~Abigail Birkett, Emerging Artist