The time and place of a play’s action can powerfully underline and amplify its meanings. For example, Ibsen sets A Doll House--a play about a woman who abandons her husband and children—at Christmas time, a season traditionally associated with the sanctity of the family. G.B. Shaw sets Heartbreak House—a study of England’s loss of direction and purpose—in a house fashioned to resemble a ship. And Shakespeare chooses the intoxicating days of the summer solstice as the setting for his comedy about erotic delirium, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In Moonshine, James Nolan uses both place and time to reinforce the play’s central theme: the need of flawed and failing human beings for faith, hope, and love.
The three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday—that is, between the despairing moment of the crucifixion (“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) and the surging hopefulness of the resurrection—provide the play’s temporal setting. As a result, the calendar itself seems to be reinforcing the play’s message.
Physically, Moonshine is set in three different locations in Ballintra, a “seaside village in the south of Ireland.” (There is no such place on the map. There is an Irish town called Ballintra, but it is located in Donnegal, the country’s northernmost county. Thus, Nolan’s village is both there and not-there, a synthesis of reality and illusion, like the play itself.) The most important of these Ballintra locations is an un-named church building belonging to The Church of Ireland. The other two locations are a stretch of beach near the railroad tracks, and a funeral parlor.
The Church of Ireland describes itself as a “province of the Anglican Communion”—a world-wide Protestant institution that includes The Church of England. Until about 1870, it was the established, state-supported church of Ireland, then a subordinate part of the United Kingdom. As such, the Church of Ireland drew its revenues from Irish taxpayers, mostly Catholic. Needless to say, this created considerable resentment. As a result of Catholic agitation, the Church of Ireland was dis-established in 1871, becoming merely another religious denomination that was required to support itself—a daunting task in a country that was and is more than 90% Catholic. Because of its association in the minds of many Irish nationalists with their traditional adversaries, the British, the Church of Ireland experienced particular difficulties following the creation of the Irish Republic in 1922.
The parish we encounter in the play is on the verge of extinction, its numbers having dwindled from more than a hundred families to the point where, as its pastor, Rev. Langton, says ruefully, “there’s nobody left.” He is planning to abandon his post, envisioning the sacred space of the church invaded by “the clatter of pinball machines and the squelch of sweaty bodies fighting it out over the volleyball net.”
The play’s most important location, then, is a place with a hallowed past facing a tawdry future—a temple of hopelessness. And its pastor is a man who has lost his faith. Again, these facts vividly counterpoint the play’s central theme: the necessity of faith and hope for human survival.
The beach and the funeral parlor/embalming studio also play their thematic roles. The former is the doorstep of the sea, the cradle of life, and thus, a source of inexhaustible hope. On the other hand, the funeral parlor is death’s receiving room, the place we go to visit a corpse. But it is also the place where the mortician plies his skill, making the dead seem lifelike, and thus, in a small way, pointing toward the hope of a resurrection.
The play begins early in the afternoon of Good Friday, 1991, in Ballintra’s Anglican church. McKeever, the town’s undertaker, and Michael, his assistant, have arrived to prepare for the funeral of pastor Langton’s wife, which they expect to be occurring shortly. As McKeever lectures Michael on the finer points of his trade, we learn that he is in difficulties because of recent professional errors, including burying Mrs. Brady “[i]n the wrong graveyard.” We also learn that he is directing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, scheduled for performance on Easter Sunday, two days away. Like his undertaking, however, his theatrical efforts are also running into trouble. As Michael observes, “Half the playactors is gone missin’. And now Father Langton mightn’t be able to do it either.” McKeever dismisses this worry by noting that he has memorized the pastor’s lines.
Rev. Langton arrives to inform McKeever that his wife is in fact not yet dead, though she is on her last legs. Thus, he will be spending Easter weekend waiting for death rather than anticipating the Resurrection. He tells McKeever about his wife’s unhappy life in Ballintra, and about the imminent closing of the parish—as a result of which, the funeral will be taking place elsewhere, in Kiltown. He has fought for the preservation of the parish, but has lost the battle, and has now given up hope.
