Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Staging Everyday Ghosts: Conor McPherson's Shining City

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Staging Everyday Ghosts: Conor McPherson's Shining City

Article excerpt

In the first scene of Irish playwright Conor McPherson's Shining City (which debuted at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2004), John, a recently widowed man in his fifties, explains to his new therapist why he is unable to go into his own house. His wife Mari, who died in a "horrific crash" (10), has appeared to him twice in the home: "I mean she was just there, and it was real" (12). Ian, the therapist, acknowledges that his patient has experienced something traumatic: "I believe you, in that I don't think you're making it up [...] but if you're asking me if I believe in ghosts, I ..." (16). The scene ends on this note of ambiguity, but in the play's final moments, when Ian is alone in his office, the ghost will appear beside him on stage, "looking at" him (65).

From the vampires of St Nicholas to the seances of The Veil (which debuted in October 2011 at London's Lyttelton Theatre), McPherson's twenty-year oeuvre shows a persistent fascination with the fantastic. Both The Weir, with its tales of fairy creatures and the restless dead, and Shining City have travelled to Broadway, enjoying unusual success for "serious" dramas that dabble with the supernatural. As Helen Heusner Lojek observes, McPherson's plays frequently begin "in a naturalistic world" (49), even inspiring comparisons with Chekhov. Colloquial dialogue and linear narratives convince us that normal rules apply. The solidity of this world is emphasized on stage through elaborately naturalistic sets: The Weir's Irish bar, complete with working taps and peat stove; The Veil's weathered estate home; Shining City's low-budget therapist's office ("a stage almost defined by its normalcy" [Watson 203]). For the most part, these sets represent the full extent of the playwright's investment in spectacle--his fantastic creatures and events are evoked through monologues or tales the characters tell one another. This tendency has given some of McPherson's commentators the impression that his plays are only indirectly fantastic--many analyses say little if anything about their ghosts and fantastic events. In an oft-quoted review of The Weir, Ben Brantley places primary focus on the moment when the play shifts away from ghostly tales: "Suddenly, the subject isn't just things that go bump in the night, but the loss and loneliness that eventually haunt every life. There's a new chill abroad, evoking something more serious than goose flesh" (qtd. in Wood 311). The strength of the play resides, for Brantley, in its capacity to move beyond fantastic events (equated with mere spookiness) to deeper, "more serious" issues and feelings. I would argue, however, that gooseflesh in McPherson's theatre is rarely only skin deep.

The years since St. Nicholas have seen a number of studies on the relationship between theatre and spectrality. David Savran, for instance, draws on Derrida and Butler to interrogate recent theatrical ghosts as complex engagements with melancholia and mourning. Though focussing on American theatre, Savran could be writing about Shining City when he describes specters as symptomatic of "a crisis in the constitution of the subject," and of "a melancholic process whereby the subject attempts to incorporate that which he or she has lost" (587). The ghost in John's house reflects an inability to convert melancholia into mourning, to integrate the disavowed elements of his devastating loss, to resolve crises of desire and guilt. As Savran argues, however, "the ghost is not only a product of highly subjective, personal memories but also an embodiment of social, political, and economic forces" (588), and correlatively, the spectral dynamics of Shining City are extended beyond personal memory. "The Shining City of McPherson's title," writes Ariel Watson, "is, in fact, the new Dublin of the European Union, superficially partaking of the bland comforts of globalization but haunted by the specters of place and religion" (206). John's personal melancholia is juxtaposed with the spectral turbulence of his therapist Ian, who had been a priest before deciding to "turn [his] back on the church": "But . …

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