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Perspectives on Contemporary Irish Theatre
“Perspectives on Contemporary Irish Theatre gathers together scholars and practitioners to give us a comprehensive picture of the state of Irish theatre. Providing
fresh perspectives on playwrights like McDonagh, Walsh, and Marina Carr, and
on the work of companies like Corcadorca and BrokenCrow (as well as interviews with key practitioners), this book is going to be a key part of the debates
over performance in Ireland in the 21st Century.”
—David Pattie, Professor of Drama and Popular Music, University
of Chester, UK
“This book thrusts into view insights into the aesthetics and economics of Irish
theatre at a moment of cultural upheaval. Skilful editing affords space to histories, chronicles, and cultural analysis in equal measure. Highlights include perceptive chapters on Tom McIntyre, Michael West, and Ailís Ní Ríain. Struggles
for women’s public presence, Irish language theatre, and bare survival in the face
of crushing ‘austerity’, are recorded here in provocative contributions from Geoff
Gould and Bríd Ó Gallchóir. A timely recognition of the variety and vitality of
theatre in Cork is complemented by experiences and critical perspectives from
other European contexts.”
—Victor Merriman, Professor of Critical Performance Studies, Edge Hill
University, UK
Anne Etienne · Thierry Dubost
Perspectives on
Contemporary Irish
Populating the Stage
Anne Etienne
University College Cork
Cork, Ireland
Thierry Dubost
Université de Caen Normandie
Caen, France
ISBN 978-3-319-59709-6 ISBN 978-3-319-59710-2 (eBook)
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017944099
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017
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Cover illustration: The Everyman, Cork © Enrique Carnicero
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One of the advantages (if I may use such a word here) of aging is that
you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the future. It has to do with the
dismantling of the world in which you grew up, the disappearance of old
reliables, the emergence of the new and the unfamiliar into the light. You
can have the same experience working in theatre where, sometimes, you
see possibilities of the future opening before your eyes. This book is very
much a book of the future. It may be a record of recent years but it is
also a window into what is to come.
It is a big book because it has to cover a lot of ground. You have the
sense throughout that what is happening is not so much a record as a
process. Reading the book is like watching the actual activity of theatremaking itself, seeing how it is put together. Theatre has always renewed
itself by going back to first principles of some kind. It strips away the
accumulations of stuff on stage to rediscover an elementary principle of
theatricality. One such principle is that theatre is an arousal of intense
curiosity in an audience. The stage action goes on, then, to try to satisfy
that curiosity.
Perhaps that is why so many plays begin with a question mark. Who
are these people before us? What are they doing? And where exactly
are they located? What is this place? “Who’s there?” The first line of
Hamlet. One of the most striking examples of such questioning in the
theatre that I have seen was Peter Brook’s stripping down of Hamlet in
the shambles of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in the 1990s.
vi Foreword
He used a small bunch of actors, African, Asian and European, deconstructed the text and somehow penetrated it through to its very centre. The play was laid bare in front of the audience. Part of what Brook
did was create the experience of a director actually working on a play in
rehearsal. It was like a dramatization of the process of direction itself,
with nods towards some of Brook’s great predecessors, directors like
Meyerhold, Stanislavski, Craig, Brecht and Artaud. He called the production Qui est là? after that first line of the printed play. After seeing
this, you could never forget the fact that Shakespeare had written a
thriller, a mystery story about the pursuit of a murderer.
When I saw it I was reminded that I had a similar experience of this
same play way back in 1953 while doing the Leaving Certificate in St.
Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. Hamlet was on our Leaving Cert course. A
wise priest had invited the great actor-manager Anew McMaster into
our classroom. The only way I can put this is that McMaster “took” us
through the play. A mixture of performance and florid summary of the
action. He was a simpering Ophelia, a garrulous Polonius, a demented
Claudius and, at every opportunity, a handsome, young Prince. The
years fell away from him. Describing the action of the play he took us on
a whirlwind trip. The play became an edge-of-the-cliff story of fast moving action.
I don’t know what my fellow students made of this apparition sitting on a chair in front of our class. I do remember a certain amount of
embarrassed giggling. We had never seen anything like McMaster before
in our short lives: dyed, tossed, blonde hair, the daytime make-up clearly
visible around the glaring blue eyes, the elegant, tweed suit, the contrasting, flowery waistcoat and that voice, oh, that voice!
He simply sat on the chair and, apart from gestures of his hands, he
made no movement whatsoever, yet, nevertheless this was riveting theatre. It was my first experience up close of great acting and a demonstration that such talent can theatricalize any space, a corner of a room, an
empty backyard or a school classroom.
It was also my first encounter with the element of the monstrous in
great acting, although I couldn’t articulate it at the time. Nevertheless,
I was conscious of the fact that part of what I felt in front of McMaster
was fear, a fear that was thrilling in its intensity. While the performance
was unmistakably human, it had also passed beyond the normal restraints
of decorum and control, creating figures of outlandish proportions.
Most theatrical performances slip out of the mind along with the other
debris of daily life but this kind of performance is indelible. You will
never forget it.
Beckett made space for a new theatre. He eliminated social clutter and
created a space of radical simplicity but one which could also carry profound complexity in the action. He was determined that his own plays
reach their audiences without interpretation getting in the way, that
the experience in the theatre be a frontal one, an engagement with the
thing itself and nothing else. Something begins, something proceeds and
something ends. He considered the obsession with finding meanings,
with putting labels on everything, to be akin to moral failure. Above all,
he resisted the notion of a theatre of representation. The play does not
represent something else, it is, to paraphrase Beckett himself on the subject of Finnegans Wake, it is the thing itself.
The response to Beckett, and more specifically, the response of this
book, is to offer a new theatre of openness and possibility, above all a
theatre that has escaped the limitations of social realism. This is a theatre of risk and obviously there will be wrong turnings, misdirections
along the way but the emphasis is in the right place upon the intensity of
what is happening in front of our eyes. This book is a celebration of such
Kilmaine, Mayo, Ireland
Thomas Kilroy
Anne Etienne and Thierry Dubost
Part I Dramaturgical Approaches
Innovation Meets Evocation: Tom Mac Intyre’s Plays
at the Peacock Theatre17
Marie Kelly
From Dementia to Utopia: Tragedy and Transcendence
in Frank McGuinness’s The Hanging Gardens39
Matthieu Kolb
Women and Scarecrows: Marina Carr’s Stage Bodies59
Mary Noonan
McDonagh’s “True, Lonesome West”73
Maria Isabel Seguro
The Physical and Verbal Theatre of Michael West91
Nicholas Grene
x Contents
A Dark Rosebud on the Irish Stage: Ailís Ní Ríain’s
Tallest Man in the World99
Thierry Dubost
Part II Practitioners’ Voices
Death of a Playwright115
Geoff Gould
Looking Back and Forward on Sound Design: Irish
Theatre Transformed123
Cormac O’Connor
10 Lightning in a Bottle: The BrokenCrow Experiment133
Ronan FitzGibbon
11 Interview with Bríd Ó Gallchoir141
Anne Etienne, Thierry Dubost and Bríd Ó Gallchoir
12 Interview with Pat Kinevane153
Anne Etienne and Pat Kinevane
13 Interview with Mark O’Rowe165
Thierry Dubost, Anne Etienne and Mark O’Rowe
14 Enda Walsh, in Conversation with Ger FitzGibbon175
Ger FitzGibbon and Enda Walsh
Part III Political and Societal Reflections on the Stage
15 Slump and Punk in Ray Scannell’s Losing Steam:
Envisioning Corcadorca193
Anne Etienne
16 Through a Glass, Darkly: Priests on the Contemporary
Irish Stage213
Virginie Roche-Tiengo
17 Populating the Irish Stage with (Dis)Abled Bodies:
Sanctuary by Christian O’Reilly and the Blue Teapot
Katarzyna Ojrzyńska
18 Queering the Irish Stage: Shame, Sexuality, and the
Politics of Testimonial249
Cormac O’Brien
19 A Gendered Absence: Feminist Theatre, Glasshouse
Productions and the #WTF Movement269
Patricia O’Beirne
Anne Etienne lectures in Modern Drama in the School of English,
University College Cork. Her research is concerned with three areas.
She has published widely on censorship (Ethnologie Française, Etudes
Irlandaises, Etudes Anglaises, Revue d’Histoire du Théâtre, Revue
Française de Civilisation Britannique) and is the main author of Theatre
Censorship: from Walpole to Wilson (Oxford University Press, 2007). She
has written on Arnold Wesker for the Dictionary of Literary Biography
and Studies in Theatre and Performance, and co-edited an issue of Coup
de théâtre (2014) on Shylock. Her latest work focuses on Corcadorca
Theatre Company.
Thierry Dubost is Professor of Irish Literature at the University
of Caen Normandie, France. He is the author of Struggle, Defeat or
Rebirth: Eugene O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity (McFarland) and The Plays
of Thomas Kilroy (McFarland). He has co-edited La Femme Noire américaine, aspects d’une crise d’identité; George Bernard Shaw, un dramaturge engagé; Du Dire à l’Etre, Regards sur l’intime en Irlande; Music
and the Irish Imagination, and has edited L’Adaptation théâtrale en
Irlande de 1970 à 2007, all with Caen University Press, and a revised version, Drama Reinvented: Theatre Adaptation in Ireland (1970–2007) for
Peter Lang (2012).
List of Figures
Fig. 15.1
Fig. 19.1
Fig. 19.2
Fig. 19.3
Stage structure of Losing Steam201
Female Authors 2006–2015 in Arts Council Funded
Theatres, #WTF research data 274
New plays premiered in the Abbey, Gate and Druid
1980–1989 and 2006–2015 274
Percentage of new plays by women authors,
1980–1989 and 2006–2015 275
Anne Etienne and Thierry Dubost
Contemporary Irish society has undergone radical shifts since the
1990s, ‘a period of accelerated history’ (Jordan 2) which saw Ireland
attain unprecedented wealth before being hit and transformed again
by the global economic crisis. In the field of art, ghost theatres could
have echoed the ghost estates that spread all over the country, as evidence of ‘an impoverishment of theatre in parts of Ireland’ in opposition
to the ‘growing presence of Irish drama on the world stage’ (Grene and
Lonergan 1). Though a complete shutdown of theatres was improbable,
buildings were deserted as local theatre companies suddenly disappeared,
a dismal reality discussed by director Geoff Gould in this volume. If,
from an economic point of view, the Celtic Tiger meant catching up with
the most prosperous countries of the western world, it may also have
been a means of aesthetic catch-up, enabling Irish artists to collaborate
with European counterparts and develop new forms of writing and staging within a heavily subsidised system. As the thriving decade collapsed,
A. Etienne (*) 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
T. Dubost 
University of Caen Normandie, Caen, France
e-mail: thierry.dubost@unicaen.f
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_1
2 A. Etienne and T. Dubost
followed by the concretised fear of budget cuts and empty seats, Irish
playwrights and theatre practitioners have responded or anticipated
by breaking with old tropes to try new forms of expression beyond the
frames of traditional Irish drama.
As evoked in Daniel Morse’s Irish Theatre in Transition, if good
theatre is in a constant state of reinvention, it ensues that there is more
than one foundational moment. In the past thirty years, Irish theatre has known striking technological advances, revisions to the stageaudience relationship, the development of devised practices, and the
staging of controversial topics. It has also experienced a reappraisal of
practices, a focus on desires rather than box-office returns, and a sense
of empowerment fuelled by what Fintan Walsh has described as ‘the
[affective] power of the powerless’ (15). To the rigidity of the old conventions, artists are substituting the lightness of works in progress, short
plays, short runs, off-site performances. To the rigidity of the old structures, they are rethinking the national theatre into a potentially portable
Abbey1–if we consider the Abbey’s new directors’ mission statement–
or even into one no longer represented by the Abbey—as suggested by
Fintan O’Toole who deemed ANU’s work ‘a kind of alternative national
theatre’ in spite and because of its small audiences and large-scale performing spaces. Placing this new form of political theatre in the line of
Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, he concludes that the future of Irish theatre
depends on the artists’ ‘efforts to inhabit paradoxes, to deal with contradiction’, a challenge that finds echoes in this collection. Yet, the danger
which Irish theatre may face after years of reinventions is one of sustained
energy, of repeated attempts—prompted by the economic gun of livelihood and survival—in a chaotic context for creativity. Notwithstanding
the astounding energy at work, it is too early to conclude whether the
changes that have affected theatre since the 1990s portend better days, or
if they amount to a beautifully masked swan song.
We have asked Irish theatre practitioners and international academics
to investigate the ways in which the Irish stage has been ‘populated’2—
to use a Kilroyan term—between the 1990s and 2015. Taking stock of
plays that have been written either in response to formal and contextual
forces, or in spite of them, the contributors have questioned the evolution of dramaturgies in a theatre that ‘remains author-dominated’ (Grene
268) as well as the evolution of the political and societal concerns that
occupy the stage. In view of the evidence presented in the following
chapters, it seems unlikely to suppose that hegemony of the word will
disappear. However, new theatrical languages and practices have continued to emerge and develop through the recession, with less emphasis on
the word and its literary power, this ‘reduction of the importance of spoken language in favour of visual spectacle’ (Lonergan 4) being, according
to Lonergan, a result of globalisation.
If theatre somewhat reflects society, the contemporary Irish stage
may well be composed of broken mirrors, or less naturalistic, puzzling
‘bin lids’ (Enda Walsh, qtd in Crawley), each containing aesthetic fragments and theatrical takes on a fast-changing society.3 Submitting original perspectives rather than conclusions, the essays showcase selective,
significant, often overlooked, elements of the Irish theatre landscape,
the ephemeral nature of which invites reconsiderations. They investigate
productions both in Dublin and provincial cities (prominently Cork) in
a collection that alternates transdisciplinary responses by academics and
theatre practitioners in order to examine how contemporary stages have
been populated.
The present volume tries neither to give voice to all the major Irish
dramatists and theatre makers, nor naively to provide an exhaustive overview of the Irish theatre scene. Recent studies, which extend beyond the
scope of this book (Singleton’s Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish
Theatre, Haughton and Kurdi’s Radical Contemporary Theatre Practices
by Women in Ireland, O’Gorman and McIvor’s Devised Performance in
Irish Theatre, or McIvor and Spangler’s Staging Intercultural Ireland)
have provided in-depth investigations of the important evolution of specific topics and practices. Instead, in this collection, Irish and foreign
contributors submit snapshots of reinventions of the Irish stage: they
explore how its text-centred tradition, while still iconic, has evolved to
reveal new modes of expression around emancipated bodies, multidisciplinary experiment, blurred roles, away from conventional venues. The
essays blend a number of theoretical, literary, empirical, and professional
approaches in an attempt to consider the contemporary Irish stage from
varied perspectives that contrast with and sometimes seemingly contradict each other, but that create the space for multiple dialogues with all
the passion that this entails.
Perspectives on Contemporary Irish Theatre responds to the fact that
the national and international reputation of Irish theatre still rests on
its rich dramatic heritage and the authoritative figure of the dramatist
by devoting the first section to an authorial stage. In ‘Dramaturgical
approaches’, the critical essays are arranged in chronological order, from
4 A. Etienne and T. Dubost
Tom Mac Intyre’s plays of the 1990s to Ailís Ní Ríain’s Tallest Man in
the World (2013). It is hazardous to predict who will eventually be part
of the canon, especially if—as in the past—‘marginal drama has been
neglected in the process of canon formation’ (I. Walsh 9); yet, the contributors felt that the young authors chosen in this section deserved
critical attention. The middle section—Practitioners’ Voices—explores
not only an anxiety about the state of drama and playwriting but also
how the contemporary Irish stage is composed. By having theatre practitioners voice how they populate the stage, these essays and interviews
(penned and carried out in 2015) permit direct access to the ideas and
working realities of playwrights, artistic and company directors, an actor
and a sound designer. They balance critical analysis with views from the
stage and provide a unique insight because ‘the shaping of the future has
almost always come from the practitioners’ (Chambers, FitzGibbon and
Jordan ix). The final section, Political and Societal Reflections on the
Stage, focuses less on specific playwrights. It investigates how recent productions have chosen to represent—naturalistically or not—the political
and societal issues that have affected the Irish psyche or been affected by
the Irish people. What these essays have in common, despite their varied
approaches, hinges on the image of Irishness, the problematic vision of a
twenty-first-century nation in the making, moving forward but still hung
onto an uncomfortable past.
Established dramatists have initiated major evolutions in the relationship between playwriting and the stage since the late 1980s in ways that
have inspired the new generation. For instance, Nicholas Grene reminds
us that the development of the physical theatre of Michael West draws
heavily from the experiments carried out by Patrick Mason and Tom
Mac Intyre on the Peacock stage of the Abbey. It is specifically from the
angle of the work developed at the Peacock that Marie Kelly studies Mac
Intyre’s seminal image theatre in ‘Innovation meets Evocation’. She analyses the shifts brought on by the artistic collaborations set at the Peacock
at a time when his dramaturgy departed from both his previous textbased period and his return to a poetic and transcendental emphasis from
the 1990s. In ‘From Dementia to Utopia’, Matthieu Kolb studies the
notion of transcendence in its relation to tragedy in the 2014 production
of Frank McGuinness’s Hanging Gardens at the Abbey. He suggests that
the reflections conducted during the 1980s between Patrick Mason and,
this time, McGuinness, bore dramaturgical seeds that may consistently
define his theatre. Hence Kolb calls upon theoretical views to approach
The Hanging Gardens, and early plays, as resurgent Irish models of traditional Greek tragedy and of what McGuinness terms ‘popular theatre’.
Critically paired by Vic Merriman because their plays ‘stage Ireland
as a benighted dystopia’ (253), Marina Carr’s and Martin McDonagh’s
work has been produced internationally, conveying a grotesque image of
Ireland highlighted by unpalatable naturalism. The experience of womanhood in its tragic nature is explored by Mary Noonan in ‘Women and
Scarecrows’, a chapter which analyses the unique place of Carr’s work
on the contemporary Irish stage, testifying that ‘the female contribution
is increasingly significant […] in Irish theatre’ (Kurdi 223). She argues
that the dereliction and frustration experienced by Carr’s female characters mirror the relegation to which women are submitted in Irish society.
Noonan employs Luce Irigaray’s writings on the repression of the maternal–feminine to demonstrate that through the innovative forms of verbal
and physical expression developed in Carr’s plays, the playwright embo­
dies the ‘disabling of female creative agency within Irish culture’ (60).
Drawing attention to the fact that ‘Irish theatre […] moved to include
non-Irish authors within its definition of the Irish playwright’ (Morse 1),
in ‘McDonagh’s True, Lonesome West’ Maria Seguro establishes bridges
between the American and Irish West by continuing the scholarly conversation on similarities between Martin McDonagh’s Lonesome West
and Sam Shepard’s True West. The ‘most high profile [playwright] of the
Irish diaspora in England’ (Roche 236), McDonagh remains a peripheral maverick in Ireland although his body of plays have established his
playwriting career internationally. Interestingly, the chapter reveals that
McDonagh’s play also finds convincing echoes in a Catalan production
directed by Pepa Fluvià, bringing into doubt the supposedly intrinsic
Irishness reproduced on stage. The stereotypes he exploits are meant to
deconstruct identifying cultural paradigms and, once again, McDonagh
chooses to attack the ideal of the Irish family.
The last chapters observe exciting new work by two representatives of the younger generation of dramatists who, in their own specific
styles, differ from their predecessors’ work in that theirs is ‘more body,
image and movement aware’ (Jordan 248). In ‘The physical and verbal theatre of Michael West’, Grene provides a synthetic yet thorough
analysis of the plays of a dramatist whose work since the 1990s has
emerged as a new, original (and comedic) theatre language. Benefiting
from the import of physical theatre throughout Ireland, and in particular in his collaborations with The Corn Exchange and their Commedia
6 A. Etienne and T. Dubost
dell’arte-inspired style of acting, Michael West has successfully negotiated the opposition between word and image to create a body of work
that embraces both and may well define a new form of playwriting for
contemporary Ireland. The same opposition is raised by Thierry Dubost
in ‘A Dark Rosebud on the Irish Stage’, where he considers the political and aesthetic nature of Ailís Ní Ríain’s Tallest Man in the World.