McKeever rejects Langton’s gloom: “Wait and see. . . . [W]hen Margaret dies, you’ll bury her here, John. Because you have to.” But Langton is convinced all will go as he predicts, and ends the first scene on a note of further disappointment when he tacitly informs McKeever that he will also be withdrawing from his play.
In the second scene we meet two new characters and get to know Michael better. As it begins, Michael is reciting the names of railroad stations along the line leading out of Ballintra, as if dreaming of his own escape from the town. He is joined by Bridget, a young girl who is also a member of the Midsummer Night’s Dream cast, and who dreams of leaving Ballintra to become an actress. Both she and Michael have fallen under McKeever’s spell, seduced by his ability to implant hope and inspire faith in people, though Michael has recently become somewhat disillusioned.
Bridget offers to let Michael kiss her, which he does; but their embrace is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Griffin, a noisy and aggressive young man who serves as McKeever’s gravedigger. He immediately insults Michael, who, we learn, is something of an outcast in the social life of the town. “Don’t want our leadin’ man back in the nuthouse again,” says Griffin, apparently referring to an earlier breakdown suffered by Michael. He also calls him “Mikey the Fool,” and ridicules his sexual abilities, suggesting he is impotent. Humiliated, Michael leaves, at which point Griffin begins to deride McKeever, mocking the professional gaffes we learned about in the first scene. He then attempts to kiss Bridget, growing violent when she resists. As he seems about to rape her, she spits at him, sending him into a rage that ends the scene on a dark note.
Scene three introduces the play’s sixth character, Elizabeth, daughter of Rev. Langton and his dying wife. She has come home after an absence of five years to be with her parents as they face death, and we sense that she and her father are somewhat estranged from each other.
ELIZABETH: You said in your letter she’d been ill for some time. If I’d
So there is some bitterness in their past--though each seems willing to let bygones be bygones, and to welcome a reconciliation, even if is has taken a mortal illness to bring it about.
The fourth scene is set on Good Friday evening in McKeever’s funeral parlor, where he has scheduled a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Obstacles to the production are multiplying, as McKeever discovers that the hall where had planned to perform the play has been summarily reassigned to another show. The Dream is now homeless. And to make matters worse, the woman playing Helena has also dropped out of the play.
McKeever also learns that Elizabeth has paid a visit to her mother at the hospital, a fact that seems to interest him strongly.
There to rehearse is Bridget, filled with admiration for McKeever, whom she calls a “genius.” When he asks, “What is our quest . . . in the presentation of this play,” she has a ready answer, obviously learned from the master: “The charting of those dangerous and mercurial waters between the islands of Truth and Illusion.”
Clearly smitten by the older man, she asks about his wife, who, it turns out, “ran away with a ballroom dancer.” As she begins to undress to change into her costume, she notes, suggestively, that he “must be lonely after her.”
The moment is charged with erotic tension as they begin to rehearse their scene from Shakespeare: an encounter between Helena and Demetrius, in which the latter tries to persuade the former that he does not love her and that she must stop pursuing him. Clearly this is a prime example of drama “charting . . . those dangerous . . . waters between . . . Truth and Illusion.” As they speak Shakespeare’s lines, their actual behavior begins to contradict the content of the scene ever more conspicuously, so that instead of the action ending with Demetrius abandoning Helena in the woods, it concludes with McKeever surrendering to Bridget’s passionate kisses.
As they are about to move from playacting to lovemaking, Griffin and Michael arrive, putting a stop to their sexual improvisations. They have heard the bad news about the production being evicted from its scheduled performance space, and bring more ill tidings of their own: yet another cast member has dropped out. “There’s twenty-two in the play,” Michael laments, “We’ll never do it with just the four of us.” With despair looming, McKeever rallies his company:
Illusion and Truth, Michael. Illusion and Truth. We create the illusion in order to render the truth. And we will create it. Four or twenty-four—believe and you shall not be found wanting. Now. Act Two, Scene Three.
