In July I went to London to see Conor McPherson‘s new play The Night Alive. I loved it so much that I wrote him a letter with my thoughts on it. And you know what? That dear man wrote me back! Now, I have too much respect for Mr. McPherson to thrust his letter into the blogosphere. Let’s just say he told me I was on the right track.
The Gift of the Magi: Thoughts on The Night Alive
Ever since I read TNA, I’ve been pondering the deeper structure of the play and its symbols. It was only when I saw it performed, and then looked at the music, that I felt I was beginning to grasp “what’s going on.” When the first reviews came out, some commented that the play was “less supernatural” than McPherson’s other works. No ghosts, no Mr. Lockhart. But to me it seems that this is a very spiritual play and that McPherson is making use of the Christian mythos just as in some of his other plays, in fact quite a traditional Christian theology drawn from the Bible. Here he’s combining it with modern cosmology and physics to address some existential questions.
You don’t have to have read the gospels or know any physics to grasp that his core interest in this play is compassion and lovingkindness for one another, in our often wretched human condition—an idea that lies at the center of every great world religion. The play questions whether God is there or not, but affirms that either way, love is what gives our existence meaning.
But let’s look at his imagery of stars. The epigraph to the play quotes Matthew 2:11-12: When they saw the star, they rejoiced. They went into the house and they saw Mary and her child. And falling to their knees they offered their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. In the Nativity story, the star of Bethlehem heralds the advent of love and redemption, and the Magi offer their gifts in recognition of this.
Matthew’s most important source among the Hebrew prophets is Isaiah, who also refers to the birth of a starlike child. For me, the Magi and the star are key symbols in this play. The epigraph functions as one of two bookends, with Father John Misty’s song Funtimes in Babylon at the other end of the play; it is the last thing we hear as the lights are going down. This song is about one man’s personal apocalypse, and the narrator describes his desire to abuse my lungs– smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved, before the bad things happen. He invokes prison and corpses and unpaid debts coming due. There is also this line: Before the star of the morning comes looking for me. The “star of the morning” is Lucifer or Satan, of whom Isaiah (14.12) says: How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations.
So the two opposing stars stand at either end of the play, Christ at the beginning and Satan at the end. For me, they are the “ruling stars” of Tommy (played by Ciarán Hinds) and Kenneth (Brian Gleeson). Tommy seems at first sight quite the rascal. We learn all about his shady get-rich quick schemes, and the fact that the police are looking for him because he drove off without paying for his gasoline. He’s no saint. And yet, he is a Good Samaritan, if you will (Luke 10.29-37), the man who is himself an outcast, yet helps someone beaten and left for dead in the road. More germanely to the nativity story, he’s the one who “makes room at the inn” for Mary. As his bedsit is getting crowded with guests for the night (Doc and Aimee), Tommy comments: This is getting like Jurys Inns here. [“Jurys Inn” being a hotel chain in Ireland.]
Two thirds of the way through the play, we see that Tommy is taking care of Doc, of Aimee, and of Maurice himself. All this in spite of his very human wish not to be bothered with such responsibilities (As he often says, That’s really not my problem, in fairness, is it Doc?). But we also learn that although Tommy has considered suicide, the thing that keeps him from that final act is the thought that someone might need him. In fact, there is something potentially transcendent about his goodness. Maurice is disappointed in him, and in his drunkenness cries: And now the country is a shambles and we’re crying out for people like you. That can lead us into the light, Tommy. But Tommy disavows this Christlike role, saying that he’s only a moocher and that’s all he’s ever been.
Now contrast this with Kenneth, who is a man in the pit of darkness. He’s addicted to drugs, has apparently forced Aimee into prostitution and probably got her hooked on drugs too, and there is a strong hint that he’s a sexual predator as well. He breaks into random acts of terrifying violence. Clearly he’s ruled by the other star, Lucifer, and he even says of himself: You’re going around everywhere with a clouded mind, trying to forget a devil lives inside you. But I think it would be simplistic to view Kenneth simply as an evil monster. He too is human, and McPherson makes it clear that Kenneth is mentally ill. His speech patterns seem disordered and characteristic of psychosis. With Kenneth there is the imagery of the beast, who also appears in the song Funtimes in Babylon: Before the beast comes looking for last year’s rent.
During his confrontation with Doc, Kenneth puts in a pair of “jagged fangs” and plays the monster role, in a scene that evokes nervous laughter until its horrifying and bloody conclusion. It seemed to me that the “beast” refers to the wolf, who appears briefly in Matthew’s gospel (those “ravening wolves” in sheeps’ clothing) but more substantially in the Hebrew prophets, where the “ravening wolf” is significantly a creature “of the night” who pursues vulnerable sheep and lambs. In Revelation (13.17-18), “the Beast” is also Satan, of course.
