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Studies on the contemporary Irish theatre

Jacqueline Genet
Elizabeth Hellegouarc’h

Self-denial and self-assertion in some plays of Thomas kilroy: The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre

Barbara Hayley

Texte intégral

  • 1 At the time of writing (January 1991), The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre has not yet been prod (...)
  • 2 Page references to Talbot's Box are from Thomas Kilroy, Talbot's Box, Dublin, Gallery Press, 1979.
  • 3 Page references to Double Cross are from Thomas Kilroy, Double Cross, London, Faber and Faber, 198 (...)

1Thomas Kilroy has always been preoccupied with the notion of self-denial as the only way in which certain personalities can assert themselves. His latest play, The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre 1, is the most subtle and disturbing of his expressions of this phenomenon, calling upon the resources, illusions and dislocations of Jacobean drama to examine it. Earlier works prepare the ground for it. Talbot’s Box, first performed at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on 13 October 1977, holds such a personality2. Matt Talbot is a martyr; his self-torture, his immolation of self, make him powerful. This working-class mystic chains himself, beats himself, tortures himself. He seems to be leading us to a point at which he will destroy himself on a pyre of religion. Instead of doing so, he builds a structure of faith out of the claustrophobic box of the title. In Double Cross, first produced by Field Day in Derry on 13 February 19863, we see two characters who assert themselves by denying their own identities: Brendan Bracken and William Joyce, one a pro-British, one an anti-British propagandist. Both forsake their Irishness to become more English than the English. In The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre, finished in 1990, we see the ultimate self-denial of the actor who relinquishes his own person for that of the persona whom he is representing.

  • 4 Talbot's Box, p. 11.

2The principal characters in all these plays only exist in the negation of self. Matt Talbot, in Talbot’s Box, only exists, paradoxically, in his self-denial. He has taken the vow of abstinence from alcohol, will not marry, punishes his flesh by wearing chains. His box is his confinement, his retreat from supposedly normal life. It is a vast scaffolding edifice, which dominates the stage, and stagily holds all the properties necessary for the play. “The effect should be that of a primitive enclosed space, part prison, part sanctuary... All the actors, costumes and props required in the play are already within the box4.”

3Talbot’s only self, his only positive quality, lies in the negative act of renouncing that self and its pleasures. He is only perceived as his non-self, which is differently perceived by different people. The points of tension within the play come when Talbot’s self-abnegation collides with the supposedly real world of supposedly real Dublin people. In the strike of 1913, for example, he is seen or interpreted by some as a saint, by others as a scab or strike-breaker. Another paradox suggests itself, however: pain is an assertion of feeling, not an abdication of it, particularly when it is self-inflicted.

4Denial of self, linked with the power of illusion over reality, is at the core of Double Cross. The play shows the cross-over of two Irish characters who betray their own Irish selves, their families and paternity, to become pseudo-British personages. One of these is Brendan Bracken, wit, connoisseur, propagandist, defender of Great Britain in the Second World War in the newspapers which he controlled, and as Minister of Information. The other is William Joyce, who as the broadcaster Lord Haw Haw disseminated anti-British propaganda (“Germany calling, Germany calling”), and was hanged as a traitor in 1946, aged 39. From the British point of view, Bracken was a patriot, Joyce a traitor. The Irish point of view is notable by its absence. Truth is relative, or not there at all. So is self.

5To double-cross is to hoodwink or to bamboozle, an idea that resurfaces in The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre when another “travelling show by the name of Bam-bam-boozulum” is mentioned. In this splendidly dramatic drama, this theatrical theatre, everyone denies his or her real self. All are actors, not merely the members of the depleted English theatre company stranded petrolless, again during the second world war, in a provincial Irish town. The provincial natives too are play-actors. The plots in the play all have to do with illusion. Two teenage girls, Jo and Marie Therese, spin dreams and fantasise about bomber pilots: Jo, the plain one, realises her fantasy, without quite realising what she is doing, when she makes love with Rabe, one of the travelling actors. Marie Therese lives only in her own romantic dreams and cannot believe that her friend has had an affair. A child is missing, first stolen by Jo and then disappearing from the shed she has hidden her in. A greyhound is disguised for reasons of skulduggery. The travelling theatre itself has its own plot: the survival of the troupe, minus half its actors, the attempt to continue to perform. Its members have their own dramas, quarrels, affairs and illusions.

6But within or behind these plots are further levels of unreality, and we are constantly, disturbingly, forced to look at them. Illusion supersedes reality, and we are made to examine the nature of both. We can cope, we think, with the disintegration of illusion; what is harder to accommodate is the disintegration of reality. Theatre itself is used as the enabling metaphor, and in a simple yet powerful device, Kilroy finds a physical embodiment of this metaphor, the travelling theatre itself. It is a van, whose sides can open or close both ways, towards or away from us as audience. At times, if the far side is closed, we are the only audience of the action. At other times, both sides are open. We are backstage, behind the actors, as when they perform a “Hibernian melodrama” about Robert Emmett, the Irish patriot, and his beloved, Sarah Curran. Madame MacAdam has put together “a special repertoire of Celtic plays”.

