Supernaturalism: Femininity and Form in Conor McPherson’s Paranormal Plays

Author: Susan Cannon Harris

At the climax of Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir, a group of middle-aged men in a local pub in Sligo listen spellbound as the only stranger in their midst—a woman from Dublin named Valerie who has rented a house in the area—tells them a ghost story. She has been listening gratefully to the men’s ghost stories, she says, because she has experienced something similar: after her daughter Niamh drowned in a swimming pool, Valerie received a telephone call from her in which Niamh pleaded for Valerie to come and free her from a house in which she was trapped. The affective power of Valerie’s story accounts in large part for the favorable reception of The Weir, which became one of the most successful Irish plays of the 1990s. Even in 2010, Eamonn Jordan was going against the critical consensus when he suggested that Valerie’s tale (and The Weir itself) might be a deliberate hoax—a cynical “confidence trick” perpetrated on Valerie’s on-stage and theatrical audiences.[1] As Jordan points out, Valerie’s story does show signs of having been woven, à la Verbal Kint, out of details picked up from the men’s stories; like theirs, for instance, it includes a girl named Niamh, mysterious knocking, and a sinister man watching children from a distance.[2] By challenging our desire to believe in Valerie’s story, Jordan’s reading raises a larger question about the reception of what we might call McPherson’s “paranormal plays.” We might well ask not just why spectators invest in Valerie’s story but why they invest in a dramatic mode that seeks to combine two apparently antithetical things: supernatural content and naturalistic form.

Patrick Lonergan argues in Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era that during the 1990s and early 2000s, “mobility” was a necessary criterion for an Irish play’s success in a globalized marketplace which was characterized first and foremost by the speed with which commodities circulate across national and continental borders.[3] According to Lonergan’s formula for international success, the key to a play’s “mobility,” apart from its being cheap to produce and easy to transfer from theater to theater, is what Lonergan calls its “reflexive quality”—the ease with which spectators in the world outside Ireland can “relate [the] experience” of the play “to their own preoccupations.”[4] McPherson’s initial success with monologue plays like Rum and Vodka, This Lime Tree Bower, and St. Nicholas can be explained in terms of the “inherent mobility” of the cheap and portable monologue format.[5] But it was only after McPherson made the transition to what he would disparagingly term the “naturalism” of his ensemble plays that the “reflexive quality” that is also one of the defining features of realism gave McPherson the boost of “mobility” that catapulted him to canonical and bankable status.

In fact, as I will argue in this essay, it is precisely by understanding how Valerie’s story achieves its reality effect while simultaneously advertising its constructedness that we can best understand the phenomenon of McPherson’s international success. It was largely through his manipulation of dramatic conventions that link the female body with both the domestic interior and the supernatural that McPherson invented and sustained the dramatic mode that made him famous—a mode which I will refer to as “supernaturalism.” The dramatic mode he introduced in The Weir and developed in Shining City was “mobile” in part because it fulfilled a widely shared fin de siècle fantasy by rescuing realism from materialism. By using the techniques of naturalism to realize the immaterial on stage, McPherson sought to confirm the existence or at least the possibility of a metaphysical dimension to the actuality that realism and naturalism claim to represent.

I use the past tense because the publicity surrounding McPherson’s 2011 play The Veil, in which both supernatural elements and female characters proliferate to a much greater extent than in any of McPherson’s earlier plays, indicates that McPherson’s supernaturalism was one of the many casualties of the global financial collapse of 2008. The publicity generated around The Veil’s premiere at London’s National Theatre suggests that the crash prompted McPherson to reimagine not only his own methodology but his Irishness, his understanding of the nature of theatrical representation, and even his perception of reality. The resulting play staged the unraveling not only of Celtic Tiger Ireland but also of McPherson’s supernaturalism itself, as both a dramatic mode and a globally marketable commodity.


I. Common Sense

For our sins, those of us who would invoke the terms “naturalism” and “realism” are first condemned to engage in an endless round of definitional games in which we try and fail to formulate a bright line rule for distinguishing one from the other. As Joe Cleary laments in Outrageous Fortune, “the distinction between realism and naturalism has never been fully clear”;[6] and despite Cleary’s heroic efforts, it remains murky. Christopher Innes’s introduction to A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre observes ruefully that

The terms “Naturalism” and “Realism” are particularly ambiguous. As critical labels, they are also applied both to a broad category of art in general, and to specific movements in the novel and in drama that may be related, but are by no means identical. In addition, each term tends to be used more imprecisely than other literary or artistic designations, and both have been defined in various competing, even mutually exclusive ways.[7]

This lack of precision is partly due to the enormous flexibility of the concepts on which they are based: “real” and “natural.”[8] Innes solves the problem by attaching both terms to “a specific literary and theatrical movement” which peaked in European drama in the 1880s and 1890s but whose “general qualities […] are still reflected in the dominant mode of drama today.”[9] Though there is considerable variation in critical practice—as Innes points out, the same playwright will be identified by some scholars as a naturalist and by others as a realist[10]—the term “naturalism” is closely associated with nineteenth century French theater and the experiments of Emile Zola and actor-director André Antoine, while the term “realism” more closely tracks the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and his Anglophone imitators. Zola’s naturalism was closely tied to the environmental determinism that characterized the new nineteenth century sciences of psychology, evolutionary biology, and economics,[11] and thematically preoccupied with poverty; Ibsenite realism concerned itself more with the bourgeois family and its discontents. Zola rejected spectacle as unfaithful to the gritty realities of working-class life, while realism retained some of the illusionistic pleasures of melodrama and the “well-made play.”[12] Practitioners of both modes strove to replace conventionalized performance and production styles with ones that spectators perceive as spontaneous and “natural.” Both realism and naturalism were obsessed with the present moment, and both were wedded to a production style defined by the replication on stage of a specific environment in all its sensory detail.

What distinguishes naturalism from realism, then—for those who see a stable and meaningful distinction—is its greater fidelity to an “objective” and scientific perspective which produces a hierarchical distinction between the spectator (the observing “scientist”) and the characters (the experimental subjects). The pioneering texts of continental naturalism were inspired by scientific works that “share[d] a common philosophical materialism (what happens in this world is explicable in terms of the mechanical laws of biology, physiology, economy or psychology) and a strongly determinist accent.”[13] Naturalism is thus held to reproduce not just a world that appears “real” to the spectators but a specific understanding of how that “real world” works.

