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James T. KeaneJanuary 13, 2022
Todd Almond and the cast of "Girl From The North Country" (Photo by Matthew Murphy).

“Girl From the North Country” is set in a family-run boarding house in Duluth, Minn., during the Great Depression. Written and directed by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson and featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, the musical opened on Broadway in March 2020. After a hiatus due to Covid-19 restrictions, it is again gracing the Belasco Theatre stage in New York City and continues to earn critical and audience acclaim. In November 2021, “Girl From the North Country” was nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

On Dec. 21, James T. Keane interviewed McPherson via Zoom.

This interview has been edited for length and style.

“There is, to my mind, something very universal about Bob Dylan. There is something very spiritual about his work; something almost biblical.”

James Keane: One of the major storylines of “Girl From the North Country” is that of a poor young pregnant woman staying in a boarding house, itself kind of an inn. For any Christian believer around the Christmas season, that is going to have echoes of the Christmas story, of Mary and Joseph going to Jerusalem. Was that intentional?

Conor McPherson: I don’t know if any of that was intentional on my part, but in the sense that I was raised a Catholic in Ireland, so many of the central stories of Christianity are kind of in my DNA. The idea was really me trying to figure out a way to have Bob Dylan songs in a show set in the 1930s during the Great Depression in Minnesota. As for a boarding house run by a family that welcomes different guests coming there because they have nowhere else to stay—yes, I did have this idea that at the center of it you’ve had a pregnancy that needs some explaining. 

At the same time, no one would ever want to do something so literal that there is nothing to think about. You want something for the audience to bounce off of, to reflect on; you never want to retell the story in a literal way. But yes, it is definitely true that all those stories are in the DNA of anyone who has had a Catholic education, there is no question.

JK: When I think of Irish playwrights or writers, two sources they seem to reflect on come to mind. You have writers like William Butler Yeats or John Synge, who might make more use of pre-Christian Irish mythology, and then you have writers like James Joyce and others who might use classical literature. For example, Brian Friel, in his play “Translations,” compares the fight of an Irish “hedgerow” school (a then-illegal Catholic school) against British troops to the historic Greek Battle of Thermopylae against the Persians. And your own first screenplay is called “I Went Down,” which is the opening line of Plato’s Republic, yes? So given those two traditional sources, what draws an Irish writer to use Bob Dylan?

CM: There is, to my mind, something very universal about Bob Dylan. There is something very spiritual about his work; something almost biblical. A lot of his songs have an Old Testament kind of feeling and can be read almost as parables; they have a lovely American Gothic feeling going on. Albums like “John Wesley Harding” have an Old Testament feeling all the way through.

When Dylan got into the New Testament in the late 1970s [following his public conversion to Christianity], he became more explicit and more literal. But I feel like the poetry of the Old Testament better suits his natural impulses.

Growing up as a music fan, there was something about those great artists from the 1960s like the Beatles and Bob Dylan that made them so iconic and so canonical in your musical education that they are themselves kind of like the Bible: They are sources from which a lot flows. In that sense, Dylan is in the tradition of great writers stretching back to the biblical prophets—there’s something in his songs that is so resonant that people will be scratching their heads and trying to figure the songs out for generations.

“Bob Dylan is in the tradition of great writers stretching back to the biblical prophets—there’s something in his songs that is so resonant that people will be trying to figure the songs out for generations.”

The same is true for an Old Testament story, or for the work of a great writer like Yeats or Joyce: There’s always something in there to puzzle over. You know there’s always something in there that’s real and truthful, but you can’t entirely articulate it—and that may be part of why it is real and truthful, because you can’t articulate it exactly anyway.

JK: “Girl From the North Country” has received strong reviews in the United States. Do you think there’s something about the setting in the Great Depression that has resonated with people, or does it rely on themes that are more timeless?

CM: I think setting the play outside of Dylan’s own lifetime helped, because if I had set it anytime after he was born, the music and the plot are going to bounce off his own life too directly. By setting it in the ’30s, you allow the music to be what it is, encompassing larger themes. People are free to concentrate on the story and enjoy it, and his music works nicely without being about him. I always say to the performers in the show that the drama and the scenes are the vinegar, and Dylan’s music is the honey—and that gives it a good balance.

