«Mirror up to Nature»

The Fourth Seamus Heaney Lectures

by Patrick Burke (Volume editor)
Conference proceedings VIII, 120 Pages

Table Of Content

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Introduction: ‘The Mirror up to Nature’

Between October, 2006, and June, 2007, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, a college of Dublin City University, sponsored a programme of seven lectures on drama and theatre, under the less than totally imaginative title, The Mirror up to Nature. This is the fourth in the highly successful Seamus Heaney Lecture Series, inaugurated by the College and supported generously by its President, Dr Pauric Travers. They have been held biennially since 2000, each addressing themes of educational, cultural, political or artistic importance in the broad context deriving from the educational and humanities mission of the College. St Patrick’s is most appreciative of the support and interest consistently shown the series by its patron, Seamus Heaney, a dedicated educator, an outstanding poet, and, be it remembered in the context of The Mirror up to Nature, a significant dramatist – The Cure at Troy (1990) and The Burial at Thebes (2004), versions, respectively, of Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Antigone.

The content of the seven lectures is summarized below, while readers’ versions of six of them are reprinted in the present volume. (Professor Ania Loomba, who spoke on drama and politics, had already pledged her contribution to another publisher.) Sadly, one of the planned lectures, to be given by that outstanding teacher, John Devitt, formerly Head of English at Mater Dei College, was overtaken by an illness which was to take him from us in June of 2007.

The first of the lectures, ‘The Magic of Theatre’, given by Patrick Mason, former Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, as well as a world-class director of drama and opera, was a tour de force. Drawing imaginatively on plays such as Hecuba and The Winter’s Tale, their undimmed capacity to speak truth in eras of inadequate ←1 | 2→language such as our own, dominated by what he termed ‘MBA man’, he moved beyond mere discussion of theatre and brought us with him into theatre.

The occasion of the second lecture, ‘The Irish Contribution’ by Thomas Kilroy, was graced by the attendance of Brian Friel, whose father was an alumnus of the College. In characteristically penetrating style, Kilroy grounded his argument on the philosophy of the stage articulated by Yeats, his equal unease with the showiness of post-Restoration English comedy and with the visionary restrictiveness of the work of the emerging catholic nationalists such as Padraic Colum and T.C. Murray. He provocatively related that argument to the more recent work of Eugene O’Brien and Marina Carr.

Professor Ania Loomba, University of Pennsylvania, in the third lecture, spoke on the politics of drama and the drama of politics. From an initial discussion on concepts of race, nation and outsiders in some of Shakepeare’s plays – Othello, Shylock – she moved on to related issues of personal and social identity both in his and later work. An impressive feature of this occasion was the lecturer’s exceptional adeptness in the question-and-answer session.

At the heart of the series, reflecting the centrality of St Patrick’s as a College of Education, was a pair of lectures given by two recognized world authorities in the area of drama in education. In ‘The Mythic and the Mundane: the Transforming Power of Theatre and Process Drama’, Professor Cecily O’Neill, stressing the primacy of imagination in education and the related importance of story and myth, argued clearly as to how they could be illuminatingly addressed through ‘Process Drama’, a form of drama.

Complementing that lecture in many ways was Professor Jonothan Neelands’s contribution, ‘Mirror, dynamo or lens? Children, drama and social change’: with wit and profundity, he deployed the three images in his title (one of which, of course, he was borrowing from the overall series title) to interrogate the potential of drama in terms of photographic realism, as catalyst of social change and as vehicle of self-exploration. And so to the penultimate lecture. For over a century now, a major competitor with theatre for the attention of audiences has been film. In a wide-ranging, well-researched lecture, ‘From Boucicault to Beckett: From Real to Reel (1894-2007)’, Dr Brenna Katz Clarke, Head of English at St Patrick’s, addressed, with characteristic élan, identifying dynamics of both media, supported by well-chosen film clips, ←2 | 3→notably from the marvellous Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Kelly and Donen, 1952), a theme of which is, of course, the pivotal transition from silent to talking movies. Given her expertise in both media, it was gratifying to lovers of the stage to be informed that, if hard choices had to be made, Dr Katz Clarke’s would be for drama!

The final lecture was from Dr John Buckley, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music at St Patrick’s and himself an outstanding composer. What made the occasion so memorable for those who attended was that, in addition to offering an instructive summary history of opera as an art form, Dr Buckley offered a most enlightening account of the genesis of his own opera, The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1991), based on Yeats’s powerful play, from the introduction to which the lecture took its beautiful title, ‘like a bell with many echoes: drama and opera’. The lecturer’s fine discourse was complemented by the artistry of actress Imelda McDonagh, who read to fine effect some of the ‘Stella’ passages from Yeats’s play, and that of soprano Collete McGahon, who, with assured accompaniment by Roy Holmes, sang Buckley’s versions of the same passages. As a bonus, the composer’s librettist, Hugh Maxton, was present. A delightful conclusion to the series.