The chapter adds to the contemporary discourse by presenting a young
playwright—who is also a classical composer, this dual identity feeding
into Gould’s postulate in the following chapter—whose characters are
defined by their voices rather than their embodiment, leading Dubost
to brand the production ‘in-your-ears’ theatre. The plays of West and Ní
Ríain, though at different stages of development and opposite in their
approach to the stage, illustrate the legacy of Irish literary theatre as well
as the desire of young playwrights to seek formal innovation beyond
Irish borders and beyond drama.
Seen through the works of the playwrights studied in the first section,
a striking feature of the Irish theatre scene is the diversity of dramatic
approaches. They also differ from their predecessors in that their reflections on Irish society no longer seem to give priority to former popular
concerns, like national identity for instance. In their desire to redefine
their status as creators, they also appear more willing to abandon their
ivory towers in order to collaborate with directors and designers at an
early stage. Perhaps unsurprisingly when adaptation has become a key
tendency, the practitioners’ chapters further reveal that ‘necessity is the
mother of invention’ (115, 158)—a notion that remains elusive in the
essays concerned with textual aspects of the dramatic works, but which
clearly appears as an implicit rule for anyone involved in theatre-making
in a period of austerity.
Offering testimonies on contemporary Irish theatre, the middle section is comprised of essays by and interviews with practitioners. In
seeking their contributions, we wanted to avoid synthesising major representative trends to focus instead on the individual responses of artists.
Although ‘practitioners rarely write about their work’ (Trench 5), the
first three essays explore the evolution, realities, and concerns of a festival
director in search of an author (Geoff Gould), a theatre company director (Ronan FitzGibbon), and a sound designer (Cormac O’Connor).
They initiate conversations about technological advances, multidisciplinary theatre practice, the economic crisis, and their impact on contemporary Irish modes of creation and reception. They also propose exemplars
of the creativity which fuels reinvention but might be ignored because it
happens at a remove from a Dublin-centred perspective (in this instance,
Co. Cork).
While acknowledging the modern canon in the first place, Geoff
Gould plays devil’s advocate by wondering about the ‘Death of a
Playwright’ in recent years—an assumption also queried by David Edgar
in England. His provocative argument that no dramatist has emerged
since Mark O’Rowe is counterbalanced by the fact that his Fit-Up
Festival has attracted an increasing number of playwrights, albeit not
necessarily ‘playwrights’ in a traditional sense. In his chapter ‘Looking
back and forward on sound design’, Cormac O’Connor takes us through
a personal journey that started in the 1980s as a teenager playing in a
band and turned into a professional career in sound design, which began
with Enda Walsh’s hit play Disco Pigs. From the cassette tape to a design
that reacts to the actor’s movements on stage, he charts the fast-paced
technical revolution in sound design that has occurred in the past thirty
years on the Irish stage. In his account ‘Lightning in a Bottle’, Ronan
FitzGibbon exposes how his ‘experimental’ work within BrokenCrow,
the theatre company he founded in 2011, also responds to exterior
forces. Since then the Ensemble has produced eight plays within a challenging economic background and with a working model based on flexibility, honesty and a desire to create. It is with this honesty that he opens
the door to their functioning modes.
Further direct expression was sought through interviews to address
central elements of the Irish stage which have not been critically analysed elsewhere in the book, this time looking to Dublin, Belfast, and
even London.4 Consequently, the role of artistic director is evoked by
Bríd Ó Gallchoir, around theatre in the Irish language; evolutions in the
acting profession are tackled by Pat Kinevane, a physical actor who pens
his own roles; Gould’s chapter about the death of the playwright finds
a conclusion in the interviews of Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh whose
work exemplifies the internationalisation of Irish drama and does not
limit itself to theatre.5
Clearly, the timeline of the study meant to reflect how changing political and economic phenomena had influenced (or not) the Irish stage.
Of particular interest is the contributors’ variety of responses concerning
what they deemed to be fundamental contemporary concerns, defining
not only the Irish stage but also the Irish psyche. As a subject-matter,
in view of its catastrophic consequences, the economic rollercoaster
8 A. Etienne and T. Dubost
seems to have been largely ignored by Irish playwrights—which may
find an explanation in what Enda Walsh considers to be the great difference between Irish and English drama (185). A notable exception can be
found in the state-of-the-nation plays of two playwrights produced by or
collaborating with Fishamble: Gavin Kostick, with The Games People Play
(2013), presented bruised contemporary lives through the lens of Irish
mythology; in the docudrama Guaranteed! (2013), Colin Murphy used
official records, interviews and journalistic accounts to expose meticulously in dramatised form the political events that stripped Ireland in
2008. As their respective new plays At The Ford and Bailed Out! are premiered at the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival, one may suggest that their
brand of social realism opens yet another chapter in contemporary Irish
history which ought to be considered alongside other forms of theatrical narratives concerned with present-day crises, such as ANU’s recent
The chapters comprising the last section illustrate how political issues
have been placed on the stage, issues that have shaken the country since
the 1980–1990s, and which are still causing unrest. The financial crisis triggered an alarming rate of unemployment, emigration, homelessness, and suicide. This harsh economic awakening coincided with further
revelations of political corruption and of cover-up of child abuse by the
Catholic Church. In contrast to this bleak environment, the population
has not only proved emotionally and economically resilient, but has also
started to reshape Irish society. In 2015, the marriage referendum signalled a profound ideological change. The question of gender equality,
articulated around both demands to repeal the 8th amendment and the
#Waking The Feminists movement, defines the current societal and cultural debate.
In ‘Slump and Punk in Ray Scannell’s Losing Steam’, Anne Etienne
revisits the 2004 production by Cork theatre company Corcadorca to
analyse how it provides a fitting instance of director Pat Kiernan’s dual
interest in off-site work and new writing, and how author and director
collaborated to create a prophetic political drama—the production foreshadowing the Celtic Meltdown as much as it commented the Irish economic crisis of the 1980s. Using original primary research material and
theoretical reflections on site-specificity, the chapter points to the audience as an essential element of Corcadorca’s artistic vision, in line with
Helen Lojek’s outlook, when she wrote that ‘audience awareness that
theatre was coming to them rather than asking them to come to highculture venues mattered greatly’ (12). Beyond the economic problem
that the play tackles, this and the following essays explore how Irish theatre redefines its relationship to the State and to audiences in a turbulent
Virginie Roche-Tiengo investigates a prominent facet of the censoring
nation in ‘Through A Glass, Darkly: Priests on the Contemporary Irish
Stage’. The revelations of Church abuse have shocked the world about
the covert harmful doings of a religious State, leaving its Irish citizens
to try and come to terms with the silenced past. She paints a portrait
of priesthood as represented on the stage in the plays of such canonical
authors as Kilroy and Friel along with the Abbey’s ‘Darkest Corner’ programme in 2010, shedding light on drastic shifts in dramatic narratives
and staging strategies following the Ryan report. Katarzyna Ojrzyńska
also observes the exchange between stage and auditorium in her analysis of Christian O’Reilly’s Sanctuary by the Blue Teapot Company. She
addresses the rarity of conventional realistic performances by disabled
artists and Irish social attitudes towards disability through the study of
a play presented by a professional disabled troupe which confronts our
‘stare’ and attitudes as an able audience. She approaches the subject of
sexuality via a theoretical lens to explain how the Blue Teapot production ‘stirred up a debate on the Irish laws that regulate [the] sexuality [of
disabled people]’ (234) by showing the disabled body and all its needs.
The last two chapters examine the status of minority and minoritised
groups via their rights and presence on the stage. They were commissioned in the context of the impending Marriage Referendum which
legalised same-sex marriage, and of an urgent reassessment of the
‘woman question’ in twenty-first-century Ireland. Cormac O’Brien
chooses this revolutionary reform to initiate his reflection on ‘Queering
the Irish Stage: Shame, Sexuality, and the Politics of Testimonial’ and
how theatre has engaged in dialogue with contemporary gay culture.
The essay pinpoints landmark productions since the 1990s to analyse
which non-traditional dramaturgical strategies playwrights have used to
perform Irish homosexuality. The question of visibility endures in the
inquisitive chapter by Patricia O’Beirne, ‘A Gendered Absence: Feminist
Theatre, Glasshouse Productions and the #WTF Movement (1982–
2016)’. The relegation of women playwrights at the periphery of the
main national stages shows that drama remains a male manifestation and
10 A. Etienne and T. Dubost
theatre a patriarchal environment, even if new definitions of masculinity
may also help ‘resist performatively the power of patriarchy’ (Singleton
21). In view of the #Waking The Feminists movement elicited in
November 2015 by the male-centred Abbey 2016 commemoration programme Waking the Nation, O’Beirne’s chapter reveals a detailed portrait of drama written by women. Following the first results of #WTF
Research coordinator Brenda Donohue, the study focuses on the marked
absence of women playwrights in the three main funded theatres to analyse whether anything has changed since Glasshouse’s ‘There Are No
Irish Women Playwrights’ festival in 1992–1993. This interrogation
proves essential in understanding the place of women in Irish theatre and
in Irish society.
In the still austere economic climate, what may be at stake is the
survival of theatrical experiments by audacious practitioners in a context where theatre as a product has instilled a fear that, on occasion,
has stymied their artistic drive. Paradoxically, the wide-ranging forms of
creativity discussed in this volume would draw a hopeful prognosis for
Irish theatre. The essays point to a theatre that continues to be based
on authorial texts, and on ‘the tradition towards the representational,
if not the naturalistic’ (Grene 265). Nonetheless, they also bear witness
to dramaturgic innovations and a promising young generation of artists. Recent developments indicate that old certainties may be replaced,
and that the contemporary Irish stage is at a place and a time ripe for
redefinitions as traditional author-centred approaches to theatre are
probed to give a wider scope to narratives concerned with the present
and a non-exclusively text-based artistic expression. Therefore, one may
venture that the future canon will not be composed of ‘absolutely finished text[s]’6 nor of works fostered on the main national stage. This is
made particularly relevant by the emergence in the last twenty years of
a number of theatre companies whose productions focus on the physical work of the actor, devised work, or new forms of rapport with the
audience. The accompanying hyperlinks further illustrate the multiplicity of practices encompassed by the terms ‘contemporary Irish theatre’.
The purpose of these talks was to open a dialogue between the established generation of artists represented by Frank McGuinness and Patrick
Mason with talented emerging ones, placing their stage experiences in
relation with the acclaimed immersive work of theatre maker Louise
Lowe (ANU Productions).7
1. ‘We believe in the concept of a national theatre that reaches all of the
country. This applies to touring work, but also addresses the issue of
where shows and projects are rooted and made, regardless of geographical remoteness or perceived social barriers. […] We believe that we can
tap into the amazing talent and resource that exists in Ireland, to build
an organisation that challenges assumptions around the words “national”,
“theatre” and “Ireland”.’ Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, qtd. in
Abbey Theatre. The notion that the National Theatre needs to be more
than a building is highlighted by the example of the National Theatre of
Scotland (which was run by the current directors of the Abbey).
2. ‘We write plays, I feel, in order to populate a stage.’ Kilroy 91.
3. ‘It’s just that the form of theatre, for me, needs to be arresting and strange
and odd and “What the …?” You know, [theatre] is not a mirror, he says,
dismantling the cliché with relish. It’s not a mirror … It’s a bin lid.’ Enda
Walsh, qtd. in Crawley.
4. This tentative geographic mapping illustrates Mary Trotter’s assertion that,
‘It is through the conversations between the local and the national that
new images of Ireland and Irishness will begin to emerge’ (194).
5. Challenging traditions is at the root of theatre practice, and the Irish stage
has often benefited from the meeting of other cultures, in particular thanks
to the Dublin Theatre Festival. This is amply demonstrated by Nicholas
Grene and Patrick Lonergan’s Interactions: Dublin Theatre Festival 1957–
2007 and Fintan Walsh’s ‘That Was Us’. In The Politics of Irish Drama,
Grene had exposed international components of Irish drama, a point
which Thierry Dubost’s Drama Reinvented: Theatre Adaptation in Ireland
as well as Chris Morash and Nicholas Grene’s Irish Theatre on Tour and
Maria Kurdi’s Codes and Masks: Aspects of Identity in Contemporary Irish
Plays in an Intercultural Context highlighted differently. The present collection of essays further confirms this international feature.
6. ‘My work for the theatre is always in a preliminary state when I come to
rehearsal. Now this is in sharp contrast to someone like my friend Brian
Friel, who produces an absolutely finished text.’ Thomas Kilroy, qtd. in
Dubost 126.
7. The following hyperlinks give access to a filmed conversation between
Frank McGuinness and Patrick Mason, chaired by Dr. Heather Laird and
Dr. Matthieu Kolb:
3324a81e3d6e6f, and to a sound recording of a keynote by Louise Lowe: Both
interventions took place in June 2014 on the occasion of the international
conference ‘Populating the Irish Stage’ held at University College Cork.
12 A. Etienne and T. Dubost
Works Cited
Abbey Theatre. ‘Future Directors of the Abbey Theatre Appointed.’ n.d. Web.,
21 July 2015.
Chambers, Lilian, Ger FitzGibbon and Eamonn Jordan, eds. Theatre Talk: Voices
of Irish Theatre Practitioners. Dublin: Carysfort, 2001. Print.
Crawley, Peter. ‘Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk: dabbling with mortality in our own private universes.’ Irish Times, 21 June 2014. Web.
culture/stage/enda-walsh-s-ballyturk-dabbling-with-mortality-in-our-ownprivate-universes-1.1839676, 16 June 2016.
Dubost, Thierry. The Plays of Thomas Kilroy. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007.
Grene, Nicholas. The Politics of Irish Drama. Cambridge: CUP, 1999. Print.
Grene, Nicholas and Patrick Lonergan, eds. Irish Drama. Local and Global
Perspectives. Dublin: Carysfort, 2012. Print.
Jordan, Eamonn. Dissident Dramaturgies. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010.
Kilroy, Thomas. ‘Theatrical Text and Literary Text.’ The Achievement of Brian
Friel. Ed. Alan J. Peacock. Gerrard’s Cross: Colin Smythe, 1993. 91–102.
Kurdi, Maria. Representations of Gender and Female Subjectivity in Contemporary
Irish Drama by Women. Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010. Print.
Lojek, Helen. The Spaces of Irish Drama: Stage and Place in Contemporary Plays.
New York: Palgrave, 2011. Print.
Lonergan, Patrick. Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger
Era. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Merriman, Vic. ‘Staging contemporary Ireland: heartsickness and hopes
deferred.’ The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama. Ed.
Shaun Richards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 244–257.
Morse, Daniel. Irish Theatre in Transition. London: Palgrave, 2015. Print.
O’Toole, Fintan. ‘It’s Ireland’s best public theatre, and it needs our support.’ Irish
Times, 28 September 2013. Web., 30 September 2015.
Peacock, Alan J., ed. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Gerrard’s Cross: Colin
Smythe, 1993. Print.
Roche, Anthony. Contemporary Irish Drama. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Singleton, Brian. Masculinities and the Contemporary Irish Theatre. New York:
Palgrave McMillan, 2011. Print.
Trench, Rhona, ed. Staging Thought: Essays on Irish Theatre, Scholarship and
Practice. Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.
Trotter, Mary. Modern Irish Theatre. Malden and Cambridge: Polity, 2008. Print.
Walsh, Fintan, ed. ‘That Was Us’. Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance.
London: Oberon, 2013. Print.
Walsh, Ian R. Experimental Irish Theatre: After W.B. Yeats. New York: Palgrave
McMillan, 2012. Print.
Dramaturgical Approaches
Innovation Meets Evocation: Tom Mac
Intyre’s Plays at the Peacock Theatre
Marie Kelly
Over the course of the last four decades, playwright, poet and novelist
Tom Mac Intyre (1931–) has contributed a diverse and challenging collection of plays to the repertoire of the Abbey Theatre, most of which
have been staged at the Abbey’s smaller theatre space, the Peacock
Theatre. In close collaboration with director Patrick Mason and other
theatre artists in the 1980s, Mac Intyre’s plays shocked audiences at the
Peacock with a non-naturalistic form of theatre in which highly visceral
stage images mocked the patriarchal pillars of Church and State, challenged idealised perceptions of women, family, and rural life, and tested
sensibilities surrounding sexuality and the body. With a dramaturgy
designed to animate Jungian archetypes and Freudian desires within the
contours of dream and nightmare, these plays are mainly situated in the
unconscious worlds of significant male characters from the literary or
political past. Largely unpublished, with the exception of the acclaimed
reworking of Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger (1983, 1988), Mac
Intyre’s plays of the 1980s tapped into the physical, experiential, and visual to an extent that no others on the Irish stage had done before. In the
M. Kelly (*) 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_2
18 M. Kelly
range of Mac Intyre’s plays post-1990, however, innovation meets with
evocation where the power of verbal image has significantly increased.
This essay looks at this dramaturgical shift as it relates to theatre and the
politics of identity on the contemporary stage in Ireland, the positioning
of Mac Intyre’s plays within the repertoire of the Abbey Theatre, and the
relation between this and the increased publication of Mac Intyre’s plays
over the last number of decades.
Innovation and the Stage Image: Plays of the 1980s
Moving away from the secular and the real, Tom Mac Intyre’s plays of
the 1980s sought a gap for the transcendental in a dramaturgy most
appropriately described as fragmented and postmodern. In the difficult
decades of the 1980s, both the form and content of these plays offered
a means of expression that went beyond words. Physical stage action
spoke to feelings and emotions, and opened avenues for investigating the
immediacy of experience which dialogue and plot rendered inaccessible.
In the form of Mac Intyre’s five plays staged during this period, the conventions of linear narrative, cause and effect, and verisimilitude are set
aside in favour of montaged stage images. Through these stage images,
The Great Hunger (1983), The Bearded Lady (1984), Rise Up Lovely
Sweeney (1985), Dance for Your Daddy (1987), and Snow White (1988)
encapsulated the mood of a society still suffering from the legacy of
colonial rule, restrained under the strict dominance of the Church, and
rocked by the turbulent violence of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
In equal shades of light and dark, absurdity and humour, heartache and
terror, joy and sadness, these plays brought the depths of hidden rage
and suppressed sexuality onto the stage through the theme of ‘the hurt
mind’. According to Dermot Healy’s programme note for the 1986
revival of The Great Hunger:
[The Hurt Mind] can be construed as National Paranoia. Words in capital
letters that shouldn’t be. Something emanating from people who conceptualise in one language and relinquish their ideas in another. Yet there is a
certain satisfaction in that back-log of bitterness; for everything is not as it
appears. In the Aran Islands they say—‘ta dearc im dearmad’—there’s hurt
in my memory […] For hurt mind you can also read “the joyous senses”,
or at another remove, ‘The Great Hunger’. (n.p.)
Mac Intyre’s The Great Hunger deals with the physical and emotional
impact of oppression and rural isolation by using the stage as a lens to
capture the moment-to-moment experiences of Patrick Maguire, the
tragic male figure at the centre of Kavanagh’s poem. In Beckettian style,
the play’s dramaturgy conflates form and content and makes moves to
democratise all elements of the stage; textual, material and human.
Combining postmodern techniques of fragmentation (with particular
influences coming from Theatre of the Image), the symbolism of W. B.
Yeats and higher realism of J. M. Synge, The Great Hunger gave shape
to the full scale of Maguire’s existence—his external and internal world,
his thoughts, dreams, and nightmares.1 In performances of the play,
repeated words and lines from Kavanagh’s poem created an atmosphere
of disconnected isolation as well as being carriers of meaning. Actors’
bodies held equal significance to properties and setting. Objects were
treated as human beings and by turn human beings became objects at
poignant moments in the play. Characters shape-shifted and morphed
from human to animal. In tandem with the words of the text, mostly
extrapolated from Kavanagh’s poem, this metamorphosis between object,
human and animal energised the politics of the stage and its radical iconoclasm. A wooden effigy cast in the role of The Mother, for example,
signified the silencing of women within the domestic sphere and the
absence of communication in the family home; actors froze movement to
transform into scarecrows or automatons, thus implying their obedience
as instruments of Church and State. In one arresting moment, the central character knelt before the audience with a pair of bellows gesturing
masturbation. In another, the stronghold of the Church was ridiculed
when the priest hilariously turned card trick entertainer in the process of
giving Mass and fell asleep during confession. Meanwhile, his congregation’s response was ‘an orchestrated din of coughing’ which turned ‘to a
chorale of farmyard noises, animal and fowl’ (21).
