Girl From the North Country
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
The Old Vic, July-Oct 2017
Note: the following essay is intended for my friends who can’t afford to go see this play, or who have already seen it. Some spoilers are included.
Musical theatre, a form of drama which combines songs, spoken dialogue, acting and dance, is as old as the Classical Greeks. With the partial exception of Sondheim’s work, modern musicals do not garner the respect given to “serious” drama, perhaps because the “book” (the libretto or storyline with dialogue) is often subordinated to the music. Conor McPherson’s new play with music, featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, is an example of a musical in which the book and the songs find an ideal equilibrium, allowing us to experience two forms of pleasure which are usually kept separate. One is the dramatic encounter with life’s great questions, and the other is our embodied and spiritual response to music and dance.
History shows that even great songs, like those in the treasure-house of Bob Dylan’s catalogue, cannot rescue a musical with a weak book. This is surely one of the reasons why Dylan’s people approached McPherson, a celebrated Irish dramatist, to create the work. There are other reasons, which I’ll get to later, but it had to be someone with a demonstrated affinity for music, and it had to be someone who could gather the notes of isolation, pain, moral critique, and spiritual yearning in Dylan’s lyrics and build them into a gripping story– one that reflects the playwright’s own, humane vision.
McPherson hit on the ideal setting for such a play, Duluth, Minnesota in the early 1930s. The choice allows him to highlight key aspects of the environment into which Dylan was born in 1941. Depression-era Duluth was a city of brutal storms sweeping in from Lake Superior, iron shipped over the lake to make steel in Ohio, penniless victims of the market crash, and deep social inequities. Racism was endemic, and there was as yet no social safety net, although FDR had been elected in 1932. Bob Dylan’s idol, Woodie Guthrie, made his reputation with Dust Bowl Ballads, about the struggles of such Midwestern working people during the 1930s.
For Americans today, watching as the nation’s privileged class attempts to strip away FDR’s legacy, the play is unsettlingly contemporary. One of the characters speaks of the need for a “strongman” to be President, someone who has “energy,” even if he’s wrong; another asks “what would have happened if the Vikings met the Jews?” One character is a black man sent to prison for someone else’s crime, while three more dull their pain with opiates and alcohol. Despite the specificity of the setting, Nick Laine’s boarding house in Duluth is a proxy for any place where people are suffering and reaching the end of their endurance.
The play is constructed around three storylines and three triads of characters. The central story is about Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds), the struggling innkeeper whose wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has dementia. He must choose between her and his mistress Mrs Nielsen (Debbie Kurup), a penniless widow who is waiting for her husband’s estate to emerge from probate. The two fantasize about buying a hotel together, but between them lies the shadow of Nick’s unspoken feelings for his ailing wife. The second story is that of the Burkes (Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher) and their adult son Elias (Jack Shaloo), who has a mental age of about four (his story brings to mind Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men). Formerly prosperous, the Burkes have fallen on hard times.
The third plotline belongs to Marianne (Sheila Atim), the Laines’ adopted daughter. Marianne is a black woman, left as an infant in the boarding house and lovingly reared by Elizabeth. Her relationship with Nick is more fraught, for he never quite approves of her, and the unspoken subtext is her race. Marianne becomes pregnant by an unknown “boatman” and Nick arranges for an elderly friend of his, Mr. Perry (Jim Norton), to marry her. But Marianne wants nothing to do with Mr. Perry, who has a reputation as a molester. She’s more interested in Joe Scott (Arinzé Kene), a black boxer who comes to Duluth looking for work. Lastly there is a triad of free radicals, each with his own story: the Laines’ drunken son Gene (Sam Reid), whose sweetheart (Claudia Jolly) leaves him for a man with better prospects; the Bible salesman Rev. Marlowe (Michael Shaeffer), an opportunistic charlatan who injects a touch of pure evil into the proceedings, and Doctor Walker (Ron Cook), the compassionate narrator of the tale.
McPherson’s work is characterized by elegant symmetries and structural economy. It contrasts strikingly with the amoeboid, overpopulated, overlong play by Jez Butterworth, The Ferryman, which is currently the toast of London. In addition to triads, the characters in Girl From the North Country can also be broken down into pairs: Elizabeth and Elias, for example, both have mental disabilities, but experience opposite outcomes. Joe Scott and the Rev. Marlowe arrive on the scene together and trigger turning points in the lives of the other characters, one man for good and the other for evil. Nick and the Doctor both contemplate suicide: one embraces that road while the other rejects it. This is the largest dramatis personae McPherson has presented (the next largest being the eight characters of The Veil in 2011), but he brings each story to resolution in the limited time allotted.
Doctor Walker, who speeds the exposition with his narration, is reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Indeed the play borrows a bit of the metatheatrical feel of Our Town. The set is minimal and the props are a few pieces of furniture, carried in and out by the cast, plus a few screens with black and white projections of the siding on a house, or the deep dark lake. Doctor Walker speaks directly to the audience, and in the musical numbers, the cast sometimes “perform” for the audience before old-fashioned microphones, as if giving a concert. The fourth wall is not tossed out completely, yet the artificiality is enough to suggest that all the world’s a boarding house, and all the men and women mere sojourners.
