If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The Irish playwright on grief, adaptation, and the possibilities of form.
The danger, Samuel Beckett once said, is in the neatness of identifications. Amounting to twenty plays, two operas, a musical, a cumulative art installation project, and several films, the writing of Irish playwright Enda Walsh finds its expression in many forms. To refer to Walsh simply as a playwright at this point in his career seems reductive. This is what I found myself thinking about as I made my way towards St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn to meet Walsh ahead of the American premiere of his latest work, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. To followers of Walsh’s work, it should have come as no surprise that Walsh adapted Max Porter’s devastatingly brilliant debut novel, about a widower whose reality is unmoored by the death of his wife and the arrival of an oracular crow. Like his work, Walsh is capable of being ruminative, excited, and overtly theatrical from one moment to the next. As his crew began sound checking and building the stage, Walsh and I sat and chatted in an enormous, empty hall, which looked out over the Hudson River and Lower Manhattan.
Tadhg HoeyWhat did Max Porter think of the idea to adapt Grief …?
Enda WalshThe first thing he said was, “How are you going to do Crow?” I think he had these notions that it was going to be Cirque du Soleil. And I said no—I already had this idea that we should pass both characters [Dad and Crow] through the one body, through the one actor. Cillian [Murphy] will be in a bathrobe, and when the hood is up, he’s Crow, and when it’s down, he’s Dad; Max liked the idea. My sense, then, was that we needed to pass everything through Crow. We needed Crow to direct the action, to make really bold choices.
THYou can really feel Crow behind it, pushing it, making it much more extreme, and, in a sense, really controlling how we experience it.
EWExactly. Here’s a man who is grieving; he’s got two kids; a fucking crow arrives into the space, claims it, turns the house into a fucking nest, then goes about therapizing these people. And you think, Well, logically, if you go down that route, that’s fucking insane. It was really exciting to see how Crow would decide to stage things. It feels very punk, violent, jarring, and scrapbookish. It’s an assault on the senses, but you’re following it emotionally. Every time the noises or the visuals drop out, you’re still left with a person—in my sense of it—trying to deal with grief, trying to deal with not feeling him or herself. Grief is like a pathogen taking over and re-forming you.
THWhen you first read it, did you immediately want to adapt it, or did that come only after considering the problems of staging it?
EWThe London theater company Complicité approached me and asked if I’d read the book. It was in the book pile on my wife’s side of the bed, and she hadn’t read it, so I read it in a sitting and thought, Maybe I’ll do every word of it. It certainly doesn’t need much adapting. I’m certainly not going to use my words, because his words are fucking brilliant. I loved the structure of it, the abstraction of it. I think a reader brings with them the sense of an arc. We understand what grief is, that it’s this shock, this sort of trauma. Then, therapy happens, time happens, longing happens, and, eventually, the character gets through the storm. I thought that this three-act structure was perfect for theatre. All of it was there.
THLike grieving, line-by-line, minute-by-minute, it feels like it will never end. But actually, there’s a narrative there, a progression.
EWYes. And I think we’re sort of born with it in our DNA and in our bones. We know what trauma is, what deep sadness is, and that it will pass. And what Max did was a sort of perfect encapsulation of that feeling. I did realize I had to cut it and put a tiny bit of shape to it, but it still comes as this broken, jarring thing that eventually pulls itself into a “straighter” narrative.
THWere there any difficulties in adapting it?
EWI knew that I didn’t want the boys talking on stage until much later on. I thought, Well, how do I keep them present? I came up with this idea by going back to my own childhood, when my brother and I would tape conversations and listen to them. We used to tape our thoughts or our parents arguing with one another and then listen to them later on when we were playing darts in our bedroom. So the boys, who are taped, have all these cassette tapes. The dad finds the tapes, and we get to know them through these. That was a device to introduce the boys into the soundtrack. By the third act, they begin to talk out to us, and that’s a real shock to the audience. Also, I knew I wanted the wife in it in some way. We shot some Super 8 footage of her out on the beach with the kids and took some really badly out-of-focus Polaroids. Cillian has this slide projector which helps tell the story. It feels like a work of collage.