In spite of such moves to democratise the stage, however, Mac
Intyre’s plays of the 1980s are predominantly masculine in their outlook.
Along with the male-centred version of Kavanagh’s poem, for example, The Bearded Lady (1984) puts Jonathan Swift centre stage where
he falls into a dream in which he becomes his own fictional character,
Lemuel Gulliver; Rise Up Lovely Sweeney (1985) brings the audience
into the thick of the psychotic world of an ex-IRA man on the run, a
post-modern version of the folkloric Mad Sweeney from the twelfth-century Suibhne Geilt; Dance for Your Daddy (1987) explores the paternal
20 M. Kelly
nightmares of a man contemplating his daughter’s coming of age; Snow
White (1988) enters the consciousness of the Seventh Dwarf as Snow
White moves from child into adulthood. To put it bluntly, then, there
are no women in Mac Intyre’s plays of this era. Women may appear as
constructs of the patriarchal imagination, but they do not exist autonomously or in their own right. In the male-centred dreams and imaginings of these plays, however, the silencing, idealising, and objectification
of the female figure is equally exposed and perpetuated. As discussed by
Bernadette Sweeney in Performing the Body in Irish Theatre, this points
to an imbalance in Irish theatre where the body, the actor, and in particular the female actor, has been subordinated by a history marked by
sexual repression and the elevation of the status of the writer.
In terms of process, this theatre form called for practices that were
just beginning to emerge in Ireland at the time. Both Mac Intyre and
Mason had acquired experience of collaborative practice and theatre
movement as an outcome of their work abroad.2 Amongst their cast—
including Tom Hickey, Vincent O’Neill, Conal Kearney, Michele Forbes,
Olwen Fouéré, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Fiona Mac Anna, Dermod Moore,
Martina Stanley, Joan Sheehy, Joan O’Hara—there was a mix of training
from international practitioners such as Konstantin Stanislavski, Michael
Chekhov and Marcel Marceau. At the intersection of creative exchanges
was designer Bronwen Casson whose interest in environmental theatre
design aimed ‘to create an atmosphere of authenticity [involving] the use
of natural objects and material’ (Barrett 89). As John Barrett describes
Casson’s set design of The Great Hunger,
the cast are walking on clay and lying on damp patches of mud. [This] is a
most interesting set; upstage centre a wooden five-barred gate, beyond that
a red and rusted barn structure, to the right potato drills, in the foreground
loose soil and the set is supported by props—buckets, baskets, potatoes,
rope etc. Certainly it gives rise to some highly effective moments. One such
would be where the characters reject the pleas and threats of religion and,
all in a row, prostrate themselves on the ground, scooping up the soil reverently in their hands and kissing it, while the priest intones the first line of
[Kavanagh’s] poem, ‘Clay is the word and clay is the flesh’. (92)
Although recollections of the rehearsal process point to the boundaries of creative roles being breached, a triumvirate of writer, director
and lead-actor (Tom Hickey) drove the collaborative project.3 In the
rehearsal room Mac Intyre was open to the ensemble playing with text in
order to arrive at a montage of overlapping scenes, each of which carried
its own title or theme. A system developed in which the text was divided
into two scores: one which plotted movement and action, and the other
entirely verbal.4 With this predominance of stage direction the published
text of The Great Hunger testifies to the extent to which the movement
score controlled the process. This published text also reveals the reach of
Mac Intyre’s voice as a poet of words which seep beyond the parameters
of dialogue between characters into the finer details of stage direction.
As a consequence the published text of The Great Hunger is more poetic
movement score than dramatic text in the conventional sense. A stage
direction at end of Scene 4 gives a flavour of Mac Intyre’s craft in this
Maguire and Malone stir themselves. Maguire takes out a cigarette and
lights up. Malone—gasping for a drag—cadges a cigarette. The pair puff
contentedly. The summer evening light yields to night. Glow of the cigarettes by
the gate, glow of one cigarette answering the other, that conversation. The two
make for home. (19)
The Great Hunger is the most acclaimed of Mac Intyre’s five plays staged
in the 1980s and the only text to be published and toured.5 Initial
media reactions to the premiere were negative and uncomplimentary. As
described by one reviewer in the Sunday Independent, ‘“Great Hunger”
fails as drama’. The experimental practices employed by Mac Intyre,
Mason, and the ensemble were not unanimously praised either. Within
the walls of the Abbey as Tom Hickey recalled it, ‘we were regarded by
many […] as “the lunatics in the basement”’ (56). On tour around the
world the play was equally loved and hated. As actor Dermod Moore
remembers it:
Then, we go on tour, across the world, our insanity on display for all to
see, that dirty laundry. The Moscow Art Theatre […] The formal reverence of the Parisians, the giddiness of being the hot ticket at the
Edinburgh Festival. The American audiences are insulted, affronted, disgusted at our refusal to give in one inch to American-Irish sentimentality or nostalgia—the brutality of the piece alienates, and truth be told, we
are misunderstood. […] In London, we have an astonishing experience,
more than once: we leave the stage to a desultory round of applause,
22 M. Kelly
which is followed by a weird silence—no one leaves their seat. Then, to
goose-bumps, in our dressing rooms, we hear them start applauding again,
having allowed the experience to sink in, and we come back, dazed and
delighted, to take a last bow. (142)
Despite initial negative reactions, key critics and scholars voiced strong
support for the work. In The Irish Times Augustine Martin wrote that
‘full justice ha[d] not been done’ by the critics in their response to the
play: ‘This is one of the best things the Abbey has done in recent years,’
he asserted, ‘the sort of play Synge might have written’ (9).
Innovation Meets Evocation: Plays from the 1990s
Moving into the 1990s, Mac Intyre began to pay renewed attention to
the textual concerns of his stagecraft. In this regard, it is the prolifically
rich lyricism of the characters’ spoken words that stands out in the six
texts published on foot of performances staged by the Abbey Theatre
in this period.6 This later work is also marked by form and content
which continues to delve deeply into the unconscious, but which pays
renewed attention to death, the afterlife, the spiritual and transcendental.
As described by Marina Carr in her 1995 programme note ‘The Bandit
Pen’, Mac Intyre’s ‘territory is the crossroads between worlds. […] He
chats up ghosts and records for us what they’ve said to him’ (n.p.).
It is within these parameters, then, that we meet the central figures
of Mac Intyre’s plays post-1990. The eponymous character in Kitty
O’Shea (directed by Ben Barnes, 1990) is the ghost of Katherine Wood,
the woman in the life of Charles Stuart Parnell. In Sheep’s Milk on the
Boil (directed by Tom Hickey, 1994) a couple bearing resemblances to
Synge’s Pegeen Mike and Christy Mahon confront the physical manifestation of their carnal desires. Good Evening, Mr Collins (directed by
Kathy McArdle 1995, revived and toured in 1996) is described by Mac
Intyre as a ‘Ghost Sonata’ in which the living and the dead Michael
Collins interacts with the women in his life.7 In The Chirpaun (directed
by Kathy McArdle, 1997) Jacinta Concannon and her father John Joe
Concannon are ‘betwixt and between two worlds’ haunted by the paternity of Jacinta’s unborn child, her ‘chirpaun’ (O’Kelly 47). In the two
Irish language plays toured by the Abbey during the 1990s—Caoineadh
Airt Uí Laoghaire, a version of The Lament of Art O’Leary (directed by
Kathy McArdle, 1998) and Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, a bilingual version
of Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court (directed by Michael Harding,
1999)—texts are resurrected from the literary past in order to explore
characters who pay the price for love. Moving into the 2000s, the critically acclaimed Peacock Theatre production and national tour of What
Happened Bridgie Cleary (directed by Alan Gilsenan, 2005) presents
the tragic figure of Bridget Cleary, a real woman who was tortured and
burned to death because it was believed that she was both promiscuous and in league with the fairies. Lastly, in Only an Apple (directed by
Selina Cartmell, 2009) the ghosts of the legendary Irish piratess Grace
O’Malley and the English Queen, Elizabeth I, are presented as seductresses in the fantastical world of a Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) on
the brink of a heave.8
To evoke such worlds dramaturgically the ongoing development of
Mac Intyre’s form celebrated the rich textures of spoken language whilst
at the same time staying true to the power of physicality, viscerality, and
the stage image. As David Nowlan remarked in The Irish Times on the
opening of Kitty O’Shea at the Peacock Theatre in 1991: ‘For the first
time, Mac Intyre has wed the word (of which he here proves himself a
master) to the image (on which much of his previous canon has concentrated) to achieve a rich dramatic statement’ (10). A written form
and theatrical language unique to Mac Intyre thus evolved post-1990.
With its renewed interest in the power of poetic text Mac Intyre’s emerging style carried forward some of the earlier influences of theatre of the
image and dance theatre but simultaneously matched the aesthetics of
theatre in Ireland of the 1990s and onwards. Fintan O’Toole describes
this theatre as having,
more similarities with the theatre of Synge than […] a decade earlier […]
It is strongly marked by a concern with language for its own sake. It is primarily poetic rather than naturalistic. It has an angular rather than direct
relationship to Irish society. It works […] through evocation rather than
dramatization. (Theatre Stuff 47)
The setting, plot, characters, and language of Sheep’s Milk on the Boil
(directed by Tom Hickey, 1994), for example, are recognisably similar to
Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Both plays are set in remote/
rural West of Ireland locations before the onset of modernisation; both
24 M. Kelly
plays were premiered at historical moments on the cusp of major social
and political change; and both deal with confrontations with otherness
and the transformation of the self in consequence of their central characters’ interactions with the Jungian shadow self.
In The Playboy the feisty Pegeen Mike falls in love with a stranger
(Christy Mahon) who regales her and her village community with a story
he tells about brutally murdering his father. Over the course of the play’s
three acts, Christy is transformed from submissive weakling to autonomous hero on foot of reactions to this story, but he is eventually cast out
by the entire village when it turns out that this murderous act is untrue.
At the end of the play Christy departs having gained authority over his
father and with a new sense of conviction in himself. As Declan Kiberd
argues, Pegeen represents Christy’s anima, which Christy integrates and
accepts in the Jungian order of transformation (181). Pegeen, however,
remains chained to animus, the shebeen and the rules and regulations of
her tribe. In pre-revolutionary Ireland, according to Kiberd, The Playboy
invested optimism in the potential of a transformed patriarchal order
but, through the containment of Pegeen’s movement in the concluding
moments of its action, the play warned of societal barriers which withheld opportunities to those oppressed by class, gender or access to material independence (183).
As distinct from the montaged scenes of Mac Intyre’s plays of the
1980s, Sheep’s Milk on the Boil adheres to a conventional two-act structure, and its densely poetic text plays a pivotal role in propelling the
action in as much as stage image. In a cottage kitchen on an island off
the West coast of Ireland, a young married couple with similar dispositions to Synge’s Christy and Pegeen have their safe insular world turned
upside down through the abrupt intrusion of the materialised appearance of the archetypes of their unconsious. In a series of highly theatrical
interactions between archetypes and characters, directed by Tom Hickey,
the carnal sensibilities of the timid Matt (Pat Kinevane) and his spirited
wife Biddy (Deirdre Molloy) are tested to their utmost limits. In modern-day costumes (designed by Monica Frawley), the glamorous appearance of these archetypal characters—The Inspector of Wrack (Olwen
Fouéré), a seductive Hollywood femme fatale and The Visitor (Owen
Roe), an exotic Don Juan figure—counteracts the homely plainness of
the appearance of Matt and his wife. The Inspector and Visitor tempt
and terrify the two latter characters in scenes of escalating debauchment until, in a reversal of Synge’s denouement, Biddy departs following
her Visitor off the stage leaving Matt behind alone with a disappointed
Inspector of Wrack whose advances he has ultimately rejected.
This phantasmagoria is set in motion when Matt returns from the
mainland at the beginning of the play with two significant objects which
trigger the appearance of the archetypes: for Biddy there is an alarm
clock, which is alien to both characters and which sparks only mild
curiosity; for Matt there is a looking-glass with which he is obsessively
enthralled. The characters’ reaction to the clock points to the novelty of
clock-time in Matt’s and Biddy’s world; the ringing alarm bell registers
a shift in the action from a temporal to non-temporal, non-secular, nonrealist frame. Referencing the clock that Synge famously brought to the
Aran Islands in the late 1800s, the appearance of the clock in Sheep’s Milk
signals the characters’ positioning—and hence the play’s positioning—at
the point of a potential new beginning, an ending, a moment of change
or a transition.9
Matt’s conversation with the mirror demonstrates the full extent of
Mac Intyre’s developing poetic style as well as the play’s reference to that
significant moment in Synge’s Playboy when Christy looks into Pegeen’s
mirror and sees himself for the first time in a new heroic light:
I’d hardly know ye … But I do know ye … I will know ye … we’ll know
each other comin’ or goin’, sleep or wakin’ over the work or busy idlin’.
I’ll learn all your bountiful tricks … till, no time, you’ll squeal when ye find
me comin’ … won’t ye, won’t ye? O me sweet, and o me swanky! Like
steppin outa the March shadda and being blinded by the glare … We’re
like the pair o’dancers just brought toe to toe. The best dancer’s the one
dances with the eyes. (Sheep’s Milk on the Boil 75)
The chaos brought about by the introduction of the two exotic objects
in Sheep’s Milk precipitates the male character’s enslavement to the
anima, and the female character’s liberation through her integration
with the animus. Matt, however, will forever look narcissistically into the
mirror not engaging with nor accepting the full extent of himself or the
wider world around him. By contrast, Biddy will enter into a process of
transformation which involves complete integration between persona and
shadow self. According to Brian Singleton, contemporary dramatists,
reflecting radical social change in Irish society from the 1990s onwards,
have attempted to replace the ‘essentialized iconic and mythical women
of the early nation’s male imagination’ with a ‘new Irish woman’ who
26 M. Kelly
has emerged from the country kitchen on to the street. As he says, in
the reconfiguration of gender-relations ‘a new surreal set of conceptual values borne out of consumerism has replaced the authority of the
Catholic Church’ (Singleton, qtd. in Sihra 18). Leaving aside essentialist terminology the question as to whether this ‘new Irish woman’ is
embraced or elided in the later Mac Intyre plays is an interesting one.
Women certainly have a powerful presence in the more recent dramatic
texts as does the concern for their struggle against the patriarchal order.
In choosing the story of the real woman Bridget Cleary for his 2005
play What Happened Bridgie Cleary, for instance, Mac Intyre wanted to
engage with ‘an ancient story in the battle of patriarchy against the occasionally fragile and–in this case—feisty, bold brave lassie.’ As he explained
in advance of the opening of the play, ‘[i]f you make a wrong move in
your brave endeavour to free yourself of the collective, they may very
well extract savage punishment’ (Mac Intyre, qtd in Heaney 16). In contrast to Biddy’s liberation at the conclusion of Sheep’s Milk on the Boil,
Bridgie remains prisoner at the end of What Happened Bridgie Cleary. As
expressed by the eponymous character: ‘I cuddent stir. No wan te hobble me, I’m in chains. An’ worse, worst of all, knew te the far ends o’ me
bones the cost o’ this ‘prisonment—I wasn’t spared that afflickshin, an’
rightly so’ (What Happened Bridgie Cleary 99).
Whilst the implication that Bridgie may have had any freedom to
choose her destiny is highly problematic—‘I tuk fright’ (98) she says—
this play poses a question about human nature on the precipice between
conformity and non-conformity, between everyday existence and the
desire for heightened experience. In this respect the play issues a call to
embrace the transcendental as an alternative to the rigid world of secularity and patriarchal dominance.
Shifting from the hurt, damaged, and oppressed mind of the 1980s,
then, Mac Intyre’s plays of the 1990s and onwards focus on the transcendental through the theme of ‘sex and death’.10 Mac Intyre speaks
of the latter in terms of ‘the hunger many of us have for intense living—
and the reluctance many of us have to pay the price for that elusive goal’
(Mac Intyre, qtd in Weiskind 10). Akin to George Bataille’s outlook in
Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, Mac Intyre’s ‘intense living’ refers to the
sacred quality of the transcendental. In Bataille’s view this is:
[t]he desire to go keeling helplessly over, that assails the innermost depths
of every human being. [This] may well be a desire to die, but it is at the
same time a desire to live to the limits of the possible and the impossible
with ever-increasing intensity. It is the desire to live while ceasing to live,
or to die without ceasing to live, the desire of an extreme state. (239–240)
Although the ambiguity surrounding the treatment of the female figure
lingers in Mac Intyre’s later plays, and although male concerns continue
to dominate this drama, these male figures are consistently represented
in a negative light. Vain, sheepish, and ineffectual, these male figures sit
metaphorically on the edge of a cliff facing the prospect of their desires
‘to go keeling helplessly over’, but their fear continually arrests their ability to take a leap of faith. The highly comic and by turns darkly tragic
Only an Apple (2009), for example, deals with a corrupt Taoiseach (Irish
Prime Minister) and political cohorts as they consider the risk of taking
‘leave of the mundane world’ (25). The Taoiseach (Don Wycherley) is
clearly a version of the disgraced Fianna Fáil leader, Charles J. Haughey,
and the setting (designed for the Peacock Theatre by Dick Bird) is an
obvious replica of Abbeville, Haughey’s mansion in North Dublin.
The superbly humorous opening action of the play (directed by Selina
Cartmell) expresses the Taoiseach’s dissatisfaction with the humdrum
business of political life. Like Biddy and Matt in Sheep’s Milk, he holds no
reverence for the organisation of time:
Someone said to me once—young deputy up from the bogs—first term
in the house—‘You never wear a watch, Taoiseach?’ ‘No,’ I told him, ‘I
never was. But I’ve known lots who were and battalions who are. All they
do is tick, and when they’re not ticking they’re alarming, when they’re not
alarming they’re bloodless gadgets falling to bits at forty—and then insisting on a State funeral!’ (5)
Moving away from clock-time and into the unreal, the play follows the
Taoiseach into the wild antics of fantasy in which he (and his political staff) are seduced by the ghosts of Queen Elizabeth I (Fiona Bell)
and piratess Grace O’Malley (Cathy Belton). The seduction culminates in a bizarre show-stopping ‘showpiece chorale—with dance element’
which ends with a ‘turn towards the troubling, the menacing, the chasm’
(46). This ‘chasm’ involves the Taoiseach facing down his shadow self
and contemplating his desire to ‘go keeling helplessly over’ to borrow
Bataille’s words again. As the Taoiseach says towards the end of the play:
28 M. Kelly
Tell you something, and for free: I’m minded to gamble—just go for it—
y’know, like closin’ your eyes and walking over a cliff. Donegal. Or Clare.
Aran Islands. Am I going mad? I feel in balance. I think. […] I want the
trip. Am I ready to pay the price? Will there be a price? Always a price. For
coming. Going. (98)
In similar fashion to Synge’s Playboy, Mac Intyre’s later plays operate in
tangential fashion to political and social contexts, working conceptually
whilst avoiding direct engagement with contemporary events. Across the
action of several of these plays this is the prospect of one world breaking down in order to make way for the new. In Sheep’s Milk, the walls of
Matt’s and Biddy’s cottage kitchen (designed by Monica Frawley) gradually disintegrate until in Act II the ‘entire back wall [is] now gone’ (92).
On the surface these disintegrating walls reflect the deterioring relationship between Matt and Biddy and the opening of the characters’ world
to other realities. More implicitly this demise of the cottage kitchen signals an end to the perceived stability of the domestic zone and its designation as a purely feminine space. Equally this demise suggests the
tearing apart of old familiar traditions and conventions of Irish theatre,
those steeped in anxieties surrounding identity, home and land.
In the same decade as the onset of the Peace Process in Northern
Ireland and the fall of the Berlin Wall, these crumbling kitchen walls in
Sheep’s Milk on the Boil carry powerful signifiers of borders coming down
both at home and abroad. They also mark the moment when global consumerist culture and EU and US investment in Ireland was to have an
increasing impact on the authority of the Irish State. As Fintan O’Toole
wrote in the 1990s, the notion of ‘national independence is underwritten by transnational corporations and by a supra-national European
Union’ (The Lie of the Land xvi). Along with the two significant objects
in the play, then, these collapsing walls anticipated Patrick Lonergan’s
argument that, by the late 2000s, ‘globalisation—rather than the
“national question” [had become] the dominant paradigm in Irish theatre’ (Theatre and Globalization 27).
