The Night Alive Study Guide

Colin McPherson’s haunting and disarming plays, which include The Weir, St. Nicholas, The Shining City and The Seafarer, have moved critics to pronounce McPherson “the finest dramatist of his generation.” The Night Alive is his most recent play. It debuted in London in 2013 and then transferred to New York where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

In all his work, McPherson writes about loneliness, mystery and salvation. He explains, “We sort of live in a giant mystery we don’t understand. I frame my plays in the darkness of that.” His desire to explore that giant mystery has led him to incorporate vampires, ghosts and even the devil himself into his plays. He claims, however, that in The Night Alive he tried “to stay as prosaic as possible.” The play nevertheless demonstrates McPherson’s belief that “you’re supposed to walk out of the theater feeling different, not thinking different. Not thinking.”

To those who object that the emphasis on feeling over thinking might weaken his plots, McPherson responds that “I like to feel the audience thinking, ‘Where is this going? When are they going to start to do something’? And then the play goes woof, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea it was going to be that kind of play!”

Although their otherworldliness and unexpected turns complicate their categorization, McPherson’s plays echo, in some ways, Shakespeare’s romances, which are often resolved through grace or the miraculous. Cymbeline, for example, ends when a prophecy comes true and the gods reconcile Rome with Britain. Pericles’ years of misery end with a revelation at the temple of Diana. In The Winter’s Tale when the statue of his wronged wife miraculously comes to life after sixteen years Leontes exclaims: “O, she’s warm! / If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” McPherson expresses a similar feeling when he offers “the unbidden gift of being without pain” as his definition of grace, and when he says that the removal of pain is “such a relief that it seems to come from somewhere else. Only some other power could possibly have given this back.”

The haunting effects McPherson strives for depend a great deal on atmosphere and pose special challenges in production. Acting in intimate chamber pieces such as these requires actors who can lift carefully underwritten dialog to create the sense of real people clumsily navigating ordinary lives. The set, lighting, sound, and costumes must all contribute in moving the audience through McPherson’s subtle shifts. The Night Alive, for example, opens on a cluttered room that reveals much about its inhabitants’ precarious lives. In rehearsing for the play’s premier at the Donmar in London, the crew built up and tracked the physical detail of the space scene by scene like a sixth character.

POSSIBLE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  • McPherson says that what happens in Night Alive “is not really in the language of the play. It’s really in between all the words. It’s really just a feeling.” What feeling were you left with at the end of the play? How did McPherson create that feeling?
  • How do the appearance and the disappearance of Kenneth change the atmosphere of the play?
  • What do we learn about Tommy from Amy? From Maurice?
  • What role does Doc play for Tommy? Is Doc merely an “eejit” or is he something more?
  • Why does Tommy identify with Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On”?