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Studies on the contemporary Irish theatre

Jacqueline Genet
Elizabeth Hellegouarc’h

An Irishman’s Theatre

Frank McGuinness

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1Legend has it that George Farquhar fought at the Siege of Derry, on the winning side. It is a pleasing irony to imagine the father of Irish theatre, Farquhar, there at the historical event which now can be dated as the radical unmaking of the Irish character. The Gaelic, Catholic tenacity to remain in and lay claim to the territory of Ireland finds its patriotic match in the Loyalist, Protestant determination to protect its holy city, to survive in its threatened province. The two tribes began to find their parallels in each other. Such political blasphemy still needs to be whispered, lest the shock of recognition spoil the security of difference. Farquhar did his best to perpetuate enmity. With the complex exception of his first play, Love and a Bottle, Irish characters romp through his theatre as Papist deceivers, skilled perfectly in only one art, that of treachery. A sense of betrayal has frequently surfaced in the work of the Irish Protestant imagination, from the comic Jesuit villain of The Beaux Stratagem down to the profound sorrow of O’Casey when the “old Orange Bitch”, Bessie Burgess, dies at the end of The Plough and the Stars, trying to protect her mad Catholic neighbour, Nora Clitheroe. Her individual loss is O’Casey’s prophetic warning cry that a whole class will soon be lost, the Protestant working class of Dublin. This cry of pain coming from a dying community is O’Casey’s re-echoing keen first heard in Synge’s lament for Aran in Riders to the Sea. It is as if in its most dangerous position in the newly developing Republic, the Protestant mind confronts a tragic destiny, an apocalypse, a silence, triumphantly overcome in the supreme perversity of Beckett’s achievement. It is a long journey from Farquhar’s birthplace of Stranodar in County Donegal to Beckett’s death in Paris, but that is the way of the world for the imagination that finds its path through exile to its peace in other places of exiles, the latter being those of its own creation. Roebuck, the hero of Love and a Bottle, roams through the foreign city of London, breaking windows. May who walks through Footfalls encloses herself in a world without windows. The roaring boy and the remembering women share more than the status of being outsiders. They need to state the case that they are alive. Theirs is a voice that records, that protests against silence, against loss. Salvation lies in speech, be it shout or whisper. The pounding feet of Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer lead to the precise steps of Beckett’s lonely woman, yet in both there is a militancy, a rising above defeat. We have been, we are, we will be, that is the essence of Irish theatre, as it has been conceived, nurtured and asserted by the Protestant imagination.

2That is our inheritance. That is the tradition that lies behind, shaping, challenging, threatening the achievement of all of Irish drama over its past highly productive thirty years. Friel plotted his complicated fictions in Donegal. Murphy dissected the wild strategies of the West of Ireland. Leonard subtly, slyly, gave passionate analysis to the morality of Dublin’s suburbs. In Kerry J.B. Keane counted the terrible costs of repression. Kilroy squared the circles of our spiritual paradoxes, and in the Midlands of Ireland Eugene McCabe laid bare the pain of age loving youth to barren ends. This geographic sweep is deliberately emphasised. Through these decades it is as if an entire country found its voices with terrific diversity. The curse on our creativity that followed the Abbey’s rejection of The Silver Tassie was spectacularly, overwhelmingly lifted. And each of these writers shared only one common characteristic. They each came from the Catholic tribe. So can their continuing achievement be termed the creation of an Irish Catholic tradition? An Irish Catholic theatre? Did they continue the war of difference? Is theirs a sectarian art? To speak, as I have done, of an Irish Protestant imagination might be seen to give licence, even legitima-cy, to the term Irish Catholic theatre as an appropriate opposition, but this is not the case. From the foundation of the Irish State there have been systematic efforts to equate the term Irish with one of the tribes, the Catholic majority, in the Republic. To counter such conveniences it is still necessary to assert the validity of the Protestant tradition. Catholicism needs no such assertion. Its power has been so prodigious throughout this century that it goes without saying. And in so far as it is possible we shall let it go without saying, adding only that when power is absolute, without threat, without question, its undermining may come from unexpected sources. Secrets may spill from strange sources, and these playwrights exchanged secrets with their audiences in the way seanachaís swopped stories. Theirs is a communal art, defining that community’s boundaries of privacy, and after defining them, proceeding to defy them. Their plays are testimonies to an Ireland securing its national identity, giving that identity freedom of expression. Their reputation is also secure. And they leave, they ask, one mighty question. Where now?