Theatrical practice, however, has changed so much since the 1890s that the historical definition no longer fully describes either naturalism or realism as they survive on the twenty-first century stage. The fully-materialized, illusionistic, proscenium-framed replication of a complete environment which could pass for an actual room—which is what naturalistic production meant to Zola, Antoine, Ibsen, and Stanislavsky—has been increasingly abandoned by theatrical practitioners who are competing with film, television, and other media capable of producing more compelling illusions of actuality. If we are to speak of theatrical naturalism in the contemporary period, then, we must define it, in terms that will be necessarily more intangible, as the surviving legacy of the original fusion between “the method of accurate production” and “a philosophical position allied to science, natural history and materialism.”[14] This is what Cleary attempts by identifying naturalism as “a critical concept referring to clusters of problematics, modes of characterization, and strategies for sequencing narrative and producing closure that can appear in quite different combinations” but remain “identifiable enough to allow us to detect significant ‘family likenesses’” between otherwise incommensurate texts.[15]

Just as Innes’s and Cleary’s definitions of naturalism are ultimately founded on Raymond Williams’s 1977 essay on “The Case of English Naturalism,” our contemporary understanding of realism is indebted to Williams’s elaboration of Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” in his foundational essay “Base and Superstructure:”[16]

[W]hat I have in mind is the central, effective, and dominant system of meanings and values, which are not merely abstract but which are organized and lived. […] It is a whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and his world. It is a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives.[17]

In stressing the primacy of lived experience over “mere manipulation,”[18] this passage reminds us that it is precisely because theater is “lived” that it has been recognized for so long by so many different interest groups as a powerful means for the propagation of their most cherished “meanings and values.” It also identifies the characteristic that, for Elin Diamond, defines theatrical realism: the endowment of the staged environment with a “sense of absolute because experienced reality” which is “reciprocally confirmed” by the spectator’s recognition of the staged universe as an “accurate” reflection of his own. Diamond argues in Unmaking Mimesis that realism produces its truth claims by “mystifying” the process of theatrical representation so that the production’s “interpretation of reality” can “[pass] as reality” itself.[19] From that point of view, the real difficulty of defining realism derives from the fact that there is no fixed formula for accomplishing this “mystification.” Conceptions of what “reality” is, and ideas of how a stage environment can “pass” for it, were not fixed forever in the age of Zola and Ibsen; they remain—as they always were—subjective, fluctuating, and variable. Changes in practice aside, however, the defining characteristic of a realistic play is still its “production of truth.”[20]

The difficulty with this as a basis for a definition is that it threatens to reduce to a tautology: realism is whatever seems real. But that danger in itself captures the circular, self-confirming, almost-but-not-quite tautological nature of realism—which is precisely what makes it so powerful, so resistant to analysis, and so theoretically fascinating. A play is not “realism” until the spectator has “recognized” reality in it; but whatever the spectator “recognizes” in the staged environment is always both real and imaginary. Recognition must be achieved through negotiation with the spectator’s sensations, emotions, and preconceptions; and that negotiation remains a deeply mysterious process. The question of whether realism is capable of producing a “truth” that contradicts what the spectator already believes—in other words, whether realism is doomed to operate “in concert with ideology” and “surreptitiously reinforce (even if it argues with) the arrangements” of the world that the spectator believes he shares with the characters[21] —remains open, and its undecidability has been a major concern for Marxist critics since the birth of the form.

Any attempt to maintain a stable separation between naturalism and realism is also complicated for us by the fact that in the twenty-first century, the once-radical “science, natural history, and materialism”[22] that defined naturalism for its original audiences has been thoroughly integrated into the “common sense” understanding of reality prevailing in most of the Anglophone world. For this reason, instead of trying to draw a boundary that is doomed to decompose, I will use both “naturalism” and “realism” to describe what is happening in McPherson’s paranormal ensemble plays—not as equivalents but as complementary terms that describe different aspects of the same phenomenon. I have denominated McPherson’s mode “supernaturalism” because that term remains more closely associated with scientific materialism and the “method of accurate production” developed at the end of the nineteenth century. Where it seems appropriate, however, I will use the term “realism” to describe aspects of McPherson’s approach which are more closely connected to the philosophical history of Ibsenite realism, or which are more obviously engaged with problems of hegemony. For our purposes, what matters most is not what separates realism from naturalism but what realism and naturalism have in common: their claim to be showing us the objective truth about our own “real world.” 


II. A Real Live Ghost

McPherson’s use of the supernatural would appear to violate perhaps the most important ground rule shared by naturalism and realism, which is the exclusion from the onstage environment of anything that cannot be materially explained. The truth claims of realist and naturalist drama have historically been justified by the presentation of a materialist universe in which everything is knowable. As Una Chaudhuri argues in Staging Place, what naturalism offers spectators in exchange for glitter and glamor is a fantasy of omniscience: “The naturalist stage adumbrates a specific relationship between the performance and the spectator, connecting them to each other with an ambitious new contract of total visibility, total knowledge.”[23] Naturalism domesticates the unknown, so that it appears “not as mystery but as enigma, conundrum, and puzzle, a region not merely hospitable to but positively begging for colonization by powerful explanatory systems.”[24] Though realism’s universe may be slightly more elastic, it makes the same truth claims and holds out the same promises of omniscience. If Chaudhuri’s colonization metaphor suggests the imperialist aspect of naturalism’s drive to “overcome the unknown,” this fantasy of omniscience also has profound consequences for the representation of gender. Diamond argues that one of the foundational structures of Ibsenite realism is Freud’s conception of hysteria, according to which the unknown is quarantined in the female body.[25] The realist heroine’s mysterious symptoms then prompt the male protagonist to solve the “puzzle” by excavating the dark secrets that have produced them. The promise of “total visibility” and “total knowledge” is what makes realism and naturalism fundamentally incompatible not only with “religious ideology” but also with the supernatural, which inhabits the mysterious regions that naturalism strives to rationalize.

If naturalism’s materialism is a product of its scientific roots, realism’s hostility toward the immaterial and the metaphysical as well as the supernatural derives from its origins as a challenge to idealism. The dominant philosophical paradigm of the nineteenth century as well as “a tremendously powerful aesthetic force,”[26] idealism is founded on a Platonic worldview which assumes the existence of a transcendent ideal world of which the material one is an imperfect shadow. As Toril Moi argues in her study of Ibsen and modernity, both Ibsenite realism and Zola’s naturalism were part of a reformist movement which rejected the primacy of the ideal world to argue for changing the material world. Whereas “aesthetic idealism considers the beautiful, the true, and the good to be one,”[27] realism (like naturalism) promised to deliver the ugly truth—the truths that had been repressed by a hypocritical society because they undermined its idealistic self-image.

