- The Theatre and Films of Conor McPherson: Conspicuous Communities by Eamonn Jordan
What exactly does one want from a “critical companion”? That is the question I was left with after finishing The Theatre and Films of Conor McPherson: Conspicuous Communities (2019), the most recent entry in the Critical Companions series published by Bloomsbury for its Methuen Drama imprint. Edited by Patrick Lonergan and Kevin J. Wetmore Jr., the series runs to about thirty volumes, some dedicated to genres, movements, or histories, and others to single authors. Eamonn Jordan’s contribution follows the series formula: about 85 percent of the book is written by him, with the remaining 15 percent made up of a cluster of short pieces by other authors who provide “alternative perspectives”—in this case, an interview with McPherson, critical essays by Lisa Fitzpatrick and Maha Alatawi, and a brief musing by New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley. Although Jordan is listed as sole author, this book is thus neither a scholarly monograph nor an edited collection, but a kind of lopsided hybrid. Possibly this model was designed for the volumes that synthesize a large body of disparate material into a coherent narrative, with the critical essays [End Page 125] then rectifying some of that narrative’s omissions. Even so, as I worked my way through The Theatre and Films of Conor McPherson, I began to wonder about the purpose of the book-length, single-author survey. If the goal is to gather all the information a scholar might need about a particular figure in one place, it seems to me that something digital and easily updated would do a better job, at least for authors who are still alive and productive. If the purpose is to lay down a baseline for future critical readings of that author’s work, then at some point analysis and interpretation have to take precedence over the collection of information. If the purpose is to provide instructors with contextual material to assign to students along with the plays and films, then we would expect whatever chapter we are assigning to make a clear argument about the work that could then be expanded on or debated in discussion.
The Theatre and Films of Conor McPherson only really fulfills the first of these expectations. It provides a comprehensive overview of McPherson’s career in theatre, film, and television, from the early monologue plays of the 1990s through the Bob Dylan–inspired musical Girl from the North Country (2017). It is organized thematically around McPherson’s favorite modes and preoccupations, some familiar (monologue plays, the supernatural) and some more surprising (there is a chapter on “Apocalyptic Dispossessions” and another on Christmas). Even readers familiar with McPherson’s catalog will be introduced to new works, whether it be the profoundly unsettling two-hander Come on Over or the differently disturbing BBC miniseries Paula. As in his earlier Dissident Dramaturgies, Jordan provides valuable accounts of first productions. He also helpfully collates the first round of critical responses to many of these plays and films. Jordan notes in his introduction that he tried “to be as comprehensive as possible about each work” he discusses (5), and in this he has very much succeeded.
Jordan also promises readers an analysis and interpretation of McPherson’s work that will take in “gendered arguments” (11) but focus on McPherson’s engagement with neoliberalism. Here the results are mixed. Jordan argues that McPherson’s fascination with small-time crooks is a critique of “the ‘commodification of everything’” that avoids “being simplistically hostile to contemporary capital, which most critics of neoliberalism seem to be” (11–12). This is a reasonable and promising approach. But here as in so many of the later chapters, Jordan marches the reader plot point by plot point through each of the works discussed until analysis is overwhelmed by summary. Chapter after chapter strikes out in a promising direction, only to lose its way in a forest of information and wander into anticlimax. For instance, Jordan devotes a section of his...