In Scene Five, we return to the church, where McKeever meets Elizabeth, and we learn about their past together. Five years earlier, when she was seventeen-year old girl home for the summer from school, and he was a middle-aged man abandoned by his wife, they had become lovers; had, in fact, fallen in love. But McKeever, keenly aware of the awkwardness of their relationship, broke it off. Elizabeth, devastated by his rejection, left home, and there followed the estrangement from her parents we noted in an earlier scene.
As they exchange memories and regrets, Elizabeth’s father, Rev. Langton arrives, and we learn the purpose of McKeever’s evening visit to the church: he has come to ask permission to use the space as the new site for his play. At first Langton refuses. But McKeever persists:
MCKEEVER: Think of the crowds! Be good to see a full house for Easter Sunday—you could even give a sermon.
On this note of faith and hope, the first act comes to an end.
Act Two begins on the morning of Easter Sunday, again in the church, with McKeever and his faithful group rehearsing for that night’s performance. This time they are working on the last scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which a group of working men—traditionally called “The Mechanicals”—put on a play at the court of Athenian Duke, Theseus, to celebrate his wedding to Queen Hippolyta. The play is Pyramus and Thisby, a would-be tragic tale of unrequited love, which, in the hands of these amateur players, gets farcically mangled.
We should note that Mr. Nolan has created a very complicated dramatic structure at this moment. Embedded within Moonshine is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and embedded within that is Pyramus and Thisby, thus giving us in this scene a play within a play within a play. Moreover, in Shakespeare’s play, a group of amateurs bungles the text, while in Nolan’s play a group of amateurs playing a group of amateurs does the same thing.
Things stumble along chaotically, until Michael—whose emotional problems have made him self-conscious and retiring—catches fire and begins to act with “a depth and resonance not previously felt.” But just as he hits his stride, “The mood is suddenly and very violently interrupted when the bulb from one of the ancient lamps blows.” Once again, as with all the previous difficulties facing the production, reality pulls the rug out from under hope, leaving behind a sense of stumbling defeat. The spell broken, Michael decides that all of McKeever’s optimism and faith have been an illusion, and he runs from the rehearsal, abandoning the production. At which moment, the “cloth at the back wall collapses,” yet another omen predicting the show’s failure.
The situation darkens further as the act proceeds. McKeever bitterly confesses to Elizabeth that he rejected her love because he was “Afraid, y’see. Of what I found. The gift. Couldn’t be for me. Must be some mistake, says I. . . Yes. Safe. Playing safe.” Too frightened to embrace the hope and faith he continually preaches, he violated his own convictions at the most important moment of his life.
And immediately following this confession, Langton arrives with the news of his wife’s death on, “Of all days. The resurrection.” Another moment when reality mocks the illusions of faith and hope.
Next we return to McKeever’s embalming studio, where we see him working on the corpse of Mrs. Langton, while singing a verse from the hymn, “There Is a Fountain:” “Redeeming love has been my theme / And shall be till I die.” He addresses the corpse, informing it that, as an embalmer, he is “a creator of illusions,” a vocation not much different from that of an actor or director. He also confesses his affair with the daughter of the deceased, noting that they became lovers “In this very room . . . On this very trolley.” And he repeats the mea culpa of the previous scene, again accusing himself of cowardice in the face of love’s challenge: “I couldn’t cut it. . . . And the track record, not great. Ask the absent Mrs. McKeever if you don’t believe me. Didn’t want to repeat history. . . .”
When Michael arrives to assist, he brings one final piece of bad news: Griffin, too, has joined the deserters. This is the final blow. Even McKeever accepts the fact that the production is now doomed: “the magic spell didn’t work—we will none of us be transformed. There’ll be a funeral, not a play, in the church tonight.”
And to make matters worse, when he praises Michael’s moment of excellence during the morning rehearsal, the boy refuses to believe him. Instead, he accuses McKeever of mocking him, “Same as everyone do. . . . I used to think you were different. The crowd that laughs at Mikey is one thing. But I thought you were another. . . . You’re not. . . . [Y]ou’d have me be a fool on stage, where everyone could see me.”