The case of Irish naturalism, however, has always been a little peculiar. Cleary argues that one of the results of Ireland’s unique economic trajectory was the prolonged dominance of naturalism as a literary form, and that the formal experiments of postwar Irish literature are best understood as an “involution or mutation of naturalism”[28] rather than developments of modernism. Cleary suggests that this post- or neonaturalism, which combines a familiar mode with just enough formal novelty, has contributed to Irish literature’s “mobility”: “Some of the most internationally feted, commercially successful and critically debated ‘new’ Irish works of recent decades fall into a category of this sort.”[29] What is distinctive about Conor McPherson’s supernaturalist plays, however—and what may explain McPherson’s absence from Cleary’s catalogue of neonaturalist Irish literature[30]—is the fact that the introduction of the supernatural in The Weir, Shining City, and The Seafarer does not in fact produce the formal “mutation” that marks neo-naturalism as “new.” Formally speaking, McPherson is not so much a neo-naturalist as a paleo-naturalist. Until 2011, McPherson’s ensemble plays remain wedded to naturalism and realism in their classic, one might even say retro, forms. Even in The Seafarer, in which Satan Himself is a character, nobody on stage violates the conventions prescribed for realistic action amongst human characters in a naturalistic environment (Lockheart is so bound by materialism that he can’t consume alcohol without getting drunk). It is in fact when McPherson finally generates some radical formal “mutations” in The Veil that his magic formula stops working. Up to that point, instead of using supernatural content to destabilize naturalistic form, McPherson’s supernaturalist plays use naturalistic form to realize—to produce as true, to embed in the spectator’s “sense of reality”—supernatural content.

The best example of this phenomenon is the last sixty seconds of McPherson’s 2004 play Shining City. Shining City is set in the office of priest-turned-therapist named Ian, who is treating a widower named John, who is haunted by the ghost of his wife Mari. At the end of the play, Ian stands at his office door talking to John, who is now “cured,” which is to say that John has incorporated his culture’s “common sense” and is no longer haunted (the ghost is gone, he’s moved out of the house, and he’s begun a new relationship). Ian, who in their sessions has honored John’s conviction that the ghost is real, explains her as a psychological symptom of John’s guilt. But Ian also tells John that at one time he would have given anything to see a ghost, because it would have confirmed the existence of “something else besides all the […] pain and the confusion. Just something that gave everything… some meaning, you know? I’m talking about God, really, you know?”[31] John leaves, and Ian shuts the office door. An actress standing behind the door, dressed in a costume and makeup that match John’s descriptions of his dead wife’s ghost, suddenly becomes visible to the audience. Ian, who faces away from her and toward the audience, cannot see her. Stuck as he is behind the fourth wall, Ian also cannot hear the collective gasp that erupts from the house. Ian still doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in God; but for the few seconds between the discovery of the actress’s body and the final blackout, the audience does.

The appearance of Mari’s ghost caused a genuine theatrical sensation in London, Dublin, and New York. It is described in reviews as “so startling that it is worth going simply to hear the gasp in the auditorium,”[32] “a scene that literally lifted the hairs on my scalp,”[33] and “the most shocking ending on Broadway.”[34] This is remarkable language coming from responsible adults attending a legitimate drama in the twenty-first century. Making a ghost “real” for such an audience is a difficult trick; indeed, Chaudhuri and Diamond would tell us that it ought to be impossible. Fintan O’Toole, who saw Shining City as a less successful rewrite of Tom Murphy’s 1983 classic The Gigli Concert, described the play’s final few moments as an “ending of incredible crassness” which appeared to have been “tacked on” to an otherwise decent play.[35] Crass it may be—critical opinion is divided on the subject—but it cannot fairly be described as tacked-on. For better or worse, the entire play is structured to prepare the audience for those last few moments.

Though the basic situation of Shining City is in fact uncomfortably similar to that of The Gigli Concert, McPherson and Murphy engage naturalistic conventions in diametrically opposite ways. In both plays we watch a counselor whose own life is in disarray and whose own credentials are dubious attempt to treat a prosperous but unhappy and delusional Irish client. The “Dynamatologist” J. P. W. King’s transparent charlatanism is one of the many ways in which Murphy’s The Gigli Concert openly and lustily mocks both psychoanalysis and realism’s dependence upon it; and what The Gigli Concert ultimately stages is the triumph of theatricality. When, in a coup de théâtre that forms the climax of the spectators’ journey into King’s drug-and-alcohol fueled subjectivity, the spectators hear King “really” sing like Gigli, the fact that his beautiful tenor voice is both emotionally compelling and obviously not “real” (as everyone in the theater has to know, the actor is actually lip-synching to a recording) confirms the dominance of subjective illusion over naturalist objectivity. In Shining City, in contrast, McPherson plays the therapeutic setting “straight,” capitalizing on the structural and thematic connections between realism and psychoanalysis in order to enhance the play’s reality effect. The therapy setting suggests a psychological explanation of the ghost to the spectators long before Ian suggests it to John, and endows that explanation with more authority than the ineffective and incompetent Ian could wield on his own. The spectators are thus carefully prepared to accept Ian’s “diagnosis” as the play’s “real” ending—right up to the moment when the ghost appears.

In fact, unlike The Gigli Concert’s, McPherson’s ending “works”—in other words, it produces the shock without causing the play to devolve into horror—only because, for 99.9% of its running time, Shining City behaves like a naturalistic play set in a materialist universe.[36] As Chaudhuri suggests, naturalism’s “contract” promises spectators that what you see is what you get: there is nothing visible that is not real, and nothing real that will not be made visible. Shining City, performed like The Weir without an intermission, enters into that contract and continuously immerses the spectators in a materialist universe for over an hour. According to that universe’s logic, the fact that the ghost appears on the set “proves” that she is real—by which I mean that she is just as “real” as Ian’s office, or as Ian himself. For a few seconds, then, Shining City does for its spectators what so many nineteenth-century spiritualists promised to do for theirs: it materializes the immaterial. McPherson’s supernaturalism fulfills for its audiences the fantasy that Ian articulates right before John’s departure, confirming the existence or at least the possibility of the “something else”—the metaphysical, the supernatural, the spiritual—that realism evicted from the stage by destroying idealism.[37]

