At any given moment, a theater group somewhere is presenting Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, a modern classic. At the moment, Vancouver B.C. is looking forward to a production in March at the Pacific Theater. And it just finished a run at Chicago’s Den Theater.
Everyone who reads or watches this play feels a certain sympathy for the Devil. And if I could make a little Faustian bargain of my own, I’d go back in time to 2007 and see it with the New York cast. After all, the prospect of being dragged off to “the hole in the wall” by that particular Mephistopheles has its attractions.
McPherson has said that the idea for the play came from a story told about the Hellfire Club, a ruined eighteenth-century house at the top of Montpelier Hill outside Dublin. The members of the club, known for their wicked deeds of debauchery, used to leave a chair empty for the Devil. On a stormy night, a stranger arrived and was invited to join their card game. A card fell to the floor, and bending to retrieve it, one of the players noticed that the stranger had a cloven hoof.
Montpelier Hill originally had a prehistoric passage grave on its summit, stones of which were used to build the house. As so often in Ireland, the Christian mythos collides with the pagan past. Another inspiration for The Seafarer, according to McPherson, was the Neolithic Newgrange Mound in County Meath, where sunlight floods the burial chamber on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
The symbolic use of celestial phenomena, the intersection of the cosmic and the spiritual, is a hallmark of Conor McPherson’s work. The winter solstice typically arrives just before Christmas, so that the return of physical light is accompanied by the arrival of the Child who is, in the Christian mythos, the redemptive Light of the World. I wonder if this is part of McPherson’s fascination with the holiday (Dublin Carol and The Seafarer are set on Christmas Eve, while The Night Alive is full of references to the Nativity).
In this play, the light and the dark, Christ and the Devil meet in a struggle for one man’s soul. That man is James “Sharky” Harkin, who lives with his cantankerous older brother Richard in Dublin. Having recently lost his sight, Richard is by turns angry and depressed, and he bullies Sharky as only an older brother can. (I laughed to imagine Jim Norton, a smallish man with a big voice, chiding the towering David Morse, who must be about six foot four). Richard’s main interest in life is drink (a hobby shared by his sidekick Ivan), and the byplay between these two provides much of the comedy in the play.
Yet Richard is more than a cranky old curmudgeon who refuses to bathe. In the relationship between Sharky and Richard, there is a certain resemblance to Tommy and Maurice in The Night Alive. In both plays, an everyman with a troubled past, divorced, down on his luck and struggling to get by, finds himself caring for a sharp-tongued older family member who owns the house they are living in. Both ramshackle houses (as McPherson’s stage directions for The Seafarer put it) “lack a woman’s touch,” and are filled with grunting, scratching, unshaven men, behaving as men do when there are no women to impress, no women to fear. It occurs to me that this is why McPherson so often chooses to write about men. As a man himself, he is of course more at ease with a male point of view. But he once said in an interview that human beings are basically animals with only a thin veneer of civilization. And in The Seafarer, this theme is abundantly clear.
Were we to be presented with a group of women onstage, unwashed, with greasy hair and stained clothing, swilling whiskey and beer and playing poker on Christmas Eve, we would not quite know what to make of it (though as a matter of fact this is a rather interesting scenario). But switch genders, and we understand immediately what is happening. The male stands in for the human, and we are presented with the human condition, in all its messy physicality. At Sharky and Richard’s back door, a crowd of “winos” keeps visiting, leaving their calling cards of vomit and urine on the back steps. It is a favorite pastime of Richard to chase them off with his stick, blissfully unaware that the only thing separating him from them is the roof over his head.
And yet, when Mr. Lockhart arrives to play cards for Sharky’s soul, we learn that the Devil is envious of humans, in spite of their repulsive, mortal, weak, fleshly nature.
What are human beings? Two balloons—that’s your lungs, and an annoying little whistle at the top where the air comes out…
You all age and wither before me like dead flowers in a bright window! You’re nothing! …
I’m the very power that keeps us apart. Isn’t that worth saving?… Evidently not. No, he loves you… he loves all you insects. Figure that one out.
Human beings enjoy the possibility of redemption, unlike the pensive and morose Devil, who understands that in spite of his great age and power, he is not worth saving, forever excluded from love. Immortality is not much consolation, if it’s eternally spent wandering on a frozen, dark sea, with no stars to light the way home (like the Seafarer of the Old English poem after which the play is named).
The insect theme is continued when Richard recounts a dream he had, of seeing a bluebottle fly staring at him with its huge eyes: And there was such… comfort, in his blank unseeing regard for me, Mr. Lockhart. You just know that God is in a fly, don’t you? The very existence and the amazing design in something so small and intricate as a bluebottle— it’s God’s revelation, really, isn’t it? Don’t you feel that? To this Lockhart dryly replies: Well, except that they seem to like the taste of shit so much, don’t they?
No doubt this gets a huge laugh from the audience every time. But behind it there is something more profound. As a matter of fact, Richard also tells a story involving shit that I won’t repeat here, in case any of you happens to be eating. The effect is to remind us once again of the limitations of the human, animal body, something that the arrogant Devil simply can’t get past. But even as this conversation takes place, we are aware that on the next morning, Christ will be born, the god who chose to become incarnate, in human flesh, to suffer and share its humiliations, pains and woes.
What I enjoyed most about this play is the fact that (as in Milton) the Devil has a personality. Perhaps my favorite lines in The Seafarer are not spoken lines, but part of McPherson’s stage directions. He goes to some trouble to describe how each man’s personality meshes with alcohol. Sharky’s romantic rival Nicky, for example, is “a euphoric drunk,” while Richard “can lurch from sentimentality to vicious insults within seconds.” Mr. Lockhart, it turns out, “is a philosphical drunk, yet prone to deeper, maudlin feelings.” He hates music, which he literally cannot hear except as unpleasant noise (music being one of the key features of Conor McPherson’s Heaven).
But Lockhart has a rather poetical bent, and is fond of the poetry of numbers.
Ah, a ten is like a shining tower. It’s like the twentieth century. It’s solid. It looms at you, eh?
Well, nine can have a certain symmetry to it.
Oh, seven is deep.
A drunken, philosophical (almost Pythagorean) Mephistopheles makes an intriguing character. Especially if one sees (or can imagine seeing) him played by Ciarán Hinds. The Seafarer suggests that grace is available even to the Sharkys of the world, people who may feel, mistakenly, that they are beyond redemption. Grace is not something you can bargain for, as you can bargain with the Devil. Instead it comes freely given.
In the end, Sharky only just escapes being dragged off to “the hole in the wall” by what some critics felt was a frivolous turn in the plot. In folktales, as a matter of fact, the Everyman character’s “escape from a deal with the Devil” often turns on just such a technicality. In this case, the plot device has to do with vision, another important metaphor in the play. Of the four Dubliners, the blind and irascible Richard is the only one who possesses a clear, unwavering vision of God’s presence in the world, something that the ultra-sensitive Mr. Lockhart recognizes immediately. Richard’s friend Ivan (who seems to have had his own run-in with Mr. Lockhart in days gone by) is near-sighted and perpetually in search of his glasses. Together, the two manage to form a team to play poker, with Ivan peering at the cards, and Richard providing the bankroll. It turns out that in the world of Conor McPherson, when you think that you have been dealt a losing hand, it is always worth taking a second look.
And now a note from Linnet the Collector: I swore some time ago that I would buy no more items autographed by Ciarán Hinds. People solicit his autograph, get it for free, and then sell it on Ebay. This wastes his time and I don’t want to contribute to it anymore. But I broke my own resolution when I saw this pristine copy of the play for sale–autographed by the entire Broadway cast back in 2007.