On this bitter note, we return to the church, where Elizabeth and her father regretfully consider their failed relationships with each other and with the dead Mrs. Langton. Elizabeth presses her father to reconsider his decision to bury his wife in Kiltown and apologizes again for having left her family. Langton then advises his daughter to tell McKeever “what’s in your heart,” stunning her with his knowledge of what she assumed had been their secret affair. Langton praises the undertaker as a “good” if “wayward” man, and regrets the fact that he and his wife were not the kind of parents to whom she could have revealed her heartbreak. Above all else, he counsels her, “Speak your heart. I know from bitter experience the price of silence is very high.”
The following scene takes us back to the embalming parlor where McKeever awaits the arrival of mourners at Mrs. Langton’s wake. There the cynical Griffin taunts McKeever over his failed play and his failed ideals, even mocking his affair with Elizabeth: “Doesn’t the whole f***ing town know ye gave her a babby.” This is the first inkling we have had that there were more than emotional consequences to their affair, though Griffin’s assertion is neither confirmed nor denied by McKeever. Instead, he curses Griffin, calling him “scum,” and asking, “How dare you.” This leaves the issue hanging, and the audience wondering. Was there a baby? Was the child born? Or aborted? If the latter, at whose insistence? And if the former, where is he or she now, five years later?
Before we can come to grips with these questions, however, the emotional temperature of the room rises to boiling point, as Griffin launches a rabid attack on everything McKeever stands for: faith, hope, the transforming power of the imagination. He concludes his obscenity-laced tirade with a sneer: “You won’t change me no more than you’ll change yourself. (Pause.) The difference between us, boss—the difference is, I know. I know what I am.”
At which point, the script delivers yet another narrative jack-in-the-box. If Griffin knows himself so well, McKeever demands, then what was he doing “with the German boy against the wall in Seafield.” Caught virtually with his pants down, Griffin is reduced to tears and begging, pleading that McKeever not disclose his sexual secret, and revealing that in his angry loneliness he reached out to the transient stranger in search of “Love, y’know. Just the once. Love.” So behind the brutal and cynical façade Griffin shows to the world is a forlorn homosexual seeking companionship.
Bridget then arrives, hoping for news of the production, and eager for a solitary moment with McKeever. He breaks the news to her that the show will not be going on, and apologizes for his failure. Bridget confesses her love for McKeever, who responds by telling her, as gently as he can, that he is in love with Elizabeth. Another disappointed soul passes through the funeral parlor.
Finally Elizabeth appears, the only mourner at her mother’s wake, her father having decided not to attend. But she has no idea how to say goodbye to the dead woman, finding herself unable to pray, or even to touch the body in a farewell gesture. She does announce, however, that her father has decided to hold the funeral in Ballintra after all. And, more importantly, she carries out her father’s earlier advice to “speak her heart.” She tells McKeever that she still loves him. Overwhelmed, McKeever begs her to stay with him and “make a baby. . . . Our very own little resurrection.” At which point, the lights fade, leading us to the final scene of the play.
Back in the church, Rev. Langton stands in the pulpit, preaching at his wife’s funeral before his daughter, McKeever, and Michael. As he speaks the sacred words of consolation and hope—with ever increasing difficulty—the play’s other lost souls straggle into the service, first Bridget, then Griffin. As he approaches the climax of his sermon, however, Langton falters and stops, lacking the faith to continue: “Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth. He is . . . risen. (Silence.) And so. (He struggles to continue, looks at the coffin. . . .) And so. (Pause.) And so--nothing.”
With the service about to collapse into a nihilistic puddle, McKeever steps forward to redeem the moment, picking up the thread of the sermon, retelling the story of the Resurrection, and ending with a reaffirmation of his trademark attitude:
And so we wait. In hope, for something to happen. For something to make sense. Not just the big one, the trumpet of angels, the joyful resurrection. But in the meantime, here in this dark corner, we wait. For a small flicker of light.