Fine acting ensures that the denizens of the house have layered personalities: Stanley Townsend’s loquacious, entrepreneurial Mr. Burke and Bronagh Gallagher’s wisecracking Mrs. Burke convey the weariness of longtime spouses bound together only by shared responsibility. Debbie Kurup’s Mrs. Neilsen maintains her dignity and autonomy in spite of her emotional vulnerability, and is kind to Elizabeth, her natural rival. Arinzé Kene reveals Joe Scott’s desire for upward mobility through his precise enunciation, while his sincerity charms the wary Marianne. Jim Norton gives Mr. Perry a querulous dignity and superiority, which Sheila Atim deftly and smilingly punctures. Most memorable of all are Shirley Henderson, as the mischievous Elizabeth, part toddler and part soothsayer, and Ciarán Hinds, whose dry delivery of Nick’s one-liners never wholly conceals the deep well of his despair.
Conor McPherson has said in interviews that the songs do not move the play along, but instead open it up. I think that his play (and his direction) opens up Dylan’s songs. Many of Dylan’s lyrics reflect a relentlessly masculine perspective and even a hint of misogyny (Don’t Think Twice, Like A Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind… I could go on). McPherson deconstructs this perspective by changing the gender of the singer, or by alternating singers. It is a simple device, long used by the interpreters of the American songbook, to extend the emotional range of songs originally written for a man or a woman to sing. McPherson also reveals how a single song is relevant to multiple characters: I Want You, first sung achingly by Gene Laine when his girlfriend leaves him, is later reprised by Mrs. Nielsen, whose love for Nick isn’t requited. A humorously hard-driving Like A Rolling Stone is sung by the fragile Elizabeth to dramatize her own plight, but we quickly realize that it applies equally to just about any of the down-and-outers in the boarding house.
The lovely musical arrangements by Simon Hale, together with the breathtaking talent of the performers, reveal how many of Dylan’s lesser-known songs possess the enduring magic of standards. Once you hear Sheila Atim sing Tight Connection to My Heart (1985) as a ballad, you can’t forget the heartbreaking melody, or the purity of her voice. Jack Shaloo’s Duquesne Whistle (2012) is an upbeat showstopper, one of several numbers that inject fleeting joy into the characters’ painful existence. The second half begins with a full-on, Appalachian-inflected You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, introduced by talented ensemble member Karl Queensborough, and there’s also an rousing Hurricane sung by Arinzé Kene, with a few lines interpolated from All Along the Watchtower. The music is interwoven like a tapestry, with medleys and reprises and Easter Eggs for the Dylan lover. (If I’m not mistaken, a couple of songs are indirectly referenced in the dialogue, like Nick’s quip about Gene making money when he finally writes “his masterpiece.”) Some numbers are arranged as duets, and others are counterpoints. The presentation of the songs is consistent with classic Broadway musicals, but the lyrics function impressionistically.
McPherson carefully selects and trims Dylan’s lyrics, shaping them to reveal the emotional states and inner lives of the characters. The effect is very much like the language in dreams, disconnected at the surface level, yet pregnant with associations between dialogue and lyric. The first song (Went To See the Gypsy), sung by Mrs. Neilsen, reflects her anxiety to know the future: will her financial and romantic dreams materialize? But a few lines of dialogue later, we sense that she already knows the answer:
I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was wide open
But the gypsy was gone
In Act Two, the gypsy is replaced by the enigmatic figure of the Jokerman, but he resurfaces briefly in Señor (Tales of Yankee Power), as if to confirm that there will be no storybook endings:
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said ‘Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing’
Using this technique, McPherson weaves his chosen songs together, so that (especially in the second act) they gain a thematic unity, and seem to flow into a single, sustained composition.
Amid the unfulfilled longings and dwindling hopes, there is a pervasive sense of an existential threat looming closer, but not yet in focus. In Act One, a medley of Slow Train Coming (introduced by the hypocritical Preacher) and License to Kill creates foreboding:
A real suicide case, but there was nothin’ I could do to stop it
… There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.
Suicide is a recurrent theme in this play, as is the presence of evil. Toward the end of Act Two, the same themes are sounded:
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
McPherson has mined Dylan’s lyrics for the imagery and concepts that resonate most closely with his own vision of human vulnerability in the face of malign and indifferent cosmic powers. In McPherson’s symbolic repertoire, these powers are apprehended through the great metaphors of Christianity, and to a lesser extent, paganism. Satan’s power to enslave, represented here above all by the attempted exploitation and “sale” of two black characters, is countered unexpectedly: not through triumphalist apocalyptic, but in the mundane acts and choices of everyday people.
On Twitter you’ll see Girl compared to the work of Eugene O’Neill, America’s answer to Strindberg and Chekhov. There’s an amusing little nod in the play to Chekhov, who famously said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, in the following one it should be fired.” Chekhov meant that nothing in a play should be superfluous, and indeed McPherson cannot waste a single word, because at least an hour of his running time is devoted to music. Here Chekhov’s gun is quite literal, as Nick Laine fondles a firearm in the first scene (it is duly discharged in the second half, with unexpectedly positive results). One of the things I love about McPherson’s work is that it avoids the overwhelming pessimism and despair of Strindberg and O’Neill. Pain is inescapable. Terrifying evil exists. But we are reminded that love also exists in this world, and maybe even beyond this world.
