Ireland on Stage
Beckett and After
Table Of Contents
- Title Page
- 1 ‘Close to Home but Distant’: Irish Drama in the 1990s
- 2 desperate optimists’ Time-Bomb:Hard Wired/Tender Bodies
- 3 Staging Bankruptcy of Male Sexual Fantasy:Lolita at the National Theatre
- 4 Taking a Position:Beckett, Mary Manning, and Eleutheria (1947)
- 5 Beyond the Mask:Frank McGuinness and Oscar Wilde
- 6 Turning a Square Wheel:Yeats, Joyce and Beckett’s Quad
- 7 Multiple Monologues as a Narrative:From Beckett to McPherson
- 8 Frank McGuinness:Plays of Survival and Identity
- 9 ‘The Saga will Go on’:Story as History in Bailegangaire
- 10 Dancing at Lughnasa:Between First and Third World
Ireland on Stage: Beckett and After, a collection of ten essays on contemporary Irish theatre, focuses primarily on Irish playwrights and their works, both in text and on stage, in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is symbolic that most of the editorial work for this book was carried out in 2006, the centenary year of the birth of Samuel Beckett. The central figure for the book is certainly Beckett, a colossus of a writer whose Waiting for Godot should be familiar even to non-academics with little prior knowledge of Irish drama. While the editors consider Beckett to be the most important of all playwrights in post-1950 Irish theatre, it should be noted that the contributors to the book are not bound in any sense by Beckettian criticism of any kind. The contributors freely draw on Beckett and his work: some examine Beckett’s plays in detail, while others, for whom Beckett remains an indispensable springboard to their discussions, pay closer attention to his or their own contemporaries, ranging from Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness to Marina Carr and Conor McPherson.
Our editorial policy is also flexible enough to allow contributors to go as far back as a hundred years in their attempt to contextualise post-1950 Irish theatre. The works of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Bernard Shaw, Seán O’Casey, and James Joyce are frequently mentioned throughout the book; this no doubt adds to the dynamics as well as the rigour which the editors believe will be apparent in the collection as a whole. It was intended that all essays in the collection should be written in such a manner that they would attract a wide range of readership. While some contributors may turn to contemporary literary theory, including, for example, post-colonialism or trauma theory, in presenting their thoughts and ideas, the editors have attempted to ensure that none of the essays is dominated by theoretical jargon.
Three essays that constitute Part One, entitled ‘Performing Ireland Now,’ are an introduction to the ‘performing’ aspect of contemporary ←1 | 2→Irish theatre. Anthony Roche’s essay looks at the works of arguably four of the most talented playwrights in the English-speaking world today, namely, Sebastian Barry, Marina Carr, Conor McPherson, and Martin McDonagh. Essays by Cathy Leeney and Futoshi Sakauchi address the problem of theatre companies putting adapted modern classics on the stage; Cathy Leeney focuses on a ‘desperate optimists’ production of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, while Futoshi Sakauchi discusses the Michael West adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, performed by the Corn Exchange.
In Part Two, ‘Excavating Recondite Inter-Textuality’, three contributors explore opportunities for a synchronic exchange between texts in question. First, Christopher Murray proposes that Eleutheria, Beckett’s first play, is in fact a version of the tragicomedy Youth’s the Season …?, which was written by Mary Manning, a friend of Beckett’s. Noreen Doody in her essay discusses the mask, which she sees as a key to her juxtaposing the works of McGuinness with those of Wilde. Finally, Minako Okamuro demonstrates that Beckett's Quad is an attempt to combine Joyce’s ‘cyclewheeling’ cosmology and Yeats’s ‘gyres’. Two essays in ‘New Aesthetics in Irish Theatre’, Part Three of the book, discuss the problems of monologue, memory, and space from a practical-analytical point of view. Naoko Yagi turns to multiple monologues in the works of Beckett, Friel, and McPherson, while Joseph Long concentrates on two of McGuinness’s plays, Carthaginians and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, analysing them according to a critical method proposed by dramatist Armand Gatti. Part Four, ‘Re-Staging Irish Past/Present and Inbetween,’ has two essays, in which the contributors take up two of the leading playwrights in late-twentieth-century Ireland, namely, Tom Murphy and Brian Friel, focusing on their epoch-making plays. Hiroko Mikami’s essay focuses on Murphy’s Bailegangaire and examines the mechanism of memory in the context of family history, while Declan Kiberd reassesses rural Ireland past and present, drawing the reader’s attention to the chronological aspect of Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.