THThere’re so many different media being used to tell the story.
EWThink about a nest, and how everything is chopped up to make it—Crow uses every fucking thing, every element, to make a connection, to shake this man alive.
There are passages in it, and I kept saying this to Cillian, where it feels mythic, almost as if the three characters are at war. And then the sound will drop out and it’s just someone making a cup of tea or doing a small domestic thing. It reminds you of those guys in the trenches in World War One. The characters just know that at any moment this fucking crow is going to kickstart everything! It’s really frightening. We play with all of those horror movie tropes, too. The talons digging into the wall, that sort of thing.
THYour writing has made its way into many different forms. There are plays, movies, operas, a musical—and there’s also Rooms with designer Paul Fahy, the immersive installation series where you write voiceovers for each room. I saw it at the Irish Arts Center back in 2017 when there were only three rooms. It’s up to five rooms now, isn’t it?
EWIt’s at the Barbican now. They’re amazing to do. I decided five years ago to do one every year until I died. As you get older you become really interested in form, and you realize that a lot of story-telling is a mixture of atmospheres being banged up against one another, and rhythms. You can allow it to become broken and abstract. But with Rooms I can go back to that fundamental thing of when I was a kid and thought stories were about character, or voice, or meeting a stranger.
THSo, when you’re writing something, are you writing with a form in mind? Or do you find it as you write?
EWI do go after it organically. I know that in my stomach, but I don’t want to get my head involved. I know that my stomach will begin to shape it in a way that’s interesting to me. I’ve got the idea of what something is, but I do think that the kinetics of a form can really throw an audience. But it’s taken years. They were never really particularly traditional, but I look back at the early work now, like Disco Pigs (1996), and think they were very naive pieces.
THIn what way?
EWThe audience can see two characters. They know who those characters are. They know what the characters are trying to do to one another. I put everything on the stage. All of the questions are answered. As you get older, you think, I’m just not going to do that. I don’t feel as if I should be answering everything. I need to allow the audience to imagine, to dream it out, to bring their own story to it as they’re watching it. I don’t want to give them the whole experience. They need to get involved.
I don’t want to analyze it too much, but I do want them to experience something and think, Well, that was interestingly told. In the way that when you read Max’s book and think, How many books about grief are there? Thousands—millions! And his next book, Lanny, is about a boy who goes missing and the impact that has on his village. That story’s been told a thousand times, too, but when you’re in it, you realize it’s not about that.
THIn an interview with Mikel Murfi, you said that theater lags behind the visual arts, that it hasn’t evolved in quite the same ways.
EWI don’t think it has. We chat and communicate with each other; our whole experience of talking to one another is based upon information, clarity, misdirection. We’re working through stuff together. So when we sit down in the theatre, our default setting as an audience, maybe, is literalism, where you “get it.” So having people coming out of the shows thinking, Well, I didn’t really understand it, you think, Well, don’t worry about understanding it, just feel it out. You don’t need to understand every fucking second of it.
THIt’s a learned thing, to a certain extent, and it can be unlearned. You can resist, learn to appreciate what you don’t understand.
EWPeople get frightened. I’ve been in the situation myself, where I think, Am I stupid? Why am I not getting it? But it’s hard to put work like that out there—people call you a pretentious cunt! And you’re like, No! I just don’t see the story in that way. I want to find a different path into it. But we’re lucky, in that when we put it out there, the majority of people really like it. There are some people who will always hate it, who will say, Just tell us the fucking story in the way that we want you to tell us the story.
But when we develop work, with each show we need to push it and push ourselves. Sometimes you find yourself falling back and saying, Well, I know that this thing will work. I know I will be able to manipulate the audience in this way. As opposed to some great artists, who said “no” and kept on going, pushing the form. Like what Beckett ended up doing, where he went. You need inspiration for days when you’re … (shrieks).
Enda Walsh’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York through May 12.
Tadhg Hoey is a writer from Ireland based in Brooklyn. He is currently working on his first novel and writing the script for a collaborative play/performance, entitled Imaginary State(s), which will be staged in virtual reality at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin September 2019.