Ghosts, Goblins and Guinness: The Weir ‘s Weird Brew

The new wave of young Irish dramatists may be as talented as many people believe, including the young Irish dramatists themselves. But reports that Conor McPherson’s The Weir is a great play–pause for a second at the accolade great –would compel us to reconsider the entire Irish heritage of J.M. Synge and William Butler Yeats, and possibly of Samuel Beckett, too. Being sensible fellows–and with all due respect to Mr. McPherson’s “brew of Guinness and ghost stories” (as the publicity blurb for The Weir goes)–we would inevitably conclude that this catch-all description of “greatness” has gone wacko.

We had heard the same of Martin McDonagh’s hyped and phenomenally successful Gothic melodrama, The Beauty Queen of Leenane . It wasn’t an old-fashioned potboiler, a Grand Guignol yarn with gallows humor or a literate creaky horror movie in disguise. It wasn’t even “good” drama. It was great drama, having had greatness thrust upon it in not so wise and loving memory of the sorrow and yearning and dark humor of Playboy of the Western World .

Mr. McPherson’s The Weir has followed The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway receiving similar praise while riding the crest of a vogue. In fairness, I ought to add that the same production of The Weir , directed by Ian Rickson of the Royal Court Theater, was acclaimed in London. “Spine-chilling,” “mesmerizing,” “pure theatrical poetry” are the buzzwords. But then, killjoy that I am, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it when I saw it in London, either.

My spine wasn’t chilled. I’d say, at the outset, that it’s absolutely essential for Mr. McPherson’s ghost stories to scare the living daylights out of us. Otherwise they’re not ghost stories. They must not merely tease, ramble, mildly shock or pass the time (which would have passed anyway, as Beckett put it). They must give us sleepless nights. Do they? “Haunting” is another strong, evocative word thrown around indiscriminately. The Weir –as it were–”haunts us long after the curtain comes down.” Does it? I hate to nag. But that’s the simple, essential question for me. Is The Weir honestly and truly scary?

All good storytellers are con men, and ghost stories must con us the most. “You’re making very heavy weather of this yarn, Jack,” says Finbar amusingly to his fellow pub habitué who’s taking his time setting up a tale of a house haunted by fairies. “Ah, now,” Jack replies. “You have to relish the details of something like this.”

The 27-year-old dramatist, reared on Celtic folk tales and tall stories, relishes the details, all right. Conor McPherson’s play is set in a remote, rural Irish pub where old friends swap ghost stories to impress a young woman who has moved to the area from Dublin. She turns the tables on them by telling a tragic personal story of her own, which happens to be true.

The dimly lit backwater pub–not a well-lit place, but a refuge nonetheless–is the kind of forlorn, isolated dump that we might spot driving through the countryside one rainy night, and wonder: Who on earth goes there?

The Weir is the equivalent of the American bar play, with stormy winds and dogs that howl on cue. In its painterly, dim lighting and scenic design, The Weir ‘s stage pub exists in a black hole, as if in the middle of a bitumen black nowhere for lost, needy souls and “characters.”

The one woman in the play–Valerie, a female invader of the drinking man’s space–is being brought in for a drink by Finbar to “introduce her to the natives.” The line is meant ironically, though we–the audience–are introduced to the natives, too, like tourists slumming it with yokels. There’s spry, old, aging Jack, the garage owner and Guinness lover; Jim, the not-too-bright odd-job man living, in his 40’s, with his perpetually dying mum; there’s Finbar, the local boy made good, a married man; and Brendan the taciturn barman, a gentle giant of few words, near-beaten in his 30’s–until, it’s unspokenly clear, Valerie enters the pub unexpectedly with “heartstopping” consequences.

An Irish friend of mine resents the backward-looking view of Ireland that seems to dominate the new dramas with their lovable “characters,” impoverished rural types, the seemingly endless supply of stormy nights, of ghosts, goblins and Guinness. “What’ll youse have?” The audience laughs knowingly when a drink is ordered, which is quite often. The image of the boozy Irishman is as comforting to some as a holiday postcard of a leprechaun. It’s as if Ireland were still locked in the turn of the 20th century and its blarney of whimsical stereotypes. As if it has never become our contemporary.

The elegiac memory plays of Brian Friel ( Dancing at Lughnasa ) aren’t sentimental that way. Then again, who else but an Irishman could tell a fabulous yarn–as Mr. Friel does in Wonderful Tennessee –about the home of Jesus of Nazareth, which flew to Italy in 1294, thereby becoming a mobile shrine to the Patron Saint of Aviation?

But Mr. McPherson’s flights of fancy in The Weir are more predictably mundane–fairies demanding a right of way; the wolfhound that terrorizes; and the story of the churchyard ghost. These are small tales. The Weir , as cozy as any pub should be, is by no means an Irish drama of the enduring substance of Sebastian Barry’s devastating The Steward of Christendom , with the mad bliss of its hero, saint or betrayer, a relic of savage history lost in its crossfire.

Mr. McPherson’s previous play, the monologue St. Nicholas , lost me with the vampires–and cozily suburban vampires they were. Its entertaining, fallen hero–a theater critic who believes in nothing, if you please–ends up procuring victims for a house of vampires in London. A cute idea–but a few unlikely morsels of the supernatural were presented as a five-course banquet. I enjoyed a few of them. It was the first shaggy vampire story I ever heard.

So the center of The Weir is in its narrative of self-consciously spooky monologues that I found neither frightening nor intriguing. Wordy set pieces, they left me bored and grumpy, as you can tell. A weir, the dramatist has explained, refers to a dam. Metaphorically, the play is about emotional breakthroughs and connections. The entire play, in fact, is set up to deliver Valerie’s true story of personal loss and the supernatural–the emotional breakthrough, the breaking of the dam. It’s a real horror story compared to the folksiness of the others, and therefore meant to be humbling. It’s a touching story that she tells, too. But it’s also a device.

It is too convenient. “Jack is sort of feminized by Valerie,” the director of The Weir has explained. Oh, dear. “Feminized”–able to feel. “He’s able to tell a story about himself that he never would have at the beginning.”

That’s a pity, considering the cloying story he tells. Close to the end of the drama–1 hour 50 minutes without intermission, best not to spoil the flow –just when we were heading for the barn and everyone seemed to be going home at last, Valerie asks the newly feminized Jack: “You’ve no children, Jack, no?”

Now, I wish she hadn’t asked. Please don’t ask him any more questions, I thought urgently to myself, or we’ll be here all night and I could use a drink. “Do you wish you had married?” Valerie next asked him sweetly. And that, of course, opened up the floodgates again, and we were in for another story.

Jack’s story–the last–is about the girl he let slip away and the barman who had him almost in tears by making him a ham, cheese and onion sandwich on her wedding day. A most moving moment to end on, no?

The Weir isn’t a great play. It’s a highly sentimental one, at best, and as windy as the weather.