Contributors to the book are categorized into two groups by their origins: some from Waseda University, Japan, and others from University College Dublin, Ireland. Waseda and UCD have enjoyed a good, longstanding relationship, especially in the field of Irish writing in English. Each contributor from Waseda has received remarkable benefits through the exchange in one way or another: some spent sabbatical leave at UCD and enjoyed a fruitful year there; some studied at the Belfield Campus and received a PhD; another PhD thesis written by a Waseda contributor was externally examined by a UCD contributor; one, who had started her career as a scholar of Pinter, has been dragged into the field of Irish theatre; and all of them ←2 | 3→fully enjoyed the academic stimuli given at the lectures by the UCD contributors whenever they visited Japan. (The ones who have not yet visited Waseda will certainly follow the lead of their colleagues in the very near future.) This book is, in a way, an interim report of over twenty years of this happy, fruitful exchange, which will certainly continue in the future.
We would like to express our thanks to Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for awarding us Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research in 2003 (No. 15320040, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research B), which enabled us to conduct the research and hold seminars in Dublin in 2005, which eventually resulted in the book itself. For their support of Carysfort Press, our thanks are due to the 21st Century Centre of Excellence Programme “Development of Research and Study Methodologies in Theatre” at Institute for Theatre Research. The institute is based at Tubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University.
November 2006, Tokyo
1 | ‘Close to Home but Distant’: Irish Drama in the 1990s
In 1994 I published a book-length study entitled Contemporary Irish Drama: From Beckett to McGuinness. During the five years I was working on the book, and in the five years following its publication, a number of exciting new names came to the fore whose work in that decade I wish to consider in this article: Sebastian Barry, Marina Carr, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. If there is one concern that these four very different playwrights share, I think it would be that their people are damaged or hurt in some kind of profound way, whether this condition is presented with the lyrical tenderness of Sebastian Barry or the bleak comedy of Martin McDonagh. Further, the source of this internal wounding is not directly given in the play, nor is it dealt with in terms of a conventional conflict. Rather their characters are given the space in which to tell their story, to articulate their sense of pain, injury, betrayal or loneliness, even if the plays themselves offer no conventional resolution or panacea; the drama, however varied, is in the articulation. The 1990s is also the decade which brought to a century and hence to a centenary the experimental Irish theatre first set in motion by Yeats, Lady Gregory, and others; and so I would like at least to keep in mind what continuing relevance these early works might have in and for the Irish present, what (if anything) a playwright like Synge might offer to the young tigers of the 1990s.
The most important of living Irish playwrights is Brian Friel and that claim was further consolidated in this decade by the success of Dancing at Lughnasa. More than one critic dates the foundation of contemporary Irish drama from 28 September, 1964, the premiere of Friel’s first significant play, Philadelphia, Here I Come! Another important date would be 1980, where Friel’s play Translations seized ←5 | 6→Irish public imagination and inaugurated the Field Day Theatre Company; it influenced the Company’s decision to premiere a play annually at Derry’s Guild Hall and then tour it throughout both Irelands. But in the shadow of that public achievement was Friel’s 1979 Faith Healer, a stark existential drama whose influence is subsequently to be found in the work of younger Irish playwrights like Frank McGuinness and Conor McPherson. A third key date in Friel’s career and in assessing his contribution was 1990, when Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at the Abbey. The play went on to lengthy runs in London and New York, and was awarded the Tony Award for Best New Play in 1992. Friel continued to be active throughout the decade, producing three original plays as well as several adaptations. The disappointment expressed towards Wonderful Tennessee (1993), in particular, created a critical ebb after the high tide of Lughnasa. But Friel as a playwright has never been afraid to risk failure, and the continuing theatrical quest of plays like Molly Sweeney (1994) and Give Me Your Answer, Do (1997) are the best evidence of the restlessness, originality and tenacity of his theatrical imagination.