When I first heard the song Funtimes in Babylon, I thought it was a love song, because it plays as Aimee returns to the bedsit and Tommy lays eyes on her again as the lights go down. The melody is achingly beautiful, and it sounded to me as though the lyrics said, “knee deep in love.” In fact, I think what we heard is this: I would like to abuse my lungs, Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved, Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood. Look out Hollywood, here I come. I see this as an elegy on the death of Kenneth, who throws down the money he’s forced Aimee to steal from Tommy, and says to her, Come on, we’ll get a smoke. At that point, all he wants is to have Aimee back. Kenneth is human too, with human desires and weaknesses.
What about Aimee (Caiolfhionn Dunne)? I agree with the critics who have observed that her role is a bit underwritten, and that she serves more as a symbol and an object of contestation for the men than as a fully-drawn character. The blogger Patrick Lonergan noted that Tommy idealizes Aimee (whose name means “Beloved”), and indeed the men seem to project onto her a Madonna/Whore archetype. Maurice castigates Tommy for bringing a “hoor” into his house. She tells Maurice she doesn’t have any children, but later we learn otherwise. She is a madonna manquée, whose baby daughter has been taken from her. She also provides a certain service for forty Euros a pop, and she’s the maiden in distress whom gentle knight Tommy rescues from the dragon. Interestingly, however, it is she, not Tommy, who takes the initiative to mete out death to her abuser Kenneth. All three men in the bedsit instinctively offer her gifts, just as the Magi offer gifts to Mary. Tommy gives her a coat, Maurice cooks her an egg, and Doc offers her a peanut, which is all he has.
Tommy and Aimee’s exchange of gifts evokes the O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi,” about a married couple who have no money at Christmas. Each sacrifices his or her most treasured possession in order to buy a gift for the other. Ironically, Della sells her long beautiful hair to buy a watch chain for Jim, but in the meantime he has sold his watch to buy hair combs for her. The story ends with an explanation that those who give are “the wisest,” like the Magi, and it is an affirmation of the power of love. In TNA, Aimee and Tommy have nothing, but each gives the other a gift that in the end is not used by the recipient.
Finally there is Doc (Michael McElhatton), the most intriguing character in the play and the most difficult to interpret. Right away, Doc’s character quotes from Matthew’s gospel (22.42) when he asks Maurice: What think ye of Christ? Maurice is, not surprisingly, puzzled by this. It is Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, asking who they think the Messiah is. They reply that he is the son of David, but Jesus poses them a question they cannot answer, about why David himself refers to the Messiah as his Lord. I think there is a little joke here about Maurice as a scolding Pharisee, and about father figures and sons, but more importantly there is the idea of a spiritual enigma.
Doc is sweet and loving, a sort of holy fool and prophet. He’s Christlike in that he is the innocent lamb whom Kenneth’s wolf bloodies. He has a precognitive dream predicting the Pope’s death, practices yoga, and may or may not have levitated during one session. His most significant dream is one in which one of the Magi speaks to him about what happens when a star dies. It becomes a black hole, and the closer one gets to it, the slower time goes, until it stops. Doc is interested in time and how it works. He himself is “five to seven minutes behind” everyone else, and has the Christmas lights out, getting them ready to use, even though it’s November. It’s almost as though he himself has broken the bounds of time. At the end of the play, as he’s leaving, he gives Tommy a message from the Magus: He told me to tell you what heaven is, Tommy. When you die, you won’t even know you’re dead. It’ll just feel like everything has come right in your life.
The black hole imagery can be interpreted differently depending on which character it applies to. Kenneth says the park is like a big black hole. The black hole for him represents his madness. But he tells Tommy that Aimee is in your sphere, in your orbit now, so that Tommy himself is like a bright star around which the other inhabitants of the house revolve. Doc’s words suggest that Tommy’s star dies at the end of the play, that he goes to heaven and is redeemed, that time stops for him. The ending is ambiguous, and there is no one correct way to interpret it. Has Tommy died and is that why Aimee appears to him? Or is he living out Maurice’s lesson: You only get a few goes, Tommy, at life…When you hit the right groove, you’ll click in there. No drama…This is it, Tommy. In other words, time is an illusion. We exist in only one moment, the present, and this is our chance to love each another. That shining moment of the present is, I think, expressed in the joyful dance interlude. “What’s Going On” is Marvin Gaye’s existential question about living on earth, but also a plea for lovingkindness, a hope also expressed in Isaiah, who anticipates the day when the wolf shall live with the lamb.