This entry is about how I create characters, so if such things do not interest you, you might want to skip it.
While I was working on my show Jim Fitzmorris Puts Marlin Gusman in a Hurt Locker, I hit upon the idea that Death, sometimes known as Dis, should run for mayor of New Orleans. It struck me that he was doing a better job serving our city than our mayor at the time, and more improtantly, I really wanted to pull out the Death puppet I had bought in Chicago at the end of my show. That idea of Death as a political candidate carried forward, and after I had performed Lockhart in The Seafarer, I decided to write about a play about just that. It was called The Thanatos Brass Band, and it began my obsession with starting all writing projects with a mythological spine.
So, when I began From A Long Way Off, I decided that I would return to my own roots and steal from Irish Mythology. I went back to my Yeats and plundered the story of Hibernian Giant Finn McCool’s great battle with The Scottish Giant Cuhullin. I loved the idea of a giant not powerful enough to win with brawn and having to fall back on his wits. I began with that premise and began to build a character.
The character needed both a backstory and a current one. I had a couple of threads from the previous five years that I felt fit well with the McCool story. There were three big ones. My friend Sean Mellot and I spent an entire week at my house brainstorming a plot outline for a family that become better people after Katrina than they were before; I had conducted a series of interviews with political players about The Great New Orleans Mayor’s Race of 1977; and I had a collection of wonderful family anecdotes that were waiting a chance to work their way onto a stage. Included among those stories was one about an uncle who, as a child, took a face first dive into a mud puddle on Easter Sunday Morning… wearing a white suit.
I took the basic premise Sean and I designed, and then I turned the character into a vessel for failed mayoral candidate Toni Morrison. Morrison was a man of incredible promise whose own personal demons ultimately undid him before he died at the age of 52. I wanted to imagine a world wherein Morrison had lived long enough to turn his life around. As the last piece of the character puzzle, I determined that very funny Easter Sunday story my mother had told me would be a crucial device in the backstory.
While the backstory was driven by Irish Mythology, the one in the present day would be deeply Catholic. I have always been fascinated by the parable of The Prodigal Son. I have never ceased to moved by the image of the father racing wildly from the house to greet the son. A tale of unconditional love and forgiveness with an undertone of sibling rivalry felt like powerful stuff worth pursuing. I wanted to set the play in a fictional Catholic parish in Irish Channel and come up with a Saint that embodied the main character. Over a dinner at Mandina’s, my brother John and my father hit upon Saint Columban. This patron saint of bibliophiles, men on motorcycles and women surrounded by wolves would be the heart of the character.
I narcissitically dubbed him Seamus and then attached the name Quincannon. I chose that last name because it is the same as Victor McLaglen from She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and as you will see from the previous link, that character contains the fighting spirit I wanted to capture in a central character.
It really is Frankenstein Monster writing: a series of disparate pieces brought together and looking for the spark of life that a story would provide. When coupled with the profound impact that Mark Rylance’s turn as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem, I had all the pieces to creates a deeply flawed charismatic figure to become the fulcrum of a drama.
Now, I just needed a story for Seamus to tell.