If it hadn’t been for the New Yorker, I never would have known that there was a tenth century poem called “The Seafarer.” When I saw my brother-in-law last week, who I knew had taken an Anglo-Saxon poetry class in college. He didn’t remember the poem until he read the article in the New Yorker, though he’d seen the play after Christmas. If you haven’t read it, the text with a modern English translation is on Wikipedia, with a link to an article that explicates the text in a fairly obvious way.
I’ve seen three of McPherson’s plays: this one, “The Weir” on Broadway, and “St. Nicholas” which my brother directed in the Berkshires maybe ten years ago. Of the three, I think in many ways “St. Nicholas” is the best. It’s a harsh character study, things happen and it ends. I don’t think monologues are inherently bad (though I remember the late Edith Oliver complaining about them). I’ve written a lot of them. I disliked "The Weir" because I thought the femal character was poorly written, and I thought throwing all the characters in the bar so they could speak their monologues to one another was a cheat. But the more I’ve thought about “The Seafarer” since seeing it last week, and talked to other people who’ve seen it, my tempered enthusiasm has only become more so. I don’t argue with the performances- there isn’t a bad actor among them- but the play itself.
For me, once you get past all the cutesy Irish stuff and the drunk jokes, there is one transcendent moment. It’s Mr. Lockhart’s aria about Hell and why Sharky drinks the way he does, drink being what made him commit murder twenty years earlier. I think Ciarán Hinds is a wonderful screen actor, but if what I saw last week is any indication, he’s even better on stage. He really frightened me. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life contemplating what the devil is like, and Hinds, with McPherson’s words, was perfectly plausible to me. And his words about Sharkey’s depths of fear and shame shook me up.
I think that it is a much shorter play that may have been better served by a director other than the playwright.
But to say it’s the best play of the year (as the radio commercials do), is either disingenuous or speaks not very well of the year.