It would be facile to suggest that what was deliberately constructed as a wide-ranging series – attempting to encompass, within a mere seven lectures, some of the many concerns of writers, theatre directors, classroom teachers, historians, experts in art forms other than drama – might issue in an accessible taxonomy of drama. Nonetheless, certain ‘echoes’ resonate rather more hauntingly than others from the ‘bell’ that was the series. One of those, uniting Patrick Mason, Cecily O’Neill, Jonothan Neelands and perhaps Ania Loomba, was the heuristic potential of drama, its power as a medium to illuminate, with unique honesty, complex considerations in philosophy, history, theology; this may be as valid for a senior infant class as for a cast embarking on Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Another ‘echo’ (in Kilroy, O’Neill, Loomba) had to do with what might be described as ‘renewable tradition’ – the equal importance of preserving and interrogating heritage: as our distinguished guest, Brian Friel, has Hugh, the hedge-school master, phrase it in Translations, while his familiar world is collapsing: ‘we must never cease renewing those images [of the past] ; because once we do, we fossilize.’ Professor Loomba reminded us about the ineluctable interface between a given era’s construction of artistic representations and issues of Realpolitik, ←3 | 4→a perspective shared to a considerable extent by Jonothan Neelands. Hamlet was right on both counts – -‘the play’s the thing’, in terms of autonomous and unique artefact, together with its moral role vis-à-vis ‘the conscience of the king.’

For the successful working of the series, thanks are due to the Series Committee (Dr Noreen Doody, Ms Mary Howard, Dr Marian Lyons, Ms Paula Murphy, Dr Ann O’Reilly, Dr Mary Shine Thompson, Mr Denis Twomey, Dr Alan Titley), all those who chaired lectures, especially distinguished invitees, Dr Cathy Leeney, Drama Centre, UCD, Mr Peter McDermott, DIT, Rathmines, and Professor Nicholas Grene, Chair of English, TCD; Paul Murphy and John Smith, for technological expertise, and to Raymond Topley for his skill with a camera. A special word of thanks to the unfailingly courteous and efficient College Administrator, Ms Roisin Purcell.

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1 |Keeping Faith:

‘It is required. You do awake your faith...’

The Winter’s Tale

Patrick Mason

What’s in a title?

Titles matter. The test of a good title in the commercial theatre used to be to add the proposed name to the phrase ‘Could I have two tickets for…’. If the completed sentence didn’t roll easily – inevitably – off the tongue (‘Two tickets for Cats’; ‘Two tickets for Private Lives’), the received wisdom was that you’d never sell it. Then came Dancing at Lughnasa. And although there were attempts by Broadway producers to re-entitle the play Dancin’ (‘Could I have two tickets for Dancin’?’), all such attempts were, thankfully, thwarted by a determined author. So, despite the desperate variations it inspired at the box office window (‘Two tickets for Lugnasa; or Lugnahasy; and even, on one memorable occasion, two tickets for Lufthansa’), Dancing at Lughnasa went on to break one rule but prove another: titles are signifiers. They are pointers to meaning and theme, keys to hidden connections and symbolic significance. They are also a kindly hint by the author/playwright as to his/her larger purpose: a vain attempt to head off the inevitable misreadings of the work, – wilful or otherwise.

Three titles

This talk, which I am now presenting with some trepidation as a published lecture, has three titles: one public, one semi-public, and one private. Private, that is, until now. The semi-public title was a ←5 | 6→working title supplied by St Patrick’s College when I was first invited to contribute to this series. It was ‘The Glorious Heritage: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Strindberg’. This was followed closely by the public title, or rather the title used to publicize the event itself: ‘The Magic that is Theatre’. The private title, which I am now using for the published account of that event, and which I omitted to reveal on the occasion, is ‘Keeping Faith’. The particular faith I have in mind is that highly ambiguous faith alluded to in the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: the faith that can make a statue come to life.

So what follows is a series of reflections on three aspects of theatre: heritage, magic, and faith. As such, it was conceived as a scripted talk, something to be experienced through performance. It has proved somewhat problematic for me to adapt the energy – the emotional temperature – of that live discourse to the written page: to translate public speech into private reading. But, for better or worse, here is the attempt.

A Scheme of Sorts

Following the theme of heritage, I want to look back to the theatre of Sophocles – the Athenian Theatre and the starting point of the western theatre tradition. Following the Shakespeare/ Strindberg suggestion, I will also take a brief look at Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre and at late 19th-century theatre – social realists, symbolists, dreamers of dream plays, and so on, and leave some time and space left for a few general observations about Irish theatre, the particular branch of European theatre in which I have worked for the last 30 years. With luck, I might even manage a few insights or provocations along the way.

You will notice that I use the ‘T’ word. Tradition. Its replacement by the more anodyne and committee-friendly word ‘heritage’ is, to me, an acknowledgement that it has become a troublesome word: a word freighted with negative associations of the old, the past, the irrelevant. Living, as we do, in such a relentlessly upbeat culture, with such a perverse belief in progress, and such an unthinking bias against age and history, it would appear that ‘tradition’ is a word best avoided. The same could be said about ‘faith’, of course. Another troublesome word. So let’s make double trouble, and use both.

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Some Reflections on Heritage/ Tradition

There is a tradition – a strong and remarkably consistent tradition – of western theatre practice from the 15th century to the present day. It is largely based on the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek theatre during the Renaissance: a series of readings and misreadings of Vitruvius, Seneca, Aristotle and Euripides that produced, among other things, the first opera and Revenge Tragedy. Whatever about the influence of liturgical church drama and folk drama/ritual on popular performance styles and conventions, western European theatre from the 16th century onwards has been a self-consciously ‘classical’ theatre. It has also been a ‘poetic’ theatre – some forms, such as court masque and grand opera, being notably more classical and self-consciously poetic than others.