In this regard it is no surprise to find crumbling walls or portals to
other worlds as prominent features in all of Mac Intyre’s later plays. In
Good-Evening, Mr Collins (designed by Barbara Bradshaw) the gaping hole in the wall of the interior of the period room occupied by
Michael Collins and the ghosts of his unconscious mind point to openings beyond post-revolutionary Ireland. In The Chirpaun (designed by
Barbara Bradshaw) great chunks missing from the walls of the setting
expose the fragile frame of the domestic home as Jacinta rails against
her father’s belligerent inability to accept the unknown paternity of her
unborn child. The fragile frame thus carries connotations of the breakdown of family structures and exposes anxieties surrounding the erosion
of identity at the onset of globalisation.
In exploring Irish theatre from the 1990s onwards, Eamonn Jordan
writes about an evolvement of form within a specific cultural context
rather than a radical rupture from one tradition to the next. As he suggests, this commonality across the organic development of Irish theatre
in this period speaks of ‘the shared attractions and repulsions towards the
Irish dream’ (10) and exposes a dual dynamic, driven on the one hand by
the unsustainability between text and context and, on the other, by the
contextual pressures of actual events. Whilst not pinpointing Mac Intyre
specifically, Jordan recognises that the plays of Marina Carr, Martin
McDonagh, Frank McGuinness, Marie Jones, and Mark O’Rowe ‘do not
bear much relation’ (10) to the realities of contemporary Ireland. He
argues that these plays have emerged in a culturally and politically specific moment and stretch across national boundaries (10). Enabling this
stretch across boundaries are dramaturgies configured around the language of poetry which opens the stage to worlds beyond the quotidian.
Thus, in an Irish Times review of What Happened Bridgie Cleary (2005),
O’Toole observes:
In its densely poetic language, its use of the stage as a sacred space and its
air of repeated ritual, this is perhaps the most Yeatsian play the Abbey has
staged since its co-founder’s death. […] MacIntyre’s [sic] dialogue is a
strange but forceful confection of archaic rural speech and angular, modernist sounds […] the drama is in the lift and swoop of this language […]. (14)
Since this is the world of the unreal, the lift and swoop of Mac Intyre’s
language moves freely in the zone of the uncensored, moving from the
seriousness of sacred spaces to the absurdity and flamboyance of the
scathingly comic. Whilst ‘things’ and ‘bodies’ on stage provided shock
factor in the 1980s, it is Mac Intyre’s ‘words’ within the other-worldly
positioning of his later dramaturgy that stops audiences in their tracks.
In Only an Apple, for instance, comic words scupper accepted views and
misconceptions inasmuch as physical action. At one point in the play
the Taoiseach asks the audience, ‘Have you ever had the experience of
30 M. Kelly
opening your passport, glancing at your photo, and discovering that the
name under it is Paddy Shite?’ (96). Thus, Lonergan’s review sees the
play as,
vacuous, crude, and infantile. It is consistently sexist and occasionally
homophobic. It is incoherent and self-regarding. And because it is all of
those things, it is a stunningly appropriate and stimulating portrait of our
political system—one that allows us to imagine what the world looks like
from the perspective of a mediocre man with serious responsibilities. (Irish
Theatre Magazine 19–20)
Although Mac Intyre’s later plays place a renewed emphasis on ‘words’
it is important to point out that marked differences between rehearsal
texts and their published versions indicate a signifiant level of commitment to experimentation with text post ‘lunatics in the basement’.
Having an impact on these developments of Mac Intyre’s form was the
fact that from 1990 onwards Mac Intyre was engaged by the Abbey on
a play-to-play basis with entirely different creative teams for each new
play. Although the ‘lunatics in the basement’ had disbanded in 1988,
Mac Intyre continued to commit to collaboration through an open
approach to the reworking of his texts during rehearsal processes, and
a close working relationship with actor Tom Hickey. As well as extending his collaboration with Tom Hickey, Mac Intyre was learning from
and sharing his previous practical experience with a range of other directors, designers, and actors working for the national stage. At this time,
Mac Intyre also brought other new plays to the stage outside of the
Abbey, with companies such as Punchbag Theatre Company (Galway),
Red Kettle (Waterford), Project Arts Centre (Dublin).11 Thus the creative expertise of a range of freelance artists contributed to developments
in Mac Intyre’s form, which moved from having an aesthetically distinct
style in the 1980s to being much more diverse and varied in accordance
with the range of ideas to which he was exposed. Likewise, Mac Intyre’s
mode of working fed into the theatre practices of these other artists and
theatre companies in existence at the time.
Along with these creative exchanges, there were structural changes at
the Abbey which nourished the development of Mac Intyre’s dramaturgical form from the 1990s onwards. The continued staging of his work
on the Peacock stage coincided with a new period of artistic vision at
the Abbey Theatre when Mac Intyre’s once close collaborator Mason
became Artistic Director in 1994, holding tenure throughout the
remainder of the decade. On taking up the post, Mason released a policy document—‘A High Ambition: The Work of the National Theatre
Society’—which revived the manifesto set out by the founders of the
Irish Literary Theatre, later to become the Abbey Theatre under the
banner of the National Theatre Society Limited.12 In so doing Mason
reinforced the Abbey’s status as a writers’ theatre as well as a national
theatre, and invested in the promotion of plays from the repertoire:
The National Theatre Society was founded to promote and develop new
Irish plays, and thus build up an ‘Irish School of Dramatic Literature’. This
still remains the primary purpose of the Society. […] The National Theatre
Society is both the maker and shaper of the Irish Theatre Repertoire. After
nearly a century of work there does exist a varied and remarkable ‘School’
of Irish drama, and it is the secondary purpose of the Society to ensure
that these plays and playwrights of the past are not forgotten. […] The
National Theatre Society has a rich repertoire of plays built up over the
last 90 years. This repertoire has been largely neglected in recent years.
Unjustly so. The works of Gregory, Synge, Shiels, McNamara, Murray,
Colum, Ervine, and Deevy are a vital part of the dialogue of the past, and
it is high time that these voices were heard again. (Mason 2, 3, 10)
The emergence of the revisited Abbey Theatre manifesto in the mid1990s supports the notion of evocation described by O’Toole and
Jordan in their retrospective look across the decades.
It should also be noted that whilst Mason supported Mac Intyre’s
work through the programming of his plays at the Peacock and on
national tour during the 1990s, he did not enter the rehearsal room as
a director with Mac Intyre after 1988. Although Mason’s career had
begun in theatre experimentation, movement, and image, his profile as a
practitioner had begun to move in other directions from the mid-1980s
onwards, and by the early to mid-1990s he had worked steadily with a
range of other writers including Tom Murphy, Thomas Kilroy, Frank
McGuinness, Hugh Leonard and the late Brian Friel. Whether the trajectory of Mason’s career as a theatre director and his leadership of the
Abbey had any direct influence on the transition in Mac Intyre’s dramaturgy in the 1990s is a matter of debate. Mason, however, has stated that
the forging of a new theatrical vocabulary in the late 1980s with his fellow lunatics in the basement, ‘affected all of us in terms of our general
32 M. Kelly
work’ (qtd in Mulrooney 188). In this context it is not difficult to imagine the extent to which Mason’s later work as a theatre director was
influenced by his collaboration with Mac Intyre, and how this may have
fed into the work of the playwrights with whom he worked. It is also not
difficult to imagine the impact on Mason’s programming of plays for the
Abbey and Peacock Theatre’s during his tenure there as Artistic Director.
Mac Intyre’s style can clearly be seen in the work of significant writers
who followed after him on the national stage, the most obvious of these
being Marina Carr, Michael Harding and Vincent Woods who made
dramatic entrances on to the national stage in the late 1980s and early
1990s. Other writers are also vocal in their appreciation of the experimentation of Mac Intyre, Mason, Hickey and their creative counterparts in the 1980s. For instance, Frank McGuinness refers to The Great
Hunger and Rise Up Lovely Sweeney as experiences that changed his way
of looking at theatre (Mulrooney 192).
Tom Mac Intyre’s idiosyncratic poetic style of writing for the theatre
from the 1990s onwards is synonymous with and deconstructive of the
historical and contemporary voice and style of the Abbey Theatre. Where
the form of his plays pre-1990 lended itself to postmodern fragmentation of the self and the eschewal of character as a dominant feature of the
performance, it is poetry of the word that strikes home in the plays in the
1990s and 2000s. Fiach Mac Conghail, the outgoing Artistic Director
at the Abbey Theatre, has described Mac Intyre’s legacy as ‘a benchmark against which Irish theatre has defined itself’ (xxvi). Moving from
innovation to evocation, Mac Intyre’s plays have not only populated but
enriched the repertoire of the contemporary stage in Ireland with their
legacy of experimentation, their persistent search for the transcendental, and their deep exploration of the strange and not always flattering
reaches of the unconscious mind.
1. As a playwright, Mac Intyre was inspired by a wide range of innovators
in theatre practice, dance and cinema: the modern Irish and European
theatre experimentation of John Millington Synge, William Butler Yeats,
Samuel Beckett, George Fitzmaurice, M. J. Molloy, and Maurice Meldon;
European alternative theatre practices of Antonin Artaud, Vsevolod
Meyerhold and Jerzy Grotowski; the imagistic cinema of Werner Hertzog
and Federico Fellini; modern dance practices of Merce Cunningham,
Martha Graham and Meredith Monk; the aesthetics of Theatre of the
Image and Dance Theatre, in particular the work of Polish auteur
Tadeusz Kantor and German choreographer Pina Bausch.
2. Patrick Mason was Staff Director and Voice and Movement Coach at the
Abbey Theatre. He trained in Martha Graham’s choreographic technique and spent time observing Peter Brook in Paris. At intervals during
the 1970s Mac Intyre spent time abroad, particularly in the US where
he joined Calck Hook Dance Theatre, a dance theatre company based at
Oberlin College in Ohio. It was there that Mac Intyre gained hands-on
experience of collaboration and performance, taking part in rehearsals and
performing in two plays, Deer Crossing (Oberlin, 1978) and Doobally/
Black Way (Le Ranelagh, Paris and Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity
College, Dublin, 1979). It was also during this time that Mac Intyre’s
enthusiasm for alternative and movement-based theatre was kindled by
seeing a wide range of theatre and dance both in Europe and the US.
3. The actors, as Ní Neachtain says, were free both to ‘dig, explore, and
investigate the fabric of the play’ and ‘to invent even in performance’.
The company was working, she says, ‘towards a fresh and vibrant form
of theatre that served the playwright and challenged the audience’ (Ní
Neachtain, in Sweeney and Kelly 137). As a consequence, accreditation for the full realisation of these plays of the 1980s belongs to Mac
Intyre in collaboration with a creative group: including the actors’ performances, Mason’s direction, and Casson’s designs, as well as Mac Intyre’s
vision and dramatic text.
4. As Mac Intyre has described it, ‘the mode of work that declared itself to
us was as follows: it was, let’s say, spontaneously agreed, that the writer
could also be quasi-director and quasi-actor, the director could be quasiwriter and quasi-actor and the actor could be quasi-writer and quasidirector. And I think it’s probably extraordinarily rare in the theatre for
that conjuncture to happen.’ (Chambers, FitzGibbon and Jordan 312).
5. The Great Hunger was first staged in the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on
9 May 1983, revived in July 1986. The production subsequently toured
to the Edinburgh Festival, where it gained massive critical acclaim and
won a Fringe First Award. In 1986 the production toured Ireland to venues in Belfast, Waterford and Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan. In 1987
the production travelled to London and Paris. The final tour took place
in 1988 with the production travelling to Leningrad and Moscow where
it played in the famous Moscow Art Theatre.
6. Published plays in the period include: Sheep’s Milk on the Boil (Syracuse
University Press, 1994), Good Evening, Mr Collins (in The Dazzling
Dark: New Irish Plays, Faber, 1996), Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire
(Coisceim, 1999), Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (Coisceim, 1999), The Gallant
34 M. Kelly
John-Joe (in The Great Hunger and The Gallant John Joe, The Lilliput
Press, 2002). What Happened Bridgie Cleary (New Island, 2005) and
Only an Apple (New Island, 2009).
7. According to Carr: ‘the whole play is peopled with ghosts. It is what Mac
Intyre himself calls ‘A Ghost Sonata’. You’ve one actress playing the three
women—Moya, Kitty and Hazel. Another piece of banditry but it works
a dream. The women merge into one another, separate, merge again.
They’re ghosts, Collins’s own private ghosts.’ See ‘The Bandit Pen’.
8. The heave—euphemism for political shafting.
9. According to Declan Kiberd, in his time Synge was an ‘agent of […]
change, bringing the first alarm-clock to the islands (with the attendant
notion of clock-time, efficiency and measurement) as well as his camera
(itself creating a new narcissism among the islanders, which he observes
with some disgust, since the camera was a curiosity employed by him to
win the confidence and respect of the people). Seeing his photographs of
them, the islanders tell Synge that they are seeing themselves for the first
time’ (172–173).
10. ‘You can’t go wrong with sex and death. There is no other story.’ Mac
Intyre, qtd in Playwrights in Profile (Series 1). Presenter Sean Rocks
(Dublin: RTÉ Radio 1, 11 February 2007).
11. These included a libretto for a production of Ariane and Bluebeard for
Opera North (1990, directed by Patrick Mason at Leeds Grand Theatre).
He also had a series of plays produced by other companies around Ireland:
The Mankeeper (1991, directed by Paul Brennan for Midas Theatre-inEducation Company, Limerick), Fine Day for a Hunt (1992, directed by
Sean Evers for Punchbag Theatre Company, Galway), Chickadee (1993,
directed by Tom Hickey for Red Kettle Theatre Company, Waterford) and
Foggy Hair and Green Eyes (1993, directed by Tom Hickey at the Project
Arts Centre and Clarence Hotel, Dublin). There was also a one-man play,
The Gallant John-Joe, based on the earlier play, The Chirpaun, which toured
extensively nationally and internationally from 2001 onwards, as well as a
dance piece You Must Tell the Bees (1996, co-choreographed by John Scott
and Tom Mac Intyre, co-produced by Irish Modern Dance Theatre and
Firkin Crane Arts Centre, Cork).
12. ‘We propose to have performed in Dublin in the spring of every year certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever be their degree of excellence
will be written with high ambition, and so to build up a Celtic and Irish
school of dramatic literature. We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted
and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory […]
We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery or of easy sentiment, as it has been represented but the home of an ancient idealism.
We are confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of
misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us.’ Lady Augusta Persse Gregory, Our Irish
Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography (Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe,
1972), 20.
Works Cited
Barrett, John. ‘Environmental Design in the Dublin Theatre.’ The Theatre of Tom
Mac Intyre: Strays from the Ether. Eds. Bernadette Sweeney and Marie Kelly.
Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2010. 89–93. Print.
Bataille, George. Eroticism Death and Sensuality. Tr. Mary Dalwood. San
Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986. Print.
Bourke, Angela. ‘Reading a Woman’s Death: Colonial Text and Oral Tradition in
Nineteenth-Century Ireland.’ Feminist Studies 21.3 (1995): 553–586. Print.
Carr, Marina. ‘The Bandit Pen.’ Programme Note. Peacock Theatre, 1995.
Chambers, Lilian, FitzGibbon, Ger and Jordan, Eamonn, eds. Theatre Talk.
Dublin: Carysfort, 2001. Print.
Coleman, Steve. ‘Bridgie Cleary Speaks!’ Irish Journal of Anthropology 9.1
(2006): 35–36. Print.
de Bréadún, Deaglán. ‘Fianna Fail aims its arrows straight at Parlon.’ The Irish
Times, 4 May 2002. Web. <> 15 December 2016.
‘“Great Hunger” fails as drama.’ Rev. of Great Hunger. Sunday Independent, 15
May 1983: 17. Print.
Gregory, Lady Augusta. Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography. Gerrards
Cross: Colin Smythe, 1972. Print.
Healy, Dermot. ‘The Hurt Mind.’ Programme Note, The Great Hunger. Peacock
Theatre, October 1986. Print.
Heaney, Mick. ‘Keeping Sight of His Goals.’ Sunday Times, 24 April 2005:
Hickey, Tom. ‘Tom Mac Intyre Border Country Bandit.’ The Theatre of Tom
Mac Intyre: Strays from the Ether. Eds. Bernadette Sweeney and Marie Kelly.
Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2010. 55–64. Print.
Jordan, Eamonn. Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre. Dublin:
Irish Academic Press, 2010. Print.
Kiberd, Declan. ‘J. M. Synge – Remembering the Future.’ Inventing Ireland.
London: Vantage, 1996. 166–191. Print.
Lonergan, Patrick. Rev. of Only an Apple. Irish Theatre Magazine, 6 May 2009:
19–20. Print.
———. Rev. of What Happened Bridgie Cleary. Irish Theatre Magazine, 19 May
2005: 17–18. Print.
36 M. Kelly
———. Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era.
Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2010. Print.
McIvor, Charlotte. ‘Ghosting Bridgie Cleary: Tom Mac Intyre and Staging This
Woman’s Death.’ Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture. Eds. Sara
Brady and Fintan Walsh. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 169–179.
Mac Intyre, Tom. The Great Hunger and The Gallant John Joe. Dublin: The
Lilliput Press, 2002. Print.
———. Only an Apple. Dublin: New Island, 2009. Print.
———. Sheep’s Milk on the Boil. New Plays From the Abbey Theatre: 1993–1995.
Eds. FitzSimon, C. and S. Sternlicht. New York: Syracuse University Press,
1996. 72–110. Print.
———. What Happened Bridgie Cleary. Dublin: New Island, 2005. Print.
Mac Conghail, Fiach. ‘Preface.’ The Theatre of Tom Mac Intyre: Strays from the
Ether. Eds. Bernadette Sweeney and Marie Kelly. Dublin: Carysfort Press,
2010. xxvi.
Martin, Augustine. Rev. of Great Hunger. ‘Great Hunger.’ The Irish Times, 30
May 1983: 9. Print.
Mason, Patrick. ‘A High Ambition: The Work of the National Theatre Society.’
Dublin: The National Theatre Society Limited, 1994. Print.
Moore, Dermod. ‘Lunatics in the Basement: Madness in Mac Intyre.’ The
Theatre of Tom Mac Intyre: Strays from the Ether. Eds. Bernadette Sweeney and
Marie Kelly. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2010. 139–144. Print.
Mulrooney, Deirdre. ‘Tom Mac Intyre’s Text-ure.’ Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays
on Contemporary Irish Theatre. Ed. Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort Press,
2000. 187–194. Print.
Nowlan, David. ‘Mac Intyre Weds Words to Image in Rich Drama.’ The Irish
Times, 9 Oct 1990: 10. Print.
O’Kelly, Emer. ‘Master of Fantasy.’ Sunday Independent, 7 December 1997: 47. Print.
O’Toole, Fintan. ‘Irish Theatre: The State of the Art.’ Theatre Stuff: Critical
Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatre. Ed. Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort
Press, 2000. 47–59. Print.
———. The Lie of the Land: Irish Identities. London: Verso, 1997. Print.
———. Rev. of What Happened Bridgie Cleary. Irish Times, 9 Apr. 2005: 14.
Sihra, Melissa. ‘Introduction.’ Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship.
Ed. Melissa Sihra. London: Palgrave, 2007. Print.
Sweeney, Bernadette. Performing the Body in Irish Theatre. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2008. Print.
‘Tom Mac Intyre.’ Playwrights in Profile (Series 1). Pres. Sean Rocks. RTÉ Radio
1, Dublin, 11 Feb. 2007. Radio.
Weiskind, Ron. ‘“Deer Crossing”: Abstract, Stylised.’ The Journal, Lorain Ohio,
5 May 1978: 10. Print.
Author Biography
Marie Kelly worked at the Abbey Theatre (Dublin) between 1993 and 2006
during which time she set up the theatre’s existing Casting Department. She
holds a Ph.D. in Drama Studies and an M.A. in Modern Drama and Performance
from University College Dublin. Marie lectures in Drama and Theatre Studies
at the School of Music and Theatre, University College Cork and is the current
Vice-President of the Irish Society for Theatre Research. She has co-edited The
Theatre of Tom Mac Intyre: Strays from the Ether with fellow practitioner and lecturer Bernadette Sweeney for Carysfort Press (2010).
