Broadway fans got a crash course in contempo Irish drama this season as three vastly different plays by Irish playwrights — Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” and Conor McPherson’s “Shining City” — all opened within a week of each other in early May.
The plays are stylistically divergent. “Faith Healer” is four monologues by three characters who never share the stage, while “Inishmore’s” calling card is its rapid-fire banter. “Shining City” is somewhere in between: As in other McPherson plays, there are multiple characters but also a distinct first-person storytelling element.
Most intriguing is that each play reflects its writer’s unique take on his native country. As McPherson puts it, “We’re all looking at different Irelands, but it’s all equally valid.”
Friel is the 77-year-old elder statesmen of the group, while McDonagh and McPherson are both in their mid-30s. McPherson was born in Dublin; McDonagh grew up in an Irish area of London and spent summers visiting family in Ireland’s rural Connemara region.
“(McDonagh’s) view of Ireland is an observer’s view,” McPherson says. “Brian Friel … grew up in an Ireland which was very religious and dealing with its relationship with England. I grew up in a post-secular society, which is now experiencing economic progress.”
“Faith Healer” tells the story of an Irishman who travels through Welsh and Scottish villages magically curing the sick before his climactic return to Ireland. The play is typical of 20th-century Irish literature in its dealings with paganism, Christianity and alcoholism.
“Shining City” deals with similar issues, but is set present-day in a much more secular Ireland. The character of Ian is an ex-priest, who now works as a therapist. His patient claims to see the ghost of his dead wife, testing her and Ian’s belief in the otherworldly.
“It’s a picture of the post-religious human condition as I see it,” McPherson says. “In terms of any religious belief, if it’s been in your life at all, and it’s gone, is there always an echo of it hanging around? If it isn’t there, what does replace that belief?”
“Inishmore,” about an Irish terrorist who comes home to take revenge on the people who killed his cat, is set in 1993, when Irish-British tension was a pressing concern, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. McDonagh, who wrote the play in the mid-1990s, was expressing his anger at IRA violence.
“When we first started doing it, there were people who felt that it might impede the peace process,” says Wilson Milam, who has directed the play in several locations, including the West End and Broadway. “But as the world changed, it began to seem more relevant outside its Irish context, whether it’s the Middle East or New York.”