Getting back to your first question, when we did this show first in London in 2017, [the artistic director of] the Old Vic Theatre—Matthew Warchus—said to me after we had seen the show with an audience a couple of times, “You know, this show is like a church service; that’s how it works.” You have all these sorts of parables, and then these hymns; although people probably don’t even realize it at a conscious level, they are responding to that ritualistic nature of it.

“I think Christianity took root very deeply in Ireland because Ireland was a culture that was very open to rituals and holy places.”

That is how people respond to a lot of plays; so many plays do have that ritualistic structure that is like a church service. We are all sitting there sharing a kind of inner reflective moment as we contemplate the altar, but we are all doing it together. That gives it a different kind of power. I think that is part of the reason that live theater has never withered. Even with the advent of all the technology we have, there’s this certain itch it scratches [in a way] that people like and want. It has something to do with that ancient hunger for something transcendent.

JK: Dorothy Fortenberry, a playwright and screenwriter in Los Angeles, told me last year that our liturgical and scriptural stories for the Advent season and the Easter season resemble in some ways a three-act play, or vice versa; at the end of the second act you’re very depressed, and at the end of the third there is a feeling of redemption and the sacred breaking through.

CM: Definitely. I think we do use that pattern over and over. I am like a lot of Irish writers, in the sense that I am already ready and open to presenting work in that way. It is what we know from a very young age.

JK: When I was in Ireland in 2018 to do a story on Ireland and the Catholic Church, a cabbie in Dublin told me that he wanted nothing to do with the church—that between the sex abuse scandals and the power that the clergy had always held, he was done with it all. And I said to him, “Can I ask you something? Isn’t that a Padre Pio prayer card hanging from your rear-view mirror?” And he said, “Yes, of course, he’s my patron saint.” That seemed to get at something very typical of modern Ireland: The religious and spiritual background is still present and detectable in the culture, regardless of the level of religious practice.

CM: You could argue that sort of connection he had with something spiritual—something that is always present in Irish people and Irish culture—predates Christianity. I think Christianity took root very deeply in Ireland because Ireland was a culture that was very open to rituals and holy places. Today, Dec. 21, is the winter solstice, and is the day at Newgrange, [a prehistoric funeral monument in County Meath] which was built 5,000 years ago, where the rising sun in the morning shines directly into a passage tomb and illuminates the inside of the chamber.

This is on the shortest day of the year. In a sense they were already dramatizing with their buildings the Christmas story of experiencing rebirth in the middle of the winter. So when the iconic Christian stories came along to Irish people, they immediately got them. Even today, after all the scandals and everything else, that religious culture is still very strong here.

JK: Do you think the play will do as well in Dublin as in the United States? Will the audience respond the same way?

CM: The response in London was positive, and what works there usually works well in Dublin as well. I also think Irish people really grow up with a lot of American culture and connections, including Bob Dylan, so it will have a good chance of reaching audiences in a similar way.

JK: The songbook for the play includes in the first half more of what I would consider to be more obscure Dylan songs. When you get to the second half, there is more that I would consider to be “standards,” that maybe even someone who was not a Dylan fan might know—either through a cover version or as something that has made its way into pop culture. Was that deliberate, or more a function of what fit the subject matter at the moment?

I don’t think any of it was conscious, but for any playwright, once you get into the second act, you know anyone who has stuck with you in the theater has bought in [on the story]. At that point, you can keep pushing the storytelling; it can be less direct. In this case, it meant I could let Bob’s songs do some of the heavy lifting.

JK: Last question. Have you ever seen Dylan in concert?

CM: Yes, I have, here in Ireland.

JK: Was he good? Or was he…terrible?

CM: He was amazing. Just being in the presence of someone like that is such a cool experience anyway. I just think at this stage, whatever he’s doing with the music is something you have to go along with. And yes, with Dylan it often depends on the show and the audience—you have people who might say, “What the hell was that?” or those who might say, “That’s the best show I’ve ever seen in my life.”

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