3It is the duty of every generation to invent their language. Or so we believe. Post-Saussurean linguistics endangers that myth. The language is of course inventing its generation. If Auden is correct, Time may “worship language,” but Time’s worship is conditional on an act of faith in language itself as a shared system of communal meanings onto or into which values are posited. At its most self-referential theatrical discourse tears such definitions asunder. The poetry of Macbeth rips itself open, exposing gaping wounds in the imagination politic, culminating in the crack-up that is the nihilism of the speech commencing, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” The storm in King Lear shakes the theatre to its foundations, exposing to madness the rocks on which the rules of drama are built. The sonnets, those epic miniatures, play their games of “I, you and she,” chronicling their history play of genderic war, not least within the sexuality of the speaking persona. These instances of histrionic despair betray a language that is at a loss as to how to love itself. It is not the divine language of truth revealed, not the language Auden’s time worships. Rather it has lost the run of itself, heading, heedfully, into chaos, for chaos is where theatre thrives, sustained as it is by conflict. Dramatic tradition cannot operate then through a series of peaceful manœuvres. We are not burdened by the anxiety of influence but by its aggression. I have identified Beckett with the generation of Synge and O’Casey, but this is misleading. His roots are in the Literary Renaissance but his rise is contemporary with the later flowering of Irish drama. His death is therefore an appalling event. For us more than a writer has died. It is almost as if a writing has died. He has buried an alphabet with him. We need to learn new letters. That is the first stage in answering the question posed earlier about Irish theatre, where now? I am not, emphatically not, saying we dance on his grave but we must learn to take a few steps away from it. And it is not into a Protestant or Catholic pulpit that we are heading. I once heard the Evangelical preachers of Portrush, County Antrim, roar to the Sabbath revellers of the town that there were no bingo parlours in Hell. Donning evangelical robes of gloom, I dare to suggest that, after Beckett, there is no succour in the abyss. There he has led us, fearlessly. There he has left us. Or has he? It is sometimes forgotten that Beckett excelled as a director of his own plays, and wishing now to survive his theatre, we might well hear from him the most terrifying, necessary advice a director can give to a petrified performer, you got yourself into this, get yourself out of it. But how, how? we scream. The language is inventing its generation, the theatre is writing its authors, the war tearing the world of Europe apart gave its destruction and reduction to Beckett’s imagination and in honoured missionary, no prophet fashion, the playwright saved his audience by naming the tune, the simple, solitary tune of survival, by the side of the road, buried in a barrel, up to our necks in sand. We have been, we are, we will be, that is Beckett’s legacy, and it is something to celebrate. It is this that my own work seeks to affirm. I want to create a theatre celebration. How? How? Having got myself into this, how do I get out of it?

4Where do I go where Beckett didn’t take me? I started out in a factory. The company was girls. I called the play The Factory Girls.

