It seems a little early to be awarding John Patrick Shanley, 63, a Lifetime Achievement Award, because the markedly youthful looking writer is obviously at the height of his powers. But Shanley isn’t a bit fazed.
“I was asked to speak by the Irish American Writers & Artists group when Bill (William) Kennedy won and it probably ended up being an audition to get one myself. I think they thought I was entertaining,” he tells the Irish Voice with some modesty, until he erupts in raucous laughter.
“Maybe that’s how you get a Lifetime Achievement Award. I don’t know.”
Personal charm could be part of the reason why the group invited him, but having written Oscar winning screenplays like Moonstruck and Tony winning plays like Doubt and oft-revived classics like Danny and the Deep Blue Sea may also have something to do with it.
Perhaps it’s just that for Shanley the time has come. This year he has written a new Broadway-bound play set in Ireland called Outside Mullingar, and earlier this year he wrote a remarkable meditation about visiting Ireland for the first time in 1992 in The New York Times and now he’s receiving the Irish American Writers & Artists Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement award. If it’s taken him six decades to embrace his Irishness, you have to admit he’s finally doing it in style.
“It’s one of those things where apparently it was the time for this to happen,” Shanley says. “I come from an Irish family on both sides and I spent most of my life not writing about the Irish.
“And now the time has come when I said, all right, I’m going to give in to it. I’m going to write about something that I know very well, which is the Irish and the Irish American experience.”
Shanley doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. His own father was born on a farm in Co. Westmeath and came to America when he was 24.
“By then he was a fully formed person and my uncles came with him. I grew up with the Westmeath dances here in the Bronx,” Shanley recalls.
“My father would go to Ireland every year, and when he got old he brought me back with him because he didn’t feel he could drive anymore. I would take him each year and we’d visit the farm that is still in my family to this day.”
Getting to know his relatives in Ireland was a revelation for the playwright.
“My relatives there were closer to me in terms of their personalities and outlook than my Irish American family,” Shanley reveals. “In terms of style I discovered I was much closer to the Irish side.”
This was a surprise, because right from the beginning of his career Shanley says he resisted any attempt to pigeonhole his work.
“New York has a very particular and very powerful Irish American history and a literary mafia. Very early on they were starting to embrace me when I was in my early twenties. I instinctively did not want that,” Shanley recalls.
“I did not want to be known as an Irish American writer. I wanted to be just a writer. I didn’t even know what it was to be an American. I was still figuring those things out. I didn’t want anybody to corral me into an identity.”
But now in his sixth decade, Shanley admits he’s fully formed as a person and an entity. That gives him the scope that he didn’t have in earlier times.
“It very much seems like now is the right time to explore my Irish background, and I didn’t have any choice. I had to write Outside Mullingar, and I got such a kick out of writing it that I didn’t stop and didn’t want to,” he says.
In the new play, which will open in January, Tony Award winner Brian F. O’Byrne (Frozen) and Emmy winner Debra Messing (Will & Grace) play Anthony and Rosemary, two classic Irish rural misfits in their forties.
We learn that Anthony has spent his life on a remote cattle farm and has no notion of ever changing. Rosemary lives next door and is determined to wed him before time or her last opportunity for love runs out.
If it sounds like an Irish Moonstruck that’s no bad thing. Audiences at early readings of the script have erupted in laughter and been moved to tears by the irresistible story.
As in so many of Shanley’s plays, Anthony and Rose emerge as two delightfully eccentric souls desperate to find a little peace and happiness. The hard road they have to travel to find that happiness is typical of the Irish American master too.
The play will once again be directed on Broadway by Shanley favorite Doug Hughes, the Irish American director who scored a decade defining hit with Doubt.
Casting Messing (who will be on hand to toast Shanley at the Irish American Writers & Artists night, as will Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis) in the female lead is an opportunity for American audiences to get to grips with the Irish setting and themes, Shanley says.
“I gave her her first job when she’d gotten out of college in a play called Four Dogs and a Bone. I cast her as an understudy but the play was a hit and ended up running for a long time,” Shanley said.
“I ended up putting her in both female roles in the play because she was so delightful. I knew I wanted Brian F. O’Byrne for the guy and I immediately thought of her because the kind of humor she’s good at and the freedom that she has on stage astounds me.
“I remember telling her back then, ‘You’re Lucille Ball, you’ll have your own television show’. She replied, ‘And you’re going to write it.’ I remember shaking my head sadly and saying, ‘It’s not going to be me.’ And off she went. And then she got Will & Grace and made her mark.”
Now that Shanley has the play and the actors, the freedom that Ireland has given him to explore a new frontier in his playwriting has been enormously rewarding he says.
“I was very aware of the Irish influence on my work from the beginning. Probably my favorite play is J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, which just took my breath away when I was first exposed to it when I was in my twenties. I just couldn’t believe how good it was. My dream of being a writer was to be as good as that.”
The richness of Synge’s language and the wildness of his Irish characters struck Shanley as widely attractive. He aimed for that freedom in his new play.
“It gives me permission to use the poetic side of my nature. I’ve felt enslaved by my characters on occasion where I couldn’t write to the size that I felt like because the character would never speak that way,” Shanley says.
“Writing Outside Mullingar, all those constraints were removed. I could write the full piano, all of the keys, because these people have the ability to express themselves in wild and beautiful ways.”
Outside Mullingar opens in previews on January 3. The Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Shanley on October 21 at Irish American Writers & Artists annual event at the Manhattan Club above Rosie O’Grady’s in Times Square. For information and tickets, visit www.i-am.wa.org.