The shock of seeing a ghost on the set of a naturalistic play is amplified, in Shining City, by the shock of seeing Mari haunt something that is not her house. Though Ian does live there, his office is not a home; it is a transitional space into which or out of which he is always moving. John has assumed all along that Mari was haunting their house, which in his mind is associated with their failure to have children. But McPherson’s rejection of the domestic interior as a setting is crucial to the success of his supernaturalist plays. The Weir is set in a bar; in The Seafarer, so many objects from the watering-holes habituated by the play’s characters have infiltrated the basement in which the play is set that it has “morphed into a kind of bar.”[38] As both the paradigmatic space of realism and the paradigmatic haunted space, the house would appear to be the perfect supernaturalist setting.[39] But in the Irish literary tradition, the house (especially when haunted) evokes a complex of vexed historical and political issues about land ownership, colonization, possession and dispossession, gender, sexuality, reproduction, and the family—issues which would threaten the play’s “mobility.”[40] For an audience outside the British Isles, these issues might not translate; they might, conversely, translate only too well for the London critics who have been so important to McPherson’s career. McPherson avoids this minefield by separating both the supernatural and naturalism from the house itself. Instead, thanks to its long and intimate association with the house and everything in it, and thanks to the even longer and more intimate association between the maternal and the supernatural, the female body itself links the two modes.


III. The Haunted Human

The importance of this innovation is more visible in The Weir, not because it is McPherson’s first supernatural play—that honor belongs to St. Nicholas—but because it is his first ensemble play. In a 2002 interview with Alex Sierz, McPherson recalled the pressure put on him to abandon the monologue and write a play in which characters actually spoke to each other. McPherson professes himself baffled by this fidelity to an out-of-date form:

“I was confused by such criticism because people said, ‘That’s not a play,’ but I thought the opposite. ‘You’re stupid, this is much more theatrical than an ordinary play.’” He chose the monologue form “because I wanted to liberate what a character could express and I felt that televisual naturalism didn’t allow me to do that—I wanted to go further inside my characters.”

The freedom of the monologue lets him “put three days of action into one hour,” speeding up the narrative and allowing freewheeling movement over a wide distance.

He also loves the “idea of a character talking directly to an audience, which feels much more theatrical” than pretending that a fourth wall exists. “I see the direct address as something theatre can do that other media aren’t able to.”[41]

The phrase “televisual naturalism” suggests that to McPherson, an “ordinary play” can only be a doomed attempt to achieve the kind of illusion that film and television do better. Rather puzzlingly—especially given what his contemporaries were getting up to at that time, at the Royal Court and elsewhere—McPherson seems to assume in this interview both that ensemble plays cannot incorporate direct address to the audience, and that ensemble plays are inherently untheatrical.[42] Can he really have believed that an ensemble play would prevent him from “putting three days of action into one hour” or engaging in “freewheeling movement over a wide distance”? Did he assume that ensemble plays were still bound by the Aristotelian unities of place, time, and action? Maybe: The Weir does happen in real time in a single place, and the action (drinking and talking) is remarkably consistent. Dublin Carol, McPherson’s second ensemble play, takes place on Christmas Eve in a funeral home and its main action consists of talking about drinking. Both Shining City and The Seafarer, which were produced after this interview took place, are confined to a single set representing a single room and both timelines are resolutely linear. McPherson’s perception of the ensemble play as a failed imitation of television is reiterated in his comments to Sierz about The Weir: “It was just people talking, so it shouldn’t have worked—it should have been boring.”[43] The Sierz interview also suggests that to McPherson, naturalism is less about delivering “truth” than it is about creating an illusion. In The Weir, McPherson discovers that he can use naturalism and the supernatural to amplify each other and thereby achieve an illusion more absorbing than either could achieve alone. And it is at the intersection of naturalism and the supernatural that the female body emerges.

Valerie is the first woman McPherson ever put on stage. McPherson’s earlier produced plays were all monologues narrated by men.[44] The absence of women from the evacuated space of McPherson’s monologue plays functions as a negative confirmation of naturalism’s identification of femininity with the home. On the other side of the equation, Ian Rickson, who first directed The Weir for the Royal Court, made the play’s exploitation of the conventional association between the feminine and the supernatural embarrassingly explicit in an interview with the New York Times: “The image of the weir is important,” the director said, “because, if you like, water is the unconscious, the paranormal, the feminine, and we’re in a thoroughly male world into which comes the feminine.”[45] Rickson also asserts that the verbal self-expression that is a major constituent of realist drama is also feminine: “Jack is sort of feminized by Valerie. He’s able to tell a story about himself that he never would have at the beginning of the play.”[46]

Valerie’s body, then, solders naturalism to the supernatural by simultaneously performing functions crucial to both modes. She is the Yeatsian medium, attuned to the vibrations of the feminized otherworld; she is also the maker of the naturalist home. Her status as a bereaved mother has a similarly dual function. As with Maurya from J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea or Juno from Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, Valerie’s bereaved body guarantees the truth that naturalism and realism promise to deliver. The love of a mother for her child, and her grief at losing that child, are constructed as primal human emotions whose devastating authenticity is beyond question. At the same time, when it comes to inspiring mythology, folklore, and tales of the supernatural, pregnancy and childbirth are second only to death itself. The perilous process of getting into the world comes with as many terrifying unknowns as the process of getting out of it. As Peggy Phelan notes, pregnancy is uncanny even for materialists because it is the only real-world scenario in which two or more human subjects share one continuous body.[47]

Jack marks the connection between maternity and the supernatural at the beginning of the ghost story session:

FINBAR: Oh, it’s a very interesting place all, eh, Jack we were just saying about the, what was the story with the fairy road?

JACK: The fairy road? I go into the toilet for two minutes. I can’t leave yous alone for two minutes…

(They laugh.)

FINBAR: Ah I was telling Valerie about the fort and everything. What was the story about the fairy road? Where was it?

(Short pause)

JACK: Are you really interested? All the babies.[48]

Jack’s reference to babies is never explained. In context it seems likely that he’s referring to the fairies’ notorious penchant for interfering with the infants of Ireland. If it’s a reference to the story he tells, we must assume that the “babies” are the ones knocking on Maura Nealon’s door. If so, Jack suppresses that element, perhaps because he assumes that as a woman Valerie would find it distressing.

It is because naturalism and the supernatural meet in her maternal body that Valerie, when she finally tells her ghost story, speaks from a place of unique authority. What marks The Weir as supernaturalism is not the action, but the fact that instead of rendering the supernatural as the psychological (which is one of naturalism’s “colonizing” moves) The Weir uses naturalistic detail to generate for Valerie’s ghost story a reality effect to which few spectators—despite the indicators to which Eamonn Jordan drew our attention at the beginning of this essay—are immune. 