7When the van-theatre arrives, it obviously suggests the introduction of illusion into the real life of a small town. But Kilroy’s levels of reality and unreality are more subtle than that. The van in which the travelling players travel is also that in which they play their parts. When we are behind them, backstage, looking out through them to their shouting, heckling audience, we are with them. When we are in front of them, we are their audience, looking at them as players; they address us directly or aside sometimes, as in the scene when Jo and Rabe make love, naked, we are voyeurs through the stage-front side of the van. And at that moment, when illusion in the physical form of Rabe the actor penetrates reality in the body of “reallife” Jo, the Local Defence Force arrives at the other side of the van, looking in as hostile viewers from the opposite side to us. Like many other people in this town, members of the Local Defence Force only asume reality, or power, when they don their uniforms. What makes this scene particularly sinister is that when they look in their uniforms have changed into Nazi ones.

8So many of the characters playact by stepping out of their own or usual selves that we question the whole nature of representation, particularly theatrical representation. As in Jacobean drama, our consciousness of theatricality, imposed on us by the playwright, forces us to question not just representation but reality. The self-abnegation required of the artist, that is, the performer, in acting the part of another, makes us ask questions about the assertions of the artist, the creator.

  • 5 The Revenger's Tragedy, V, iii, 45-52.
  • 6 The White Devil, II, ii, 23-39.

9In Jacobean drama, disguises, dumb shows, plays-within-plays, serve several purposes. They can project the coming event; they can give the audience a double distance from the action, or conversely make it feel closer to the characters who enclose and look in on the play-within-the-play. They may make us feel we know more than those characters if we have been told of the ruse beforehand; more likely they make us feel unsure, by blurring the lines between reality and illusion. This happens most powerfully when the dumbshow intersects with reality, the play within the play spills over into the outer action, as in Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy or Webster’s The White Devil. In The Revenger’s Tragedy5, a Mask of Revengers including Vindice the Revenger, dance. “At the end, steal out their swords, and...kill the four at the table, in their chairs. Enter the other Mask of intended murderers, .... dancing”. They hear a weak groan and, “turning towards the table, they find them all to be murdered”. Mask has spilt over into reality, or rather, reality has encroached upon the illusion. In The White Devil6, the first dumb show lets us see two characters paint the lips of Brachiano’s portrait with poison, and Isabella kiss it and die; the second, a particularly grisly vaulting-horse murder. These are conjured up by the conjuror, but have apparently happened, and are savoured by Brachiano as true. The theatre audience becomes confused – or rather, is wilfully con-fused by the playwright. Are we audience, court, spectators? What is really happening? We are certainly conscious of theatre itself, which is constantly adverted to. As Vindice remarks after murdering successfully in the Mask, “When thunder claps, Heaven likes the tragedy”.

10In the Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre, Kilroy manipulates us into such a consciousness. The restricted yet potentially unlimited stage space of the van, whether closed or open, signifies the closed theatrical world within, as opposed to the supposedly real world outside. We are forced to question the distinction between those worlds, and as it lurches away at the end of the play, pushed and grinding its gears, it moves off to an intersection with another real world. Just as Jo suspects that another fantasy group will arrive in her world. The physical lover Rabe, who shows her sex very different from that of romantic fiction, is now no more real to her than the bomber pilots she and Marie Therese fantasised over. This is not “true love”. When Marie Therese cries after the actors have left, “they have to come back. God, we’re going to be stuck in this hole of a place for the rest of our lives with the whole world passing by, beyond”, Jo can reply, “They’ll be different next time. A different crowd of actors will come back. Maybe next year”.

11As with Jacobean drama, we are never allowed to forget that we are in the theatre. Madame MacAdam propounds theatrical dogma at every breath, commenting on the “real action” in theatrical terms. Acting has to do with acting on stage, but more subversively with acting off stage. Madame explains to Jo that Rabe may have been acting a great part and believing every moment of it, that he looks on life as just a larger stage with a larger audience. For her, “We must never confuse theatre and everyday life... What is proper in one is inappropriate in the other”. But in fact everyone does confuse the two, and the illusionism of one world infects the other.