From Dementia to Utopia: Tragedy
and Transcendence in Frank McGuinness’s
The Hanging Gardens
Matthieu Kolb
In the manifesto they wrote jointly in 1984, titled ‘A Popular Theatre’,
Patrick Mason and Frank McGuinness insisted that the popular theatre they envisioned could not ‘turn its back on its origins in affirmative defiance, rooted in the instincts of the Bacchae’ (110). It appears
they have remained true to this principle throughout their long-standing collaboration, and that Frank McGuinness has made it a core feature of his drama. From his first play in 1982, The Factory Girls, to his
latest, The Hanging Gardens, also directed by Patrick Mason at the
Abbey Theatre for the 2013 Dublin Theatre Festival, he has populated
both the Irish and foreign stages with characters moved by and mediating the spirit of Bacchic defiance. Kenneth Pyper in Observe the Sons
of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Dido Martin in Carthaginians,
Caravaggio in Innocence, Michael in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, the
Filè in Mutabilitie, Eleanor Henryson in The Bird Sanctuary, Rima West
and Mario Delavicario in Dolly West’s Kitchen or Bridget in There Came
M. Kolb (*) 
University of Rennes 2, Rennes, France
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_3
40 M. Kolb
a Gypsy Riding, to name but a few, may be considered variations not
only on the Ibsenian motif of the disquieting stranger in the house, but
also of Euripides’s representation of Dionysus disguised as a stranger to
smuggle the spirit of anarchic defiance and transgression into the kingdom of Pentheus.
In The Hanging Gardens, it may be argued that the central character, Sam Grant, while being a very realistic, almost clinical representation
of a novelist suffering from dementia (possibly Alzheimer’s disease), is
another avatar of the Dionysian border-crosser. Torn apart by the disease, Sam is the sacrificial victim from the start, who ushers licentious
madness and chaos in his own house. A close examination of his attitude
and symptoms reveals that the play is driven by his fierce battle against
mental collapse and thus taken beyond the mere chronicle of neurological decay into the realm of tragedy. His doomed struggle for survival
brings about transcendence and transformation for him, the family and,
possibly, the audience. How the Grants must renew their identities and
negotiate new forms of cohesion to deal with such challenging chaos
and lawlessness turns out to be the central poetic and political question. Besides, as announced by the title and Sam Grant’s assimilation of
the family house and garden—which remains the fictional stage place
throughout—to the hanging gardens of Babylon, the play also seems to
question whether the stage can still become a utopian space, even as the
abysmal chaos of dementia is confronted head on.
I therefore propose to examine The Hanging Gardens in the light
of Joseph Long’s identification of a fundamental utopianism in Frank
McGuinness’s drama: according to Long, French playwright Armand
Gatti’s faith in the utopian dimension of the stage has had a determining influence on McGuinness’s theatre.1 In most of his early plays of
the 1980s and 1990s, as well as in his later ‘domestic plays’,2 the stage
spaces are never limited to the representation of the geographical places
or social environments to which they nonetheless iconically refer. They
are always flexible time-spaces destined to set the stage for what I would
insist on defining as rituals of spiritual transformation and renewal, in
spite of Eli Rozik’s enlightening but not wholly convincing attempt
to disprove the ritualistic roots of drama.3 In The Hanging Gardens,
the Grants’ garden, as designed for the Abbey production by Michael
Pavelka and Davy Cunningham, was obviously one such space: through
its partly naturalistic and partly undefined design, as well as through the
use of lighting effects and variations, it was made to appear as a fragment
of cosmic, transient space. Being also a place of non-hegemonic human
relations and collective creative activity, Sam and Jane’s ‘hanging gardens’ could also be viewed as a fragment of the ‘absolute space’ defined
by Henri Lefebvre. The utopian stage is thus set for the tragic hero to
celebrate the characters’ common inclusion in that transcendent reality,
of which actors and audience may also partake.
McGuinness’s choice of topic and protagonist for The Hanging
Gardens could seem bound to jeopardize any attempt at turning the
stage into a utopian space of transformation. The drama of Sam Grant’s
mental disintegration might be set in what George Steiner defines as
the category of absolute tragedy, along with Shakespeare’s King Lear
or Ibsen’s Ghosts.4 On the face of it, the fragmentary chronicle of his
gradual collapse into dementia, up to the catastrophic final sequence of
aphasia, leaves no room for sublimation and transcendence: as Steiner
says about Büchner’s Woyzeck, his fate seems absolutely tragic because
he ‘mumbles his way into empty death’, deprived of ‘the dignity and
consolation of articulacy’ (133). Sam’s sudden, final collapse comes as
an ironic twist of fate: it enhances the ironic ruthlessness of the disease
itself in deriding his linguistic and narrative art as well as whatever transcendence he may have sought through writing. This scathing irony also
underlines the absence of hamartia in Sam’s tragic fate, which makes
him appear as one of those ‘unwanted intruders on creation, […] destined to undergo unmerited, incomprehensible, arbitrary suffering and
defeat’ (Steiner 129).
However, before the pathetic final twist, Sam remains sufficiently
articulate to go through spiritual and relational change. From his attitude of denial and defensive paranoia in scene 3, he moves, in the last
scene, to one of relative acceptance of his fate, of the possibility of waiting for death while relying on his wife and their three grown-up children’s support and love.5 Besides, this final choice is no mere defeatism.
It also stems from his continued struggle for narrative wholeness as
well as a tacit agreement with Jane to uphold the spirit of creative freedom that has always underpinned the family’s values. As emphasized by
Charlie, Rachel and Maurice in scene 2, their parents’ refusal to hire anybody for home help or nursing is consistent with their scorn for gratefulness,6 which should itself be directly related to a fierce dedication to
intellectual independence and creativity:
42 M. Kolb
am Grant has always maintained gratitude is the worst of all
human vices—take gratitude from no one, show it to no one.
Will saying thanks get the job done? Do you know what it
takes to write a novel?
Maurice: The power to stand on your own two feet. Last as long as the
bastard of a book takes. For the book must be finished.
Rachel: And when the book is finished, what then?
Maurice: Start another one.
Rachel: Start immediately.
Charlie: And he did—frequently.
Rachel: He did always. (17)
It might thus be that, for all its terrible bleakness, The Hanging Gardens
does not depart from McGuinness’s customary utopian stage aesthetics.
One way of tracing the play’s connection to such aesthetics is to probe
its tragic dimension, relying on Gouhier’s definition of tragedy as a play
whose characters or dramatic events express or signify transcendence, an
order of reality beyond the range and grasp of human experience. Tragic
transcendence, Gouhier remarks, can be of any kind, divine presence or
absence. As for the possibility of atheistic transcendence, Gouhier gives
no definite answer; confining his field of investigation to the theatre, he
states that tragic transcendence is conditioned by the possibility of freedom and poetic evocation. Thus scientific determinism precludes tragedy, he claims, so that a purely psycho-pathological explanation of King
Lear’s madness, for instance, would have defused tragedy and prevented
Shakespeare from suggesting poetically that both the old king’s soul and
the world are shaken by the same cosmic fury (Gouhier 38). Therefore,
once borne out, modern-day genetic or biological hypotheses about the
causes of neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s
disease would make it impossible for Sam Grant’s drama to be classified
as tragic. Yet, as we shall see further, McGuinness dramatizes the resilience of the mentally disabled, which makes it possible for tragic transcendence to emerge and for Gouhier’s standards to apply even as Lear
and Grant are diagnosed as demented.
Signs of tragic transcendence show through Sam’s dismal fate and the
biological determinism of neurological decay, which could be evidence
that The Hanging Gardens still partakes of the Bacchic utopianism of
McGuinness’s theatre of celebration. The play belongs to the category of
the tragic first and foremost because it focuses on the central character’s
pain and his struggle to overcome it. From the start, the audience can
understand and vicariously experience Sam’s excruciating pain and panic.
The prologue consists in a visually and aurally striking dramatization of
his lunacy and utter estrangement from reality. This is conveyed by the
strange stage music, the spectral moonlight—a spotlight in the Abbey
production, isolating Sam centre stage from the surrounding darkness
and shadowy figures, his two children and the audience—the downpour
of rain shutting him off further from his perceptual environment and signifying dissolution, the washing off of his whole personality and being:
Sam: My palace is Babylon and you walk in the hanging gardens.
Jane: Sam, get in—you’re soaked.
He sees Jane. Jane takes him by the hand. Charlie shelters him with the
umbrella. They lead Sam inside, leaving Rachel and Maurice in the rain.
They follow them inside. Fade. (12)
Jane’s observation that Sam is soaked also hints at his mental condition since the permeability of the frontier between inner and outer
selves has been described as one of the main symptoms of dementia and
Alzheimer’s disease. From the prologue onwards, therefore, Sam’s inner
dislocation is dramatized: combined with his invocation of Babylon and
its hanging gardens, this psychic sparagmos prefigures the tragic victim’s
agony and final song.
However, the representation of Sam’s symptoms is also clinically
accurate and this realism partly defuses the tragic mode by revealing the
extent of his neurological degeneration. For instance, the initial stage
instructions specify that he delights in being soaked through by the rain,
which aptly reflects the demented man’s self-denying subservience to
the perceptual world. According to Marion Péruchon’s psychoanalytical observation of demented patients, such symptomatic engrossment in
the perceptual allows the sufferer to offset the loss of control over representational thought. In Sam’s case, it is compounded by another type
of engrossment, namely hallucinatory denial of external reality. He is
delightedly giving himself over to his vision of the hanging gardens of
Babylon, ‘that house which is Babylon’ (11) and ‘the diadems of sun and
stars’ he wishes to wear. The symptomatic process of hyperbolic idealization is perfectly captured here: the demented self being deprived of the
symbolic function by memory loss is left to its own devices and starts
persuading itself idealized objects are physically present (Péruchon 122).
44 M. Kolb
Retired novelist Sam Grant thus appears as the antithesis of
McGuinness’s heroic creative artists who customarily act as agents
of transgression and transformation in several plays of his—sculptor
Kenneth Pyper, would-be playwright Dido Martin, Gaelic bard Filè,
painters Caravaggio da Merisi and Eleanor Henryson, actress Greta
Garbo, are all in full possession of psychic powers that enable them to
broaden others’ sensibilities and show the way to ‘healing and renewed
creativity’ (Lojek 101).7 Thanks to his self-proclaimed demiurgic power
to reveal God by balancing spirit and flesh, ‘the beautiful and the
ugly, the saved and the sinning’ (Plays One 208), Caravaggio paints to
‘remind us of unpleasant truths’ as Cardinal Del Monte tells him; but the
Cardinal also underlines that the painter’s vision is linked to his language
skills and his need to tell what he sees:
Cardinal: […] You remind us of unpleasant truths, Caravaggio. For that
you may be hated. Your sins may be condemned. But you will be forgiven,
for you are needed. Forgiven everything eventually. Dangerous words.
A dangerous man. Saving himself by the power of his seeing. And by his
need to tell what he sees. Tell me your sins. Confess, Caravaggio. (243)
Just like Caravaggio’s, the other artists’ roles of mediators or even diviners of the need for spiritual and cultural change rest on their articulacy and mastery of symbolic thought: on that condition only can
their gift for creative sublimation be put at the service of their mediation of change in the plays. In creative sublimation, clinical psychologist
Péruchon explains, the sound-minded artist grapples with the sense of
loss and remains alive to the loss of the object so as to be able to endow
it with new meanings and images (123).
It follows that Sam’s ecstatic assimilation of his house to Babylon and
its hanging gardens should not be mistaken for an instance of creative
sublimation: it rather signals the collapse of the symbolic function and
the pathological amalgamation of the perceived world with mnemonic
hallucinations. Dramatic irony sets in as the audience is led to surmise
the extent of his distress and estrangement when he appears temporarily
unable to recognise his family in the prologue.
However, the clinical realism of this prologue mingles with its
metatheatrical function: Sam’s incantatory calling forth of the hanging
gardens of Babylon or his address to the initially unrecognisable figures
approaching him, allied with the strange stage music and the moonlight,
bring out the theatricality of the stage and its assumed affinity to rituals of
invocation of otherworldly spirits and sacred, mythical times and places.
Secondly, metatheatricality is encoded by the ambivalent position of Jane
and the children as character-spectators powerlessly looking on Sam’s
solitary parade and raving invocation. According to Anne Ubersfeld,
such a mise en abyme of theatrical fictionalisation entails an effect of double denial which cancels the fictionality of the scene and turns it into
enhanced truth or reality (Lire le théâtre II 111–16). Sam’s assertions
that the family house and garden represented on stage should be equated
to the palace and hanging gardens of Babylon are thus to be received
as enhanced truth by the audience. Consequently, the ranting novelist’s
invocation of the splendours of Babylon on the Abbey stage should have
been taken as a literal assertion of the possibility for the stage to become
the ideal space of the hanging gardens, i.e. a utopian stage. What is also
asserted is that Sam has retained his powers of naming and conjuring up
imaginative realities through language. The double denial effect brings
him forward as a master of ceremony and genuine artist-conjurer of possible worlds: Sam will act as plotter of the family drama about to unfold.
The play therefore treads an awkward path. It is centred on a character who appears both as an inadequate artist, whose powers of creative
sublimation have been irrevocably undermined by disease, and an artistdiviner, whose imaginative powers will determine the dramatic plot and
bring about change. As we shall see now, this contradiction is resolved
by the family’s collaborative acceptance of change and by Sam and Jane’s
After the prologue, an expository first scene shows Rachel, Maurice
and Charlie having a morning chat about their parents’ quirks and the
various family rivalries within the family. It reveals that Sam’s disease
is not the original cause of trouble and disharmony in the family. Each
of the children has their private reasons for feeling frustrated with not
having been shown sufficient attention or gratefulness by both parents,
whom they mock for being wholly taken up with their work—Sam with
his novels; Jane with tending to the garden and the gardening books she
has had published to good profit. A picture of what structures the family relations and hierarchy emerges from this morning chat. Sam’s fierce
devotion to his writing, his unflinching insistence on self-reliance and
the freedom of the creative imagination are stressed and identified as the
cause of rivalry between the parents as well as among the three children.
The exposition thus sets one of the crucial terms of the dramatic conflict.
46 M. Kolb
Sam’s fierce faith in self-reliance and freedom of body and mind is the
central ‘home truth’ that he will attempt to pass on to his children when
he successively confronts them in scene 3.8
Sam is a free thinker, seemingly both apolitical and irreligious, who
believes the western world has collapsed: ‘What need have we of the
world?’ he asks Jane in scene 2, ‘Where would we go? New York? Falling
down. London? Finished. Dublin? Poisonous. Falling—finished—poisonous—them, or me? Maybe we should trek to Latvia. Find this rabbi
to convert us—’ (31). He defines himself as a heathen, who stopped listening to the Catholic Church’s teachings after the death of ecumenical
reformist and moderniser Pope John XXIII. He made sure all his children were spared any religious cant taught by the priests, ‘those mad bastards’ as he dubs them. When he asks Jane to remind him whom they
worship, she answers straight away: ‘Nobody, Sam. And the hanging
gardens are your description. You yourself called our house Babylon. We
worship nobody’ (27).
From the first scene onwards, before the confrontation with their
father, it is made clear that Rachel and Maurice have already been
handed down important ‘home truths’, that is the family’s free-thinking
atheism and disillusionment, with suicidal overtones in Maurice’s case:
od forgive us.
Shame on you.
Why? Because there’s no God?
There’s no forgiveness.
Not in this neck of the woods.
So don’t expect it. Who’s the father?
You don’t know him.
Do you?
I know so many.
One-night stand?
Do people still have them?
You’re a very chary lady.
I’ve learned to be.
Just being curious.
Curiosity killed the cat.
Lucky cat.
You’re starting to sound like Daddy. (15)
But when Maurice later asks his father to help him come to terms with
his homosexuality, Sam explains he has already done so in the best of
ways: he remained impervious to his lurid coming-out pictures, he let
Maurice find out by himself what he really wanted and whether his
homosexual leanings had deeper roots than mere self-loathing or spite at
patriarchal authority and contempt. By telling Maurice that they have at
least one thing in common—‘fathers [that] both thought [them] useless’
(23)—Sam does not only indulge in that ruthlessness which is part of his
strategy of covering up his mental decrepitude; he also puts to the test
his son’s ability to distance himself from his craving for fatherly esteem.
The ‘home truth’ underlying this sometimes cruel insistence on
responsibility and independence is to be related to the father’s faith in
the powers of the creative mind again. Besides, in spite of Sam’s rejection of any faith whatsoever, several passages suggest he still hopes for
some kind of salvation or possible reconciliation with the world. His proposal that he and Jane should ‘trek to Latvia to find this rabbi to convert
[them]’ (29), his self-parodial song commemorating ‘wee pope John’
(26), his elusive assumption that his pessimism might be due to his disease (‘Falling—finished—poisonous—them, or me?’ [29] he observes
about New York, London and Dublin), or the song from Gilbert and
Sullivan’s The Mikado that he sings in a conciliatory duet with his son
(36), all sound like disseminated echoes of the aspirations contained in
the invocation of the godless utopian space of the hanging gardens of
The terms of the conflict structuring the play thus seem to consist
mainly of Sam and Jane’s struggle to hand down the symbol of their
shared faith in the powers of the creative spirit and imagination to their
children. But it is an embodied type of creative spirit, symbolized by the
garden and house. The ‘monument’, as the old couple dubs it and is
unquestionably willing to sacrifice their lives for, can be analysed as an
embodied, relational reality.
After the children’s discussion in scene 1, Sam returns to the garden with Jane, later in the morning. They are shown working together
there—Jane busying herself about the garden and Sam reading the
papers, scissors in hand. Gardening and intellectual activity are implicitly
equated, but so are their relationship and their dialogue, which build up
around those two activities, practical and intellectual. Their monument
thus appears as a relational reality.
48 M. Kolb
The relational monument built up on stage by Jane and Sam could
be related to Henri Lefebvre’s concept of monumental space partaking of absolute space. Challenging idealist and Cartesian analyses of
space, Lefebvre’s philosophy chimes with Merleau-Ponty’s by stressing
its embodied nature as a lived or experienced reality.9 In The Hanging
Gardens, the monumentality of the stage space materialises through the
centring of that space on the actors’ bodies and physical co-presence.
This seems to be implicitly requested through the playwright’s characteristically vague stage instructions about the fictional stage place. The
mere reference to ‘the garden’ calls for a suggested or ‘understated’ set
as Claire Gleitman has observed about Carthaginians.10 Though referential, the stage should tend towards the type of bare or sparse stages
that bring out the ‘embodied reality of the actor’ (McAuley 90), or
‘[oblige] the actor to create everything’.11 Significant physical attitudes,
activities or gestures can be highlighted amid the relatively static verbal
scenes—Sam being soaked through by the rain (prologue), Maurice and
Rachel eating ice cream (scene 1), Sam punching Jane in the stomach
after she tried to shake him to his senses (end of scene 2), Sam lying
down on the ground and conducting the bird chorus (opening of scene
3). The most significant example may be Jane gardening alone in the first
four scenes before symbolically allowing Rachel and Charlie to help her
at the end of scene 4. In the Abbey production, the three characters were
shown planting flowers downstage in silence, which lent both symbolical and concrete, bodily expression to their common agreement to stand
together and support Sam to his dying day if so he wished.
In this relational and theatrical monument, Jane seems to be in control. As indicated in the initial stage instructions of scene 2, she goes
about her work expertly, even automatically. In the dialogue with Sam,
she remains partly in control, as she deftly helps him order and express
his thoughts as best he can, listening to and cueing him constantly, filling in gaps and requesting missing links in his train of thought. Tragic
transcendence derives from this joint endeavour to keep telling and make
sense, in that Sam’s speech mainly consists in masking and transfiguring the trauma of loss. At the beginning of scene 2, for example, he first
remarks on the unnatural heat, which may be interpreted as an implicit
reference to global warming and climatic deregulation that can be linked
to his own sense of systemic distortion. Sam seems to constantly project
images of a world out of joint to exorcise his own inner chaos. He can
also still resort to humour to express his sense of psychic exile. ‘What’s
the difference between Donegal and Siberia?’ he asks Jane, before providing an answer, ‘You can get a train through Siberia’ (20). Images of
the prisoners from the Siberian Gulags then immediately crop up, whose
shaven heads he links to his own: ‘Convicts, sent to Siberia, all shaven
heads. When did I last get my hair cut?’ (20–1). When Jane urges him to
remember when, he averts the fear of not remembering through another
question: ‘Is it too long? Do I look like a savage?’ (21). But Jane’s suggestion that he should look into a mirror to check by himself seems to
throw him further into dismay as he may already suffer from another
symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, namely fragmentary perception of one’s
own body (Péruchon 66–7). Panic seems to trigger another kind of even
more radically diversionary method: mnemonic hallucination and the
beginning of delirious elaboration of the sense of fragmentation and loss.