How has this tradition been handed on? It is primarily contained in surviving play texts, libretti, and associated critical writings. It is also described in visual and written accounts of theatrical representation, in theatre’s styles and conventions, and in the detailed history of theatre practice. Thirdly, there is also a large and rich store of theatrical memory amongst practitioners, past and present, a theatre lore that is both oral and written. This is a very immediate and personal manifestation of theatre tradition. Taken in conjunction with extant texts, this lore of theatre practice amplifies our knowledge of the past, fills in the missing gaps of the experience itself, as opposed to the schema of the text. It serves to remind us that we are dealing with events as well as literature – the theatrical as well as the literary.

Shakespeare was an actor before he was a poet or playwright. That was what so scandalized his contemporaries, the university poets with their Oxbridge degrees: Shakespeare didn’t have the necessary qualifications to be a poet. This intellectual snobbery still goes on today, of course, with the Francis Bacon/ Earl of Oxford nonsense: he was only an actor, for God’s sake, how could he have written all that stuff? There are also indications -in Athenaeus and in Plutarch – that Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were actor/directors, as well as poets. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, one of the most startling, indeed electrifying, aspects of this rediscovery of classical theatre in the West was its non-Christian origin, its non-Christian values. The colouring of western consciousness by the rise of orthodox Christianity in the first millennium was dramatically recast by this introduction of pre-Christian pantheons and the restoration of more ancient concepts of ←7 | 8→Fate, Necessity, Justice, and Truth by the Renaissance and, paradoxically, by the Reformation. A pre-Christian paradigm of humanness was rediscovered and, more significantly, was reanimated in the imagination of actors and audiences through the work of the public stage.

The Renaissance was the great look backwards in order to move forward – or at least to break outwards from the mindset of medieval Christendom. The Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights looked back to Periclean Athens and the rites of Dionysus in order gain a new vision their own world – to open up a new mode of consciousness through acting out or mimesis. They called it ‘personation’, which term happily combined a new psychological interest in character with a powerful memory of the classical actor’s ‘persona’ or mask.

In a similar fashion, at the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were to look back to the Greeks, to the myths of Oedipus and Eros, to open the way to a new mode of consciousness in the world through ‘psychologizing’, a move already anticipated in the later plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, among others. The creative backward look is at the heart of the European way, at the heart of European culture. But this strategy is not simply a matter of archaeology or antiquarianism. It is more a matter of creative fantasy – creating the fantasy that was Athens, the fantasy that was Rome. And at the heart of this nurturing act of willed imagination is another fantasy – the fantasy of a god: the strange imagining and reimagining of Dionysus, the presiding deity of theatre.

Which brings us to the theme of magic, the magic in and of the theatre. For despite what we perceive as the secularizing narrative of Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and the rise of rationalism through the industrial/ scientific revolution, the theatre tradition tells another, stranger story: a narrative of moving from one manifestation to another; a narrative of a god, a root energy/ cause/ consciousness, a shaping force that acts through and on the human imagination through the medium of play: the play of Dionysus. The gods may have become our diseases, as Jung speculated, but they are still at some level our ‘gods’ – cultural, psychological, physical manifestations of a force or a presence that is both metaphysical and transcendental.

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Some Reflections on Magic

Tradition is memory, in the fullest sense of Memoria and Mnemosyne. Memnosyne was mother of all the Muses, and so is mother of all the arts. Memoria is the culture of all cultures – the rich, nurturing soil of all imagination. For Memoria is memory as imagination, not just the faculty of recording and cognition, but a creative faculty capable of producing revelatory dreams and willed fantasies. In the western Art of Memory, this nurturing of Memoria was closely tied to the practice of theatre as the seminal works of Frances Yates suggest. Jung and Freud may have turned to the ancient theatre for the founding myths and images of their new psychological ‘science’, but the Renaissance poet-playwrights turned to it for the making of Soul. Another troublesome word.

The modern realm of the Soul, if there is such a thing, is now limited to a symptom of the mind, or, more minimally, a pathology of the brain. For the Greeks, and possibly for Shakespeare, it was the presence and perspective of a god inspiring the practice of an art. A healing art: an art that made whole. (Next to Dionysus the patron god of Greek theatre was Asclepius – hence the large theatre at Epidavros, built beside his sanctuary.)

But I have got ahead of myself. If not above myself! The problem with constructing grand cultural narratives is that there’s an inflatus built into the process and the material that can carry you away on a current of hot air! So I will backtrack a little by talking to you about a personal experience of the tradition, and its immediate effect on me and my work. But I will return to my fantasy of the Theatre of Dionysus and its healing art before I finish.

