The Ferryman was a phenomenon in London. Jez Butterworth’s sprawling family drama, set against the troubles that tore Northern Ireland apart, arrives on Broadway this fall laden with prizes and praise. Three Olivier Awards, including Best New Play, came after critics declared it an instant classic. “Absorbing, soulful, and ultimately shattering,” wrote one. “The last few moments will knock the wind out of you.” Audiences agreed: The Ferryman’s year-long West End run made it the most successful new drama of the century so far.
Its secret, perhaps, is that it’s brimming with secrets. Set in a bustling farmhouse in County Armagh, just north of the border that split Ireland in two, The Ferryman takes us into the Carney family fold. Quinn Carney turned his back on the IRA, but when his long-dead brother’s body washes up in a bog, his past threatens to barge back in — and disrupt the unspoken love he shares with his sister-in-law Caitlin while his sickly wife lies bedridden upstairs. Around them, extended family life jostles on: grandparents griping about politics, teenagers testing the waters, children clattering around. The farm’s full of life, but death lies beneath.
The Ferryman’s roots come from real life. Butterworth’s partner, actress Laura Donnelly, who plays Caitlin, lost an uncle to the IRA: one of 19 known as The Disappeared, victims of sectarian violence who seemed to just vanish. When Butterworth accompanied Donnelly to a Disappeared man’s funeral, the playwright was struck by a ceremony suspended in time. “A 16-year-old being buried 42 years after he’d been shot,” he remembers. “His friends were all sat in the front row, in their early sixties with grandchildren running around.”
It haunted him, calling to mind the unburied souls stuck by the Styx in Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid.” The priest’s sermon spoke of disappearance as disrupting death, preventing a proper Catholic burial process. “He couldn’t answer the quest of where this man’s soul had been for the past 42 years,” he says. The past seemed to intrude on the present. Butterworth reaches for a William Faulkner quotation: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
Butterworth has never been a playwright to tackle subjects head-on. Sitting in the disheveled study of his London home, he says he’d never write about The Disappeared directly, and still less about Northern Ireland’s turbulent past. “It seems like a really stupid idea for an English person to do.”
Instead, his plays “attach themselves to something personal.” The Ferryman is more about people than politics: families, regrets, relationships, love. “The whole idea of vanishing had to express something very personal,” he explains. “The excruciating distance between people living in close proximity. It’s set in Northern Ireland, but anyone who knows me would recognize that kitchen. You never choose your ideas. You get caught up in them. It was only when it because an obsession, when I couldn’t breathe without writing it, that I had to do it.
“I don’t write many plays,” Butterworth admits cheerily, a fact he once put down to “laziness and fear,” but now sees positively. “I tend to have an idea and wait, on average, 10 years to write it. If it still strikes me as a good idea, it might still be a good idea 10 years after that.”
Butterworth’s ideas tend to be. The Ferryman is his third consecutive Broadway transfer, following Jerusalem (2011) and The River (2014). Getting to New York “took a long time,” he says, laughing. “I was 40 years old, I’d been doing this 15 years, and I had to watch my friends, like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh, getting plays on here. I really wanted to be doing that.” By the time Jerusalem was nominated for a Tony, he didn’t even know what a Tony was. “I’m not joking: I thought it was a Time Out New York award. It was a bit of a dream. It was the same with The River, and it’s the same now.”
New plays are thriving in London’s West End — a fact Butterworth finds “galvanizing” — but Broadway is a harder, costlier environment. If Butterworth’s plays fly, it’s because they’re so compelling, and The Ferryman is no exception: a taut thriller concealed beneath its expansive surface. And Butterworth can’t bear boring theater. “There should be an amnesty 10 minutes in. Lights up: ‘Has anyone got anything better to do?’” Working as an usher in his twenties, he was “bowled over by how little investment writers put into holding my attention” with story, stakes, and suspense. He swore his writing would hold audiences rapt.
“Why bother to get all these people together to say something important without making it interesting?” he wonders. “I’m fundamentally not interested in just telling a story. There’s no point detaining everyone for something forgettable. It can’t just be a thriller, it can’t just be a yarn, even if it’s a really good one.”
If his plays feel epic, it’s because they’re full of life. Butterworth writes characters like nobody else. Johnny “Rooster” Byron motored Jerusalem, but he was surrounded by eccentrics, misfits, and rebels. The Ferryman is full of distinctive characters and, crucially, almost all of them have gone missing somehow, from the senile Aunt “Maggie” Faraway to the rambling, nostalgic Uncle Pat. “I didn’t do that consciously,” Butterworth insists. “If I did, they’d be stuffed birds. They wouldn’t fly.”
“I’ve never written a character I didn’t like or respect,” he continues. “I won’t set characters up for a fall or put them there as straw men. That’s what makes a play feel like it’s firing on all cylinders, and the reason for doing that — 100 percent — is for the actors. Imagine being set up as an Aunt Sally night after night. How depressing!”
His characters are, quite literally, gifts for their actors. “I’m genuinely in awe of actors and actresses,” he says. “It’s why I don’t write novels — finish a draft, stick it in an envelope, and send it off to be published. It has to be communal: a shared experience. I hope when an actor comes to work on a play of mine, they get to have fun. Because if it’s fun for the actors, it’s fun for the audience. What the actor wants to do is what the audience wants to see.”