Sebastian Barry’s lyrical writing has been compared to J.M. Synge’s, and his plays The Steward of Christendom (1995) and Our Lady of Sligo (1998) were both well received in New York. Despite those successes, though, after the death of a close friend 10 years ago, Barry felt less connected to theater and so focused more on his novels (The Secret Scripture won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year Award). But this season, the chronicler of forgotten Irish history returns to center-stage. Barry will have plays debuting at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Hampstead Theatre in London, and The Pride of Parnell Street will make its New York debut at 59E59 Theaters on September 1 as part of the 1st Irish 2009 festival.
The Pride of Parnell Street is a series of monologues in which a husband and wife recount the violence that tore them apart. Joe Brady, a petty thief, and his beautiful wife, Janet, are marginalized, but proud—like many of Barry’s characters. The play reveals “the dangerous, almost pernicious attachment we have to people, and the damage we do in loving,” Barry says, speaking from his home in a converted rectory in the Wicklow mountains near Dublin.
Son of Abbey actress Joan O’Hara, the 64-year-old playwright grew up visiting rehearsal rooms and believing that “actors were gods.” But when friend Donal McCann, who’d starred in The Steward of Christendom, died in 1999, Barry felt he lost the ability to write words that would “sit in actors’ mouths.” He grew dissatisfied with his plays and productions. A friend’s suggestion that he write a play about contemporary Dublin annoyed him.
Then, in late 2004, Jim Culleton, artistic director of Dublin’s Fishamble Theatre Company, asked Barry to write a monologue for Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign. Thinking about violence, Barry recalled how, during the 1990 World Cup, when he’d lived on Dublin’s Parnell Street, “after the football matches, there was a sea change between elation and when the fellas watching the games got home to their flat. They would attack their wives. The women’s refuges would be full the next day.” He wrote the monologue to try to figure out why.
Teaching American students Irish plays during a 2006 semester at Villanova inspired him to expand the monologue, and he began e-mailing sections to Culleton, now director of the piece. Seeing an Irish play on Broadway also encouraged him: In the spring of 2006, he went to New York to see Conor McPherson’s Shining City. “It brought me back to ’97,” Barry says, “when I was in New York with Donal and milling around BAM. I was so stirred and wild in the head from Conor’s play, and it reminded me of how true, right, and mysterious theater can be. When you go to the theater and see something, even something savage, say, about a father and son, it reminds you of what life is and how brief it is.”
Audiences at the 2007 Dublin Festival and abroad, explains Barry, really responded to The Pride of Parnell Street, reconnecting him to the theater. “They rose up to it,” he says with wonder, and bringing this play about modern Ireland to New York for the first time is “magical.” It seems the words sit well in the actors’ mouths again.