Some Reflections on Theatre

When I stepped down from the artistic directorship of the Abbey Theatre at the end of 1999, I took a short break from theatre to recuperate and reflect on what had been an exhilarating but mixed experience. Then, in late 2000, I went back to freelance directing both here and abroad, working in opera and theatre. For those of you unfamiliar with the freelance world, I should explain that you work where you can or, at least, wherever they will have you. You also try and select the work, or influence the choices of artistic directors and intendants by pitching plays and productions that are of real interest to you and hoping they will prove sympathetic to the programmers. Earning a living is one thing – it has to be done – but it is a deadly affair when you are forced to work on any play or opera ←9 | 10→which, while feeding the body and paying the bills, is not, at some level, feeding the mind or the psyche. It is damaging to do work that does not animate.

As an Abbey Theatre artistic director I could decide to programme in a certain way and – pace the economics – get on with it. Now I must, like all my freelance colleagues, negotiate not only the tyranny of the box-office, the straitjacket of deficits, but also the sensibilities and tastes – social, aesthetic, political, philosophical – of administrators and curators. This can be a frustrating experience. For all our much-vaunted cult of individualism we live in an extraordinarily conformist culture, dominated by mass taste, mass marketing, and mass response – mass thinking. There are enforced orthodoxies, self-conscious trends and zeitgeists – rules of the market, rules of fashion, rules of political and cultural correctness – all imposed by various pressure groups and vested interests. These prescriptions and proscriptions weigh heavily on the choice of content of our stages. More heavily, perhaps, than we are prepared to admit.

There is also a language problem. Whatever about a traditional language of creativity, imagination, soul, the reality of working in the arts today is having to become fluent in the language of management and marketing. It is a pre-requisite of winning funding from the politicians and administrators, but also from corporate sponsors. We are all corporate now, and the global language is MBA. The big question about MBA-speak is: is this an appropriate language in which to try and talk about the working of the human imagination? Or does the language itself make it impossible to express key concepts, key values of that vital imagining process. In effect, does MBA render the soul wordless? If it can be measured, it can be managed, they assert. But do the values implicit in such a sterile system of quantification by statistical analyses distort and subvert the imaginative values of the arts by rendering them not only unsayable, but impossible to sustain? One thing is certain: the theatre culture that I trained in, and have worked in for thirty years, no longer exists. I speak a dead language.

A Crisis of Faith

To cut a longish story short, I began to run out of projects to animate me. I began to tire of the struggle to speak and think MBA. And the disastrous turn of events at the Abbey from 2000-2005 left me profoundly disillusioned and angry. I suffered a crisis of faith – ←10 | 11→of faith in theatre. What did it have to offer me any more? What life, what real nourishment, what abundance was possible now? I had been directing for nearly thirty years, during which time I had been privileged to work with some of the very greatest Irish playwrights and actors. Thirty years that had been traduced in five. I suffered a loss of purpose – a loss of theatre soul, if you like. It was increasingly difficult to work on anything, or find anything I really wanted to work on. What to do?

I went to the theatre. Back to the Greeks.

I went to see a production of a new version of Euripides’ Hecuba by Frank McGuinness. It was directed by Jonathan Kent at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 2004, and starred Clare Higgins. I got on with Jonathan’s production well enough, but it was not my style: too much scenery, but impressively done – and I very much admired Clare’s performance: very passionate, courageous, and it well deserved the Olivier she won for it. But the play! O, my goodness – the play!

First, there was Frank’s extraordinary text. Here are the opening lines:

I am Polydorus

Son of Hecuba,

Priam was my father.

I am dead.

Do you know a better opening to any play? McGuinness is at his very best: every line a lean muscle, every word a stone thrown against heart and soul. Listen to Hecuba, pleading for the assistance of Agamemnon – that exhausted pragmatist and child-killer:

I stand here a slave, I may have no strength,

But the gods are strong – so too is the law.

It rules over all, mortal, immortal.

Spit on the law, murder friends, ransack holy places,

And if you pay no penalty or punishment

There is no justice among men – no justice.

But if you judge these to be acts of shame,

Respect me, pity me, observe what I suffer.

And then there is the master playwright himself, Euripides: his extraordinary narrative, the strong characters, the savage theme, the total engagement with all that makes us human. The vividness of the storytelling, the relentless drama of its action, its intensity in ←11 | 12→performance – the breathtaking compression, the complexities, contradictions, violence, terror, irony, pathos –; and all achieved in the span of a single action lasting one hour and twenty minutes.

I knew I had to direct this play.

It so happened that, at the time, I was in discussions with Chicago Shakespeare Company about directing something for them, and I sent over a script straight away. And that’s how I came to direct the American premiere of the Euripides-McGuinness Hecuba in Chicago, with the wonderful Marsha Mason (no relation) in the title role. And it was also how my faith in theatre was reawakened.

An Athenian epiphany, if you like – or maybe, more properly, a theophany.

All for Hecuba

The play was written at the height of the Peloponnesian war, an illegal war initiated by Athens against Sparta, and a war that proved to be the ruin of Athens and its democracy. Euripides’ main source was Homer, and his setting is the aftermath of the fall of Troy. He took as his protagonist the figure of Hecuba and, with a superb disregard for geography, combined two stories concerning the fate of two of her children: the sacrifice of Polyxena, her only surviving daughter, and the murder of Polydorus, her only surviving son.