5How does one put a factory on stage? Its work must be communicated instantly. Five women, surrounded by shirts, examine each precisely. They are trained in eye and hand. Sight and touch work mechanically. Sound and speech are the agents of their creative discourse. The play set out to celebrate not only the skills of working women in the North of Ireland but also their verbal facilities, rooted in precise summaries of each other’s characters, trained as these women are in observing specific hierarchies of age, experience and intelligence that contradict the procedures of conventional hierarchies. The most senior may be upstaged by the most junior. And to this hierarchial society the enemy without, i.e. the management and the unions, is so obvious in its threat and its injustice the story to be unfurled lies in the identifying of the enemy within. On the factory floor the trappings of power do not pose a threat. Familiarity with their use dissolves their alienating nature. The fight against the enemy without can only continue here on predictable lines, ending in inevitable stalemate. There must be a shift of locale, from the factory floor into the unknown, secret world of the management office. This office the women occupy, declaring their own unofficial strike. It defies their attempts to familiarize it. Locked inside its four walls, the door barred by their own actions, they unleash demons. The enemy within is identified. It is their fear of each other that outweighs any external fear. There is a challenge, without catharsis. Such formal conclusions have nothing to do with the work of the factory. Fighting as they are for its and their survival, to these women catharsis is a luxury, if not beyond their comprehension, then beyond their means. The Factory Girls continue their fight, against desperate odds.

6I am attracted to those who fight against desperate odds. In this respect I am making no revealing statement. All theatre is ultimately concerned with those fighting desperate odds. Contemporary theatre, however, can surely trace the origin of its sense of anxiety. It emerged at the turn of the century in the theatre of Chekhov. There it is not ennui which afflicts his characters. It is exhaustion. We enter each of his major plays when their protagonists are already near their nerves’ end. Hovering between the power of farce and fate, they move to their destined ends, suppressing panic until the momentous third act. Then all is revealed, to no ultimately discernible purpose. The prayers that end Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters are spoken to an audience that have no reason to believe such words are being heard by anyone other than they themselves.

7Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme ends with a prayer. It is spoken by Kenneth Pyper, a soldier, as he and his fellow soldiers prepare to go over the top and die at the Battle of the Somme. The play outlines the lives of eight Ulstermen from the day of their enlistment to the day they met their end, with the single exception of Pyper. Collectively they are drawn from the four quarters of what is now called the Six Counties; Deny and Coleraine in the north, Tyrone in the west, Fermanagh and Armagh in the south, and Belfast in the east. Their trades include blacksmith, weaver, baker, sportsman, preacher, shipbuilders and sculptor. Their religions are Protestant. They have apparently enlisted with one purpose, to serve King and Country, apart from Pyper, who has enlisted to die. His death wish is thwarted, he learns to love, and he lives. And his last work of art is the sculptured grouping of his fellow soldiers behind him, at their point of death, as he prays. His prayer, the artist’s prayer, goes unanswered, as does that of the Italian artist, Caravaggio, making his confession, longing for forgiveness, in Innocence. In the plays both men court death, both are killers, and both are homosexual. I add the last detail in the light that recent productions of Sons of Ulster censored Pyper’s relationship with Craig, and Renaissance art scholars accept more willingly that Caravaggio was a murderer than that he was gay. Innocence and Sons of Ulster polarise religious experience. In isolation each faith crystalizes its peculiar anxiety, its curse. The King James Bible is the literary source of Sons of Ulster. The play inevitably ends in apocalypse. The Divine Comedy similarly informs Innocence. It ends in a light from which Caravaggio is excluded. Both men, Pyper and Caravaggio, in their perverse ways, are men of deep faith deeply betrayed by that very faith. The Elder Pyper rails against his fate, Caravaggio runs from his. Each survives at terrible cost. Theirs’ are Paradises lost, the prerequisites of keeping their separate faiths. They lead their lives to their appointed ends, isolated desolation.

