The Bob Dylan Bible: In ‘Girl From the North Country,’ an Irish playwright takes inspiration from the prophet of folk

“Girl From the North Country” is set in a family-run boarding house in Duluth, Minn., during the Great Depression. Conor McPherson, an Irish playwright, directed the musical. It opened on Broadway in March 2020. After a break due to Covid-19 restrictions it is now back at the Belasco Theatre in New York City. It continues to receive critical and audience acclaim. In November 2021, “Girl From the North Country” was nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

On Dec. 21, James T. Keane interviewed McPherson via Zoom.

This interview was edited for style and length.

“There is, to my mind, something very universal about Bob Dylan. There is something very spiritual about his work; something almost biblical.”

James Keane: One of the major storylines of “Girl From the North Country” is that of a poor young pregnant woman staying in a boarding house, itself kind of an inn. It will be a reminder of the Christmas story that Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem, for anyone who believes in Christianity. Is that intentional?

Conor McPherson: I don’t know if any of that was intentional on my part, but in the sense that I was raised a Catholic in Ireland, so many of the central stories of Christianity are kind of in my DNA. I was trying to find a way to include Bob Dylan songs in a show that was set in Minnesota in the 1930s during the Great Depression. As for a boarding house run by a family that welcomes different guests coming there because they have nowhere else to stay—yes, I did have this idea that at the center of it you’ve had a pregnancy that needs some explaining. 

But, at the same time, you don’t want to be so literal as to leave no room for reflection. It is important to give the audience something to think about and bounce off. Yes, all of these stories are part of Catholic education.

JK. When I think about Irish playwrights, or writers, there are two sources that come to mind. William Butler Yeats, John Synge and others might draw more from pre-Christian Irish mythology. James Joyce, on the other hand, might be more familiar with classical literature. For example, Brian Friel, in his play “Translations,” compares the fight of an Irish “hedgerow” school (a then-illegal Catholic school) against British troops to the historic Greek Battle of Thermopylae against the Persians. And your own first screenplay is called “I Went Down,” which is the opening line of Plato’s Republic, yes? Given these two sources, what is it that draws an Irish writer towards Bob Dylan?

CM: Bob Dylan is universally relatable. His work is almost spiritual. His songs often have an Old Testament feel and can be read almost like parables. They also have an American Gothic vibe. Albums like “John Wesley Harding” have an Old Testament feeling all the way through.

Dylan’s entry into the New Testament in late 1970s [following his public conversion to Christianity]He became more specific and literal. But the poetry in the Old Testament suits his natural impulses better,

As a child, I was a huge music fan. There was something that made the Beatles and Bob Dylan so famous and canonical in my musical education. They are the sources from which so much flows. In that sense, Dylan is in the tradition of great writers stretching back to the biblical prophets—there’s something in his songs that is so resonant that people will be scratching their heads and trying to figure the songs out for generations.

“Bob Dylan is in the tradition of great writers stretching back to the biblical prophets—there’s something in his songs that is so resonant that people will be trying to figure the songs out for generations.”

The same is true for an Old Testament story, or for the work of a great writer like Yeats or Joyce: There’s always something in there to puzzle over. You know there’s always something in there that’s real and truthful, but you can’t entirely articulate it—and that may be part of why it is real and truthful, because you can’t articulate it exactly anyway.

JK: “Girl From the North Country” has received strong reviews in the United States. Do you think there’s something about the setting in the Great Depression that has resonated with people, or does it rely on themes that are more timeless?

CM: I think setting the play outside of Dylan’s own lifetime helped, because if I had set it anytime after he was born, the music and the plot are going to bounce off his own life too directly. By setting it in the ’30s, you allow the music to be what it is, encompassing larger themes. His music is not about him, so people can focus on the story and have fun with it. I always say to the performers in the show that the drama and the scenes are the vinegar, and Dylan’s music is the honey—and that gives it a good balance.

Let’s get back to the first question. When was this London show held first? [the artistic director of] the Old Vic Theatre—Matthew Warchus—said to me after we had seen the show with an audience a couple of times, “You know, this show is like a church service; that’s how it works.” You have all these sorts of parables, and then these hymns; although people probably don’t even realize it at a conscious level, they are responding to that ritualistic nature of it.

“I think Christianity took root very deeply in Ireland because Ireland was a culture that was very open to rituals and holy places.”

This is how people respond when they see a lot plays. Many plays have this ritualistic structure that reminds them of a church service. As we all sit there, we share a moment of inner reflection as we consider the altar. But we are doing it together. It has a different kind power. That is probably why live theatre has never died. Even with the advent of all the technology we have, there’s this certain itch it scratches [in a way]People like and desire what they see. It may have something to do the ancient desire for transcendence.

JK: Dorothy Fortenberry, a playwright and screenwriter in Los Angeles, told me last year that our liturgical and scriptural stories for the Advent season and the Easter season resemble in some ways a three-act play, or vice versa; at the end of the second act you’re very depressed, and at the end of the third there is a feeling of redemption and the sacred breaking through.

CM: Definitely. That pattern is something we seem to use over and again. In the sense that I’m ready and willing to present work in this way, I’m like many Irish writers. It’s what we all know since a young age.

JK: When I was in Ireland in 2018 to do a story on Ireland and the Catholic Church, a cabbie in Dublin told me that he wanted nothing to do with the church—that between the sex abuse scandals and the power that the clergy had always held, he was done with it all. And I said to him, “Can I ask you something? Isn’t that a Padre Pio prayer card hanging from your rear-view mirror?” And he said, “Yes, of course, he’s my patron saint.” That seemed to get at something very typical of modern Ireland: The religious and spiritual background is still present and detectable in the culture, regardless of the level of religious practice.

CM: You could argue that sort of connection he had with something spiritual—something that is always present in Irish people and Irish culture—predates Christianity. Because Ireland was open to religious rituals and holy sites, I believe Christianity was very well established in Ireland. Today, December 21, is the winter solstice. It is also the day at Newgrange. [a prehistoric funeral monument in County Meath]This was built over 5,000 years ago. The rising sun shines directly into the passage tomb, lighting the chamber’s interior.

This happens on the shortest day in the year. They were already displaying with their buildings the Christmas story about the rebirth of Jesus in the middle winter. The Irish were immediately captivated by the Christian stories and embraced them. Even after all the scandals, this religious culture remains strong today.

JK: Do your thoughts on the play performing in Dublin and the United States compare to the American version? Is the audience going to respond in the same manner?

CM: The London response was positive. What works in London usually works in Dublin. Also, I think that Irish people grew up with a lot American culture and connections, including Bob Dylan. It will have a good chance to reach audiences in a similar manner.

JK. The play’s songbook includes more of what I consider more obscure Dylan songs in the first part. When you get to the second half, there is more that I would consider to be “standards,” that maybe even someone who was not a Dylan fan might know—either through a cover version or as something that has made its way into pop culture. Is that intentional or just a matter of what the topic is at the time?

I don’t think any of it was conscious, but for any playwright, once you get into the second act, you know anyone who has stuck with you in the theater has bought in [on the story]. This is where you can push the storytelling. It can also be less direct. In this case, it meant I could let Bob’s songs do some of the heavy lifting.

JK: Last question. JK: Last question. Have you ever seen Dylan live?

CM: Yes, I have here in Ireland.

JK: Was it good? Or was he…terrible?

CM. He was simply amazing. It’s a great experience to be in the company of someone like him. I just think at this stage, whatever he’s doing with the music is something you have to go along with. And yes, with Dylan it often depends on the show and the audience—you have people who might say, “What the hell was that?” or those who might say, “That’s the best show I’ve ever seen in my life.”