Sam starts spinning a yarn that Jane embarked on a hairdresser’s career
when they first became lovers in Dublin.
The delirious tale marks the beginning of Sam’s ploy to cover up his
mental collapse by destabilising his family through a protracted series
of yarns he will spin in the next scene. The novelist’s desperate struggle
comes to a climax when he attempts to persuade his children that it is
his wife who is demented and should be cared for since he claims she has
started beating him as she once beat up Charlie:
he beats me—she did so today. She marks me where it can’t
be seen—you know to where I am referring. And it is my
fault, I let her. I’ve said nothing against her. And I have to
trust you will say nothing. I do trust you, Charlie. Do you me?
Why would I not have seen any of this?
She makes sure you don’t, and so do I.
Why would my mother do that?
She’s suffering, Charlie. A bit adrift, taking strange, that’s
how some describe it. It’s an illness, and it’s starting to affect
her. I can’t go into that house because I’m not safe anymore.
This is madness.
So I am a madman?
I think you are, Father. (48–9)
Jane and the children manage to stand firmly together, however, and, as
they fathom the depth of Sam’s distress and terror, their love for each
other is brought to life anew. Once he has been unmasked, Jane acts
50 M. Kolb
as the perfect ‘tutor of resilience’.12 By enabling him to tell a yarn in
more constructive, creative and conciliatory fashion than in the previous
scenes, she does not let him lose face. Sam’s final story is the last climactic turning point in the play prior to the disastrous anti-climax of his sudden collapse into inarticulacy. Double denial operates once again as his
embedded narrative performance appears as his ultimate ‘home truth’,
the metaphorical meaning of which is to be taken as asserted truth by
both stage and auditorium.
Sam’s improvised tale may first appear as a psychological allegory and
a mise en abyme of the Grant family’s predicament. Indeed, his protagonist’s attempt to build his ‘big house that would be a mansion and a fortress and a palace’ (75) echoes Sam’s own assimilation of his and Jane’s
house and garden to a monument and the wonderful palace and gardens of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II or, as recent archaeological
theory has it, Assyrian King Sennacherib.13 The man’s shame at having
sacrificed his children to build his palace reflects Sam’s guilt for having
neglected his family for the sake of his writing and artistic, imaginative
freedom.14 In the tale, the magical trees of a forest allow the ‘stupid,
stupid man who sacrificed his children’ (74) to recover them and thus
recosmicise his existence. The allegory of restored sense, love and salvation obtained from ‘trees as red as blood, trees as warm as fire’ (74) symbolically asserts the transformational power of bodily existence, desire
and the unconscious—as well as of a shifting, relational identity over the
fixed, hegemonic identity symbolized by the ‘big house, and mansion
and fortress and palace’ built out of the man’s children’s flesh.
Sam’s story also deconstructs the nationalist myth of Cathleen Ni
Houlihan’s fight for the unity of Ireland’s four green fields, as famously
dramatised by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in their 1902 play, Cathleen
Ni Houlihan. Through his protagonist’s attempt to build ‘a big house
[…] in the three fields beside the forest’ (75), Sam allegorises the process of nation-building in the three provinces of post-partition Ireland,
without the dismembered fourth one; Ulster is implicitly equated to
the wild, magical forest whose ‘trees red as blood’ refuse the would-be
builder their timber. Replacing the fourth green field of the nationalist
myth with an untameable magical forest, Sam undermines the ideal of
the united Ireland and the concept of a geographically determined, fixed,
clear-cut Irish identity. He introduces liminality in the nationalist equation, the wild forest being a borderland, a liminal space that is both a
contiguous extension of the domesticated space of the three fields and a
space without, a qualitatively different space—magical or sacred, inseparable from cosmic, transient space.
Besides, the sectarian, sacrificial strain in Irish nationalism is also
subverted through the man’s foolish readiness to sacrifice his children,
prompted by ‘the birds of the air’ that advised him to build his big house
with what he cherished most dearly. Such subversion of Irish nationalism
ties up with earlier references to Jane’s Latvian Jewish grandmother who
ended up in Ireland by mistake:
He touches her cheekbones.
hose bones—still my magnificent Jew.
Sam, my Granny got lost coming off a boat from Latvia. The
silly bitch thought Belfast was Boston and stayed. She learned
to keep quiet about who she was when she learned English,
until she revealed all only on her death bed, crying out for a
Rabbi in Yiddish.
And did he come?
Ireland’s not overrun by rabbis then or now. She died alone.
My mother blessed her as best she could, singing some of her
old songs. There’s the story I was taught, and that’s how much
of Jew I am, as you well know. (28)
The story emphasizes both Ireland’s provincial insularity and Her inescapable links with Europe and world history. The sectarian attitude of
the Irish Republic towards European Jews, and its failure to treat them
as its own children during ‘the Emergency’15 and after World War II,
is once again denounced by McGuinness.16 As Sam tells his wife after
lamenting the collapse of the English-speaking western world, they
might revive their faith in the world by looking eastwards. The magical
forest of his final tale may thus conjure up not only images of a pre-colonial or Bronze Age wooded Ireland but also of the central and eastern
European forests where so many European Jews were exterminated.17
Sam’s tale thus appears to allegorise how traditional Irish nationalism,
through its endorsement of a strictly territorial view of Irish identity and
its denial of the liminal borderlands of that identity, transgresses a cosmic
order symbolised by the living, magical forest or the music of the spheres
muted by his protagonist’s sacrificial infanticide for the sake of his big
house on his three fields.
52 M. Kolb
Also stigmatised is the hubris of the Celtic Tiger Republic, which
ambitioned the construction of a financial empire whose clay feet failed
to withstand the 2008 credit crunch. Jane’s sequel to her husband’s
happy end highlights its relevance to Ireland’s contemporary economic
and political predicament:
What happened to the big house?
The fortress?
The Palace?
Ask your mother.
His wife sold it for a fortune to a developer. He wanted to
turn it into luxury apartments. Then the property boom went
bust and the developer, who was a complete chancer, was left
on his uppers. So he was only too delighted to sell it back to
her for a fraction of what he’d paid for it. That was how they
all lived happily, if not quite ever after, then for as long as the
windfall lasted. From this, learn a lesson. It may be the way
your father tells them, but your mother knows the value of a
pound. (76–7)
But beyond the psychological and political messages, Sam also manages
to hand down a mytho-poetic home truth to his disillusioned offspring
that might steer them off the path of hopelessness and suicidal nihilism.
His magical, redemptive forest can be seen as a cross-literary echo of the
archetypal symbolism of the forest in western civilisation and mythologies. Robert Pogue Harrison’s study of the sylvan trope in western literature from the pre-Hellenic period to contemporary literature rests
on the identification of a materialist philosophy of reality in the myths
of Actaeon or Dionysus. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ‘Artemis is the agent
both of metamorphosis and the guardian of nature’s mysterious matrix
of forms. By transforming the predator into the prey, she reveals to
Actaeon in his person the true nature of what he has laid his eyes upon18:
the preformal kinship of all creation’ (Harrison 26). Ovid’s account of
fatal metamorphosis caused by the spell of a sylvan goddess bears a core
resemblance to Sam Grant’s tale, in which warm-blooded trees resurrect
the sinner’s children as a sylvan witch predicted they would. Harrison’s
interpretation of the Actaeon myth could aptly summarise the philosophy celebrated in Sam’s tale through the motif of the metamorphic
The Metamorphoses in general […] use the trope of metamorphosis to
express a materialist philosophy of reality, which holds that all embodied
substances partake of the same primal matter. In Ovid’s mythic world, all
living species preserve an intimate affiliation with one another by virtue of
their emergence from a mutual womb of creation. The possibility of one’s
creature’s metamorphosis into another points to the underlying material
nature they share in common. Metamorphosis itself (from the Greek words
meta and morphé, meaning change of form) is a kind of birth, or rebirth,
as one material form returns to its matrix in order to assume a new form.
This preformal kinship of all creation, which enables human beings to be
transformed into animals, trees, flowers, and other forest phenomena, is
the recurring materialist theme of the Metamorphoses. (26)
As in two earlier plays of McGuinness’s, Mary and Lizzie and
Mutabilitie, the forest is summoned up as a liminal, mytho-poetic space
and trope celebrating men’s inclusion in a cosmic, material cycle of birth,
death and renewal.
In the midst of dementia, learned novelist Sam Grant therefore
appears to be still able to hand down a pungent home truth through
his improvised tale: as Jane had foretold, ‘his little enough is more than
most people’s plenty’ (62). In what appears to be a realistic account of
tutoring a demented patient, Jane prompts Sam to draw from his powers
of resilience and temporarily reinstates him in his former role of storyteller and diviner. Before losing the power of the word for good, with
the help of his wife’s gentle prodding, the tragic hero subverts conventional views on personal as well as national identities. Faith in mankind’s
participation in a positively creative cosmos is the ultimate, transcendent
home truth he hands down to contemporary audiences and celebrates
by effectively conjuring up his monumental hanging garden in the utopian stage space. As illustrated by the final choral singing of ‘The Moon
Behind the Hill’, which merges past and present as well as earthly and
cosmic realities,19 this theatrical utopianism remains rooted in a secularised, monist view of the cosmos and mankind’s relation to it. It also
seems consistent with the Wildean, libertarian brand of socialism that
has informed McGuinness’s theatre from the start (Pine 29). The family’s decision to stand together and support Sam to his dying day undermines the capitalist ideal of financial accumulation that has driven much
of Irish nation-building over the Celtic Tiger decades by implicitly celebrating the politics of voluntary association and the interpersonal,
54 M. Kolb
relational foundations of society. By the end of the play, both the Grant
children and the audience have come to understand that Sam and Jane’s
house will not be handed down as mere bankable real estate property
but as a relational and imaginative reality. In spite of its dreadful end,
The Hanging Gardens echoes the celebration of possible worldly human
communion in another utopian play of McGuinness’s, Dolly West’s
Kitchen. Through Dolly West’s nostalgic evocation of the church mosaics she once saw in Ravenna, which emphasizes triumphant corporeality and earthliness alongside aesthetic ecstasy, the playwright appears
to oppose his libertarian socialist humanism to totalitarian, National
Socialist barbarity and allegorically sum up the object of celebration in
his utopian theatre:
Rima: W
hat did you see, daughter?
Dolly: A procession of men and women. They were white and blue
and gold, walking towards their God, and it was the walking
that was their glory, for that made them human, still in this life,
this life that I believe in. I believe in Ravenna. I remember it.
I came home to Ireland, so I could remember it—there would
be one in this country who would not forget in case Ravenna is
destroyed. I think it’s my life’s purpose to say I saw it.
Rima: G
od spare it.
Dolly: I think I know what yours is, Alec. It’s to fight, to save us from
Hitler. It’s a great purpose. I hope you win. I’m frightened
you’ll die. I’m frightened you’ll lose.
Alec: G
od save Ireland. The Sea Sounds. (Plays Two 218–219)
1. ‘[McGuinness’s] encounter with Gatti’s dramatic writing […] had been
a shock and a revelation, and he acknowledges to this day the extent to
which Gatti’s work first opened up for him the full potential of theatre
and the ‘utopian space” of the stage.’ (Long 160).
2. While most of the playwright’s works of the 1980s and early 1990s are set
in non-domestic settings, his later plays tend to be wholly set in twentieth- or twenty-first-century middle- or upper-class Irish homes: cases in
point are The Bird Sanctuary (1994), Dolly West’s Kitchen (2000), Gates
of Gold (2002), There Came a Gypsy Riding (2007), Greta Garbo Came to
Donegal (2010), The Hanging Gardens (2013), and Donegal (2016).
3. Rozik’s claim and brilliant demonstration that the ritual origins of theatre are ‘logically impossible’ (68) is no less enlighteningly questioned by
David Wiles’s study of the archaeological evidence to the contrary in A
Short History of Western Performance Space.
4. ‘Absolute tragedy is very rare. It is a piece of dramatic literature (or art or
music) founded rigorously on the postulate that human life is a fatality.
It proclaims axiomatically that it is best not to be born or, failing that, to
die young.’ (Steiner 129)
5. Rachel, Charlie and Maurice’s ages are not specified in the play but it can
be inferred from the text that Maurice and Rachel could be in their late
twenties or early thirties, while Charlie, who is the elder son, could be in
his late thirties or early forties.
6. ‘Rachel: The word thanks was never in her vocabulary. / Charlie: She still
refuses to hire any man to keep the gardens in shape. And no home help
either. They’re united on that. / Maurice: They’re united on everything’ (16).
7. Helen Lojek thus defines Pyper’s shaman-like role in Observe the Sons of
Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.
8. Sam calls ‘home truths’ the ‘fatherly advice’ he manages to impart to
Maurice (38).
9. See Lefebvre. For a synthetic presentation of Lefebvre’s theory and its
application to the diachronic analysis of performance spaces, see Wiles
10. See Gleitman 66. While Gleitman stresses the mainly analytical, Brechtian
dimension of the vaguely defined stage space in Carthaginians, I would
argue that McGuinness invariably calls for understated settings not only
to ‘alienate our customary relationship with the material world’, as
Gleitman claims (64), but also to keep the stage partly undefined and
informal so it can be modelled by the actors’ bodies and movements.
McGuinness’s stage spaces can thus fall in the third category of theatrical spaces defined by Anne Ubersfeld in Lire le théâtre I as ‘spaces constructed in relation to the actor’ (142).
11. Jacques Copeau, Registres, in Appels, Vol.1, Gallimard, Paris, 1974. 220.
Quoted and translated by Gay McAuley 91.
12. On the possibility of resilience through tutoring and interaction with
Alzheimer’s patients, see Cyrulnik, Delage, and Lejeune 243–251.
13. See Alberge.
14. Even though Sam generally stands by his uncompromising insistence on
self-reliance and freedom, he still voices uncertainty as to the way he
and Jane dealt with their shared realisation that their last-born, Maurice,
might have homosexual inclinations. Thus, when Maurice suggests that
his father could have helped him cope with his sexual identity they have
the following exchange: ‘Sam: (…) What did you expect from me? Don’t
56 M. Kolb
tell me that it was pity. I despise pity— / Maurice: So do I— / Sam:
Then what were you looking for? / Maurice: You to help me. / Sam:
And I did by doing nothing. No tears—no screaming match—no blaming
anyone. Aren’t you better off neglected? / Maurice: I was not—we were
not neglected— / Sam: Maybe you were. Maybe we might have been
more careful. We must have seen signs. You played a girl in that school
concert. What possessed us to allow you? Do you remember?’ (35–36).
15. Official understatement used by the Irish government to refer to its neutral stance during World War II.
16. In Dolly West’s Kitchen, a play set in Buncrana—Frank McGuinness’s
native town in the Inishowen peninsula, Co. Donegal—during World
War II, Rima West puts the blame squarely on Ireland for failing to try
and save the Jews from the Holocaust (McGuinness, Plays Two 228). For
a comparison of the Irish attitude to LGBT people and Jewish asylum
seekers, see also Lojek 192–196.
17. In conversation with me, Patrick Mason pointed out this allusion to the
Central European forests and the holocaust. The Bikernieki forest is
a case in point as the Latvian survivors of the Riga ghetto were put to
death there in 1941. The Polish forests may also come to mind.
18. Actaeon has seen Artemis naked as she was bathing with her nymphs in a
forest clearing.
19. ‘Jane sings, the children joining in. / I watched last night the rising moon
/ Upon a foreign strand, / Till memories came like flowers in June /
Of home and fatherland. (…) / It brought me back visions grand /
That purpled boyhood’s dreams, / Its youthful loves, its happy land /
As bright as morning beams. / It brought me back the spreading lea, /
The steeple and the mill, / Until my eyes could scarcely see / The Moon
behind the hill’ (77).
Works Cited
Alberge, Dalya. ‘Babylon’s Hanging Gardens: Ancient Scripts Give Clue to
Missing Wonder.’ Guardian, 5 May 2013. Web. http://www.theguardian.
com/science/2013/may/05/babylon-hanging-garden-wonder-nineveh, 19
Dec. 2016.
Cyrulnik, Boris, M. Delage, and A. Lejeune. ‘Mémoires et Résilience: Les
Interactions Tardives.’ Résilience, Vieillissement et Maladie d’Alzheimer. Eds.
A. Lejeune and C. Maury-Rouan. Marseille: Solal, 2007. 243–251. Print.
Gleitman, Claire. ‘“Isn’t it just like real life?”: Frank McGuinness and the (Re)
writing of Stage Space.’ The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 20.1 (July
1994): 60–73. Print.
Gouhier, Henri. Le Théâtre et l’existence. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J.Vrin,
1991. Print.
Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Tr. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford:
Blackwell, 1991. Print.
Lojek, Helen. Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama. Washington D.C.:
Catholic University of America Press, 2004. Print.
Long, Joseph. ‘Frank McGuinness and Armand Gatti: Plays of Memory and
Survival.’ Place and Memory in the New Ireland. Eds. Britta Olinder, Werner
Huber. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009. 157–164. Print.
Mason, Patrick and Frank McGuinness. ‘A Popular Theatre.’ The Crane Bag 8.2
(1984): 109–111. Print.
McAuley, Gay. Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Print.
McGuinness, Frank. The Hanging Gardens. London: Faber and Faber, 2013.
———. Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
———. Plays Two. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
Péruchon, Marion. Le Déclin de la vie psychique. Paris: Dunod, 1994. Print.
Pine, Richard. ‘Frank McGuinness: A Profile.’ Irish Literary Supplement (Spring
1991): 29–30. Print.
Rozik, Eli. The Roots of Theatre: Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin.
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002. Print.
Steiner, George. No Passion Spent. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Print.
Ubersfeld, Anne. L’Ecole du spectateur. Lire le théâtre II. 2nd ed. Paris: Les
Editions Sociales, 1991. Print.
———. Lire le théâtre I. 2nd ed. Paris: Belin, 1996. Print.
Wiles, David. A Short History of Western Performance Space. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
Author Biography
Matthieu Kolb lectures in English literature, civilisation and language
at the University of Rennes 2, France. Following his Ph.D. thesis on
the theatre of Frank McGuinness, Dramatic and Postdramatic Spaces in
Frank McGuinness’s Theatre of Celebration (2012), he has continued to
focus his research on McGuinness and has published articles on his plays
and translations of European drama.
Women and Scarecrows: Marina Carr’s Stage
Mary Noonan
In the context of Irish theatre in the early years of the twenty-first century, the theatre of Marina Carr occupies a unique position. For more
than twenty years, Carr has been populating the Irish stage with a pageant of women. Her plays explore the dereliction of women within Irish
culture, their relegation to positions of anger, frustration, and ultimately,
death. In this essay, I will argue that her dramatic oeuvre amounts to
a portrait of the maternal-feminine condition in Ireland at the end of
the twentieth century, and that she is the first Irish playwright to deliver
such a complete picture of Irish womanhood. I will begin by considering some trends in relation to the representation of women on Carr’s
stage, before going on to focus on the 2006 play Woman and Scarecrow.
By considering Carr’s plays largely from the perspective of the work of
French philosopher Luce Irigaray on the repression of primary or maternal desire within Western culture, I will conclude that one of Carr’s central concerns has been to show the struggle, for Irish women, to give
expression to their creativity in ways other than within the maternal
M. Noonan (*) 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_4
60 M. Noonan
function. The disabling of female creative agency within Irish culture is
therefore the true subject of her plays.
Each of Carr’s heroines is associated with a place, usually a watery
place. The attachment to land—a specific geographical site in rural
Ireland—is strong, but it is a spiritual, rather than a mercenary or proprietorial attachment. These women are part of the landscape as the
mythical characters of Greek or Celtic folklore were. The Mai is unable
to leave Owl Lake; Portia Coughlan is wedded to the Belmont River,
where her brother drowned; Hester Swane says she will die rather than
leave the Bog of Cats, where her mother wandered at night, and where
she now wanders. Catwoman is a mad and seemingly homeless woman
who lives on the bog and feeds off mice. She is of the Bog of Cats, and
is redolent of it—she represents its dark, destructive power. Women, on
Carr’s stage, are located, therefore, in watery places, and because of their
ineluctable containment within the maternal, these landscapes are redolent of the amniotic waters of uterine space.