8In places of desolation, in desert places, anything may happen, nothing may happen. Carthaginians, set in a Derry graveyard, with a pyramid in its midst, asks in its closing speech, “What happened?” To which the answer is, “Everything happened, nothing happened, whatever you want to believe, I suppose.” If Sons of Ulster and Innocence, following Chekhov’s lead, concentrate on a character in a state of exhaustion, at the near end of his tether, Carthaginians deals with individuals who are past exhaustion, who have broken their tether, for each and every one of the seven assembled in this graveyard have invited, desired or tried their separate choice of suicide. The great poet of suicide in the theatre is Ibsen, and while working on Carthaginians I was producing also a version of his Rosmersholm for the National Theatre of Great Britain. The precise, painful arguments of Rosmersholm disguise the passionate necessity to take one’s life if that life can no longer satisfy itself in the mere act of living. “Let us sit and talk” is the recurrent motif in Rosmersholm, making ostensible sense of life, but in fact being a preparation for death, as conversation turns on the details of one’s own destruction. Conversation is the dramatic process of Carthaginians, but here the Ibsenite method is reversed, for this society is populated by those who are not contemplating mutual death but returning from their death. Through their conversations they learn to read correctly the quotation from Czeslaw Milosz that accompanies the printed text, “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.” The key term here is possible. Through their experience in the graveyard, a place of self-recognition, of self-healing, of self-redemption, the memory of wounds is possible only if accompanied by the memory of wounding. They have brought fate upon themselves. Forgiveness can only come from within themselves. Rebecca West and John Rosmer walk into the flooding rush of the mill stream, their fiery chariots of suicide drawn by the white horses haunting Rosmersholm. Maela, Greta, Sarah, Hark, Paul, Dido and Seph wait for a miracle, and find it in the simple fact of the sun rising, breaking through the standing stones of the graveyard. A new day dawns in Derry. Carthage has not been destroyed.

9Ibsen dominated my thinking after Carthaginians ; as I sweated blood over a version of Peer Gynt, I stumbled across a story of two Irish women, Mary and Lizzie Burns, who lived in Manchester with Frederick Engels. Next to nothing was known about them. I chanced, however, upon a questionnaire sent by the child Elanor Marx to Engels, asking about his favourite colour, book, food etc. Some of his answers were inspiring. What did Engels most dislike in a woman? Being stuck up. What was his favourite food? Irish stew. His favourite saying? It was, “Ah, take it aisy.” Thus was Mary Burns conceived, in a line. I initially believed the play would concentrate around five people, Mary, Lizzie, Frederick, and Karl and Jenny Marx. I envisaged the setting as a dinner party. A loud word in my ear from Mary Burns let me know what she thought of dinner parties, and I abandoned that scenario. When she found her time she would tell me. I continued to work on Peer Gynt. Peer is a liar, blaggard, a drunk, violent, then shockingly tender, cracked about women, afraid of men, sorely needing his dead father, crazed with ambition, sick from failure. He was in every respect the kind of man Engels was not. I liked him, Mary Burns didn’t, but we did a deal. No maniage, but maybe a dangerous liaison. Peer travels the earth inside his own head, his history parallelling his country, his continent, feasting on marvels until sick of fantasy, he finds salvation back where he started in the unquestioning love he has been given, the lover-mother substitute, Solveig. His character is his journey, his journey’s round his world. Lizzie Burns declares of her and Mary’s destiny, “They say long ago in this world, there were two women, Mary and Lizzie Burns. Why were they in this world? To wander it. Wander through time, through place, for that was their way, their story. This is the telling of Mary and Lizzie, and the ways they walked through lives together.” The rhetoric of Mary and Lizzie is raw, refusing to be cooked. They appear suddenly, without explanation. They move from the city of women, the Wrens of the Curragh, under the Earth with Mother Ireland, reject her religions, meet their own dead mother and a vision of fair women, lamenting the oncoming Great Famine. Sent by their mother to England, they next encounter an errant young Queen Victoria who forwards their journey to Manchester. In bed together, Marx and Engels dream of girls, and are visited by Mary and Lizzie. They give Engels the image of their dying father. Engels sings of material liberation. A dinner is eaten with Karl and Jenny Marx, where a vengeful Jenny reads from the Communist Manifesto and damning extracts against the Irish from The Condition of the Working Class. Betrayed, Mary and Lizzie sing to Engels of dead love. Women of the Russian labour camps sing of human endurance. Their song breaks Mary’s heart. She dies, meets her dead mother again, and is sent back to life, affirming in the traditional air, My Lagan Love, that “Love is lord of all.” Like Peer’s self-dramatising tales, this is all based on a true story. Pagans, Mary and Lizzie provoke through magic, and in the face of the materialist philosophy of Marx and Engels magic fails them as spectacularly as art did for Caravaggio, as war did for Pyper. Accustomed, unlike their race, to success, the failure of revolution, and their part in that failure, kills them. Their return to life, at the insistence of their mother, is an act of faith in their destination, and the mother tells them that destination is home. Since home is the earth, then earth is their destination, and it is in the earth that they profess their only faith, singing of its and their mutual love. Music controls the action of Mary and Lizzie, and together with Peer Gynt, its artistic source is Mahler’s Song of the Earth. They walk the world. The Bread Man, in the latest play, walks the Sky Road.