Friel is unusual among senior Irish playwrights in his continued level of theatrical productivity. Tom Murphy, the other major figure of the senior generation of living playwrights, largely fell silent in the 1990s. Murphy’s works had been central to dramatizing the turbulence of the three previous decades in the Republic of Ireland, in particular the challenge to various social and religious certainties posed by individual questioning. What had become evident to me while writing Contemporary Irish Drama was that the revolution initiated by those playwrights who first came to prominence in the late 1950s was coming to an end. Those who were most adept at dramatizing the conflict between the traditional and the modern in Irish society turned increasingly from the stage to the writing of novels. In 1994, Tom Murphy published his first novel, The Seduction of Morality, a story of a New York prostitute returning to her home town in the west of Ireland for a settling of accounts with her gold-digging family; Murphy subsequently mined this material for his 1997 play, The Wake. John B. Keane lived long enough to see early dramatic successes like Sive (1959) and The Field (1965) staged in the 1980s by the Abbey Theatre which once rejected them. This did not inspire him to write a new play; instead, he penned a number of novels. Hugh Leonard has announced his retirement from the Irish stage more than once; but the occasional play like Chamber Music (1994) could not match the succession of satiric commentaries on the developing Ireland which he wrote for the stage during the 1960s and the 1970s. The exception, as I noted above, has been Brian Friel; but one other figure should be mentioned. Thomas Kilroy has only managed a couple of plays a decade, but each of them has been a theatrically challenging ←6 | 7→exploration of various forms of social prejudice and inhibition; and the 1997 staging of his play, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, at the Abbey was an important occasion. I would direct the interested reader to the chapter on Kilroy’s plays in my book.1
The other major playwright is Frank McGuinness, who had produced the single most important Irish play of the previous decade, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985). This judgement was confirmed when the play was staged again by Patrick Mason at the Abbey Theatre in 1995 during the first Northern Ireland ceasefire. McGuinness’s play proved even more timely in 1995 in urging its audience to look closely at and take seriously the multiple and conflicting allegiances of eight Northern Protestants of the 6,000 men of the 36th Ulster Division slaughtered at the Battle of Somme on 1 July 1916. In so doing, McGuinness not only confronted what he termed his own ‘bigotry’2 but raised unsettling questions about the extent to which Catholic Nationalism has appropriated the concept of ‘Irishness’ in this century. But McGuinness’s continuing achievement, in plays like Carthaginians (1987) and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (1992), was sufficiently apparent as I planned and worked on the book for him to share its subtitle with Samuel Beckett. It’s on the four most significant playwrights who have emerged since that I now wish to concentrate.
The Irish playwright of the 1990s who has most foregrounded figures whose lives do not fit into the accepted grand narrative of Irish history is Sebastian Barry. He first came to critical notice with the staging at Dublin’s Peacock Theatre of his first two plays, Boss Grady’s Boys (1988) and Prayers of Sherkin (1990). But it was with The Steward of Christendom (1995) that Barry broke out of his loyal cult following and attracted a worldwide audience. It is on that play I would like to concentrate as a means of analysing the distinctiveness of his contribution.
In Sebastian Barry’s play areas of Irish history that had been passed over and in some way denied articulation are brought to light. The plays confer dramatic life on members of his own family about whom little was said because they had in some way transgressed the taboos of Catholic Nationalist Ireland and so were consigned to oblivion. Fanny Hawke ends Prayers of Sherkin by leaving the island community of Quakers forever, sailing to the mainland and entering into a mixed marriage. The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (1995) displays Lizzie as a dancer on an English music-hall stage. In The Steward of Christendom Irishman Thomas Dunne sees himself as a loyal servant of Queen Victoria while his dead son has served as a British soldier at the Front in the First World War. Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster made the historical point that, in the narrative structuring of Irish history, 1916 belongs to those ←7 | 8→who occupied Dublin’s General Post Office rather than those who fought at the Somme. McGuinness’s play presents the latter as another blood sacrifice to set beside the Easter Rising. But what his play leaves untouched is the fact that not only Northern Irish Protestants but Southern Irish Catholics were to be found at the Front, following the constitutional nationalist John Redmond’s political counsel, and in greater numbers than occupied the GPO. Sean O’Casey tried to represent this historical reality in his 1929 play, The Silver Tassie, and got himself rejected by the Abbey Theatre for his pains. And this is the point at which I would like to enter Sebastian Barry’s Steward of Christendom. For Thomas Dunne has lost his beloved son, Willie, in the trenches and has only two mementoes, the uniform and his son’s letter home. As he tells another character when he shyly opens and reads it to him, ‘it’s an historical document.’3
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- Publication date
- 2020 (April)
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. X, 198 pp.