“The Gift of Conversation”

Actors Brían F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing, who star in Outside Mullingar, with playwright John Patrick Shanley, and director
Doug Hughes. Photo by Andrew Eccles.

By Marilyn Cole Lownes, Contributor
April / May 2014


It was late afternoon in February at a bistro in New York’s East Village that playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, somberly dressed in a black coat, black suit, and thin black tie, explained that he was going to pay his respects at a wake for his close friend, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had tragically died earlier that week.

Shanley and Hoffman had shared a long personal and professional relationship, working together at the Labyrinth Theater Company in New York. Shanley also directed Hoffman as Father Flynn, the accused priest in the Oscar-nominated film version of his play Doubt: A Parable, for which Shanley won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 2005.

“I’ve been going to wakes ever since I was about five years old,” says Shanley, who was born in the Bronx, the youngest of five children in a traditional Irish American Catholic family.

His extraordinary journey, from kid playing on Archer Street to walking the red carpet in Hollywood, and having his name in lights on Broadway and theaters around the world, continues as his latest play, Outside Mullingar, thrills audiences and critics, only this time in a unique and deeply personal way.

“Outside Mullingar was very much inspired by my family’s farm in Ireland,” Shanley says. “My cousin Brendan was here for the opening night, he flew over. He lives down the road from the farm, which is still owned by my family and where my father was born.”

The  romantic comedy starring Brían  F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing is a box office hit at the Samuel J. Friedman theater on Broadway.

As a writer, Shanley is well-known for Italian-Americans characters. He won the Academy Award for his screenplay of Moonstruck, and wrote plays such as Italian American Reconciliation.

He once wrote that “as a writer and a man, my one central struggle in life is to accept who I really am.”

Today, sipping hot green tea, he smiles and says, “When you start out in the Bronx as a kid trying to figure out who you are, you don’t want to just take what you are given.

“I needed to break out and find my own way. I didn’t want to be another Irish-American guy from the Bronx. I didn’t want any of it; and then bit by bit, I started to reclaim what I had been given in the first place.”

It was in 1993 that Shanley first went to Ireland to visit the farm where his Uncle Tony and Aunt Mary lived with several of their children including his cousin Anthony, who runs the farm today.

“My father was too old to travel alone, and he asked me to take him home. When an old man asks you to take him back home you have to do it,” says Shanley.

“I certainly felt like a fish out of water growing up, and for most of my life, and then when I went to the farm, hearing the way those people talked, I thought, ‘Hey, I feel very much at home.’”

Twenty years later, after much procrastination and feeling “miserable, barren, and solitary,” Shanley sat down to do the thing he said he never would do. He wrote about the Irish.

“You go through definite arcs in life, the conclusion of one and the start of another. I was at a dead end. My two sons, Nick and Frankie, had gone off to college. I was living in a dark apartment, alone.

“I had to change that. I moved to Williamsburg [Brooklyn] to live in a brand new building. I was the first to move into it. It’s on the river with glass windows all around so I see the skyline and river.

“I had always lived in very old buildings and this was a complete change of style of apartment and I love it.” Shanley also felt at a dead end where his work was concerned.

He explains. “I had finished a trilogy of plays Doubt, Defiance, and Storefront Church. So that was another conclusion, a kind of death.
“I did not feel like writing. I was tired rather than blocked. I’ve never worried about being blocked the way some writers do. I’ve always accepted it and thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll just get on with something else until I feel like writing again.’”

Shanley continues, “I’m devoted to the idea of being happy. I don’t intend to be miserable. I don’t mind suffering a bit with the writing, but if it made me that miserable I would never have carried on being a writer.”

Going back to Outside Mullingar, he says, “I enjoyed writing this play more than most of my plays. I finally had the permission to use all of the language available to me.”

He opines, “You can only write as well as the characters can talk. In other words, if you are writing about a middle-class guy in New York City he’s just not that eloquent. On the other hand, if you are writing about an Irish farmer, these are some of the most eloquent people in the world. And you have the permission because of that, you have carte blanche to write as well as you know how, as funny as you know how, and as sad and true as you know how, because those people talk just that way.”

Describing a scene in the play when Anthony’s father Tony Reilly lays dying and summons his son to his bedside, one critic enthused that “the dying scene alone is worth the price of a ticket.”

“My uncle Tony,” confirms Shanley, “before he passed away, he called all his children to his bed and shook their hands one by one and said goodbye to them. These [leavetakings] actually can happen. They did and they can. It’s up to us,” he insists.

“I had an extraordinary father. When he was dying I got to say everything I had ever hoped to say to him. I had tears running down my face and he had tears running down his and I kissed him goodbye.

