From left, Anthony Shanley (the playwright’s Irish cousin),
with the director Doug Hughes and John Patrick Shanley,
in County Westmeath.
Turns Out His Blood Runs Green
John Patrick Shanley on His Irishness and ‘Outside Mullingar’
January 9, 2014 | The New York Times
I never wanted to write about the Irish.
When I got out of the Marine Corps in 1972, I was invited to a lunch of Irish-American writers. At a table of perhaps 10, I was conspicuously underaccomplished. I’d been brought along by my old professor Terry Moran (he was perhaps 37), because I was a poet. At the table, among others, were James T. Farrell and Jimmy Breslin. Farrell had 50 books to his credit, including, most famously, the Studs Lonigan trilogy. Breslin had reinvented blue-collar New York and maybe journalism.
I had a good time. Breslin held forth about Nixon. Around dessert, Farrell, who had downed several brandies, burst into tears, pointed at me, and said, “He’s the one we should be helping.” I tried to look less in need.
A waiter appeared. There was a call. It was my then wife, Joan. I’d just gotten an acceptance letter. Two of my poems were going to be published. I was 22.
Heading home on the F train to Brooklyn, I thought about what I wanted to do, big picture. And I decided right then, I didn’t want to be helped, and I didn’t want to be labeled an Irish-American writer. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write about everybody. And for the next 30 years I did. I became a playwright and screenwriter. Italian-Americans were my particular specialty. I liked the way they talked. There was something free in it. This attraction resulted in plays and films with titles like “Italian American Reconciliation” and “Moonstruck,” and not a lot of jobs for Irish-American actors.
I always knew I’d have to come home eventually. I’m Irish as hell: Kelly on one side, Shanley on the other. My father had been born on a farm in the Irish Midlands. He and his brothers had been shepherds there, cattle and sheep, back in the early 1920s. I grew up surrounded by brogues and Irish music, but stayed away from the old country till I was over 40. I just couldn’t own being Irish.
Something in me hated being confined by an ethnic identity, by any family. In addition, I have often found procrastination to be an enriching exercise. Not saying increases what I have to say. Not writing about the Irish was building up a hell of a lot of pressure to do just that.
When I finally went to Ireland, I had to go. It was 1993. My father was finally too old to travel alone, and he asked me to take him home. When an old man asks you to take him home, you have to do it.
When I sat with my father in that farm kitchen, the one that he had grown up in, and listened to my Irish family talk, I recognized that this was my Atlantis, the lost and beautiful world of my poet’s heart. There was no way to write about the farm, yet I had to write about it. I listened to the amazing language these folks were speaking as if it were normal conversation, and I knew this was my territory. But it was new to me. It was a time to listen, not to write.
It took about 20 years. When I turned 60 and flipped out (the number, the guy in the mirror with gray hair), I felt I had nothing left to say or do. I wanted to go on vacation some place warm for the rest of my life. I was miserable, dead barren and solitary. I moved to an apartment in Williamsburg where I could see the sun and the river. My parents were dead now. It was just me and the river and the sun and time. A year went by. One quiet day, I sat down without a thought in my head and wrote a play about the farm.
The farm had become a place in my imagination where I had stored up so many things. My love for my father was there. Feelings of grief. My romantic hunger, my frustration with this unpoetic world. I had held back much for a long time, and I kind of erupted with language. I felt free suddenly, free to be Irish. Family stories, family names, changed by dreaming, mixed with my own long longings for love, and impossible happiness unfurled across the page. I had turned 60, and the knife at my throat woke me to the beauty of my own people, the fleeting opportunities of life, the farce of caution. I wanted to write a love story. I wanted to find all the words I had not been able to find because what I have been unable to express has caused me anguish, even as what I have given adequate voice has lent me peace.
I found a strange relief in the play. I called it “Outside Mullingar,” a prosaic title perhaps to balance the poetry it contained. The script was a refuge and a consolation for me. Manhattan Theater Club signed on to do it, and we put a team together.
I decided to return to the farm and bring my son Nick. He drove me, as I had driven my father. He was taking me home now. And then the director, Doug Hughes, said, “I’m going to Ireland, too.” And the designer, John Lee Beatty, said, “I’m coming as well, and bringing my partner.” I announced I would make a documentary. (I always go too far.) My son, who’s a photography major at Parsons, was drafted as cinematographer. And, of course, we never got around to that, but that’s O.K.
My cousin Anthony was not perfectly delighted that I had written a play set on his farm and that the main character was named Anthony. And he was openly terrified when all these theater folk piled out of a couple of cars to photograph his home and him. But his good manners got the best of him, and he made us tea. Doug, exhibiting his considerable social skills, talked Anthony into a state of relative comfort, and we had a good chat. After, we went into the fields where my father had grown to manhood among the cattle, in the quietly overwhelming green fields.
I knew I was imposing. That is the artist’s way. We take the real and refashion it to our purpose. The desire is strong, and reality must give way. Anthony, me, my father, the farm, all of these things, my Uncle Tony, my Aunt Mary, all things animate and otherwise, existed only as materials for my use. I had a home being born in me, and I had to build it before the dream faded. I had written the play, but now, being on the farm, I held the script like tracing paper over the real and looked for gold in the differences. There was gold.
It was a strange week. Nothing was real to me, not the play nor this world as it is. I stumbled forward with a kind of double vision. The Irish side of my family is a patient lot and endured my interviews with grace. They trusted me, and they didn’t. They knew I wouldn’t be telling the truth about them. I’d be telling my own truth, using them. They watched as my designers photographed their stoves and sheds, their cattle and mangers.
I came back to New York and went into rehearsal. As the actors and director took the play, I watched the world I’d created leave me and felt the supreme loneliness of that. For a moment though, through the spell of storytelling, I had a home. I was Irish. And then the moment faded. That’s how it is with writers. We keep getting evicted from our own imaginations. We are wanderers, dreaming, and then our dreams become real and push us out.
The play opens in New York shortly. The lights will rise on a farmhouse kitchen in rural Ireland. If things go well, my longtime traveling companions, the audience, will share with me something of my Uncle Tony, my Aunt Mary and my cousin Anthony. I’m glad.
Outside Mullingar previews May 18, and runs May 19 to June 10, at Pacific Theatre.