This is a world in which the dead mingle with the living (the voices
and even the bodies of ghosts appear from time to time)—the boundaries between the natural and supernatural worlds are porous. There are
numerous instances of metamorphosis in the plays, as characters such as
Catwoman or Scarecrow become like animals; alternatively, animals and
birds, such as the black swan in By the Bog of Cats, can be seen to acquire
human characteristics. We first meet Hester Swane (By the Bog of Cats)
as she drags a dead black swan by the neck—‘Auld Black Wing. I’ve
known her the longest time. We used play together when I was a young
wan’ (265). The name ‘Swane’ is no coincidence. Birds, in particular, are
constant presences in the plays. Both swans and crows symbolise death
and the afterlife in myth and folklore. In Celtic mythology, souls returning from the dead often took the shape of swans, and the swan had an
association with the feminine, as fairy women took the form of swans.
In Carr’s plays, women are associated with the wildness and violence
of nature, with owls, swans, crows, cats. The creatures evoked tend to
have monstrous associations, often signifying death and loss, rather than
ethereal beauty. Scarecrow in Woman and Scarecrow is one of the more
intriguing characters in Carr’s female bestiary. She appears as a woman
for most of the play, but transforms into a frightening bird, having
somehow merged with the ‘thing’ (beak, claws, feathers) that has been
making noises in the wardrobe throughout the play. In the final scene,
Scarecrow, whose task it was to keep death at bay, becomes the bird of
death—‘regal, terrifying, one black wing, cobalt beak, clawed feet, taloned fingers. Stands looking at Woman, shakes itself down’ (220). This
crow, harbinger of death, is redolent of the Morrígan, a creature of
Celtic mythology: a war goddess, bringing premonitions of a warrior’s
death, often appearing on the battlefield in the form of a crow, and taking the soul of the dead warrior to the underworld. For most of the play,
Scarecrow appears to give scenic representation to Woman’s psyche or
The picture of the world that emerges in plays such as Woman and
Scarecrow or By the Bog of Cats is more akin to the Elizabethan world
picture than to anything more contemporary. Here, the realms of
heaven, earth and underworld are open to each other, and there is traffic
between them. The blue virgin has ‘her entourage of bird-men’ (Woman
and Scarecrow 192), and humans bear the names of angels. In Portia
Coughlan, for example, Gabriel, who when alive, sang like an angel, has
now become a ghost, wandering between heaven and earth, unable to
depart. His sister, Portia, says she only married her husband, Raphael,
‘because of his name, a angel’s name, same as Gabriel’s, and I thought be
osmosis or just pure wishin’ that one’d take on the qualities of the other’
All of the plays explore death, and women are more strongly associated with death than men are in Carr’s universe, as they are throughout
culture, the womb functioning as both origin and end in the patriarchal
imaginary. Each of Carr’s heroines ends up dead, usually by suicide.
Death is the only resolution that offers itself to them. Portia Coughlan
drowns herself in the Belmont River in order to be with her beloved
twin, Gabriel, who also drowned there some years earlier. The Mai
drowns herself in Owl Lake. Even Woman, in Woman and Scarecrow,
who appears to be dying of cancer, is said (by her aunt) to have decided
to die: ‘I will not forgive this… […] this wilful jaunt to your doom’
Woman and Scarecrow is the play that goes most fully into the matter
of the woman’s relationship with her own death, as its exclusive focus is
the representation of a woman in her final hours of life. The play is a new
departure for Carr in some respects. The absence of names is immediately striking—Him, Auntie Ah, Woman. This is surprising in light of the
symbolic importance of names in Carr’s work in general (Portia evoking
the Shakespearean heroine, Hester Swane suggesting an association with
swans, etc.). This absence of nomination and indeterminacy of setting
62 M. Noonan
locate the play in a timeless, mythical context—woman is everywoman,
albeit a very Irish everywoman. The structuring device is also unusual:
there are apparently two women on stage—Woman and Scarecrow—but
the spectator soon learns that they are both part of the same woman,
so that the woman is in dialogue with herself. The nature of Scarecrow
is not entirely clear, she may be Woman’s mind, or her psychic superego or conscience. She pronounces, draws conclusions, judges. On the
other hand, she describes herself as something that approaches the idea
of the soul—‘I truly believed when I latched on to you before the weaver’s throne, I truly believed that you and I would amount to something’
(162), she says of the beginning of Woman’s life. At another moment,
Scarecrow describes herself as Woman’s heart, commenting that when
Woman had affairs, her ‘heart wasn’t involved. I wasn’t allowed a lookin’ (167). Another possible reading of the split woman represented in
the play is to view Woman and her alter ego, Scarecrow, as representative of the feminine-maternal divide within Western culture, a divide first
evoked by Lacan, and explored in depth by feminist psychoanalysts such
as Luce Irigaray. The female body in bits and pieces is suggestive of the
Lacanian theory of the unconscious maternal body; it also evokes the
condition of the feminine in Western culture as a body in an ambivalent relationship with language and culture. I will return to this potential
reading of Carr’s work. Heart, soul—Scarecrow is an enigmatic figure on
the stage who, I will argue, ultimately represents Woman’s repressed creative instinct, which is closely associated with the life instinct in Freudian
All of Carr’s heroines are mothers, and the mother–child relationship
in the plays is almost always dysfunctional or imbalanced in some way.
Mothers are often unavailable—too wrapped up with their men to be
interested in their children (The Mai), or dying in childbirth (The Mai,
Woman and Scarecrow). In some of the plays, mothers are actively hostile
to their children, prostituting them or facilitating incest within the family
(On Raftery’s Hill), threatening infanticide (Portia Coughlan) or actually
practising infanticide (By the Bog of Cats). The daughter is often shown
by Carr to have remained attached to the mother as her primary object
of love. Hester Swane, for instance, waits forty years for her mother to
return to the bog, even though she knows this is impossible. Woman has
retained one key memory from childhood, a memory which Scarecrow
claims is a fabrication, or a false memory. It is a memory of being taken,
at the age of seven or eight, by her heavily-pregnant mother to buy a
new coat. After a long search, the mother finally found a red coat with
black velvet buttons:
[…] it is how I see her now, her girth disappearing in dusty shadow, old
before her time and still radiant, the white teeth flashing, the russet gold of
her hair and the expression in her eyes. I, in my new red coat and hat, gave
her pleasure, pleasure beyond describing. For one brief moment, a mirror glance, I was the thing she had yearned for and found. (Woman and
Scarecrow 185)
This account of the mother’s body is a sensual one—the girl-becomewoman remembers the first body she loved, that of the mother. Her
greatest desire was to be the mother’s sole object of desire. This, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, is the primary desire of all infants. French
psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray locates the founding loss of the mother’s
body in myth and history, and in psychoanalytical theories of the subject. In her essay, ‘The Bodily Encounter with the Mother’, she refers
to ‘this first moment’ as the no-go area in Western culture.1 Referring
to the Oresteian trilogy, she notes that the Greek myth seals the ascendancy of the Father’s law with the burial of the Mother, her relegation
to death and madness. The umbilical cord is the trace of a lost identity,
prior to the name; it is the mark of a connection to a period of fusion
prior to rupture or cutting. For it is the mother’s body that is subsequently fractured, assimilated in bits and pieces—in psychoanalytical
descriptions of early development, the infant fantasises different parts
of the mother’s body in isolation. Irigaray uses Lacanian imagery of
early infantile development to point out that the mother’s body in culture is a ‘corps morcelé’, a body in bits and pieces, fantasised mainly in
terms of its gaping holes, its desire to devour, to draw the subject back
to the death-bearing womb. ‘The relationship with the mother is a mad
desire, because it is the “dark continent” par excellence. It remains in the
shadows of our culture; it is its night and its hell’ (Irigaray, ‘The Bodily
Encounter’ 35). Because the sojourn in utero is censored by our culture
and because the human subject’s separations from this ‘first home’ (39)
and first giver of nourishment remain uninterpreted, the concomitant
losses and scars unconsidered, there is a refusal of mourning within culture of what is, according to Irigaray, a crucial part of the self, the foundation of all structures of desire and identity. This is even more the case
for women, who are required by culture simultaneously to repudiate and
64 M. Noonan
identify with a body that is the mirror-image of their own. Irigaray concludes, in contradiction of Freud, that Western culture is founded on the
murder of the mother, her relegation to a secondary position, the ‘burial’
of her desire and of her anger (37). All of which repression leads to narcissistic disturbances and difficulties in relation to body-image and sexual
desire for women within culture.
The radical nature of the repression of the relationship with the first
body, and of primary desire, is the cause of the dereliction of women
within culture, according to Irigaray. The extent of the loss that prohibition of the desire of the mother entails for women within culture, the
inability to know, to understand the loss that has taken place, and subsequently to mourn it, has meant that the development of a separate sexual
identity for women has been impossible. In the case of men, repression of
the maternal has resulted in fear of the feminine, representation of female
sexuality as voracious, threatening castration. The overall result is a lack
of valid representation of female sexuality within culture, women whose
subjective foundations are built on unknowable loss, and an imbalance of
power between the sexes in a culture founded on extensive repression of
the relationship with original desire.
Carr’s plays explore the dereliction of women within (Irish) culture,
their relegation to positions of anger, madness and ultimately, death. Each
play examines different aspects of that dereliction, and the dysfunctional
nature of family life and relationships between the sexes that results from it.
The situation of women in Ireland even in the twentieth century has been
controlled, to a large extent, by the presence and influence of the Catholic
Church, and the views on female sexuality within that church. The Church
continued to exert control over Irish women’s bodies throughout most
of the twentieth century, despite improvements in women’s living and
working conditions. The history of twentieth-century Ireland is a history
of incest, the sexual abuse of children within families and within institutions run by Church and State, as well as the abuse of women in their sexuality and in their maternity. Carr is perhaps the only playwright to have
represented the feminine condition in Irish culture, from the woman’s perspective, so consistently and in such detail. Incest is everywhere in Carr’s
stage universe. On Raftery’s Hill is essentially about the incest within the
Raftery family, perpetrated by the patriarch on his daughters Dinah, and
later, the youngest, Sorrel. The girls’ chance of an independent life away
from him is destroyed, and both end up on the hillside, with their father.
Brother–sister incest is at the centre of Portia Coughlan—Portia provides
a graphic description of her love-making with her twin brother, whom
she goes to join when she drowns herself in the river. She has never recovered from his drowning, and was not able to love another man. It emerges
in the course of the play that the parents of Portia and Gabriel were also
brother and sister.
In addition to incest, madness and suicide are the lot of women on
Carr’s stage. Her plays present a dramatic representation of Irigaray’s
theorisation of the madness of women. Noting that all desire is madness, Irigaray observes that ‘one desire has chosen to see itself as wisdom,
moderation, truth, and has left the other to bear the burden of the madness it did not want to attribute to itself, recognize in itself’ (‘The Bodily
Encounter’ 35). She concludes that because the early relationship with
the mother remains in the shadows of our culture (‘it is the dark continent par excellence’ [35]), it is a mad desire:
The imaginary and the symbolic of intra-uterine life and of the first bodily
encounter with the mother… where are we to find them? In what darkness, what madness, have they been abandoned? […] In the absence of
any representation of it […] the openness of the mother (ouverture de la
mère), the opening on to the mother (ouverture à la mère), appear to be
threats of contagion, contamination, engulfment in illness, madness and
death. (39)
Marina Carr’s dramatic representation of women’s association with madness and death is one of the most distinguishing features of her theatrical production. The representation of death reaches its apogée in Woman
and Scarecrow, where Death is in the wardrobe. Here, Carr is taking a
serious risk, as there are strong overtones of the cartoon or comic-strip
to this growling, winged creature lurking in the wardrobe, waiting to
pounce. It is risky to have this non-realist element in a play that is apparently realist, in that it features two women in dialogue about the life of
an ordinary woman. Whether the device of the creature in the cupboard
works or not is debatable. One thing I would say is that there is humour
in this play (Woman’s passion for the music of Demis Roussos, whose
1973 hit ‘My Friend the Wind’ she insists on playing, very loud), and
Carr may have been reaching for the danse macabre, the black humour
that pokes fun at death, part of an ancient European tradition, which is,
of course, common in other world traditions too. Perhaps we are meant
to laugh every time Death growls or lets out a ‘deep-throated guffaw’,
66 M. Noonan
or pokes a feather or a claw from the wardrobe. Scarecrow warns Woman
that, ‘He’s in there now, making a bracelet out of infant ankle bones’
(155). Certainly, the gallows humour serves to temper the ghoulishness
of much of the content of the women’s discussion, which features much
relishing of gruesome details of decaying cadavers, the work of rats and
worms on the body in the clay. Death is going to eat Woman, but her
alter ego tells her that she ‘did not eat the world’, as she should have.
Scarecrow, woman’s creative impulse, wanted life to be epic, wanted to
take risks, to take a chance on passion. It seems that Woman let her head
rule her heart, and opted for domesticity and a kind of false safety—
Scarecrow calls it mediocrity. She suggests that if woman had followed
her heart, she would not be dying so early in her life.
The stage world of Marina Carr is populated mainly by women, and
women take all the leading roles in the plays. This is not an insignificant
feature of her theatre, given the paucity of plays by and about women
in the history of theatre. Her heroines are all imbricated in the negative stereotypes of femininity prevalent in the culture: the women on her
stage are, variously, hags or crones, redolent of the witch, incestuous,
mad, alcoholic, unfaithful to their husbands, abandoners or murderers of
their own children. They are often tied to men they do not desire or
love, or they are shown as daughters whose lives are dominated by their
fathers. They are all dissatisfied with the lives they are living, yearning for
something else, something they lost at some stage in their lives. To this
extent, Carr does not idealise or empower the women she places centrestage: instead, she uncovers and highlights the status quo, the way things
are. By unpicking the dark, and sometimes bloody seam of women’s lives
in rural Ireland, she foregrounds the disavowed grief in relation to the
maternal at the core of womanhood in general, and Irish womanhood in
What gives her female characters their power is their use of language,
and through language, their connection to the natural world and to a
world of myth. Carr’s heroines have the power to use words to express
their anger, their grief, their unresolved mourning. Although they cannot transcend their difficult lives, and often opt for suicide as the only
resolution available, they occupy the centre of the stage to tell their
story, to give voice to their turmoil. Carr often uses the accent and dialect of the Midlands of Ireland as ‘the Midland accent is more rebellious than the written word permits’ (Carr, ‘Introduction’ 191) and
the speech of Carr’s women is, in the main, wild and rebellious, using
slang, idioms, swear words and a plethora of local expressions and colourful language that is sometimes only tenuously connected to English.
All of this is spoken in the Midlands accent, which increases the difficulty
for the listener, particularly if she or he is not from Ireland. Carr is not
very experimental when it comes to form. Although there is often a very
interesting interplay between the real and the mythic in the plays, this is
surely not new. She takes her lead first from the Greeks, and secondly,
from Shakespeare. And yet, her plays are doing something new: they represent the tragedy of the feminine condition in contemporary culture.
What they give us are women expressing, through words, their rage,
their longings, their unresolved grief. In Woman and Scarecrow, Carr
represents the bird of death coming to open Woman’s veins and drink
her blood. In fact, Death opens her veins and dips a quill into her blood.
Carr writes in red ink, with the blood of women. Her words sing the
song of the forbidden body— the desiring body of the woman-mother
in Western, Catholicism-ridden culture. In Woman and Scarecrow she
reached a point of spareness of setting and action—a woman on her
deathbed—to allow the woman’s voice to occupy the entire stage.
In 1977, Cixous wrote an article for Le Monde titled ‘Aller à la mer’
[‘To go to the sea/the mother’] in which she analysed the relationship of
(Western) women to the practices of contemporary theatre. She begins
this article by stating that, ‘It is always necessary for a woman to die
so that the play can begin’.2 Citing the examples of Electra, Antigone,
Ophelia and Cordelia, she concludes that theatre functions as specular
fantasy, where women characters act as mirrors, reflecting heroic values
for male spectators. Theatre, even more than fiction, is the ‘privileged
place of a double perversion, both voyeurist and exhibitionist’, the place
where women are framed as both specular objects and mirror-images of
men—the privileged space of representation of what Irigaray referred
to as hom(m)osexualité: ‘the self-love of man through the intermediary
of the feminine appropriated into his language’ (Irigaray, Ce Sexe 156).
Cixous concludes by calling for a theatre that would lessen dependence
on the visual and stress the auditory. Thus, she herself began to write
plays when she began to see theatre as a privileged space for the voicing
of the body/text:
[…] to learn to attune all our ears, especially those that know how to capture the movements of the unconscious, to hear the silences and beyond.
68 M. Noonan
No more ‘alienation’, quite the opposite: this stage-body will not hesitate
to come close up, to get near the danger, but to be alive. (19)
The creation of a scène-corps (stage-body) would entail a return to the
mother, as the homophonic title of the article suggests: a place where
women can both listen and be heard, where they can speak and hear
the incessant movement of the sea in its diffuseness, its multiplicity and
its indeterminacy. This image suggests an amniotic globe which contains both actors and spectators, surrounding and permeating them
with sound: ‘All it would take would be for a woman to go beyond
prohibition, to be multiple’ (Cixous). Above all, this would be a form
of theatre that would create the conditions for an auditory apprehension of movements in the in-between of body and text, conscious and
unconscious meanings. Recalling Artaud’s conception of the ‘function’
of theatre as ‘something as localised and as precise as the circulation
of the blood in the arteries, or the apparently chaotic development of
dream images in the brain’ (141), Cixous envisions a theatre that would
stage a woman ‘in her body, starting with her blood […] where her
story is decided’, and where ‘one gesture capable of transforming the
world—will suffice’ (19). The power of theatre for Cixous at this point
was clearly its potential for undermining the scopic regime, for using
the vocal and auditory dimensions of theatre to collapse the boundary
between body and text in a way that cinema could never do. It seems
to me that Carr has gone some way toward creating the stage-body
envisaged by Cixous, a stage-body that gives voice, through an anarchic
tongue, to the frustrations and the losses imposed on women’s bodies within culture. Carr’s women howl of their wildness, their violence,
their close association with nature, and ultimately death—and of their
banishment from another world, a world where they would be free to
give full expression to their human experience, in the form of writing,
Luce Irigaray, in her essay on women and madness, asks a troubling
The imaginary and the symbolic of intra-uterine life and of the first bodily
encounter with the mother… Where are we to find them, in what darkness, what madness have they been abandoned? […] The social order, our
culture, psychoanalysis, want it that way: the mother must remain forbidden, excluded. (‘The Bodily Encounter’ 39)
One of the ways out of this impasse, suggests Irigaray, is to find the
words that speak,
the most archaic and most contemporary relationship with the body of
the mother, our bodies, the sentences that translate the bond between
her body, ours, and that of our daughters. We have to discover a language
which does not replace the bodily encounter, as paternal language attempts
to do, but which can go along with it, words which do not bar the corporeal, but which speak corporeal. (‘The Bodily Encounter’ 43)
This has always been the writing project of Marina Carr—to make plays
about women’s relegation to a position of madness within culture and,
in particular, to represent the dereliction of the maternal body within
this (Irish) culture, as well as the consequential perversion of relations
between mothers and children, between women and men. Irigaray notes
that one of the outcomes of the relegation of the maternal body to a
state of abjection is the loss of other forms of creativity for women:
We engender something other than children: love, desire, language, art,
the social, the political, the religious, for example. But this creation has
been forbidden us for centuries, and we must reappropriate this maternal
dimension that belongs to us as women. (‘The Bodily Encounter’ 43)
Carr’s theatre stages the struggle between the maternal as procreation
of children and the maternal as the creation of art, as the expression by
the woman of herself as a subject, giving expression to her subjectivity in
ways other than through the maternal function. Nowhere is this more
in evidence than in Woman and Scarecrow. In fact, the division of the
woman into two parts—Woman and Scarecrow—is to a large extent a
dramatic representation of the cultural splitting of the feminine from the
maternal, as discussed by Irigaray. At the end of the play, Scarecrow takes
a feather from her wing, pierces a vein in Woman’s wrist, and begins to
write in her blood on a piece of parchment. She asks a series of questions: ‘Why did you stop seeking?’, ‘Why did you not flee when love had
flown?’ (221). The answer to these questions is that Woman used her
children to shield herself from having to make choices that would have
freed her to live a creatively passionate life. She has lived, the audience
concludes, disconnected or alienated from her passion, from her body.