Valerie’s story of her daughter Niamh’s drowning evokes the elemental forces and archetypal symbolism of J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea—a play which, P. J. Mathews argues, “inaugurates” the Irish dramatic tradition to which The Weir properly belongs.[49] Though for Mathews what connects the plays is the way both “reflect on the dynamics of Irish cultural change from a vestigial vantage point at a moment when a new dispensation is about to take hold,”[50] that “vestigial vantage point” is perhaps one of the reasons that Synge can lay claim to the status of Irish drama’s original supernaturalist. The scrupulously ethnographic mise-en-scène of Riders’s original production, like the starkly deterministic plot, are classic naturalism; but the same plot also discreetly validates the omens that Maurya frets over, including Maurya’s vision of Michael’s ghost. The undeniable parallels between The Weir and Riders, however, make it all the more significant that Niamh does not die in the ocean. Instead, she drowns in a swimming pool which is bounded by walls, insulated from the elements, and located in a healthcare complex in a Dublin suburb. Helen Lojek’s reading of The Weir emphasizes that “Valerie’s urban life is […] deterritorialized, in the sense of being abstracted from a relationship with the spiritual by the influence of capitalism and urbanism.”[51] I would add that the major compensation that capitalism and urbanism promise in exchange for the loss of the spiritual is security. The pool is supposed to do for water what development is supposed to do for land: empty it not only of its supernatural associations but also of discomfort, danger, and death. In Riders, the tragedy is that Maurya knows that her children cannot escape their deadly environment. The tragic force of Valerie’s story derives from her assumption—inevitably shared by large chunks of any contemporary theatrical audience in Dublin, London, or New York—that in a sufficiently affluent urban environment it should always be possible to keep a child safe. Through Valerie’s narrative, The Weir’s spectators register the shock of discovering that the sea’s deadly power can infiltrate this man-made, climate-controlled, tightly framed body of water.

If we assume that, like Rickson, McPherson accepts the association of water with both the supernatural and the feminine, and if we recall that during pregnancy the womb is also a bounded space filled with “water” in which a child is suspended and supposedly safe, then the empty pool that confronts Valerie when she arrives to collect Niamh represents her loss in strikingly somatic terms: Niamh has vanished not just from the pool but from Valerie’s body. From that point on, Valerie’s pain is rendered through continual reminders of that broken physical connection between mother and child. At first Valerie can’t see Niamh’s body: when she reaches the room where Niamh has been taken, there’s a paramedic in the way; and instead of her mother, it’s the paramedic who swaddles Niamh in a towel and carries her to the ambulance. Valerie touches Niamh only after the paramedic warns her “to say goodbye to her in the ambulance.”[52] By that time Niamh’s body is so alien that it might as well be a changeling: “She was freezing cold. […] She just looked asleep, but her lips were gone blue.”[53] At the hospital, Niamh’s body disappears into the modern bureaucracy as completely as she could disappear into fairyland. Instead of consoling her, the funeral intensifies Valerie’s longing to re-establish contact: “I thought I could just go and lift her out of the coffin and that would be the end of all this.”[54]

That longing is partly inspired by Valerie’s knowledge of Niamh’s separation anxiety. When Niamh’s fear of the dark developed into a fear of being abandoned, Valerie proposed the telephone as a substitute for physical contact: “So I told her […] that if she was worried at all during the day to ring me, and I’d come and get her, and there was nothing to worry about.”[55] This allows Valerie to imagine that her umbilical connection to Niamh can be extended indefinitely, and that Niamh can never go to a place where Valerie will not be able to reach her. The empty pool is a specific and brutal mockery of this maternal fantasy; and so is the telephone call.

McPherson is not the first writer to appreciate the uncanniness of the telephone. Michael Feingold’s unusually hostile review of The Weir in the Village Voice dismissed Valerie’s story as “a Twilight Zone episode.”[56] The original Twilight Zone excelled at finding the paranormal in contemporary urban life, and there are in fact two Twilight Zone episodes in which the telephone links the living to the world of the dead.[57] Mindful of Lonergan’s warnings about claiming direct influence in the global age, I do not wish to accuse McPherson of cribbing from The Twilight Zone.[58] My point is that this is a widely used conceit precisely because there is something unsettling about what the telephone does—or rather did, back in the days before smartphones, when it was an apparatus specifically dedicated to mediating the disembodied voices of people we couldn’t see or touch.

This creepy phone story is special, however, because of the sickening twist it gives to that imaginary umbilical cord. The Weir is set in 1997, in the bad old days before everything went wireless. In 1997 most houses in Ireland still have land lines connected to phones which are not necessarily cord-less. Valerie’s awareness of the wire to which the phone connects is conveyed through her figures of speech: “So I went down and answered it. And. The line was very faint. It was like a crossed line.”[59] If we pursue the umbilical metaphor, the “crossed line” evokes one of the most common anxieties modern women have about childbirth, which is that the umbilical cord will wrap around the baby’s neck and strangle it. Valerie’s fantasy is thus wrenched into a nightmare. Niamh is doing exactly what Valerie told her to do if she was in trouble—calling her mother to “come and get her”—but instead of keeping Niamh safe, the ghostly connection cord merely increases Valerie’s terror. Niamh says she is trapped in a room where she can hear children knocking from inside the walls. At the same time, the vastness and vagueness of the space to which the telephone connects, and the certainty that Niamh is not describing a material place, convey the impression that Niamh is wandering in the void: “But you know, what can help that, if she’s out there?”[60] Like the urban swimming pool that contains the terrors of the Aran sea, the space that Niamh’s call forces Valerie to imagine is confined and at the same time frighteningly vast.

