Irish tradition places a paramount value on hospitality and conviviality during the holiday season. At Christmas, both literally and metaphorically a time of homecoming, families gather to eat and drink in warm celebration of the bonds that connect them. It’s therefore also a harrowing time for those who are left alone, particularly those who have alienated loved ones through their own misbehavior.
“If I can just beat Christmas I can achieve anything!” – Lockhart in The Seafarer
And yet, this holiday, buried as it is in the blackest depths of the season, stands on the threshold of the year to come. A commemoration of a joyous new birth, Christmas offers the hope of renewal to those who are willing to deny the easy solace of drunken amnesia and trudge through the darkest moments of their past.
A sampling of themes throughout his work
Alcohol is the means by which McPherson’s men transcend their essential loneliness, the native state of so many of his characters. As these sodden men bond over the drinks that flow between them, alcohol enables them to forget their past, ignore their future and exist wholly for the pleasures of the present.
“In Ireland, everything revolves around drinking…It’s the fuel behind everything that happens.” – Conor McPherson in The Village Voice
Of course, the past will not be kept perpetually at bay. And soon enough whiskey’s ersatz cheer fades beneath the agony of all-too-real regret. In the next morning’s hangover, shame returns with renewed vigor, ever-intensified by the drunken blunders of the night before. McPherson describes such hangovers as forceful, all-consuming: “When you have a really bad hangover like that, that’s your mindset. It’s gloomy, guilty, scary.” Alcohol is merely a palliative, offering a false camaraderie to lonely men while simultaneously deepening the rifts that keep them isolated.
“And it’s far more frightening than anything you can make up. Because it’s real. It’s just there. Casual as everything else. Just waiting to be dealt with.” – From St. Nicholas by Conor McPherson
Influenced perhaps by the rich tradition of Irish mythology, all of McPherson’s plays are shadowed by spirits. Sometimes they literally manifest themselves as supernatural beings, other times they merely exist as the perpetual echoes of past mistakes.
Often ghosts or figures borrowed from Christian and Celtic traditions, these specters spring from characters’ painfully persistent memories of their past failures and signal present distress. Literal or figurative, the characters will remain plagued by these spirits until they muster the courage to confront them.
“If a woman walked onto the set of Seafarer, the play would be over. In the absence of women, men are able to revert to this infantile thing that liberates them from responsibility.” – Conor McPherson in The Chicago Tribune
Although women’s physical presence is muted in McPherson’s plays—few of his on-stage characters are female—the fierce impact of these unseen characters cannot be ignored. When men return from the blissful oblivion of a night of drinking, the women waiting at home are a stark reminder of the responsibilities they’ve let slide. Women represent unmet obligations and are sources of regret.
And yet, men who lose the women they love mourn the loss for the rest of their lives. Boozy midnight merrymaking is a poor replacement for the deep communion of interdependence. Women offer these men profound intimacy that can only be maintained through accordingly diligent responsibility. McPherson’s characters sometimes lack the courage to shoulder such a momentous burden while their friends’ easy affection beckons.