Gabriel Byrne Reflects on the End of His Broadway Show, and Tells T a Joke
Gabriel Byrne is well aware he is not a Disney franchise. “I’m just one person, writing about myself,” said Byrne, 72, in a video interview on a recent morning before one of the final performances of his autobiographical one-man Broadway show, “Walking With Ghosts,” which closed more than a month early on Nov. 20. “I understand the reality of the marketplace and at the same time feel profoundly grateful I got here at all.”
Originally slated to run through the end of December at the Music Box Theater, the show closed after just 25 performances and eight previews amid — to put it kindly — ticket sales that were a few zeros away from “Hamilton” or “Lion King” territory. But Byrne, who with his tousled gray hair, serious face and bright blue eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses, cuts a grandfatherly figure — if the grandfather in question were a famous Irish actor with a Golden Globe and a tendency to quote James Joyce — is a good sport about his early eviction notice. “How long a thing lasts isn’t a reflection of its essential worth,” he said. “A relationship that lasts 18 months can contain more within it than relationships that last 10 or 15 years.”
The show, which is based on Byrne’s 2020 memoir of the same name, certainly had its fans, particularly when he performed it to sold-out crowds in Ireland, where he was born and spent the first 11 years of his life, and then in London’s West End earlier this year. While the Broadway run received mixed reviews, the New York Times critic Alexis Soloski praised Byrne’s charisma and stage presence, calling him “compulsively watchable.” “Who wouldn’t want to spend a clinical hour with this man?” she wrote. “Or two, plus intermission.”
Gabriel Byrne in his one-man show, “Walking With Ghosts,” at the Music Box Theater in New York.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Byrne, who last appeared on Broadway in 2016 in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s 1956play “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” is best known for his roles in the HBO show “In Treatment” and the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” Even after the latter became a sleeper hit, opening a new chapter in his career as a leading man — during which he starred in “Stigmata” (1999) and “End of Days” (1999) — he maintained the workmanlike ethos of his journeyman days, gaining a reputation as a fiercely private person reluctant to claim the spotlight.
So it was perhaps surprising that he chose to publish a second memoir. (His first, “Pictures in my Head,” was published in 1994 and covered his childhood in Ireland and the start of his acting career.) The second book, which a Washington Post reviewer wrote “dazzles with unflinching honesty,” similarly focuses on Byrne’s upbringing in a working-class family on the rural outskirts of Dublin and his subsequent journey to Hollywood. But it also travels to darker places, like the period in the early 1960s when the 11-year-old Byrne was sexually abused by a priest at the Catholic seminary school he attended in England.
The biggest challenge in adapting his latest memoir for the stage, he said, was trimming some of its reflective aspects to make space for moments that would be more compelling for a live audience. “If it doesn’t work dramatically — if it’s not propulsive, emotional — you get rid of it,” he said. “You can’t put big lumps of prose onstage.” He opted to perform the play on a nearly bare stage, wearing the same blue shirt, blue vest, blue blazer, gray slacks and black boots throughout and striding from one end to the other between scenes as the house went dark to indicate changes in time and location. “The anti-razzle dazzle allows you to concentrate on what’s being said,” he said.
Growing up, Byrne wanted to be a priest. But after he was sexually abused, he renounced his faith, cycling through jobs as a dishwasher, a plumber and a toilet attendant before joining an amateur acting troupe in Dublin, where he rediscovered his boyhood love of theater.
That led to his TV debut in 1978 in the soap opera “The Riordans,” then to his film debut in the 1981 retelling of the King Arthur legend “Excalibur,” and finally to Hollywood stardom, which brought him into the same circles as luminaries like Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave. But that’s not the part of his life he chose to highlight in either of his memoirs or his stage play, which essentially ignores the latter part of his life and acting career. “What you do is only a very small part of who you are,” he said. “Finding your identity through your work is a limited way of knowing yourself.”
Instead, he said, he wanted to emphasize experiences people could relate to, themes that felt universal — for instance, that of searching for a sense of rootedness as an immigrant living away fromhis homeland (he moved to New York in the mid-1980s to be with his then partner, the actor Ellen Barkin; they divorced in 1999 but he remained in the States). “Every immigrant has a yearning to be at home,” he said. “But you can never be at home anywhere once you leave. You trade one place for another, but you don’t really belong in either.”
Of course, he said, dredging up his memories of abuse or recounting the death of a boyhood friend every night is hardly enjoyable. But it is a willingnessto explore those uncomfortable places, he said, that gives the show its power. “By going there, you’re opening the door for somebody else in the audience to maybe go there, too,” he explained.
That is not to say there weren’t lighthearted moments. Among the dozens of characters from his past that Byrne embodies are friends, teachers, religious figures, family members and even the various actors in the amateur theater troupe he joined (Soloski wrote that the show “allows him to show a playful side and a gift, neglected in Hollywood, for physical comedy”). “You can’t just get up there and start telling serious stories,” Byrne said. “You have to leaven it with a spoonful of sugar.”
Though he is finished with “Walking With Ghosts” — for now — he suggested that a return to the blue blazer and black boots may not be far off. He’s had offers to do the show in other cities — he has his eye on Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, he said — and international plans are in the works. “The producers want it to go to Australia and Canada,” said Byrne, who lives in Rockport, Maine, with his wife, Hannah Beth King, a documentary filmmaker, and their young daughter. (He has two adult children with Barkin.) “We’ll see. I don’t think Sunday night is the end of it.”
In the meantime, he’s working on a new book, his first novel, which will explore themes of immigration and exile. He’s also looking forward to catching up on the movies he hasn’t had time to see and popping in and out of Broadway theaters — now as an audience member. (On his list: The recent revival of “Death of a Salesman.”) “I’ve been living in the world of books and the streets of New York, which is a continuous novel,” he said. “You never stop turning the pages.”