Valerie’s ghost story, like most of the stories told in The Weir, is essentially a monologue. But after Valerie finishes her story, we see the importance of the fact that The Weir is not a monologue play. Even for spectators who reject Jordan’s reading of Valerie’s story as a “confidence trick,” it could be explained psychologically as a grief- and guilt-induced hallucination. But the fact that Valerie tells her story in a social situation means that as soon as it is over, the audience has to watch the men in the bar struggle to respond to it; and as they model the range of possible responses, the male characters demonstrate for the audience the consequences—for them, but also for Valerie—of rejecting the story’s supernatural content. The men of The Weir have been competing all night long for the attention of the one woman in the room, and Valerie’s story separates the winners from the losers. Finbar and Jim, who try to talk Valerie out of her belief in the phone call, eventually leave the bar and concede the field to Brendan—who stubbornly rebuts every attempt to debunk Valerie’s story—and Jack, whose main concern is keeping the peace long enough to allow them to “[try] to talk about the fucking thing.”[61]

That’s not because Finbar and Jim are any less sympathetic to Valerie herself. Finbar is the first to tell Valerie that he is sorry for her loss, and Jim makes a touching attempt at Christian consolation.[62] But by rejecting the ghost story, Finbar and Jim are seen to be protecting themselves from the terrifying grief that it contains. What is “true” about this story is the way it transforms ordinary material objects into vehicles for a mother’s otherwise unspeakable grief and terror. To reject the story by “disbelieving” it is to refuse to share a trauma which is isolating precisely because it is rooted in the mother’s unique somatic experience of the loss of a body which was once part of hers. To enter into Valerie’s grief means to accept the metaphors that present it. Valerie understands her husband Daniel’s attempt to convert the story into a psychological symptom as his refusal to “face up to what happened” to Valerie after losing Niamh.[63] After Finbar and Jim offer their materialist explanations, Valerie tries to explain why she needs them to accept the story as true: “It’s something that happened. And it’s nice just to be here and…hear what you were saying. I know I’m not crazy.” [64] By accepting the story, Jack and Brendan recognize Valerie’s grief as part of their own reality, shoring up her own fragile “sense of reality” while showing her that she need not be entirely alone in the new “real world” of maternal grief. The three remaining characters generate a “common sense”—deviant perhaps in the outside world, but hegemonic within the bar—capable of including the lived experience that Valerie’s own community has rejected.

If the creation of his new “reality” for both the characters and (temporarily) the spectators suggests that McPherson’s supernaturalism has at least partially evaded the iron grip of materialism and its related ideologies, the contrast between Finbar and Jim’s reactions to the story and Brendan and Jack’s also reveals a significant difference between the emotional possibilities created by naturalism and those engendered by McPherson’s supernaturalism. The two skeptics offer meaningless platitudes whose only real virtue is that they pass the authenticity tests that we apply to naturalistic dialogue: “I’m very sorry about your daughter, Valerie, I’m very sorry indeed”; “I’m sure your girl is quite safe and comfortable wherever she is, and I’m going to say a little prayer for her.”[65] But naturalistic dialogue is cheap; Valerie has undoubtedly heard similar sentiments hundreds of times and none of it has helped. Jack, instead, is moved to ask Valerie about her own experience—“Do you ever get over something like that, I wonder?”[66]—and then to offer a story in return. Though not a ghost story, it is a story about a loss which Jack indicates he will never “get over”—“there’s not one morning I don’t wake up with her name in the room”[67]—and in which Jack is sustained by an act of compassion from a stranger in a pub. Though he presents the story as a parable for Brendan’s benefit, Jack’s narrative is his attempt to join Valerie in the place to which her own story takes her—a place he can reach only by narrating his own grief in the presence of others.[68]

It is the surrounding context of theatrical naturalism, then, that finally confirms the truth of Valerie’s story. Naturalistic acting creates Valerie as a psychologically “deep” character whose powerful emotions demand a response, just as the naturalistic setting invests us in the relationship evolving between the characters and provokes our desire for the interpersonal connections enabled by Jack and Brendan’s acceptance of Valerie’s story. The manifestly intentional production of authentic emotion, which is the most uncanny thing about naturalistic acting, compels most spectators to replicate the more compassionate and more helpful response, and emulate Jack’s willingness to accept Valerie’s supernatural story and the pain and terror it bodies forth.

In The Weir, then, the ghost story may or may not be “true,” but its status as a vehicle for Valerie’s pain irresistibly “produces the truth” and instills in the spectator a “sense” of the story’s “reality.” Since Valerie’s story is narrated, McPherson does not have to make any supernatural entities physically present to the audience; this saves him from introducing effects that might undermine that effect. Valerie’s story does, however, challenge an important supernatural convention: the association between haunting and place. The men’s ghost stories are rooted in the landscape (the fairy road), the house (the Walshes), or the soil (the grave). But because Valerie’s story so closely follows the contours of her personal loss, Niamh’s ghost is not tethered to the material world. The Weir establishes a new supernatural convention which will recur in McPherson’s later work: the haunting of a person instead of a place. In the globalized marketplace as theorized by Lonergan, the haunted human is a major improvement over the haunted house; it separates haunting not only from local geography but from national history, making the play as “mobile” as the ghosts themselves. The Veil attempts another major innovation by breaking the link established by the Gothic between haunting and the past. The paranormal phemonena realized through The Veil’s special effects are consistently interpreted by the characters as manifestations not of past trauma but of present or future horrors.[69]  In The Veil, however, McPherson’s supernaturalism seems to have found its limit.



Between The Seafarer and The Veil falls the shadow of the global financial collapse of 2008, which apparently killed not only the Celtic Tiger but any faith McPherson might have had in objective reality. Pre-publicity for The Veil explicitly frames it as a post-crash play. In an interview with Liz Hoggard published in advance of The Veil’s premiere at London’s National Theatre, McPherson explained his personal response to the crash:

I started making notes in late 2009 as Ireland had suddenly started to be in bad trouble. We had been through such a strange journey in the sense that we were poor, then we were told we were one of the richest nations in the world, then suddenly we were in the hands of the IMF. I realized the public can share a dysfunctional psyche, and that psyche can be generational. The Irish Famine is only five generations ago. I began to realise the mess we’d got us into must have come from some tremendous trauma. For the first time, I accepted I am Irish. Up till then I’d always felt European and a citizen of the world.[70]

Ireland’s swift descent from contemporary prosperity to an old-fashioned “state of poverty” has recalibrated McPherson’s understanding of his own place in the world, catapulting him out of cosmopolitanism and into nationalism. In an interview with Claire Allfree of Metro, McPherson toys with the possibility that this “dysfunctional psyche” actually caused the collapse:

It got me thinking: just what is this glitch in our psyche that’s got us back to this state of poverty? […] It’s almost as though we were happier being bankrupt, as though being the victim is the most comfortable place to be for a country that was colonized. I’ve always felt very free of history, but now I’m older I feel we have to deal with these generational psychoses and traumas. I’m Irish, this is my history […].[71]