And, amid the darkness, that flicker is kindled, as Michael rises from his pew and begins to speak his lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bridget then picks up her cue, and Griffin his, until the four players are caught up in the action of Shakespeare’s play, transforming a funeral in the real world into an island of the imagination, moving from the wilderness of the abandoned church to Shakespeare’s Athenian forest, a place populated by lunatics, lovers, and poets. As the lights fade, the actors are blissfully applying themselves to the business of transforming their world through the sacred power of art.
McKeever. There is an important piece of information about McKeever’s character planted in the opening stage direction of the play, which tells us that, “He operates two distinct codes of body language—the one we see now, frenetic, jagged, nervy, and the other, the archetypal posture of the committed undertaker, still, erect, calm. . . . [T]he latter . . . is a performance, and . . . he is never quite at home in it.”
Those “two distinct codes of body language” express the two sharply divergent sides of his character. One the one hand, there is McKeever the apostle of faith and hope, forever preaching the transformative power of imagination, forever counseling optimism and self-belief, forever promising the resurrection.
It is this McKeever who tells Michael tall-tales about a race of sea giants living in castles beneath the waves—a myth meant to inspire wonder and delight at life’s possibilities. Unfortunately for Michael, he takes the fable literally and is bitter when he discovers it is only fiction. By contrast, McKeever, though he is in love with fancy, knows better that to mistake it for truth. He cherishes poetry, but he also submits to the prosaic demands of daily life.
And in this submission, we meet the obverse side of his character, the balding, middle-aged undertaker, abandoned by his wife, and fearful of the emotional risks posed by his affair with Elizabeth. For all his talk of faith, hope, and resurrection, he draws back from the promise of that relationship and hides in his embalming studio, blocking out the transformative summons of love.
As a result of this rejection, he finds himself pretty much alone in the little world of Ballintra. With no family, and virtually without friends, he has only his strained acquaintance with Rev. Langton, the impossible adoration of Bridget, and the failing gratitude of Michael to fall back on. Meanwhile, he says, he “wait[s] For something to happen. For something to make sense again.” And he buries the dead.
All his counseling of faith and hope, then, though it seems to be directed at others is really meant for himself. To stage a play by Shakespeare is, as he says, to chart the waters between truth and illusion—to find, in other words, a place of balance between the two irreconcilable selves he carries through life.
Elizabeth, unlike McKeever, has actually ventured beyond Ballintra. Off in some other, larger world (we are never told precisely where), she has held jobs and been to college. And also unlike McKeever, she seems to have no desperate need of poetry or imagination to help her confront her life. Instead, following the heartbreak of his rejection, she has grown up, wiser for her own pain, and remorseful for the pain she has caused her family.
She comes to Ballintra neither angry nor vindictive, motivated to return by her mother’s pending death. But at another level she is pursuing a purpose that she only fully realizes as a result of her father’s urging to speak her heart. She needs to unlock the emotional door that was slammed shut on her five years earlier by McKeever’s cowardice, to wrap-up the unfinished business of their affair.
Her name—Elizabeth—contains the Hebrew words for “God” and “oath,” and may be construed as meaning the “promise of divinity,” the very material of hope itself. In her steadiness during her five years of absence, in her unresentful return, and in her ultimate open-heartedness, she becomes the embodiment of the virtue of hope that McKeever is always espousing.
Rev. Langton. Many works of literature are built around a pair of sharply contrasting characters: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; King Lear and the Fool; Ariel and Caliban. Moonshine has its own contrasting couple: Rev. Langton and McKeever. Perpetually dour and downbeat where McKeever is energetically optimistic; struggling with a loss of faith while McKeever proclaims his belief, the clergyman is in crucial ways the undertaker’s polar opposite. A revealing moment at the end of Act One illustrates these contrasts. “God still lives in this house,” McKeever declares with typically affirmative enthusiasm. To which Langton replies laconically, “Does he?” In two words he lays out the basic conflict in his personality: a man whose profession is the preaching of the gospel (a word which means “good news”) is beset by pessimism and doubt.
As opposed to McKeever’s histrionic expansiveness, Langton carries with him an air of constriction and confinement, the sense of a soul withered by continual loss. His parish has shrunk from a hundred families to none, his daughter has left home, his wife is on the verge of death. And again unlike the voluble McKeever, Langton has kept his sorrows bottled up, unshared and therefore un-alleviated. “We didn’t talk much—your mother and I,” he tells his daughter. “Maybe too much was left unspoken.”
Langton is always saying “no” to life when he really wants to say “yes.” He rejects McKeever’s plea to stay with the church, to preach at his wife’s funeral, to hold Easter services. He says no to Shakespeare twice, first by dropping out of the play, then by refusing McKeever permission to use the church as an emergency theater. But, except for taking a role in the play, Langton eventually reverses each of these refusals. He finally does allow McKeever to perform in the church, he ultimately holds his wife’s funeral there, and he preaches an Easter sermon.
But years of doubt and hopelessness have crippled him. Although he pushes his daughter to speak her heart, and himself ascends to the pulpit, he is voiceless at the crucial moment. Just as he is about to proclaim the resurrection, he falters and falls silent. His last words on stage are in response to McKeever’s insistent call for faith, and provide one final example of the contrast between these two characters:
MCKEEVER. Say it. You have to. Believe in something. All of us, John. Say it.
Michael, as McKeever tells us, is looking for “a voice,” for some way to express his unspeakable feelings. “No one knows the darkness more than that child,” says McKeever, and we see a small piece of the suffering Michael has endured in his bitter rejection of his mentor’s teaching:
The crowd that laughs at Mikey is one thing. But I thought you were another. My father said you were a good man. . . . You’re not. You’d have me be the fool the same as the rest of them, laughing and skittering when I pass in the street, callin’ me names behind me back. ‘Mad Mikey’! ‘Mad Mikey’ they call me. And you’re no different.
Shakespeare offers ‘Mad Mikey’ a chance, as McKeever says, to find “a voice,” a way to let the mocking world know who he really is.
When, for a moment, he finds that voice in rehearsal, he becomes a living example of the power of McKeever’s gospel of hope. But then, when the stage light explodes, the magic vanishes, and he crash-lands back in reality. If McKeever is to be credited with the magic, he is likewise to be blamed for the unbearable moment of disenchantment and the bitter sense of loss that follows.
At the play’s end, it is Michael who, in the silence after the Easter sermon, rises and begins to speak his lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, breathing life into a production that everyone has given up for dead. Finding his voice in the words of Shakespeare, he calls for “moonlight,” and in response, the rest of the players, Lazarus-like, spring back into action.
Bridget, like Mikey, needs McKeever and his theater of hope as a way of showing the world her true self. “Mac says I could go all the way. . . . As an actress I mean. My talent leaves him speechless, he says.” Whether McKeever’s assessment is objectively true, or just another example of the poetics of hope, Bridget is energized by the idea of herself as an artist. And yet, “Sister Maureen caught me foggin’ [smoking] behind the sheds last week—read me the riot act. . . . You’d think I was a bloody schoolgirl.” Which, of course, she is. But not in her own eyes; and, she expects, neither will she be in the eyes of Ballintra after she dazzles everyone with her performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As she tells McKeever, “I was so looking forward to it. To being somebody. Somebody else. I wanted to make you proud of me.”
Clearly, her ardor for the stage is entwined with her passion for McKeever himself (though her desire spills over onto Michael, whom she willingly, and avidly, kisses in their first scene together.) Like Elizabeth before her, she is a schoolgirl in love with the balding, and now more-deeply middle-aged undertaker. But this time around, McKeever cannot reciprocate her feelings, though he is susceptible to her physical attractions. Her love is hopeless, and she seems prepared to sacrifice herself to it. “Leave this place,” McKeever urges her. “Take flight . . . soar. Before they catch you. They’ll clip your wings if they do. Cut you down to size.” But Bridget, showing her school-girl romanticism, protests: “I don’t want to go away—I want to stay here with you.”
Perhaps, like McKeever, she knows that such sentiments are poetic but unreal, since a moment later she seems to be facing, and accepting, the facts. “I love you and you love her don’t you? . . . I’ll go then. . . . Thanks, Mac. . . . For moonshine, maybe.” To thank him for “moonshine” is to thank him for the gift of make-believe.
Griffin too carries a burden, but unlike those of the other characters, his is deeply hidden. A homosexual in a tight little Irish village whose presiding moral and religious traditions view his desires with abhorrence, he enacts his inner exile by treating others with cynicism and cruelty. In his first moments on stage, he attacks Michael with an ugly sexual epithet and sneeringly insinuates that the boy is impotent.
Unlike the others in McKeever’s orbit, he is unimpressed by the gospel of faith and hope, perhaps because he sees no hope whatever for his own fulfillment in a place like Ballintra—or, indeed, anywhere else he can imagine. He is the heretic, the voice of denial and scorn, from the outset expressing contempt for McKeever, for the play, for his fellow actors. In this, he is a sort of diabolical figure. The name Satan, after all, means “accuser,” one who obstructs and undermines the virtuous efforts of others. Not that Griffin is the devil, but he does embody a spirit of devilish nay-saying, much like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.
But unlike Satan, who is irredeemable, Griffin can be touched by love. It was after seeing Griffin with the German boy that McKeever asked him to do the play, “Not to change you, but in some small way to let you try to be yourself.” So Griffin, like Michael and Bridget, needs A Midsummer Night’s dream to reveal himself to the world. The vehemence with which he expresses his contempt for the whole project shows the depth of his desire to remain hidden. But the fact that he shows up on Easter night and, in the end, speaks his lines, shows the even greater need he has to break through his alienated rage.
Moonshine. English has two words for the illumination from the moon’s surface: “moonlight” and “moonshine.” The first is the more straightforwardly denotative. It means what it says: The light of the moon. Yes, “moonlight” is also an evocative word, with strong romantic overtones (as in “Moonlight and Roses”), but its primary meaning isn’t drowned out by loud, connotative insinuations.
This is not the case with “moonshine,” a word whose literal sense is swamped by its figurative meanings. More forcefully than it signifies “light from the moon,” “moonshine” implies “foolish or nonsensical talk, thought, or action.” It’s the sort of thing one says to a lover under the moonlight: an absurd avowal, an extravagant compliment; an impossible promise. Or it’s the kind of talk one hears at a college bull-session: the pledge of eternal friendship; the vision of success; the sexual boast.
“Moonshine” is also a kind of illegal liquor, so called either because it is surreptitiously distilled by the light of the moon, or because it induces the kinds of nonsensical talk and ideas noted above. Or both.
So the play is named for nonsense and the drink that causes it. It is also named for a key element in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the course of their work on Pyramus and Thisby, the mechanicals must solve a scenic problem. Their script calls for the lovers to meet by moonlight. But how are they to get the moon into the room where they are performing? The solution is simple, and nakedly theatrical: “one must come in with a … lantern, and say he comes . . . to present the person of moonshine.” And thus, through imagination and make-believe the impossible is made to happen: moonshine in all its glory and foolishness is captured on stage, like a firefly in a bottle.
This, in effect, is the whole action of the play: To catch moonshine, the absurd and beautiful aspiration of the imagination, and make it real for a moment. And in performing Shakespeare, each of the characters does exactly this.
Easter. The play takes place between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the most sacred time of the Christian calendar. On Good Friday, we mourn the death of Jesus, and on Easter Sunday, we celebrate His resurrection, and thus we undergo a passage from darkness to light, from desolation to joy, all the while sustained by faith and hope. Clearly, the playwright links the individual emotional and spiritual struggles of his six characters to this cosmic transition. Each of the six experiences a kind of personal Good Friday: hopes are dashed, loved ones die, dreams and hearts are broken. But in the end, each has at least a moment of Easter rebirth, as McKeever and Elizabeth declare their love for each other, and as Ballintra’s own “mechanicals” finally manage to raise their play from the dead.