12The greyhound plot is the most illusionist of all; a greyhound has to be disguised; one of the actors has also to be disguised to dupe a gullible public. With the basic ingredients of “axle-grace and black-lead”, even a dog can be made to impersonate another. “Here’s how... All we’ve got to do is get one of these actor fellas here to come to the track with us. Pretending to be an English buyer, y’see, over from Wembley. She wins, he buys. Once the race is over he goes back to his acting with the disguise removed. The bitch goes back to me own yard, with the colour gone as an unregistered sapling... Everyone will think Dixie’s gone over the water like many a one before her.” All the actor has to do is “put on a crombie and one of them posh accents”. It should be said that this is a very funny play: the actor eventually turns up in a velour gangster hat and a long flowing black coat which he twirls – “Dog people are absolutely marvellous dressers”.

13Acting has to do with dressing up, and the changes made by costume. Madame MacAdam appears within the first few minutes in, successively, a cloak, a shining green costume and a tiara, as a maid, an announcer, a piano player. Much of the townspeople’s hostility towards the actors focuses on their dressing-up: “Infiltrators! ... Paint and powder, mincy-mancy, shaping and dressing and stripping and putting on the act.” When the actors finally leave, the townspeople steal their costumes. “Where will they be now without their gee-gaws? Naked fuckers. Stripped.” The actors will in a sense be nothing without them, though in fact the townspeople will be nothing with them: they lack the actor’s craft to make use of them, and abandon them. Their chief complaint about the actors has to do with theatrical illusion. They are alien: “What goes on up on that stage and what goes on down here is different things entirely.”

14But we do not agree. Everyone from the baker to the Garda sergeant is playing a role. Jo is the only character who seems to draw somewhere near to reality, but her sexual encounter is an intersection with unreality. Who is Rabe? What is he playing, or playing at? He runs off at the end with Sally, an actress – or do they go together? Truth, whatever truth there is in his encounter with Jo, is not believed. Madame MacAdam explains why: “I’m afraid no one believes you, my dear. It is quite extraordinary how one is so seldom believed when one speaks the truth. On the other hand people have an endless capacity to accept the most outrageous fabrications”. Jo herself does not believe in this encounter either, wondering if it is make-believe; she thinks it is “like being in the pictures”, and that “If they were to open up the curtain there now we could perform for all and sundry”.

15Madame MacAdam herself is the front woman for the theatre in all senses, announcing, bargaining, hustling, gathering her troupe around her, explaining the nature of theatre and indeed the nature of reality. She sees theatre everywhere about her. She analyses theatrical talent, human emotions, and the lack of both. She believes in the glorious miracle of theatre, but also that it is “built upon patience with what actually exists. Not some cloud-cuckoo-land”.

16Our awareness of theatre is forced on us audially and visually. Each of the scenes (three in Part One, three in Part Two), is heralded by back projection and music, a theatrical forerunner of the action. “Music/Projection: Curtain up! An investigation begins. And the Art of acting is explained” or “Music/Projection: The lovers are apprehended! The death of Hamlet. The River is dragged and a Messenger arrives”.

17We are kept aware of the mechanics of theatre, its ruses, its improvisations. The death of Hamlet has to be an abbreviated version since so many players have gone; it is eventually attenuated to a Hamlet for one voice, an interesting development for Kilroy, who is greatly drawn to Hamlet. The dog-race and subsequent chase are played as in a silent film, with cinematic music and a racing commentator’s voice-over. All of these techniques are audience-pullers.

  • 7 Talbot's Box, p. 7.

18But audience demands performance, manipulates as well as being manipulated. In the notes to Talbot’s Box , Kilroy makes clear that the different interpretations of Talbot are due not to manipulation by the character himself. In his “Author’s Note7” he states: I was also interested in the way individuals of exceptional personality invite manipulation and the projection of the needs of others... In the beginning I was possessed by the crude manipulation of an eccentric, inaccessible man by forces which sought a model for the purpose of retaining power over people”. In Double Cross, Joyce states that “to be effective, propaganda has to be confirmation at some level, of people’s desires”. The role of the artist, the creator, the orator, the media, in projecting those desires is common to all three plays.

  • 8 Double Cross, p. 54.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 45.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 42.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 44.

19The creation of person by perceiver is also put forward in Double Cross. “Each morning each person seemed to have a different story of what Lord Haw Haw had said the night before... Two people in the same room before the same wireless would report two different versions of what had been heard8.” Bracken too is an invention, of himself and of others. The voice of Joyce, despite the fact that Bracken has switched off the wireless which has been broadcasting it, continues to goad him: “I’ve watched you, Bracken, I’ve watched you for years.... What a card! You’re a clown, Bracken. They know it. They know you’re just a performer. They like to see you perform, don’t you know that? It satisfies their taste in comedy as a scale, a measurement, politics as entertainment, entertainment as circus. The more clownish Irish have always been willing to step into that ring. And you’re the perfect clown because you believe that life is a matter of taste. That makes you entirely innocuous. They know that, Bracken, they know you do not matter9.” The person as empty canvas to be filled by the beholder is a matter in Bracken as much as in Talbot of the denial of self. Bracken has abandoned his Irish self, which is only betrayed by a curious shift of his psyche when he is on the Admiralty roof. Up to the time of an explosion, Bracken has been pontificating to the Air Raid Warden: “Family traditions are terribly important, Warden10.” After the bomb, he disintegrates into Irishness: “My father who is, my father was – (Low, strong Tipperary accent) Me father was wan of the lads, so he was, wan of the hillside men.... Come here, Peter, me son. Come here a minnit, me little man. You’ll stand up for Ireland, won’t you, boy, when you grow up not like that brother of yours in the corner, Brendan – Brendy, the little scut, Mammy’s pet, always whinging and bawling, four-eyes.” That, however, is not the father he wants: “Winston [Churchill] has always been like a father to me11.”

