conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa on Conor McPherson

Posted: July 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Text of the introductory address delivered by Dr P.J. Mathews on 15 June 2013, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa on Conor McPherson

Deputy-President, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentleman.

Conor McPherson attended UCD between 1988 and 1993, where he was awarded a BA in English and Philosophy, followed by an MA in Philosophy. Simultaneously, McPherson distinguished himself as one of the most talented and active members of UCD Dramsoc, writing plays, directing, and acting in some of the most memorable the society’s productions during that period. In the twenty years since Conor left UCD he has enjoyed international success as a theatre director and film-maker but it is his monumental achievement as a playwright that most distinguishes him as an outstanding contributor to world theatre over the last two decades, an achievement that we honour this afternoon.

In the mid-1990s Conor McPherson quickly emerged as one of the most innovative and energetic playwrights working in the London theatre. In 1996 the Bush Theatre produced his play This Lime Tree Bower (which had previously been produced by Fly By Night Theatre Company in Dublin) followed closely by St. Nicholas in the same theatre a few months later. In 1997 the Royal Court Theatre staged his play, The Weir, which established his reputation as a playwright of international significance, winning numerous awards including the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play, the Critics’ Circle Award and the Evening Standard Award. The Weir enjoyed hugely successful runs at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, on Broadway and, in subsequent years, in countless theatres across the globe. (Note: just finished a run in the West End).

McPherson’s creative burst continued into the new century with productions of Dublin Carol (2000), Port Authority (2001), Shining City (2004) enjoying acclaim in London and Dublin. In 2006 The Seafarer opened at the National Theatre, London and later transferred to Broadway, receiving Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Director, and later again to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin for a highly successful run. More recently Conor returned to the National Theatre, London with The Veil in 2011 and his new play, The Night Alive, opened last Wednesday in the West End.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of McPherson’s plays and productions; nor, indeed should we forget his film credits: Conor wrote the screenplay for I Went Down; wrote and directed Saltwater; directed Endgame as part of the Beckett on Film project; and in 2003 wrote and directed The Actors, wrote and directed The Eclipse in 2009.

Conor McPherson can be counted among the last of a pre-Celtic Tiger generation whose formation was enacted in an Ireland of recession and limited opportunity but whose coming of age coincided with the giddy excitement of more prosperous times. In some cases he writes from the perspective of the beleaguered vestige—an older Ireland that is being rapidly eclipsed by the frenzy of an economic boom.

In other works he explores the dynamics of a new amorphous culture where social constraints seem less binding but personal demons still need to be confronted. Consistently, though, his plays register the tectonic movements taking place in Irish culture and society as they are happening. Much of his genius lies in his prescience and in a consciousness acutely tuned to the subterranean tremors of profound social change. In this regard we can align his work with great exponents of Irish theatre such as John Millington Synge, Brian Friel, and Frank McGuinness.

McPherson’s work shines the light into the dark recesses and taboo spaces of Irish life but it also celebrates the gentle and unspoken civilities of the local at a time when these attributes are perceived, to be under threat by brash consumerism.

Much of the power of his drama lies in the simplicity and intensity with which he deploys the art of storytelling. A central theme that emerges in his work is the idea that a community’s sanity and civility can be gauged by the extent to which it provides a warm, courteous space for people to tell their stories without fear of being judged or ridiculed.

Yet there is never a total surrender to the redeeming potentials of pastoral or the palliative effects of nostalgia in these plays. As an audience we may be impressed by the warmth, openness, and richness of McPherson’s characters in story-telling mode but we are equally aware of the material and emotional poverty that underwrites many of their exchanges. These compelling stories often find their origins in delusional ideas of male self-sufficiency or in pathological attachments to place. They flourish, too, in societies caught between impulses of heroic isolation and willing submission to the forces of globalization.

McPherson is now widely recognised as one of the English language’s leading theatrical voices. His distinctive use of the Irish voice, his humour and his masterful story-telling combine to create a distinctive theatrical experience, at once challenging and uplifting. Conor received an early schooling in theatre and performance at UCD; formally, in classes given by Professor Anthony Roche and other colleagues in the then Department of English; and informally in the rehearsal rooms and performance spaces of UCD Dramsoc. In more recent years he has returned to UCD on a regular basis to teach on the MA in Directing and the MA in Drama and Performance. It is eminently fitting that, today, his outstanding contribution to world theatre should be recognised here, in his alma mater, with the award of this honorary doctorate.

Praehonorabilis Pro-Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.

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