In very counter-Marxist fashion, McPherson’s sudden eagerness to historicize pushes him away from materialism. Instead of attributing the crash to economic forces or material conditions, McPherson’s rediscovery of the deterministic power of the Family turns the crash into the expression of a collective psyche capable of transforming material reality—an idea literalized in The Veil’s first paranormal event, during which a séance appears to produce the collapse of a slum property. This is in keeping with a general rejection of objectivity carried through in The Veil’s pre-publicity, where McPherson embraces some of the same idealist philosophers that Toril Moi names as the original targets of realism. “Journey into the Unknown,” written by McPherson and published in advance of The Veil’s premiere, invokes “quantum physics” to vindicate Kant’s belief in “noumena”—that is, the inaccessible ideal reality that lies beyond the world that is perceptible to the senses. McPherson suggests in “Journey” that any form of reality is a “mental construct” which has to be maintained by collective “belief.” This makes human life itself a function of faith:

Thus believing is essential and we do it all day, every day—for instance, we have to believe our life is worth living. When this capacity fails, a person becomes profoundly depressed because, without belief, meaning is impossible and a meaningless life is impossible to live.[72]

The Veil’s program brings this argument to the spectators with a two-page spread on “German Idealism” which references among others the poet Friedrich Holderlin, one of the most influential exponents of idealism as an aesthetic mode.[73]

The London critics’ markedly cool reception of The Veil, however, indicates that this rejection of materialism has drastically curtailed McPherson’s “mobility,” and that this particular “mutation” of naturalism has failed. In part this can be attributed to a loss of equilibrium created by McPherson’s decision—laudable in itself—to include five female characters in The Veil (none of his earlier plays had more than one). Because the same complex of associations attached to the female body in The Weir are still attached to the female body in The Veil, however, this forces a proliferation of supernatural phenomena which then overwhelm the naturalist context. For instance, whereas The Weir focuses our attention on one dead and spectral child, there are by my count thirteen dead or spectral children haunting The Veil.[74] But McPherson’s critics are also put off by the fact that The Veil brings haunting back to the house.

McPherson seems to have expected that the dilapidated big house in which The Veil takes place would help the spectators travel beyond the boundaries of naturalism; he tells Liz Hoggard that “period setting ‘automatically heightens everything’” so that, liberated from actuality, spectators can “enjoy the melodrama” of situations and language that are “slightly larger than life.”[75] It appears that for the critics who reviewed the London premiere, however, the Irish Gothic setting reengaged the political context that McPherson had so successfully evaded in The Weir and Shining City. Hoggard notes in passing that because the play is set in a big house in 1822, it “inevitably” explores “Ireland’s troubled colonial history.”[76] London critics Charles Spencer and Michael Billington, longtime supporters of McPherson’s work, both reject The Veil. Spencer suggests that what read as thrillingly uncanny in a “contemporary setting” becomes clichéd “hokum” in a period setting.[77] Billington agrees, drawing attention to the fact that a haunted Irish big house demands to be read as national allegory: “The house itself stands for an Ireland haunted by the memory of economic catastrophe and staring, as it does today, into the unknown.”[78] The fact that Billington describes The Veil as an “Irish stew” suggests that McPherson’s return to the old Ireland might be reawakening nationalism on both sides of the stage.[79] The entrance into The Veil’s universe of so many of the historical sources of the nineteenth century Irish gothic—the troubled estate, the deteriorating big house and its degenerating Anglo-Irish family, famine, infant mortality, agrarian violence—captures McPherson’s hauntings, re-presenting them as obsolete expressions of what (from the point of view of his erstwhile British boosters) ought to be old grievances.

The Veil thus seems to stage the disintegration of McPherson’s supernaturalism, which appears not to be able to survive contact with pre- or post-prosperity Ireland. But we should, perhaps, not be too quick to pronounce The Veil itself dead on arrival. Acknowledging that “a certain incomprehension greeted The Veil,” McPherson suggests that “at some point” the play may become “one of my favourites”;[80] and it’s too soon to know whether posterity might agree with him. What happens with The Veil, and with McPherson’s career in general, may well depend on what kind of “common sense” emerges—in Ireland and elsewhere—once the dust of the 2008 collapse has fully settled. As Jordan puts it, the collapse and the excavation of public and private corruption that followed “suggest that many of those local prosperity and wealth gains were driven by spurious speculation as much as by anything else.”[81] After the crash, the boom no longer seems as real as it once was; the bursting of the bubble retroactively designates the earlier prosperity as “spurious” and fundamentally not “real.” The dematerialization of The Veil’s historically grounded universe might, in later years, come to seem an important dramatization of the paradoxical un/reality of what (with apologies to both Fredric Jameson and Monty Python) we might call “very late capitalism,” in which unequal prosperity is generated by ever more obscure and arcane arts of meta-manipulation which remove wealth farther and farther from the tangible world of labor and property. The more globalized—and therefore both deterritorialized and dematerialized—wealth becomes, the more prosperity depends on “the construction and maintenance of public faith” in capitalism.[82] It may seem easier to burst a bubble than to bring a house down; but The Veil’s insistence that immaterial forces can produce both results may not, in the future, seem entirely unrealistic.

[1] Eamonn Jordan, Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010), 130.

[2] Ibid., 129-30.

[3] Patrick Lonergan, Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama and the Celtic Tiger Era (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 17.

[4] Ibid., 126. For his specific use of the term, “reflexive quality,” see 117.

[5] Ibid., 181.

[6] Joe Cleary, Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (Dublin: Field Day Publications, 2007), 112.

[7] Christopher Innes, introduction to A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre, ed. Christopher Innes (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 3.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cleary, Outrageous, 113; Innes, Sourcebook, 6; and Raymond Williams, “Social Environment and Theatrical Environment: The Case of English Naturalism,” in Culture and Materialism (London: Verso Books, 2005), 125.

[12] Williams notes in “English Naturalism” that the illusionistic replication of actuality had become a fad on the London stage before naturalism made the crossing from the Continent. Michael R. Booth’s Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850 - 1910 confirms this; Booth in fact uses the term “realism” to describe the elaborate and expensive lengths to which producers of Victorian melodrama and pantomime went to replicate sensational situations on stage, though we might better describe the spectacular productions Booth documents as “hyper-real.” See Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850 – 1910 (London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1981). Douglas Cardwell also argues persuasively that the much-reviled “well-made play” that dominated nineteenth century French and English theater spurred the development of realistic production methods precisely in order to camouflage the artificiality of the plots. See Cardwell, “The Well-Made Play of Eugène Scribe,” The French Review 56, no. 6 (May 1983): 882.

[13] Cleary, Outrageous, 113.

[14] Williams, “English Naturalism,” 125.

[15] Cleary, Outrageous, 113.

[16] The conception of culture as a constantly shifting relationship between “dominant,” “emergent,” and “residual” forms elaborated in Williams’s essay became the bedrock for much Marxist and Marxist-inflected cultural studies work in the decades that followed.