But Euripides has a third story up his sleeve. For, just when you think he has done with Hecuba’s story, he links the whole action of this play back into the origins of the Troy story by taking us back to the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and forward to the blood bath that awaits Agamemnon on his homecoming. Here is the king speaking at the end of Hecuba:

Hecuba, poor woman,

Go bury your two dead bodies.

The wind is rising to guide us.

Safe passage to the fatherland.

May we have peace there in our homes,

Now that the war is over.

The women of Troy are suitably enigmatic in their final comment:

Go to the harbours,

Go to the tents.

Begin our lives as slaves.

Fate is fate.

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Time bends, circles, straightens, only to bend again. Nothing is over about this war. This war is only just beginning. It is masterly playmaking. But why should it have had quite such an effect on me? Here are some notes I made at the time, in an attempt to pin down the experience and answer the question why.

Most immediately the theme: war. The world is a war. The Trojan war, of course, but with an obvious resonance – particularly here and now in America.

Women and war – Hecuba, queen and mother of Troy, her sons slaughtered, her city destroyed, being shipped back to Greece a slave in a slave transport. Women as the ultimate victims of war. The just, the righteous, pious, compassionate Hecuba – she calls herself ‘the mother of all misfortunes’, the other women affirm ‘some god hates you’. Why such suffering? Why such terrible injustice?

Content/meaning – is meaning possible? Where is justice? Where is truth? Where are the gods, where is the law? Is there no end to this war?

The characters – narrative and theme and action effortlessly carried by character. Human beings with emotional, psychological lives – bewildered, suffering, doubting, fearing, loving, hating – trying to make sense of their lives, trying to hold on to their sanity in a world gone mad. Recognizable men and women – idealists, pragmatists, sadists, realists.

Above all a world – an imagined world complete, consistent, utterly engaging – a created world, a vessel to contain all our stories and lives: theirs and ours. So familiar, so alien, so recognizably human. Human. Inner and outer – man as the meeting of angel and animal.

Great narrative – intricate, detailed, inventive, inevitable, convincing, engaging, inescapable. A world true and entire to itself and to the characters and actions that move it along, act it out, and animate it.

The whole experience was an intense affirmation of why I had come into the theatre in the first place. Here was the action of theatre, the practice of theatre art that I believed in, that had first enthralled me. This was the magic.

The Great Globe

Which brings me to my private title for this lecture, ‘Keeping Faith’. As I said at the beginning, it is a reference to the final scene of The Winter’s Tale. ‘It is required. You do awake your faith,’ Paulina tells ←13 | 14→the grieving Leontes in act five, scene three, before she brings the statue of his dead wife back to life. This scene has always been a touchstone for me. It is quintessential theatre magic. The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s late plays, and it is a fantasy – a fairytale. It is based on the story Pandosto: The Triumph of Time by his one-time rival and detractor, Robert Greene. (Greene was the man who was the model for Falstaff and Toby Belch, and who was famously carried off by a surfeit of pickled herrings – and pox, and gout, and God knows whatever other infection he picked up around Bankside.) Time is a character of the play, and the great final scene goes to the heart of his mystery and ours.

Perdita, Leontes, his daughter, and others, are in the gallery/chapel where Paulina shows them a statue of the dead queen, Hermione. She unveils the figure.

Leontes: O royal piece!

There’s magic in thy majesty, which has

My evils conjured to remembrance. And

From thy admiring daughter took the spirits,

Standing like stone with thee.

Perdita: And give me leave,

And do not say ‘tis superstition, that

I kneel and then implore her blessing.

Having whetted their appetites, Paulina offers to cover up the statue again as Leontes is becoming irrational. He wants to kiss the statue, it’s so lifelike. He commands her not to cover it up. Then she makes her move.

Paulina: Either forbear,

Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you

For more amazement. If you can behold it,

I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend,

And take you by the hand. But then you’ll think

Which I protest against – I am assisted

By wicked powers.

Leontes: What you can make her do

I am content to look on; what to speak,

I am content to hear; for ‘tis as easy

To make her speak as move.

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Paulina: It is required

You do awake your faith. Then all stand still.

Or those that think it is unlawful business

I am about, let them depart.

Leontes: Proceed.

No foot shall stir.

Paulina: Music; awake her; strike!

‘Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more.


Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,

I’ll fill your grave up. Stir. Nay, come away.

Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him

Dear life redeems you.

You perceive she stirs.

Start not her actions shall be holy as

You hear my spell is lawful. Do not shun her

Until you see her die again, for then

You kill her double. Nay, present your hand.

When she was young, you wooed her. Now in age

Is she become the suitor?

Leontes: O! she’s warm!

If this be magic, let it be an art

Lawful as eating.

Polixenes: She embraces him.

She hangs about his neck.

Camillo: If she pertain to life, let her speak too.

Ay, and make it manifest where she has lived,

Or how stol’n from the dead.

Paulina: That she is living,

Were it but told you, should be hooted at

Like an old tale. But it appears she lives,

Though yet she speak not.

What is being played out here is, in effect, a play within a play of play. This is theatre that acknowledges itself as theatre to become theatre. Each layer of acknowledged illusion only serves, in performance, to make the event more real to us. Knowing it is an illusion doubles the force of illusion itself. The presence of the statue ←15 | 16→that is not a statue but is a statue, is crucial to this process. It is an ‘imago’, a mask, a magic door to the world within.

