I grant you that it's arguable that most of my days are organized around stories--reading them, writing them, trading them with my friends. But Wednesday seemed particularly thematically laden. After an afternoon pounding away at the same first scene I've been trying to get right for a while now (it's beginning to show signs of shape, finally. Note to self: quit trying to jam novels into 12,000 word stories. Kthanx), I took myself out to dinner, where I finished the book I've been reading on my phone, A.S. Byatt's Ragnarok. Which is, among other things, a story about the importance of myth and how it can function in someone's life.
The myth Byatt is dealing with is the Twilight of the Northern Gods, and she does it beautifully, with lists and long descriptions and little philosophical bits stitching together the basic tragic tale of divine greed, violence, cruelty, and self-destruction. Alongside this, she tells the story of a thin child--her young self, more or less, evacuated to the English countryside during the Blitz with her distant, scholarly mother while her father fought in France, and how she took comfort from those vivid, bloody stories, which seemed so much more realistic, on an emotional level, than the local Vicar's bible stories. The blood, greed, and sometimes incomprehensible violence of the Norse gods did not give her an escape from the fear of war and possibly losing her father. They gave her a way to face her fears and accept them, as the Norse gods did, who lived all their divine lives knowing that they would die at last in a great battle they would have brought on themselves.
Which brings me to Conor McPherson's The Weir, which we saw at the Irish Repertory Theater down on 22nd Street. It, too, is about stories and how even the grimmest and most difficult ones can bring their own kind of comfort, drawing people together, making connections between them, creating and solidifying community. During the course of a rainy evening in an Irish pub, four men and a woman (a "blow-in," just moved from Dublin) trade tales, and by so doing, connect and support each other in different times of need. What begins as an awkward flirtation with the pretty stranger, with the local garage owner--a hard-drinking blow-hard by the name of Jack-- telling a colorful story about a house built on a fairy road, an old woman and a child, and some inexplicable knocks on the door, proceeds through a two ghost stories to Valerie's own chilling, and very personal, story of loss and regret, followed by Jack's second story, as haunting as, but very different both in tone and content, than the first, told after the other men have left to Valerie and the barkeep, Brenden, who is the only one who tells no story, because he's the publican, and publicans don't tell stories, they listen to them.
It's a wonderful play. Nothing of note happens--arguably, nothing happens at all. People drift into their local, down a few small ones and pints, tell stories, leave again. Jack and Finbar, a local tycoon, are bosom enemies, clearly been sniping at each other since they were in short pants, not always good-naturedly. Jim is a good boy, not the sharpest pencil in the box, but reliable, takes care of his aged, ailing mother, doesn't talk much, shy as bedamned, but comes out with a truly chilling story that might or might not have happened (he had the flu at the time, and had been drinking and digging a grave in the rain), but is utterly believable as he's telling it. Brenden complains about the German tourists who keep him in business and treat him like furniture and his sisters and the weather, and is clearly as annoyed by his regulars as he is fond of them. Valerie looks as if she might stir things up a bit, and does, but not in the way anybody--including the audience--expects. And yet, after maybe the first 5 minutes, which were almost necessarily a little short on narrative tension, being all about taking chairs off tables, turning on lights, and discovering that the Guinness pump was buggered, I was riveted.
Most of it was the writing, certainly. Conor McPherson does loneliness and fear and the ways in which inarticulate people manage (or not) to connect really, really well. It was one of the things I loved in The Seafarer, which I saw when? 2-3 years ago? He also manages to write extremely realistic plays that acknowledge the power of the supernatural. You can choose to believe or not believe in his fairies, ghosts, and devils--they don't have to be factual to be metaphors, and they'll still be metaphors if they're factual. He has a dandy way with the poetry of common speech, how people naturally go in and out of formality, dialect, or profanity, depending on their audience and their relationship with them. And he was very well served by the actors in this production, who really inhabited their parts. I particularly liked John Keating (who I've seen in a bunch of other plays, always in character parts--he's kind of funny-looking, tall and rangy and shock-haired, with big, big, wondering eyes in a sharp little face) as Jim and Billy Carter as Brenden, because they just felt so very real, even when they were listening, which is mostly what they did. I liked Tessa Klein as Valerie, too--anxious, on her best behavior, a white wine drinker in a beer world, but in an apologetic, I'm-so-sorry-I-don't-like-beer-I'm-so-st
So, a good day all around.
And yesterday was Yom Kippur, which we observed at Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation that can best be described by Buddhism meets Hassidisim meets Universal Love, Man. There is ecstatic dancing, there is lots of music, there is scriptural exegesis, there is bad poetry. There is a lot of heart. There were also a lot of very moving stories of regrets, hopes of renewal, wishes for compassion, strength, and community. Listening, I was full of gratitude for my health, for my relationship, for my life that contains I could wish it to have. So now I have to go write. Because stories are what I do. And stories are important.