[17] Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” in Culture and Materialism (London: Verso Books, 2005), 38.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theatre, (London: Routledge, 1997), 4.

[20] Ibid., 5.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Williams, “English Naturalism,” 125.

[23] Una Chaudhuri, Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 29.

[24] Ibid., 31.

[25] Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis, 4.

[26] Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006), 69.

[27] Ibid., 71.

[28] Cleary, Outrageous, 99.

[29] Ibid.

[30] See Ibid.

[31] Conor McPherson, Shining City (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2005), 65.

[32] Susannah Clapp, “The Remorse Code,” review of Shining City, Royal Court, London, The Observer, June 12, 2004,

[33] Nick Curtis, “A Haunting Exploration of Human Frailties,” review of Shining City, Royal Court, London, The Evening Standard, June 10, 2004, LexisNexis Academic.

[34] Ben Brantley, “Shining City: Conor McPherson’s Study of Loneliness in a Crowd,” review of Shining City, directed by Robert Falls, Biltmore Theater, New York, New York Times, May 10, 2006,

[35] Fintan O’Toole, “Lost in the Myths of Time,” review of Shining City, Dublin Theatre Festival, Gate Theatre, Irish Times, September 30, 2004, LexisNexis Academic.

[36] Because it is absolutely dependent on the element of surprise, the ending of Shining City can no longer have the same impact. Publicity for later productions of Shining City often incorporates iconography drawn from the horror genre and depicting, in some elliptical way, the ghost. The generic devolution into horror is already taking place.

[37] Moi, Henrik Ibsen, 2-5.

[38] Conor McPherson, The Seafarer, (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2007), 7.

[39] For the house as paradigmatic space of realism, see Chaudhuri, Staging Place, 6.

[40] Seamus Deane’s Strange Country is the foundation for many later reiterations of this reading of the Irish Gothic and its use of the house. See especially Deane’s reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), 89-94.

[41] Aleks Sierz, “Fighting his Corner,” The Stage, February 28, 2002, 11.

[42] McPherson’s commission from the Royal Court coincides with the high-water mark of the “in yer face” theater that the Court was at the time more famous for promoting. Sarah Kane’s Blasted, for instance, premiered there in 1995; whatever else may be said about Blasted, it is certainly theatrical and certainly an ensemble play. The same is true for Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy, also supported and staged by the Royal Court in the 1990s.

[43] Sierz, “Fighting,” 11.

[44] On the close association between the monologue format and masculinity in contemporary Irish theater, see Lonergan’s chapter “Globalizing Gender and Dramatic Form” in Theatre and Globalization.  

[45] Matt Wolf, “A Director Whose Goal Is To Vanish,” The New York Times, March 28, 1999, 9,

[46] Ibid.

[47] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), 30.

[48] Conor McPherson, The Weir and Other Plays, (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999), 29.

[49] P.J. Mathews, “The ‘Sweet Smell’ of the Celtic Tiger: Elegy and Critique in Conor McPherson’s The Weir,” in The Theatre of Conor McPherson: “Right beside the Beyond,” ed. Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2012), 152.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Helen Heusner Lojek, The Spaces of Irish Drama: Stage and Place in Contemporary Plays (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 60.

[52] McPherson, The Weir, 55.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., 56.

[55] Ibid., 54-55.

[56] Michael Feingold, “Talking Points,” review of The Weir, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, The Village Voice, April 6, 1999,

[57] These are “Long Distance Call,” aired Mar. 31, 1961, and “Night Call,” aired February 7, 1964.  

[58] See Lonergan, Theatre and Globalization, 108.

[59] McPherson, The Weir, 56.

[60] Ibid., 57.

[61] Ibid., 58.

[62] Ibid., 59-61.

[63] Ibid., 57.

[64] Ibid., 58.

[65] Ibid., 59-62.

[66] Ibid., 62.

[67] Ibid., 67.

[68] I’m paraphrasing  Joseph Roach’s description of theater’s function in Cities of the Dead of allowing people to perform “their pasts in the presence of others.” See Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performing (New York: Columbia UP, 1996), 5.

[69] This is a development of a conceit introduced in McPherson’s 2009 film The Eclipse, in which the protagonist is haunted by the ghost/corpse/specter of his father-in-law while his father-in-law is still alive.

[70] Liz Hoggard, “What Women Want,” The Evening Standard (London), September 13, 2011. McPherson repeated this narrative in several interviews given at around this time. See for instance Caroline McGinn, “Interview: Conor McPherson.” Time Out London, September 26, 2011,, and Maddy Costa, “We Don’t Know Anything. We are Mice…,” The Guardian, September 29, 2011.

[71] Claire Allfree, “Conor McPherson Lifts the Veil on Irish Angst,” Metro (UK), October 4, 2011,

[72] Conor McPherson, “A Journey Into the Unknown,” The Telegraph, October 3, 2011.

[73] See Moi, Henrik Ibsen, 72-77.

[74] See Conor McPherson, The Veil (London: Nick Hern Books, 2011), in which Mrs. Goulding’s niece dies of scarlet fever, 11; Berkeley is greeted on arrival by a starving woman brandishing a dead infant at him, ibid., 27; Hannah hears a child singing along with her while she plays the piano, ibid., 45; a Drushambo man’s daughter is taken by the fairies, ibid., 55-56; the illegitimate child of Hannah’s prospective husband died with the mother in childbirth, ibid., 64; Audelle’s child dies after its mother takes it walking in the rain in search of Audelle, ibid., 65-66; and seven children die in the terrace collapse apparently triggered by the initial séance, ibid., 83.

[75] Hoggard, “What Women Want.”

[76] Ibid.

[77] Charles Spencer, “The Veil, National Theatre ,” review of The Veil, Lyttleton Theatre, The Telegraph, October 5, 2011,

[78] Michael Billington, “The Veil—Review,” review of The Veil, Lyttleton Theatre, London, The Guardian, October 5, 2011, Kate Bassett’s review in the Independent also remarks that “the play’s haunted country estate becomes a rich metaphor for Ireland’s history, for English imperialism, shifts in power and brewing revolution.” See Kate Bassett, “Haunted by the Ghost of TV Costume Drama,” review of The Veil, Lyttleton Theatre, The Independent, October 9, 2011.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Conor McPherson, Plays Three (London: Nick Hern Books, 2013), ix.

[81] Jordan, Dissident Dramaturgies, 3.

[82] Bret Benjamin, Invested Interests: Capital, Culture, and the World Bank (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 7.