How is all this done? Because it appears she lives. ‘Were you but told, there would be no effect, no result.’ Mimesis is the key: the magic is in the acting out. It is in the presence invoked and experienced, it is the god inhabiting the persona – present through the imago/ mask – in this case the actor/statue. We project onto the persona/mask and that mask, through a counterflow of imaginative energy, reflects back the contents of our fantasies; and we and the object before us are animated by the imaginary/real interaction. We enter for a brief moment that otherness that is both in us, and around us. But to experience this doubleness of being, we must first make our act of faith. In the old phrase, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief.

Look at how the playwright makes this ‘suspension’ so tempting and rewarding for us. He uses every narrative trick: the false starts, the pretended concern, raising the tension with warnings, misgivings (‘What I am about to do...’ etc.). There is the stern injunction: ‘No foot shall stir’; and then, of course, music. More presence – the ultimate theatrical presence – music to animate, to redeem Time, to bring dead matter back to life. And then, more music. Shakespeare’s own word music: pure spell, incantation – simple, rhythmic, hypnotic – as only he can do it. Words with music, words of music combined.

Paulina spins out this spell, plays out the tension: will the spell work? Not if we do not awake our faith, it won’t. ‘It is required. You do awake your faith.’ There is no move at first, but then, almost imperceptibly, the first signs of life. Then the descent. The embrace. The kiss. This is conjuring of the highest order. The statue moves and we are moved with it; moved momentarily into a world of grace, a world of wholeness and of healing.

If this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating!

The ‘S’ Word

I got carried away a while ago talking about Memoria, and healing, and the theatre of Dionysus. And I want to finish up by returning to that topic, and do so by way of another troublesome word: Soul. Not an inappropriate route to take, as it turns out, for one of the titles of Dionysus was Lord of Souls.

There is another motif that runs like a secret thread through all the history of theatre making – disappearing at times, reappearing ←16 | 17→at others – and it is an extremely difficult one to address in this materialistic age. It is there blatantly and excitedly in Athens; it haunts most of Shakespeare, though not all of his contemporaries. It is glimpsed in the periodic pursuit of the chimera of ‘poetic drama’ through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. It is there in the dream plays, the strange and sadly dated creations of the Symbolists. It is literalized in the posturing of the psychological drama – and it is squeezed out of the reductionist work of the social realists. It is a matter of faith: it is a matter of Soul. The making of Soul: the making of a new/ old paradigm of humanness through the work of the imagination.

Straight Lines and Circles

If you examine the dominant MBA thought/speak of the current arts scene, you will notice that to win approval work must be adjudged ‘cutting edge’ and ‘innovative’. There are even prestigious awards for ‘risk-taking’ and ‘innovation’ in the Arts. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. No talk of remembrance, instauration (that is, renewal or repair), or of commemoration. No, we are bound by the language of MBA to technocracy and its underlying myth of Progress; the relentless, all-consuming, onward march of Progress. Whatever its benefit to the growth of the technocracy, this forced onward movement, with its deliberate denial of the past, its cultural and political amnesia, its cruel insistence that all its servants should reinvent and uproot themselves at regular intervals, its destruction of continuity, tradition, and community – this movement does enormous damage to the growth of soul.

Memoria has its own style of progression: through regression. The soul circles. The way of the Memoria is not the way of the technocracy. MBA is anathema to the process of soul-making. (And vice versa.) We can see its ill effects in the increasing obsession with form over content, style over meaning, in today’s theatre. We can feel it in the reductionism of theme and matter, the flattening out of emotion and engagement, the increasingly strident taste for caricature rather than character, effect rather than experience. So often the cutting edge, the innovative, turns out, in performance, to be cartoon theatre with cartoon acting: stereotypes masquerading as archetypes. A theatre of glittering, often brilliant, surfaces that signifies – well, very little actually. A theatre perfectly suited to our dominant culture of celebrity and success, an art dedicated to prestige and prestigious awards, glib, and global.

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Theatre is a communal act. We commemorate, we listen, we watch, we imagine and fantasize as part of a collective. We are present, physically at least, but also, we hope, present as consciousnesses, as psyches, to engage together in an action that is both real and actual (bound by time and space), and imaginary – part of Memoria (that is, of all time and no time, of all space and no space). And we do this for the pleasure of it, to celebrate our capacity for doing it, and to exercise this mysterious and vital faculty (What is consciousness?), and through the exercising of this faculty of soul, we can begin to nurture it and be nurtured by it, and, in the process, create more and more complete paradigms of humanness. That is why the art of theatre is so important, that is why it is so difficult. That is why it can be so rewarding. It is not just as an educational tool or a therapeutic process, though it can be used as both. It is not just propaganda, journalism, or aestheticism, though it can be used for all these purposes. It is an art because it makes us more human by insisting on the more than human – the otherness – of the life we lead; and it does so by taking us, possessing us, collectively capturing our minds and hearts – our fuller souls. Through the immediate presence of actor and action, it makes us live simultaneously in the real world and in the world of Memoria.

