A few weeks ago, I was in London for theatre and food. While the nosh was delicious, it’s the stage that has remained in my mind, most particularly Jezz Butterworth’s The Ferryman, and Conor McPherson’s Girl From the North Country.
The Ferryman is gripping entertainment with a disappointing ending, a hot mess of a play packed with attention-grabbing distractions: a gaggle of children, live animals, and ecstatic dancing. In its aftermath, I felt admiration for the riveting performances, and for Butterworth’s flashes of writerly brilliance. It’s well worth seeing. But I thought he wrote himself into a corner, and recapitulated the ending of Jerusalem. Then too, the blend of modern-day realities with ancient folklore which so memorably fueled Jerusalem is hardly new in a play about Ireland. I suspect that The Ferryman, which is soaring so high in London, would meet with quite a different reception in Dublin–especially given the lack of nuance in Butterworth’s depiction of IRA villainy. (A review in the Irish Times, “In Defence of The Ferryman,” addresses the accusations of paddywhackery but avoids the IRA.)
I have written elsewhere about Girl From the North Country, so I won’t repeat here my reasons for loving it. If I had to find fault with Girl, I would note that McPherson uses anachronistic language, including liberal lashings of the F-bomb. The same is true of The Ferryman. Maybe it was normal for men in rural Catholic Ireland, 1981, to cuss like sailors, but women and children? I doubt it. (“Fuck me blue!” exclaims one of the little Carney girls, when told she is destined to bear nine children.) In 1930s Minnesota, land of dour Scandinavian Protestants, the foul language seems even more out of place. But I can excuse Aunt Maggie Faraway’s nostalgia for the beauteous lad she could have “ridden” all the way to Connemara and back, or the absurd humor of Mrs. Neilson’s “fucking banana,” for the sake of appeal to a contemporary audience.
I also entertain doubts about the presence of dramatically useful but unrealistic “holy fools” in both plays. But at least McPherson limits himself to one (the demented soothsayer Elizabeth Laine) whereas Butterworth characteristically overdoes it with two (Tom Kettle, reminiscent of The Professor in Jerusalem, and the bewitchingly batty Aunt Maggie).
Girl has received some rapturous reviews, but would it be as well received in the States? Amusingly, some UK reviewers were far more critical than I of the actors’ American accents (I heard nothing amiss). People in the UK are highly sensitive to the nuances of accent, and very decided in their opinions on the subject. People in the US are the same way when it comes to race. Inevitably, McPherson’s treatment of the racial themes will draw criticism. Like the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it’s impenetrably complicated, and he’s looking in from the outside. But just in case anyone questions the historicity of the premise in Girl, let it be known that neither interracial adoption nor interracial marriage was illegal in the 1930s in Minnesota. In fact, Minnesota was one of the few states which never passed a miscegenation law.
With apologies for this rambling post, I’ll finally come to my main point about the two plays. Both depict a culture different from the one in which the author was raised, and both borrow liberally from that culture’s dramatists. This reminded me of a theory propounded in the 1970s by Harold Bloom, America’s most important literary critic. In The Anxiety of Influence, he proposed that all writers struggle with the work of their predecessors and cannot escape its impact. “Weak” writers end up producing derivative work, mere imitations, while “strong” writers find ways to subsume, refashion and transcend what went before.
Only a few of the critics singing hosannas to The Ferryman have noted its borrowings from homegrown Irish drama. I recognized Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa in the rural setting at harvest time, imbued with pagan resonances, and of course in the dancing. Another obvious borrowing from Friel is Uncle Pat, the lover of the Classics, who quotes Vergil’s Aeneid, just like the hedge-school master in Translations. This review in The Guardian mentions allusions to Friel’s Wonderful Tennessee, as well as a Tom Murphy play and Seamus Heaney’s bog poems. Into this mid-twentieth-century mix, Butterworth adds a dash of dark irony and violence à la Martin McDonagh. (I confess, I couldn’t see any Conor McPherson in there, but maybe I missed it.)
