In October, we will travel to Dublin to see Mark O’Rowe’s new play Our Few and Evil Days, which is being staged at the Abbey. In order to get a better idea of O’Rowe’s work, I decided to read Terminus (2007), which is perhaps his best-known play (he also wrote a movie called Intermission which stars Cillian Murphy and Colm Meaney).
Terminus is set in Dublin and involves gory violence and the supernatural. It is composed entirely of monologues. No wonder then that O’Rowe has been, shall we say, bedeviled his whole career by comparisons to Conor McPherson?
I don’t think it’s a matter of direct influence by either one on the other. Instead, both seem to be part of a generation of playwrights born around 1970 who were inspired by Samuel Beckett (hence the monologues, avant-gardism and black humor). As for the gore, it comes from a Tarantino-esque diet of gritty 70s fare and horror films. In a Guardian interview, O’Rowe said,
Video came out when I was about 13. So I grew up on video nasties, cannibal movies and kung-fu flicks – I Spit on Your Grave and all that stuff.
The same is no doubt true of McPherson and of Martin McDonagh, whose work is also noted for its violence. The supernatural? Perhaps it’s that mystical brew of Catholicism and Celtic culture. Or maybe it’s too many viewings of The Exorcist and its cinematic spawn.
I am not fond of David Mamet, who has often been cited as another source of inspiration for these playwrights. Mamet has transformed himself over the years into a grumpy right-wing curmudgeon. Before turning as sour as curdled milk in silly plays like Oleanna, he founded his career on his ability to convey a certain brand of competitive urban hyper-masculinity (Glengarry Glen Ross). Definitely not my cup of tea.
That said, his influence on younger male writers such as McPherson, McDonagh and O’Rowe is palpable. Take American Buffalo (1975), a play about a junk-shop owner who sells a valuable coin to a customer, then plots with his lowlife buddies to steal it back when he suspects it was worth more than he realized. The profanity, the working-class characters with their knuckle-headed schemes, the closely-observed dynamics of masculine relationships, and the surprise violence are all familiar in the works of these younger men.
Terminus, however, is very much its own play. Generally, I prefer traditional dialogic plays to monologue plays. I want to see actors interact. But in Terminus, the monologue format (with each character in his or her own separate bubble of consciousness) allows O’Rowe to take a risk by fashioning a strange new linguistic idiom for them. The entire play is composed in rhymes. Not heroic couplet end-rhymes, but a consistent pattern of internal rhymes reminiscent of hip-hop:
So, purpose-filled I gild myself with a second drink, sink it quick, feel its kick, and, fortified, I step outside, and stride again, my destination home.
A bottle of red and assorted treats on a tray–a selection of cheeses, fresh cream and peaches, a girls’ night in with each of us drying the other’s eyes when the other cries at the film unfolding onscreen.
The characters are three unnamed people: a woman in her forties (A), another woman in her twenties (B), and a man in his thirties (C). They speak one at a time, telling their stories, and as the play progresses, you begin to see that their lives intersect. It turns out that A is B’s mother, but they’re now estranged for a rather compelling reason. We discover that C, who seems a likable enough fellow at first, spends his evenings stalking and killing women.
My favorite story was that of B, a sad, lonely young woman whose best friend Lee is married to Lenny, a lecher who keeps making passes at B. Strangely, Lee doesn’t seem to notice this. One night they invite B. out for a beer, and an attractive man stops by their table:
Lenny and Lee make the introductions. Andy’s his name and, although I can’t claim to be gifted in conversation, we make a connection, I feel, and whatever rubbish I spiel, he understands, or appears to, at one point, clinks my glass with his, says, “Here’s to you,” and I flush, and shush!–between you and me, I’m fairly smitten, admitting the fact to myself when he puts his hand on mine…
They leave the pub and Andy dares them to steal into a building site. They make their way through a gap in the fence and climb into the cab of a crane, then onto the arm, looking out over the city lights of Dublin. Andy kisses B, but then Lee calls him back into the cab. Suddenly Lenny is sitting beside B. on the crane:
“Howdy,” he says with a loom and a leer.
“Howdy back,” I respond, and peer beyond him, searching Andy out and finding Lee’s on her knees between his legs, head bobbing, robbing him of breath, his gasps, as Lenny clasps my neck and lifts me, pulls my head to his to kiss me.
And it’s suddenly plain what tonight has been: a pantomime, the only aim to obtain me for Lenny–the fucking penny has dropped–but the biggest shock is the sudden certainty of my best friend’s complicity.
This simple, wrenching moment hits you like a punch in the gut. But gritty realism gives way to a phantasmagoric incursion of the supernatural when B., trying to escape lecherous Lenny, falls from the arm of the crane. Instead of plummeting to her death, she is caught up in the arms of a mysterious, flying creature who carries her far outside of Dublin and makes love to her. The identity of this demonic being, and his relationship to the murderous C., lies at the heart of the story.
I wonder how actors feel about monologue plays like this. On the one hand, each actor gets his or her chance to shine, to be the center of attention, to carry the entire production on his or her shoulders.
And yet the format gives them very little to do, physically speaking. Nor do they have the opportunity to play with and against each other. For the audience too, this must seem a very static format.
True, I’ve not seen it staged, but as I read it, I kept thinking that action was being subordinated to language. Best, in my opinion, to combine them, yet the fantastical elements in this play can only be recounted, not shown:
And now, passing through St. Declan’s road, having slowed after a puce-inducing dive, through the window of number five, in one of the upstairs rooms, a mother shows her child the moon which he ignores and roars in delight, tracing our racing left to right with a pointed finger, a grin which’ll linger, I’ll wager, long after his mother recovers, shocked as she was, white as she went with the shock of our swooping past.
On an initial reading, it seemed to me that O’Rowe hadn’t yet achieved his maturity in this play. The violence appears both gratuitous and overly influenced by what O’Rowe calls “video nasties” or exploitation movies. For example, A., a suicide counselor, spends two of her monologues recounting an off-putting story about her attempt to rescue a young woman from her abusive lesbian partner– an absurd caricature who goes around smashing people’s faces in with her fists and raping them with broomsticks. The tale of C., the serial killer, is only a marginal improvement.
Still there are deeper waters here. In spite of his weirdness about lesbians, O’Rowe is better than Conor McPherson at portraying female characters, and certainly more interested in doing so. B.’s story is transcendent, and explores the passages between life and death:
And here within [death’s] fist, in the midst of whatever terminus this is–a void as black as pitch, in which I now exist, it seems, as thought alone, or in a dream, I’m shown a stream of memories, which, having appeared, immediately cease to be for ever.
O’Rowe’s new play is described this way on the Abbey website:
Adele and her parents have always been close. But recently, that closeness has been tainted by an increasing sense of mistrust. Tonight, a visit from a stranger will force them to confront the terrifying reality of their relationship.
We are warned that it contains “potentially disturbing content” and is for people over the age of 16. To judge from the poster and description, this is not a monologue play, but I’m curious to see what O’Rowe has done with the language. According to an interview with Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds, the play is written in highly “naturalistic speech” with lots of interjections and people talking over each other, which demands great precision from the actors. A linguistic experiment completely different from Terminus, then. I’ll be looking to see whether O’Rowe is able to apply his lyrical gift to this unsettling domestic tale in a way that feels true.
Postscript: Turns out I was right about the impact of American Buffalo, as we learn in this interview with O’Rowe. Don’t you just love it when that happens?