The lonely legacy of GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

John Donne, sixteenth-century poet and cleric, knew a thing or two. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps  his words will: ‘No man is an island’. Sound familiar?

Wise words, you might think. We’d have done well to take heed. So why do we find ourselves, several centuries later, in such a predicament? Modern society is what is commonly described as ‘atomised’. Look this up in a dictionary and this is what we find:

  •  convert (a substance) into very fine particles or droplets
  •  reduce to atoms
  •  break up into small units

You get the idea: it’s loneliness and isolation in all but name. As globalization has increased, the world has consequently become smaller, and individualism has replaced a sense of community. America in the 1930s – the setting of Girl from the North Country – is a prime example of this. In the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, mass unemployment saw workers on the move, drifting west in search of work, in search of somewhere to settle.

Anyone who has read John Steinbeck’s depression-era Of Mice and Men will immediately attach the concept of loneliness to its cast of characters, not least the two main characters, whose lives are a perpetual cycle of moving on. While it may hold true that ‘no man is an island’, the unstable 1930s meant that the world became one big archipelago.

So this is the backdrop of Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, with the musical silhouette provided by a hefty selection of Bob Dylan songs. You’ve probably already worked out that this is a musical for grown-ups – a somewhat serious story, compounded by Dylan’s poetics. Sometimes defined as a jukebox musical, a play with music is probably a more apt description for this tale of rootlessness and disenfranchisement.

The title echoes a Dylan song of the same name, and the identity of the original ‘girl’ of the song’s title is open to speculation: some claim her to be the singer’s former girlfriend, Echo Helstrom; others believe she could be Bonnie Beecher, the activist and actress who, like the songwriter himself, hailed from Minnesota. But this mystique simply feeds into the story’s theme of fragmented lives.

The year is 1934. It is winter – a loaded detail. The place: a run-down boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota. Nick, the proprietor, is facing financial ruin and struggling to keep the wolves from the door – a situation all too common during this period. His wife, Elizabeth, has dementia. Son Gene is a drifter and a drinker. Daughter Marianne is pregnant and unmarried.

And the wanderers who frequent the establishment come and go, each with their own baggage and backstory. Each is fighting their own demons, from incarceration to addition. Their stories are linked yet discrete. All are searching for connection, for a ‘home’. Everyone, in fact, is lost. Everyone is alone, no matter how many people are on stage, no matter what their familial relationships.

Currently touring a host of major Australian cities (it’s just coming to the end of its Melbourne run), Girl from the North Country has pulled in packed houses since its first showing at the West End’s Old Vic in 2017. It clearly has something to say to contemporary audiences; there is something about these tumbleweed characters that shadows our own existence.

Let’s imagine the course of any typical day we may find ourselves scrolling through emails, only a small number of which are from people we actually know or care about. We may spend time on crowded public transport, in the midst of strangers replete with earphones, mobile phone in hand. We might pick up a takeaway coffee somewhere and exchange superficial pleasantries with the barista. Then we get to work, where we enjoy friendly relationships with colleagues – but, for the most part, they are simply that: colleagues, not friends. And this type of day doesn’t even cover those who might go home alone at the end of the day and pass an evening with only a screen of some description for company. This is social atomization in action – and often we are so busy we don’t even realise it’s happening. Too many of us are the islands that John Donne warned us about.

The pandemic only compounded the sense of an ever-shrinking world. It emphasised our disconnectedness – in terms of human, if not digital, contact. This is a global phenomenon, from which Australia is not exempt. At any given time, one in four Australians experience loneliness. And 30 per cent of young people don’t feel part of a group of friends, according to Psychology Week. It is common knowledge that social atomization – or loneliness, or however we choose to describe it – can have significant ramifications in terms of both mental
and physical health.

Yet we still don’t acknowledge that ‘no man is an island’. The very real pandemic of loneliness, as highlighted in Girl from the North Country, has seemingly taught us nothing. Like the tragic characters in a Eugene O’Neill play, we hurtle on regardless – because the solution is unclear.

Ultimately, whatever Bob Dylan may have insisted in song – and despite the passage of time and the natural course of evolution – times are definitely not a-changing.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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