Perhaps Bob Dylan saw a link to his own spiritual explorations in McPherson’s consistent use of the Christian mythos. It is noticeable as early as Dublin Carol, a play set at Christmas time, in which an unworthy man tells of receiving unconditional love from multiple people around him. In The Night Alive, the loser Tommy and two other men take in a fragile young woman pursued by an evil force, unwittingly re-enacting the Nativity story. In Girl From the North Country, the Nativity theme is overt, for Marianne’s pregnancy has been induced by an entity “older than a man, deeper than a man.” Mr. Perry, her elderly suitor, has been advised in a dream to get Marianne under his roof; he promises not to touch her. But the eagerness of this “Joseph” to possess his Mary is suspect, as is Nick’s willingness to accept money as part of the deal. Like Aimee in The Night Alive, Marianne and her child are under a spiritual threat: she is the Woman pursued by a Dragon (Rev. 12:3). Marianne opts for freedom and uncertainty with a Joseph of her own choosing, one who will not neuter her sexually, or hold her in marital bondage.
And what of the mysterious “Boatman,” the father of Marianne’s child? I am reminded of the old Gaelic song “The Boatman,” in which a woman longs for her absent lover: “My heart is broken, bruised/Often tears are running down my cheeks/Will you come tonight, or will I wait up for you/But close the door, sighing heavily?” But if the being who visits Marianne is as elusive as a transient lover, he is also eternally present. When she inhales the scent of his tunic, it is that of water on old stone. She breathes him and sees through him, like one who drowns. To me it was as if the Old World’s Nativity had been transposed to the New, with a visitation from the Ancient of Days who is the Great Lake, the Gitchi-Gami of the Ojibwe. But the Great Lake can take life as well as give it. As Mr. Burke says in the second half, “The water was like iron.” Water and iron are the twin elements of cold, indifferent nature in this play, while clothing, warmth, and shelter point toward humane intervention. In Tight Connection To My Heart, Marianne sings:
I’m gonna get my coat
I’m gonna feel the breath of a storm
There’s something I’ve got to do tonight
You go inside and stay warm
The theme is reprised in Act Two when the company quietly perform a hymn-like Girl From the North Country:
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
In the play’s last lines, these themes find fulfillment as Doctor Walker shares a vision of Marianne and her Joseph: “They were well dressed in warm coats. Came up and stood outside the inn with that baby in their arms…”
A little girl, a powerful symbol of innocence endangered, passes through the play repeatedly, always as part of Nick Laine’s life (Nick being representative of experience). She is the young Elizabeth, violated by Mr. Perry; she is baby Marianne, abandoned to strangers in a boarding house, and she is Nick’s younger sister Leonora, who fell down an iron mining hole when she was six and he was ten. Convinced that he was responsible for her death, Nick has been haunted by her plaintive cries ever since. In the end, despite the play’s title and the numinous figure of Marianne, Nick Laine stands at its heart. He is the only character who never sings and never participates in the musical numbers, except for one brief, heartbreaking dance with Elizabeth. His failure to sing highlights his pain and isolation, but it also creates a metaphysical distinction between him and the other characters, as if he is the substrate holding them all up, supporting their reality.
Like Tommy in The Night Alive, Nick is no saint; crucially, he fails as a parent to Marianne. Yet, like Tommy, he is the sort of man who does for others unselfishly. Not always gracefully, and not always wisely, but while the others are singing, he works tirelessly, carrying trays, setting out food, fixing the broken pipes, keeping the dilapidated house from falling apart. He is the father of a makeshift family who gather around the table at Thanksgiving, the archetypal family meal. More than one of the residents can’t pay him, but he nevertheless gives them shelter from the storm. He tries to “fix” things for his son, pulling strings to get him a job interview. He patiently cares for the demented Elizabeth, and frets when his pregnant daughter Marianne stays out late in the cold. The theme of serving is important in the play. At one point, the vicious Rev. Marlowe claims to be “the servant of a servant,” while Mr. Perry tells Marianne that she faces a future as nothing more than a servant. (As Dylan wrote, “it may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord/ but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”) Nick’s worrying and constant activity is a characteristically Midwestern, masculine way of expressing love, from a man who believes that he has no soul, and nothing to give. It is perfect casting for Ciarán Hinds, whose overt masculinity is never incongruous with caregiving.
Ultimately, the arrival of Joe Scott and the Rev. Marlowe empties the boarding house of its residents, leaving Nick alone with Elizabeth, planning a desolate end for them both. And then, Elizabeth sings a song which unexpectedly and movingly reveals her knowledge of her husband, and her renewed love for him:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
The play’s ending is sad, but not hopelessly and fashionably bleak. More than one person around me was weeping in the final moments, a testament to the combined talent of the playwright, the actors, and the enduring musical achievement of Bob Dylan.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss