Owen McCafferty, 2017 Heimbold Chair
Northern Irish and Abbey Theatre playwright, McCafferty is Belfast's critically acclaimed jewel of theatre.
Owen McCafferty was born in Belfast, but as he has observed of his own work, “…being in Belfast, being brought up and living there…hasn’t influenced my writing a great deal from the point of view of what the outside world sees Belfast as.…I concentrate on the notion of telling human stories as opposed to sticking to political themes.” Having refined his study of philosophy at the University of Ulster, McCafferty took on careers in accounting and tiling before turning to writing these “human stories” and joining the Belfast Writers’ Group shortly after his father’s passing in 1985. But when his wife noted that his dialogue seemed to govern his plays, McCafferty spun from fiction to playwriting. His first production, Winners, Losers and Non-Runners, took the stage at the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast in 1992, and earned McCafferty praise for precisely that ear for dialogue. McCafferty followed in 1993 with I Won’t Dance Don’t Ask Me, and The Waiting List and The Private Picture Show in 1994. In an interview with David Grant, McCafferty noted the important lessons he took from each of these three plays: “I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me placed the emphasis on narrative; The Private Picture Show emphasized form; and The Waiting List represented a synthesis of the two. As he told Grant: ‘Once The Waiting List had gone on, that completely freed me up. I realized then you can use the stage in a much freer way.’”
McCafferty went on to do precisely that in 2001, uniting video and installation art with drama and movement in No Place Like Home. The play prompted Fintan O’Toole to write in The Irish Times that McCafferty was “superbly effective” in re-framing “broad metaphors” with a “wry Belfast inflection.” McCafferty then debuted in London in 2002 with Closing Time, a play that The Times reviewed as one where “everyday hopelessness remains fully operative…[in the] terrific, realistic dialogue” and that, rather than being a politically-charged play, “most of [the] characters are hoping, trying or managing to make an actual, physical escape from their circumstances.” Indeed, in his essay on McCafferty’s work and influences, Grant writes that McCafferty focuses on the connections between the ordinary and the extraordinary, of “good drama with the ‘human condition.’”
This continued through McCafferty’s 2003 success, Scenes from the Big Picture. As Grant writes, the play “represents a synthesis of the strengths of his most successful earlier works, fusing the fluidity of Mojo-Mickybo (1998) with the depth of characterization of Closing Time and Shoot the Crow (1997).” For Scenes from the Big Picture, McCafferty won the John Whiting Award, the Evening Standard's Charles Wintour Award for New Playwriting, and the Meyer-Whitworth Award—the first time any playwright had won all of the awards in one year. McCafferty followed up with Cold Comfort and Days of Wine & Roses in 2005; the latter of which, The Guardian noted, demonstrated “with clinical accuracy, the lies, self-deceptions, desperation and violence of the confirmed alcoholic.” Antigone (2008), The Absence of Women (2010), and Titanic (2010) all received positive reviews, with Irish Theatre Magazine noting McCafferty’s flexibility: “It is a sign of Owen McCafferty’s stature as a playwright that he can step away so effectively from his usual muscular, Belfast vernacular-driven narrative style to assume here a quasi-curatorial role, sifting through almost 100 witness statements.”
Of his recent work, McCafferty’s play Quietly (2012) won Best New Play at the Irish Times Theatre Awards, and the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013; Unfaithful (2014) and Death of a Comedian (2015) have reviewed well in The Sunday Times and The Belfast Telegraph, where Grania McFadden noted that the Death of a Comedian “pulls no punches—[the protagonist] takes aim at politicians, warmongers and injustices.” In 2016, Quietly enjoyed a three-month run Off-Broadway, at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York from July to September; in its New York Times review, Laura Collins-Hughes described Quietly as “a play about what happens when a society loses control. It’s a reminder that terrorism and demonization of the other have always been with us, and that where blood-soaked enmity is fostered for political gain, angry youths have always been ripe for recruitment.”
Currently, McCafferty is writing the book and lyrics for Mojo Mickybo The Musical as well as an adaptation of Julius Caesar for the children's Ark Theatre in Dublin, and has been commissioned for a play called Beneath for The Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Owen McCafferty holds the Charles A. Heimbold Jr., Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University for the spring 2017 semester.
New York Times review of Quietly.