10Where is the Sky Road? That is the ultimate question the Bread Man realises he is seeking to answer, as he makes sense of the terrors of his life. His music is oceanic, the omnipresent Atlantic surrounding his home town in Donegal. Following Jane Austen’s advice, the play takes a few families, interrelates them, sets them in a community and constructs for itself a tragedy of manners. This is a highly formalized society, most especially in the physical, emotional, political and spiritual roles dictated as appropriate to men. The Sinner Courtney, the eponymous Bread Man, has failed in all of these roles at the play’s beginning. It is a failure which is dealt with savagely. In a world without mercy and compassion, he is left to his own devices. His recourses to conventional piety for relief are fruitless. Slowly but surely he begins to forget the lexicon of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Rosary, the Act of Contrition, until, linguistically, he is left, stripped of all material status, with nothing but the details of his own life to hold as sacramental grace. He is saved by himself. He brings joy only to himself. He accepts the horrors of his life, and its single, supreme achievement. He has loved a woman and fathered a child. He comes to terms with his own condition as a heterosexual man. A heterosexual man alone, without benefit of popular support or esteem, without licence, without love. The Sinner plays football, he boxes, he adheres to his father’s politics, he provides for wife and child, he is brother, son and father, he is husband and he is haunted by the inheritence his biology has imposed on him. It is one of repression. He has sold his soul to his sexuality, a Faustus who is also his own Mephistopheles, for although he is surrounded by tempters, tormentors, betrayers, the centre of temptation, torment and betrayal is inside himself, since he has led a life until the beginning of the play essentially beyond reproach, and beyond redemption. In the dark night of utter isolation, he goes for his last walk. He remembers his honeymoon touring through Ireland. On the Sky Road, outside Clifden, there in the extreme west of the island, he loved and conceived, and the child was himself. He became a married man. It has taken a lonely, long time to make that realisation. He makes it. He makes himself, for his last prayer is not uttered to a god nor an audience but to himself, and he hears it.

11So a theatre of celebration? Loss, despair, failure, violence, damnation, death and fear of suicide, these are the themes of the theatre I’ve tried to create. Where’s the celebration? That would be telling. I will tell only one thing. It is about the new play. There is a cell in the Middle East. In it three men are held captive, An Englishman, an Irishman and an American, and they give that title to the play. They are waiting for release, for freedom. In my writing I have tried to take Irish theatre to unusual locales. A shirt factory, a battlefield, the streets of Dublin in Baglady, of Rome in Innocence. I’ve tried to put Africa in a Derry graveyard, and wandered through nineteenth century Ireland, England and twentieth century Russia. I’ve sought the Sky Road. Working on versions of Lorca, Ibsen and Chekhov, I’ve attempted to put Northern, Southern and Eastern

12Europe into our theatrical repertoire. And now, a cell in the Middle East. Three men in chains, talking, fighting, singing, joking, crying, hating, loving, living their lives, fearing death, terrified, above all, of war. Why? The playwrights I love bear testimony to the simplest truth. It is that truth I like to create. We have been, we are, we will be. I hope.


Maynooth, St. Patrick’s College

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1991

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