We should leave MBA to the technocrats, and listen more acutely, learn to respond more exactly, to the whisperings and stirrings of our human consciousness: unconscious, sub-conscious, dream, memory, fantasy. And we should remember that at the heart of our western tradition there is a god – a supra-human energy, an extraordinary nexus of madness, death, regeneration, dismemberment, remembrance: Dionysus. Athens knew him as the friendliest of all the gods to man: with his ecstatic presence, and his gifts of wine, dance, eroticism, and theatre.

The Theatre of Dionysus

I know that some, perhaps all of you will find it odd, all this talk of faith, soul, magic, gods and theatre. Many will find it alienating. Some will find it offensive. So why do I do it? I do it because it lets me talk about a presence, an effect, an energy of theatre without using the language of scientism or reducing/traducing the role of imagination in the making of theatre. Freud and Jung reached back to the Greek pantheon as reference and signifier, because it was the image and form of the Western Psyche as first experienced and first articulated. I do the same as a form of protest and redress – to ←18 | 19→protest against the stripping of soul from art, and to make redress for the reductive orthodoxies of current cultural theory. To speak of the god, you should try and speak in the language of the god. It’s both a courtesy and a way of animation. To that end, I want to leave you with a final fantasy – an imagining of what a Dionysian theatre might mean for us.

A theatre sacred to Dionysus – a theatre of Dionysus – would share his characteristics, bear his marks, carry his values. It would view and express the world, and humans in the world – through his particular vision and vocabulary. He is born twice, of man and god. His nature is double. He is dismembered, only to be remembered. Again, and again. He is friendliest of the gods to man. He is a dark bull, raging. He hides in the depths – he has a home in the sea. He clings like ivy. He inspires intense collective emotions of love and rejection – he creates passionate communities. He is a god of vegetation – he is the green fuse. Regeneration, rot, germination, maturation – these are his processes. He is the circle of life, he is the life cycle. His imago or icon is the mask. He is both there, and not there. His presence and energy are channelled through the medium of his persona – the actor. He is known through performance: he is in the acting out. He is a god of comings and goings. His followers have to go out onto the mountains to sing and drum to wake him from the depths of the sea. His coming brings joy, madness, death, new life. He is known by his animals – the panther, the leopard – and by the love of women and men. Animal, erotic, bisexual, he is a protean shape-changer.

The 19th century rediscovered Dionysus as the opposite of the Apollonian as a natural force destructive to civilization. And this discovery coincides with the awakening of Dionysian theatre in the work of Ibsen and Strindberg and the dream or Symbolist movement. Jung and Freud at the some moment discovered this Lord of Psyche and renamed him Id or Unconscious (collective and individual). But the Greeks knew better. They knew that Dionysus was the dark brother of Apollo – possibly his incestuous lover. (That’s what I like about the Greeks: their deep experience of human nature, unconstrained by half remembered imperatives of sin and damnation.) Dionysus is Apollo’s secret brother/lover, not his opposite. They are linked. More than that: they are necessary to each other.

Every time we adopt the language of our reductive modern Apollo – the language of scientism, statistics, administration, ←19 | 20→management – we deny his dark brother. And vice versa. Every time we reduce Dionysus to a frightening communal frenzy, a senseless drumming – sensation for the sake of sensation – we lose sight of his word, his articulate, poetic, inspiring, magic word. So this strange human/inhuman force-field is not just about frenzy and carnage – although that is one manifestation of his presence, part of his affect. He has his blessing, he has his cure: he has his logos. He is a complex and complete mode of consciousness: a way of being in the world, and of expressing the world. He is his own way of revealing that world to itself by acting it out. When we start to write in his way, to act and to direct in his way – we are being Dionysian: we are being true to the basic instinct/inspiration of all western theatre. That is why, as a theatre director, I talk about him as I do, fantasize about him as I do.

Plato tells us there are three ways to soul-making, to the awakening of psyche: Love, Death and Madness. Maybe that is why this theatre of Dionysus, the Lord of Souls, circles so obsessively around these three themes: love, death, madness. But it circles, not to become addicted to the morbid or the pornographic. It circles to have life, to gain depth, to animate us more fully. It is a theatre that pitches us, through its words and actions, into a momentary experience of what it is to be fully human.

W.B. Yeats declared that the mission of his theatre, the Abbey Theatre, was to ensure that all the people should have a more intense and abundant life. He spoke, too, of the ‘need to bring to the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland’. Depth, intensity, abundance – they all seem to me essential qualities of the Dionysian theatre. The Abbey, from its foundation, stands foursquare in the great European tradition. It knows what has to be done. It has only to remember itself, and get on with the work – a work in which I very much hope to be able to participate in the future.

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2 |The Irish Connection

Thomas Kilroy

Connection in theatre is made between actor and audience. Indeed, there are exemplary occasions in the theatre where you have the coming together of text, acting and audience in an experience that seems to transcend any one of the elements involved. It can only happen with great writing and great acting, of course. But my point is that in the degree of its response, the audience is testifying to the depth to which the work has penetrated its communal consciousness. In this way, audience presence or audience involvement is an essential ingredient of the theatrical experience itself. In this way, theatre, in sublime fashion, is seen in the very act of fulfilling its public function.