Faith, Hope, and Charity. As we have seen throughout, McKeever is constantly exhorting people to have faith in what they are doing, and to have hope that all will turn out well. He is also a man who has run from love, but who is now ready to embrace it.
Faith, hope, and charity (or love) are traditionally known as the “theological virtues,” so called, in part, because they come to us not through our own exertions, but as direct gifts from God. Thus, we may, with effort, acquire the virtues of prudence or temperance; but we cannot make ourselves hopeful or faithful or loving. And this is the paradox in McKeever’s preaching. You can no more tell a person to be hopeful, or faithful, or in love than you can tell him to be hungry. You either are or you aren’t. You cannot will yourself into these states of mind; they are dispositions of the soul that we are powerless to acquire on our own.
Given the frequency with which they are invoked in the play, it is worth looking more closely at the meanings of these virtues.
Faith, as commonly understood, is belief grounded not on evidence but on authority, especially the authority of God. When McKeever exhorts his followers to have faith in what they are doing, he is asking them to ignore the evidence of failure all around them, and to cling to a non-rational certainty of success. Faith, in other words, is the strength to go on affirming one’s convictions even in defiance of common sense.
Hope is the confidence that one’s fondest goals are actually possible to attain. It is God’s gift of assurance, enabling one to stay the course in the face of discouragement. Like faith, it requires that one see past the immediate state of things to the beckoning promise that lies behind all difficulties.
If faith and hope share the common property of looking beyond the imperfect now toward a perfected future, charity—or love—dwells in the present moment, focusing on the goodness here and now of the beloved. The supernatural virtue of charity is directed primarily toward God, Whom we love for His infinite goodness; and secondarily to our fellows, whom we love because we are all made in God’s image. In the more secular perspective of the play, the emphasis is on charity of the latter sort.
In preaching faith and hope, then, McKeever acknowledges the spiritual imperfections and needs that beset him and his fellows. In rejecting Elizabeth’s love, he commits a sin against the greatest of virtues. And in embracing it at last, he finds fulfillment.
Religion and Theater. Obviously, there are many connections in this play between theater and religion: McKeever puts his play on in a church; through it he pursues faith and hope; at the end, on the day of the Resurrection, his moribund production returns to life.
In this synthesis of theater and religion, the playwright takes drama back to its earliest roots. Many scholars believe that Greek tragedy evolved out of religious ritual, specifically the worship of the god, Dionysus, whose life, death, and resurrection were celebrated in songs—dithyrambs—that evolved into the give-and-take of dramatic dialogue.
The great plays of Sophocles and Euripides were performed in the Theater of Dionysus, at whose center was an altar dedicated to the god. Thus, the theater was, in effect, also a temple—like the theater/church in Moonshine. There the great tragedies exploring the mysteries human nature, the relationship of mankind to the gods, and the moral foundations of political life were played out before audiences numbering in the thousands. The theater was a place both for enthralling artistic performance and for spiritual revelation.
The same was true of theater in the middle ages, when, following several centuries of dormancy, theater returned to life under the aegis of the Church. Scholarly opinion suggests that the theatrical renewal of the period arose in the course of worship, within the liturgy itself, when members of the clergy began to dramatize moments in the gospel that had previously only been narrated. Eventually, the drama moved into the public square, taking the form of “mystery cycles”—vast sequences of plays representing the history of God’s dealings with the world from creation to the Last Judgment. In addition, “morality plays” became popular. These were dramas illustrating some theological or doctrinal principle. An example is Everyman, which teaches that only through good works and reliance on the sacraments can a man save his soul. Like Greek tragedy, medieval drama combined the pleasures of art with spiritual sustenance.
Thus, in its synthesis of drama and religion, Moonshine draws on some of the deepest roots and oldest traditions in the history of western drama. In many ways, with its insistence on the need for faith, hope, and love in order to achieve happiness, Jim Nolan’s drama is itself a secularized morality play.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.