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In the Paths of Exile: Guilt and Isolation in The Seafarer

by Literary Manager Joy Meads

An eighty foot long passageway leads to the burial chamber at the heart of Newgrange, a five thousand year old tomb on the banks of the Boyne River sixty miles north of Dublin. The tunnel usually lies shrouded in darkness, but on one day each year (at the dawn of the winter solstice) the beams of the rising sun pierce the blackness and flood the tomb with light. This image inspired Conor McPherson to write The Seafarer: “that darkest moment, [the] darkest day of the year, where at the end the light comes in…I wanted to write a play that had that moment.” The Seafarer is certainly a midwinter play. Darkness and cold lurk just beyond the walls of Richard and Sharky’s dreary basement den. Though the play begins in the morning, the room’s only light spills weakly from a TV “silently beaming static into the eerie stillness.” Later, when night descends and a storm arises, Richard captures the mood as he sings the misremembered lyrics of a Christmas carol: “Oh the weather outside is frightening, it’s dark and there’s thunder and lightning…” And while the darkness filling the corners of the stage is literal, it’s also psychological. Sharky—like the protagonist of Dublin Carol, McPherson’s other Christmas play—is an aging alcoholic whose many failures have reduced him to a state of hopeless desperation. He’s so consumed by guilt that he can’t access even the concept of redemption; the light beneath a portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—the symbol of Christ’s forgiving love—stubbornly refuses to respond to his touch. In the face of such condemnation, it’s easy to understand the lure of alcohol, which, as Mr. Lockhart unhelpfully reminds him, “stops the brain cranking. Stops the mind going into the little cell.” Of course, for McPherson, self-loathing is simply part of the human condition. He says, “the hardest adversary we will ever face in our life is ourselves. That’s what everybody is always frightened to look at. You show anybody a photograph of himself and he says, 'Don't show me that, I hate looking at photographs of myself, I don't look like that.'” McPherson believes that our behavior is controlled by animal instincts and “our thoughts are always trailing around after our appetites, justifying them with language.” On some level, we recognize the discrepancy between our actions and morality, and shame results. Everyone feels shame to some extent, but McPherson believes it finds particularly fertile ground in Ireland, where it’s inculcated by parochial schools like the one he attended. “When I started school at the age of four, I was educated to believe that I was a bad person. I was told I'd be lucky if God forgave me.” At McPherson’s school, this message was driven home by harsh corporeal punishment, creating the sense of a cosmic scale heavily weighted on the side of judgment: “[God] seemed to be an evil being who created a devil and a hell and wanted people to go there, who seemed to know everything but wouldn't give you a chance.” Questions of guilt and redemption dominate his plays, and, McPherson believes, Irish theatre as a whole. In Irish plays, “if there's a message, it's a simple one: ‘I know you're afraid of dying alone in a ditch. I am too. Let's be together.’ And maybe that's why Irish plays have a universal popularity. Because we all die alone. And we've been told that since we were babies. And it was beaten into us.” There’s a profound loneliness in the concept of a God that sits in distant judgment, a sensation that’s only intensified by some parts of the Irish landscape. As a child, McPherson visited his grandfather in a desolate region of the remote northern county of Leitrim (also the setting of his play The Weir). Sometimes they would spend their evenings together sitting in total silence, a fire protecting them against the chill surrounding dark. The effects of the quiet solitude of his grandfather’s house can still be felt in the playwright’s work. As he explains, “when you’re lying in bed in the pitch black silence of the Irish countryside it’s easy for the imagination to run riot.” The actor Brian Cox, a frequent collaborator of McPherson’s, suggests that “the theme of loneliness is quintessential to the evolution of Conor as a playwright.” It’s most profoundly expressed through McPherson’s frequent use of monologue, which, according to Cox, allows him “to focus his ideas on isolation, alienation, loneliness and aloneness.” In The Seafarer, this isolation manifests itself in a motif of lonely transients that appears throughout the work. The play’s title is taken from a medieval poem about a wretched sailor driven to roam the frozen seas. McPherson begins the play with an epigraph from Richard Hamer’s translation: He knows not Who lives most easily on land, how I Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles While hail flew past in showers… This image is distantly echoed in the vagrants Richard continually rousts from his stoop, but Sharky is the most prominent of the play’s restless exiles. The preternaturally perceptive stranger Mr. Lockhart—ultimately, perhaps, the loneliest character in the play—comments “I’ve seen you. On your wandering ways…round and round, back up, back down, am I right? I’ve seen all those hopeless thoughts, buried there, in your stupid scrunched up face.” Convinced he’ll hurt anyone who gets close to him, Sharky bounces from place to place, leaving a trail of broken relationships in his wake. Sharky lost his car when he lost his ex-girlfriend and his repeated misadventures on public transportation signal his lost sense of direction. He’s been condemned by his guilt to a life of forlorn, aimless wandering. Isolation is felt with particular force at Christmastime, surely the reason why two of McPherson’s most potent meditations on guilt and estrangement are set during the season. In a way, this has been true since the very beginning. The story of Mary and Joseph’s futile hunt for shelter against the elements is itself a testament to the pain of exile. Today, Irish families still remember that homeless couple in their Christmas traditions. When the family retires after the Christmas meal, the door is unlocked and bread and milk are left on the table, a charitable gesture of hospitality for unlucky travelers. Conor McPherson believes “there is no irredeemable human being, really.” And it is compassion—the promise of the Sacred Heart that “sinners shall find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy”—that offers hope to those souls who are willing and able to avail themselves of it. Early in the play, Sharky observes another Irish custom when he places a candle in the window of his and Richard’s home. This candle, inspired by Mary and Joseph’s plight, is a symbol that strangers are welcome to find shelter there against the cold outside. A tiny light in the frozen eternity of the midwinter night, it serves as a flickering testament to the possibility of warmth and peace and solace from the cold. Like the sunlit tomb at Newgrange, it is a reminder that, as McPherson says, even “in the darkest time there can still be light and hope and energy.”