“This play is not only descriptive, it’s prescriptive,” Shanley continues.“In other words, we still could have these values. We still could live this way. We could still talk this way. It’s about what I love, what I value about being alive, what I think is worth passing on to my children. It’s about what makes families function rather than fall to pieces.”

These are very important ideas to Shanley but they are not necessarily Irish.

“I don’t know if it’s very Irish. A lot of different things happened in Ireland. The subjugation of the Irish by the British caused emotional repression, which is a curse that many Irish people still suffer from,” says Shanley. “It’s very difficult for them to say they love each other..
“The British were very controlling of Irish behavior in many ways; they even had edicts against poets. They took away the Irish language because they couldn’t understand what the people were saying. They were afraid of insurrection.

“[Put that together] with the priests who considered dancing provocative, and only allowed step dancing with arms stiff at the  sides, because they were afraid of wild emotions.

“It’s no wonder that the Irish find it difficult to be tactile. Whereas with the Italians “it’s all out there,” Shanley says. “When I was an altar boy, the Italian funerals were the most dangerous; invariably an Italian woman would go running down the aisle and throw herself on the coffin, screaming, ‘Don’t leave me!’ That would never happen at an Irish funeral,” he offers.

“With Outside Mullingar I wanted to write a love story,” Shanley explains. “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.

“If words fail people that is a painful meridian. If there is something in you that you cannot express it feels like a failing.

“The fact is, the Irish part of me is the gift of the gab! The Irish thing is that you should be able to express yourself.”

The Irish have what Shanley calls “a linguistic optimism; they can carry on and on, continuing to talk [on any subject.]”

And did his family react well to Shanley writing a play about them?

“My cousin Brendan said that when he was watching the play he felt like he was watching his parents. He wrote to me afterwards and said, ‘Thank you for bringing my mother and father back from the dead.’”

And Anthony, on whom the main character is based, how did he react?

“My cousin Anthony read the play but he couldn’t leave the farm to come over and see it. He has eighty animals to look after.”

At the suggestion that perhaps the real reason for Anthony’s absence on opening night was the fact that he might not be too thrilled that the character named Anthony in the play is not only a middle-aged virgin, but also a man who thinks he is a honey bee, Shanley smiles.

“I have no idea if Anthony is a virgin or not. As artists we take the real and refashion it to our purpose. 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.

“This is the artist’s way,” he insists.

“There is no impediment in writing about my family. The only play of mine I didn’t want my two boys to see was Where’s My Money? because I thought the subject was too dark for them at that age.” (It was around the time Shanley and his second wife, Jane Haynes, were divorcing.) “As a writer you have to say what you nakedly feel, more for yourself than for other people. For your own sake you must not gag yourself.”

Asked about the last scene when Anthony tells Rosemary that he thinks he’s a honey bee, Shanley explains, “There’s a point in many plays, usually in the last scene when a secret is revealed that ties it all together. In Eugene O’ Neill’s Iceman Cometh it’s when Hickey reveals that he gave his wife venereal disease, then murdered her, which is a bit extreme.

“In my play Anthony’s secret was personal and eccentric. I based his secret on a true Irish story about a rich local man called Adolphus Cooke. Back in the 19th century, Adolphus thought he was a bee and had a forty-foot tomb built for himself in the shape of a beehive. It’s very famous in Mullingar, there’s even a disco named after it called ‘The Beehive!’

“I’m surprised that none of the critics picked up on this,” Shanley laughs. “We hold on to secrets because we feel we could not be loved if we reveal them and it’s often the opposite in life, as it turned out for Anthony in the play.”

Referring to a statement he made about being frustrated by “this unpoetic world,” Shanley says, “So many people don’t make the effort these days to express themselves. There is a prosaic style with no particular way of fashioning language.

“In Doubt, I could write about Sister Aloysius in the way that I did because the nuns who taught me spoke very well.”

Why do you think this loss of expression has happened. Can we attribute it to technology?

“It’s because people are increasingly cut off from the earth,” he says. “In the play Anthony says, ‘Stars are suffocating in the sky and the earth is choking on itself.’

“We have a shattered attention span today,” Shanley says. “Peaceful contemplation of looking at the sun, at animals and fields, makes us more grounded. We are losing that way of life. The countryside is disappearing.”

What is Shanley’s current state of mind? Is he happier now that the play is doing well?

“Something happened to me this week,” he announces seriously. “Roomba came into my life.”

A new romance?

“Roomba  is my robotic cleaner,” laughs Shanley. “She even talks to me!

“Anthony has his metal detector on the farm, and now I have Roomba, my own ‘modern madness!’”

One Response to ““The Gift of Conversation””

  1. Serena Williams says:

    Terrific article.
    Does he always give such illuminating and what would seem, soul-bearing interviews? Or was a connection with the journalist who obviously asked very good questions for a great conversation? I loved this piece. Thank you. Serena

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