Now, I am a proponent of the idea that anybody can write about anybody. Butterworth’s non-Irishness, per se, is not a concern for me. But where does he end up on the Harold Bloom scale of imitation versus transcendence? Are these reminiscences of Friel and others a form of loving tribute? (A New Yorker profile says that he chose English at Cambridge after seeing his brother act in a production of Translations.) Are they a pre-emptive way of proving that he’s done his homework on all things Irish? A Bloomian attempt to subsume his predecessor(s) and go them one better? Or is the use of Irish masters simply “derivative”? Similar questions arise with McPherson’s nods to American literature of the 1930s in Girl From the North Country: Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck. What separates a clever or well-placed reference from a flat-footed one? The label “derivative” has already been deployed to criticize Girl, but I don’t think it’s warranted for either of these new plays.
In the branch of literature I study, the Greek and Roman classics, allusion to one’s predecessors was never a matter of being “derivative,” but instead was highly valued. It is only in modern times, with the Romantic myth of the artistic genius and his (it’s always a “he”) utterly original ideas, that we began to deride all forms of imitation. But as Bloom says, there is no such thing as total originality, and I daresay that if there were, it wouldn’t be much good. Take Vergil, for example: there is scarcely a single line in the Aeneid which doesn’t imitate, quote, or otherwise allude to Homer and/or other predecessors whom Vergil prized. James Joyce did something similar in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, which are both dense with literary allusions, parodies, imitations, and quotations. Part of the pleasure in reading such works is recognizing their sources and the additional layers of meaning they add to the work.
This brings me to Bob Dylan, the passive collaborator in Conor McPherson’s Girl From the North Country. (McPherson was approached to write a play using Dylan’s songs, and given permission to use them any way he wanted.) First of all, imagine the Anxiety of Influence you might feel, if asked to juxtapose your work with that of an iconic wordsmith like Dylan. Last year, when McPherson was no doubt putting the finishing touches on the play, Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. Predictably, more than one reviewer has taken the easy path of suggesting that McPherson’s play won’t win him a Nobel. But upon close examination, I found that the play is much more than a tribute to Dylan and his roots. McPherson selectively shapes, edits and positions Dylan’s words and melodies in pursuit of his own agenda, one that develops naturally from his earlier plays. That is the mark of Bloom’s “strong” writer.
One last word about Dylan himself and the Anxiety of Influence. In the folk tradition from which Dylan sprang, as in antiquity, there was little awareness of the concepts of plagiarism, stealing others’ work, or being derivative. Everyone used everyone else’s material as a matter of course, and everyone recognized such uses. But Bob Dylan is famous for his “pastiche” technique of borrowing. His song lyrics are spun out from a mental blender into which he pours his voracious reading, and his lyrics have quoted everything from Ovid’s Tristia to the poems of Confederate soldier Henry Timrod, to a slew of Hollywood screenplays, to the Bible. More notoriously, Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles Volume 1, is loaded with “memories” concocted from books he consulted while writing it. Paintings by Dylan, exhibited in the Gagosian gallery in New York, caused a scandal when it turned out that many presented as “originals” were copied from photographs. Even his Nobel acceptance speech was partly cribbed from Sparknotes.
My point, I suppose, is that artistic genius is not incompatible with imitation, borrowing, and even (in Dylan’s admittedly unusual case) outright plagiarism. What’s going on in The Ferryman and Girl From the North Country is Dylanesque (or Tarantino-esque) in the pastiche sense, but much more focused. Perhaps both playwrights have absorbed a more postmodern attitude to the question of originality, which ironically corresponds to ancient, “folk” sensibilities. Both dramatists allude to literature from the decades in which their plays are set. Their engagement with the period on which they are working–and the writers of that period–is overt. They make no attempt to hide or “subsume” the impact of their predecessors, but put them front and center. Maybe this is a new age, of Confident Influence?
Time to end this post, and I didn’t even tackle what it means that these guys borrow so much from themselves.