I will mention a few such occasions which I’ve experienced myself but you will have your own lists. In Ireland, Donal McCann in Faith Healer at the Abbey Theatre, Siobhan McKenna in Bailegangaire at the Taibhdhearc in Galway. I would add three productions from outside Ireland from the fifties and sixties, Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer at the Royal Court in London, Uta Hagen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in New York and Jean-Louis Barrault in La Tentation de Saint Antoine at the Odeon in Paris. All of these performances had a profound connection to the local culture. They tapped into some particular, native, shared experience, opening an unhealed wound, as it were, stirring a brew that had been dormant, bringing to the surface something familiar but unacknowledged in quite this public way before. They spoke not only to the audience but they also spoke for the audience. The audience provided a rippling, potent presence as part of the theatrical event.

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What is interesting, and of some relevance to my topic, is that such a theatrical experience on home ground and that abroad, may have slightly different perspectives. At home one is fully part of the audience, surrendering to that tunnelling down into the communal consciousness. Abroad, there may be that too but there is also some degree of remove, of observing the audience as a visitor and saying, yes, this is what it must mean to them.

All of this has to do with the way theatre relies upon the familiar but transforms it, making it new, fresh, even strange and outlandish in that journey up on the stage and through the individual vision of the writer. The familiar in a play is likely to embrace the social, political background of the country, in a way offering a version of history. The familiar, too, is to be found in the language used. But if it is a demon-stration of the language of the people, it is a demonstration of that language stretched to some limit of its capability.

To take such exceptional events is one way of starting a discussion about the characteristic theatre of any one country. Why is it that some dramatic actions are more meaningful than others to more people in a given community? What does the characteristic performance tell us about Irish theatre? And how does it translate the local experience for a non-Irish audience?

I thought maybe this is the approach I should take this evening. In the end I decided to go a different way. But I do want to hang this picture of the exemplary theatrical event in front of me as I proceed, as a kind of corrective perhaps to what I have to say.

What I will do instead is return to the hoary old question of tradition and I hope those of you who have heard me rattling on about this in the past will bear with me. I want to use this to reflect upon the way tradition has both released and inhibited the Irish stage. And I want to end by looking at a number of plays by young Irish playwrights today, asking in what way do they reflect that tradition gone before. In doing this I will come back to the actor.

Fourteen years ago in the Irish University Review I wrote about the trifurcated tradition of Irish drama in the English language. When I was invited to give this talk I was asked to go back to that essay and try to expand on it in the light of more recent Irish theatre. The trifurcation that I was talking about there was, firstly, the fracture between the theatre of Anglo-Irish playwrights of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the theatre established by Yeats and his contemporaries. Then there was the ←22 | 23→fracture between the theatre of Yeats and that of our theatre of the second half of the twentieth century. Three very different bodies of drama, then, by playwrights born on this island.

The question here is what continuity exists between these three areas of dramatic writing by Irish-born playwrights in the English language, from the seventeenth up to the second half of the last century? The answer has to be: very little indeed. Nor, given the history of the island over that period, is this particularly surprising.

I do want to remark, however, on two legacies received by playwrights of my generation from the Anglo-Irish drama of the past, one having to do with value and one with genre.

The first is the transmission of certain values about playwriting, the most important of which is the idea that drama can attain to the quality of literature. Intrinsic to this is the pre-eminence of verbal language in a play, the theatricalizing of vernacular speech, allied to a highly developed consciousness of form in the writing, including an allusive-ness, a referential mode in the writing where plays feed upon other plays as well as other kinds of writing.

In genre, there is the legacy of the peasant play from the theatre of Yeats and his contemporaries, one of the most durable forms of drama in modern Irish theatre. The peasant play of Yeats’s theatre was written by Anglo-Irish playwrights who were separated from their peasant material, outsiders writing about a world that was, in ethos, removed from them, politically, socially, and culturally.

Their choice of subject, then, was deliberate, a self-conscious choice based upon a late Romantic idea of the authenticity of the natural man close to the soil. This turning to life on the periphery of the centre is a feature of some modernist art, a kind of neo-primitivism. It is as if an over-ripe, over-sated central culture had this need to strip away the inessential and find in a simpler society some human qualities lost through sophistication.

For Yeats, Synge and Gregory, with their deep interest in ancient Gaelic saga material, there was a further bonus. The Irish peasant, through folklore and story telling, seemed a living embodiment of this great literary tradition of the Irish sagas, otherwise available only in translation and in libraries. In other words there was the exciting discovery that the great mythic tales existed in two forms, the formal, written one and the vernacular one of oral story telling. This latter was a considerable stimulus to the writing of the new drama.

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Synge’s highly individualistic vision took all this a stage further. His vision as an artist was based upon a secular spirituality and an almost monkish, personal pursuit of dispossession, a divesting of material things and, obviously, of the comforts of his own, middle-class, Anglo-Irish background. He was drawn to extreme poverty as a testing ground of reality, as, indeed, was Beckett following after him. The idea that truth may be found more readily on the margins of existence, among the deprived and dispossessed should sit uneasily in an age of consumerism, celebrity and technological progress. However, as I’ve been suggesting, modernity has always sought out such a retreat in art, perhaps out of escape, perhaps as a way of flattering its own culture’s tolerance. The Irish peasant play is part of this.


VIII, 120
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VIII, 120 pp.

Biographical notes

Patrick Burke (Volume editor)


Title: «Mirror up to Nature»