  • 12 Ibid., p. 53.

20To Lyle, one of Madame MacAdam’s players, the actor is the ultimate self-denial: nothing. “We actors are the creation of our audiences. They create us nightly. We exist only in their imaginations. When they walk out of the theatre we cease to exist. We become non-entities once more.” This creates an underlying sense of danger in theatre, because it leads to what Joyce calls in Double Cross “The release of the most potent subversion of all: the imagination of the people12.” Rabe feels that the danger can be defused; he speaks of “a theatre which can hold – danger.... where danger can detonate upon a stage. You see, I believe if theatre can do that, there will be less – danger left in the world. Our only hope is that art can transform the human animal”. He has got the idea from Madame MacAdam – “She makes it sound as if theatre could heal everything, make it whole again. Well, where is it, then? This great fucking theatre of transformation?” But to Madame herself, there is only “the frail salvation of the final curtain. What else is there? ”

21We are compelled, in all three plays, to doubt that theatre resolves the danger. The theory of invention of person, player or political situation by the public to suit its own desires is a disturbing one. The theatrical illusionist view of politics is spelt out in Double Cross:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 54.

Actress: If William Joyce were re-inventing England, England was also re-inventing William Joyce.
Actor: This is what is known as the Principle of Circularity.
Actress: Other students of the Imagination refer to it as the Double Cross effect.
Actor: It is endemic in situations of conflict between nations.
Actress: It frequently breaks out between writers and their readers13.

22In Double Cross, “Every man has his secret desire to betray. It is intimately related to his desire for freedom. We need the key to unlock it”. It is hard to avoid thinking that the invention of race, nationality or person overrides the true being, and more dangerously the truth itself.

23The dimension of self-assertion and self-denial which cannot be ignored in these three plays is the Irish one. Levels of Irishness vary. In Talbot’s Box, the apparently real Dublin, the apparently real historical personages, are illusions. Matt Talbot is apparently a man, but he is really a myth, used and manipulated: a sort of vacuum into which any party can project its own version of truth or untruth. In Double Cross, by denying their nationality, the two protagonists become mere vehicles for British or anti-British propaganda. Having judged their Irishness to be vulgar, demeaning, worthless or limiting, they become nothing. Self-respect is part of self-assertion; neither possesses it. In The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre we see a bleaker message about the Irish self. The Robert Emmett playlet is about betrayal. Madame thinks that “The Irish are immune to reality, insulated against any outside incursion,” and later asks “How can you perform theatre before a population of performers?” The myth of the Irish as perceived by the English is perpetuated, but the myth of the Irish as seen by the Irish is no more positive or honourable. Self-respect is part of self-assertion; Kilroy paints a sad picture of a land of self-denial. In showing the infiltration of this Irish setting by an English travelling theatre, he exposes not just the actors but the natives. Any fusion between them is momentary and illusory. The actors seem to be grafting off the audience, offering them faulty goods, cheap plays, truncated masterpieces, tat. Beads to the natives. But the natives use the visitors for what they can get – sex, greyhound money, entertainment, excuses. Both sides are predators. Both are pathetic. Both are role-playing. But then, in Kilroy’s theatre of the mind, aren’t we all?


1 At the time of writing (January 1991), The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre has not yet been produced or published. Thomas Kilroy has very kindly allowed me to see an early draft (October 1990), so that no precise references are possible, and the quotations I use may differ from the final printed version.

2 Page references to Talbot's Box are from Thomas Kilroy, Talbot's Box, Dublin, Gallery Press, 1979.

3 Page references to Double Cross are from Thomas Kilroy, Double Cross, London, Faber and Faber, 1986.

4 Talbot's Box, p. 11.

5 The Revenger's Tragedy, V, iii, 45-52.

6 The White Devil, II, ii, 23-39.

7 Talbot's Box, p. 7.

8 Double Cross, p. 54.

9 Ibid., p. 45.

10 Ibid., p. 42.

11 Ibid., p. 44.

12 Ibid., p. 53.

13 Ibid., p. 54.


Maynooth, St. Patrick’s College

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1991

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