She has dedicated herself to her children: ‘the mountainous bellies and
70 M. Noonan
the cut knees, the broken arms, the temperatures, the uniforms, the
football, the music, the washing machine, the three square meals, yes I
hid behind it all’ (222). She has been a good mother. And yet, what she
remembers in the end is what her body remembers: ‘something about
the alignment of sun and wind and song on this most ordinary of afternoons […] the bare facts, me, the sun, the shivering grass, Rusalka singing to the moon’ (223). What Woman expresses at the close of the play
is the Western woman’s longing to give expression to her own bodily
experience of the natural, material world in an unmediated way—in a
way that is not mediated through a culture in which she has no voice.
Carr is one of the few women playwrights to have given voice, on the
stage, to women’s bodily experience. Even more than this, she has foregrounded, in her plays, the loss of women’s agency, as a result of the
excessive attribution of madness and the death-drive to the female body
within culture. She does not idealise the feminine or the maternal, rather
she shows the losses incurred by women (and ultimately by society as a
whole) as a result of the radical nature of the repression of the relationship with the first body, and of primary desire. Woman’s self-denial is in
line with her heritage: her lineage is that of women who have practised
similar self-denial. Her own mother’s life is described in term of buried
anger and frustration:
Scarecrow: I remember she lived bitterly. I remember her battering the
spuds into a venomous pulp for the dinner. […] I remember the weeping
in darkened rooms […]. And underneath it all I remember this volcanic
rage that erupted given any opportunity on the small, the weak, the helpless. […] A woman of rock, carved out of the rocks around her. (203)
‘Woman’ remembering, as she dies, a moment when she listened to
Rusalka’s song to the moon on the radio while simultaneously being
aware of the sun, the wind, the grass, is a woman wanting to give expression to her own humanity, to the fullness—and the smallness—of her life
on earth. This is the creative impulse, and in Woman, as in the history of
womankind, Carr seems to imply, it has been stifled.
1. The original essay, ‘Le Corps-à-corps avec la mère’, was first published in
Sexes et parentés (Paris: Minuit, 1987), 21–33.
2. My translation of, ‘Il faut toujours qu’une femme soit morte pour que la
pièce commence’. All following excerpts from Cixous, Irigaray’s Ce Sexe
qui n’en est pas un, and Artaud are my translations.
Works Cited
Artaud, Antonin. Le Théâtre et son double. Paris: Gallimard, 1964. Print.
Carr, Marina. Introduction to Portia Coughlan. Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1998.
———. The Mai, Portia Coughlan, By The Bog of Cats. Plays One. London: Faber
and Faber, 1999. Print.
———. On Raftery’s Hill and Woman and Scarecrow. Plays Two. London: Faber
and Faber, 2009. Print.
Cixous, Hélène, ‘Aller à la mer.’ Le Monde, 28 Apr. 1977: 19. Print.
Irigaray, Luce. ‘The Bodily Encounter with the Mother.’ Tr. David Macey. Ed.
Margaret Whitford. The Irigaray Reader, Blackwell: Oxford, 1991. Print.
———. Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977. Print.
Author Biography
Mary Noonan lectures in modern and contemporary French theatre at
University College Cork. She has published widely in the field of contemporary
French theatre, including essays on the theatres of Marguerite Duras, Nathalie
Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, Hélène Cixous and Simone Benmussa, on the history
of French women playwrights of the twentieth century, the voice and listening in
contemporary French theatre and the work of playwright Noëlle Renaude. Her
monograph Echo’s Voice: The Theatres of Sarraute, Duras, Cixous and Renaude
was published by Legenda (Oxford) in 2014. She is currently editing a collection
of essays on the theatre of Marguerite Duras.
McDonagh’s “True, Lonesome West”
Maria Isabel Seguro
Despite the almost seventeen-year gap between the première of Sam
Shepard’s True West in July 1980 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre
and Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West in June 1997 at Town
Hall Theatre in Galway, the common traits and concerns between both
works are more than evident. In fact, a number of critics pointed out
their interconnections when The Lonesome West was presented together
with The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara as the
Leenane Trilogy in a 1997 Druid Theatre/Royal Court production.
Charles Spencer, for the Daily Telegraph, stated that the narrative of
McDonagh’s play ‘owes a big debt to Sam Shepard’s True West’. Kate
Stratton, writing for Time Out, labelled McDonagh’s play as ‘a kind of
Oirish “True West” [sic]’. Likewise, Michael Billington underlined that
The Lonesome West ‘both in title and the fraternal violence recall Sam
Shepard’s True West.’ As Patrick Lonergan points out in The Theatre
and Films of Martin McDonagh, the title of McDonagh’s play does not
merely ‘gesture towards America’ (29), and in particular to Shepard’s
work, but also shares with it thematic and structural features. Moreover,
according to Lonergan, ‘each writer explores—and perhaps seeks to
undermine—a national myth: the idea of the American frontier West
M.I. Seguro (*) 
University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_5
in True West and the centrality of Catholicism to Irish life (and indeed
the idea of the West also) in The Lonesome West’ (30). Starting from two
explorations of national myths, this chapter focuses on the common ways
in which the two playwrights subvert national myths, prior to exploring
how McDonagh relates more specifically to Irish culture.
In an interview about a 2012 Catalan production of McDonagh’s play
performed in Versus Teatre (a venue promoted as a space for ‘alternative’
theatre), director Pepa Fluvià explained that she decided not to translate
the title in order to keep the term ‘West’ because of its connotations:
loneliness, uprootness, lack of communication, and an inability to solve
problems which leads inevitably to violence. Moreover, Fluvià linked
these aspects of the American/Irish west with rural Catalonia:
We shouldn’t forget that in rural areas, in those lonely and hostile areas of
our Catalonia—there are very hostile villages. Relationships among their
inhabitants and among members of the family are not easy. Jealousies,
lack of communication, their inability to solve problems because of lack of
resources makes them be half-wild.1
Like McDonagh, and Shepard before him, Fluvià’s interest focuses on
those ignored by contemporary, urbanised societies. Although she
wanted to highlight aspects of the Far West (Irish or American), the
sets for her production were meant to be conceptual, not an attempt
to reproduce a ‘realistic’ rural Ireland. This echoes McDonagh’s and
Shepard’s approach, even though the Irish playwright has been strongly
criticised for perpetuating stereotypes as if they were ‘real’ images of
Structurally, True West and The Lonesome West evolve around the insane
competitiveness of two brothers. Their extreme rivalry eventually leads to
a reversal of roles between siblings, whereby one endeavours to control
the other. 2 In Shepard’s play, it is also a competition over who embodies
the ‘authenticity’ of the American West and, consequently, the ‘American
character’ to which it is inherently linked for historian Frederick Jackson
Turner.3 This ‘American character’ came to be embodied by the frontiersman and the mythological cowboy—characterised for their ‘individuality,
self-reliance and morality’ (Westgate 726)—in the same manner that the
West of Ireland and its peasantry, as a result of the intellectual influence of
the Revivalists, were meant to represent the core of Irish culture, its character and nature (Hirsch 1120).
Interestingly, unlike his early experimental work, Shepard situates
the plot of True West in a ‘kitchen and adjoining alcove’ of a Southern
California home, a set that, according to the stage directions, ‘should be
constructed realistically with no attempt to distort its dimensions, shapes,
objects or colors’ (2961). This shows another point of contact with
McDonagh whose Leenane Trilogy is set in the traditional and stereotyped kitchen of an Irish home. Settings, thus, are intrinsically associated
with the family which both playwrights deconstruct as a source of comfort and nourishment for the individual and, metaphorically, as the representation of the imagined community of the nation. For this reason,
sets are meant to be conceptual and not to be taken at face value, as in
Fluvià’s Catalan production.
McDonagh exploits to its extremes the format of the Irish play set
in a rural kitchen so as to deconstruct one of the cultural landmarks in
the construction of the nation: the family. Referring specifically to The
Lieutenant of Inishmore, Laura Eldred reaches a conclusion that is widely
applicable to McDonagh’s œuvre with a specific Irish setting:
Stereotypes of rural, western, Irish life invoke a warm hearth with a loving family gathered around it, a life of hard work in the farm fields, and
the garden, a trusting faith in God’s goodness, and a caring relationship
with the other members of the rural community. These ideals of the family, religion and community meet with harsh treatment in McDonagh’s
plays; families are the source of all hatred and murder; people sit around
watching TV rather than pursuing any employment; any show of religion is
based on self-interest and misunderstanding; the community merely looks
out for good gossip and interesting feuds. (203)
Bearing in mind the drastic changes undergone by family structures in
western culture—particularly as the result of the feminist movements, the
sixties’ sexual revolution, and new divorce legislation, to mention a few
examples—it is unsurprising that the traditional family structure has been
broken in McDonagh’s plays so as to reflect the shifting patterns of the
institution as well as the values that society at large transmits through
it. Consequently, the importance of undermining the traditional family
structure lies in the fact that it has been ‘the primary ideological apparatus, the central system of symbols, through which the state contains
and manages contradictions in the social structure’ (Lee 7). As Rebecca
Wilson points out in her analysis of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the
family ‘has been eroded over time, but in the Beauty Queen it is positively shattered in the morbidly dysfunctional relationship between Mag
and Maureen, wherein mother–child bonding has twisted into venomous
bondage’ (40).
The next two plays of the Leenane Trilogy do not even present a
mother figure, dysfunctional or not. In A Skull in Connemara, Mick
Dowd’s wife—who could have fulfilled the role once—has died before
the play begins, significantly, in a car accident caused by her husband’s
drunk driving. Thus, if in The Beauty Queen of Leenane what is being
enacted is the destruction of the motherland, ‘with all its mythology of
the rural west as primal place of origin’ (Grene 47), in The Lonesome West
we end up with its complete erasure.4 Moreover, the focus on the family plays an important role in how McDonagh’s work has been perceived
outside the British Isles. For example, in the aforementioned 2012
Catalan production, director Pepa Fluvià stated that the play presents the
family as a constraining force upon the individual. For Fluvià, dysfunctional family portrayals are a means for dealing with contemporary issues,
an outlook that conceives McDonagh’s dramatic world as re/presenting
how cultural heritage is a suffocating force for the individual at the turn
of the twenty-first century.
In this context, everyday domestic utensils related to feeding and
warmth—a stove in The Lonesome West; electrical devices such as TV
sets, toasters and buttered toasts in True West—are defamiliarised on the
stage, if not hollowed of their signifieds. These objects are valued by the
characters not for their utility but as property, underlining the effects of
a late capitalist consumer society in a typically postmodern fashion. In
fact, the defamiliarisation of objects associated with hearth and feeding is
prevalent in McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy. As Marion Castleberry points
out in relation to The Beauty Queen of Leenane, ‘McDonagh’s kitchen is
no haven of nurture and nourishment. The kitchen of Mag and Maureen
is a place of unwholesomeness and disease, used for storing poteen and
Complan, pouring urine, burning letters, scalding hands, and torturing
mothers’ (47).
True West, one of Shepard’s ‘family plays’ is disturbingly characterised by domestic violence that oftentimes, as in the case of McDonagh,
has been classified as cartoonish. On the one hand, Paul Murphy, in
his analysis of The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara considers that Leenane is depicted as ‘a conglomeration of social problems
which are hyperbolized through slapstick routines that serve to render
the characters as clowns as thus desensitize the audience to the trauma
underlying the representation of those problems in theatrical form’ (64).
On the other, for Matthew Roudané ‘Shepard’s works in text and performance can be wildly funny. True West (1980), a play whose humor
energizes the performance, sparkles during its absurdist, vaudevillian
moments’ (1).
McDonagh uses violence to disrupt and question, in José Lanters’s
words, ‘the cultural constructions of “Irishness” by subjecting their most
cloying popular manifestations to violent parody’ (13). The purpose
then would be to undermine, if not to demystify a mythified Edenic life
in an idyllic landscape untainted by the corrupting forces of modernisation and, in the context in which McDonagh’s plays were produced,
the liberal values of the Celtic Tiger period. According to Vic Merriman,
McDonagh’s success in the 1990s can be explained by the ‘bourgeoisation’ of Irish society during the period. That is, his theatre allowed
(Irish) audiences to laugh at characters that, apparently, belonged to a
past with no connections to their present. ‘In each belly laugh which
greets the preposterous malevolence of its actions’, so Merriman argues,
‘there is a huge cathartic roar of relief that all of this is past—“we” have
left it all behind’ (273). The same could be applied to its representations
outside Ireland whereby a ‘backward’, rural past is confronted, laughed
at and dismissed by late capitalist urban audiences. Or, as reviewer John
Peter described it,
The effect is both unsettling and liberating: a combination of terror and
the sense of relief that lurks in all comedy that all this is happening to other
people. Such tragic comedy tests the moral resilience of your imagination: somebody up there is suffering so that you can laugh, or joking like a
stand-up comic to make your blood run cold.
Though recognised as talented, McDonagh has often been criticised for
his ‘unoriginality’, for exercising violence by cannibalising iconic playwrights not only like Shepard, but also, for instance, the ilk of Synge
or Beckett. Following this train of thought, in his review of the Trilogy,
Michael Coveney concluded that McDonagh was ‘concocting a storytelling brew of brazen theatricality, an anti-mythical fantasia promoted
by other, more sentimental representations of murder, alcoholic excess,
sibling rivalry and death’. McDonagh’s cannibalisation of the Irish cottage play format appears contradictory in nature, as is postmodernism
itself. According to Linda Hutcheon, postmodernism ‘works to subvert
dominant discourses, but is dependent upon those same discourses for its
very physical existence’ (46). In other words, it aims to destroy what it
heavily depends upon in the same manner that Celtic Tiger Ireland had
tried to distance itself from an image of the country on which it heavily depended for its global tourist promotion. However, this violent
parodic revisit of past theatrical forms has nothing to do with nostalgia.
Following Hutcheon, such a rethinking of tradition ‘confronts the past
with the present, and vice versa. In a direct reaction against the tendency of our times to value only the new and novel, it returns us to a rethought past to see what, if anything, is of value in that past experience’
(39). In McDonagh’s case the answer would be that not much of the
past is of value to us, except as an excuse to produce dark comedies—
of questionable good taste according to some critics—for an evening’s
In turn, the violence displayed in Shepard’s plays could also be related
to the context in which he was beginning to write in the mid-1960s
when, according to Roudané,
traditional notions of community, global boundaries, and citizenship were,
once again, reinventing themselves. […] With Kennedy’s assassination, the
escalating war in Southeast Asia, and the merging civil rights movement, the
objective yielded to the subjective, the once verifiable to the ineffable. (2)
U.S. hegemony was being challenged and the assumptions concerning
the solid values of unrelenting progress since the immediate post-WW2
years did not seem to hold in contemporary America (Bigsby 7). In the
manner that Shepard was turning his back on those assumptions, so
McDonagh, as foreseeing the future, was already turning his back on the
Celtic Tiger mythology in the mid-1990s, at the time when that mythology had become a grand narrative as part of the new national imagery.
Hardly a decade later,
[t]he twin towers of southern Irish identity–Catholicism and nationalism–
were already teetering before the great boom began in 1995. Institutional
Catholicism began to lose its grip in the 1960s; by the early 1990s its foundations were already undermined by secularisation, the sexual revolution
and its own scandals. Nationalism had become vastly more complicated, a
set of troubling questions rather than easy answers. (O’ Toole 3)
For this reason, so Fintan O’Toole argues, Celtic Tiger ideology was
more than willingly embraced since it replaced former identity landmarks openly questioned and in crisis: Catholicism and nationalism. The
Celtic Tiger identity, ‘[a]t its cheapest’, according to O’Toole, ‘expressed
itself in a mad consumerism, an arrogance towards the rest of the world,
in a wilful refusal of all ties of history and tradition’ (4), as well as, on
another level, optimism and confidence in the future, shattered by the
global financial crisis since 2008. The banking crisis did not merely ‘kill
off the arrogance and acquisitive mania, it also swept away the hopefulness and the sense of possibility. It is not just money that has been
lost; it is a sense of what, for better and worst, it meant to be “us”’ (4).
Looking backwards, it seems that McDonagh’s ‘demented Connemara’,
as Mic Moroney put it, was both killing and reviving tradition and the
past, making a double-edge critique that enabled past and future to be
‘judged in each other’s light’ (Hutcheon 39).
The cartoonish violence aforementioned may also be associated with
the theatre of the absurd, another Shepard/McDonagh point of contact.
For this reason, McDonagh’s œuvre has sometimes been condemned
for lacking depth, epitomised by characters who ‘are regularly regarded
as caricatures, puppet-like’ creatures (Chambers and Jordan 7), as postmodern exercises aimed at revealing the moral and ethical vacuity of contemporary times (Grene, qtd. in Chambers and Jordan 71). For Fredric
Jameson, such a phenomenon is intrinsically linked to post-industrial
or consumer societies, whereby culture is an ‘aesthetic production […]
integrated into commodity production generally’ (56). As a result of the
contemporary grand narrative of globalisation, this aesthetic production
is based on the abusive reproduction, display and selling of stereotyped
images of a nation and its culture so as to obtain as much commercial
success as possible via, for instance, the tourist industry and perhaps,
above all, the culture industry. In relation to this point, it is interesting to see how McDonagh’s plays have also been considered, though in
an exaggerated manner, to reflect Ireland/Irishness in a ‘realistic’ way.
For example, Fluvià referred to her own production of The Lonesome
West as ‘a cruel picture, realistic and ruthless’ (Castuera); when asked
whether the characters in that play were ‘accurate to the way people
are in Ireland’, Irish actress Sarah Greene (playing Helen in the 2014
Broadway production of The Cripple of Inishmaan) responded:
Yeah, they are. I think they’re heightened versions, but these people absolutely exist. These people [in the play] are bored. That’s why the biggest
gossip on the island is about a bloody cat and a goose. That’s all that’s
happening. Helen doesn’t read; she has no interest in reading. There’s
nothing to do except wind each other up and gossip and throw eggs. (qtd.
in Gordon)
Violence is also used by Shepard and McDonagh as a mode to express
extreme emotions that disable characters by making them inarticulate.
Language is no longer viable for communication. Resorting to violence
conveys a sense of lack of control and unreality in realistically constructed
sets, questioning the ‘authenticity’ of cultural representations—the
American or Irish West.5 The characters’ lack of connection with former
national myths turns them into disabled figures, marginalising them from
a community that continues promoting discourses to which they can no
longer relate. As Shepard stated in relation to his idea of myth,
Myth served as a story in which people could connect themselves in time
to the past. And thereby connect themselves to the present and the future
… it acted as a thread in culture. And that’s been destroyed … It doesn’t
exist anymore. All we have is fantasies about it. (Qtd. in Bigsby 11)
From this standpoint, it seems that McDonagh moves westward to meet
Shepard’s ‘true West’/True West.
According to Mark Siegel,
A continuing major concern of Shepard in nearly all his works is the disappearance of the myths on which American character and spirit are founded.
Certainly cultures change, and the needs of a people for particular types of
legends and myths change also. But Shepard observes that, in our essentially material and profane culture, we have desacralized the past and seem
unable to replace our old legends with any viable new ones. (235)
In True West brothers Lee and Austin spend a few days in their mother’s
home in Southern California. Austin embodies the successful middleclass professional, an Ivy League college graduate with wife and children living in the North, who works as a scriptwriter for the Hollywood
Lee, the older brother, functions as his foil. A rootless man with
no professional career, he makes a living by breaking into houses and
stealing electrical appliances. Clearly portrayed as a parody of the worn
out, displaced twentieth-century ‘rock ‘n roll’ cowboy, his destiny is one
of marginalisation, like his father’s, the ‘Old Man’ who lives alone in the
desert. The tables are turned with Lee’s interference in the negotiations
between Austin and Saul Kimmer, a Hollywood producer, about the
script on which Austin has been working. Lee offers Saul a story that is
‘True-to-life stuff’ but, at the same time, ‘Real commercial’ (2968), a
‘Contemporary Western’ ‘that’d knock yer lights out’ (2971). His moves
prove so dexterous that Saul discards Austin’s project, claiming that Lee
speaks from experience: Lee’s story ‘has a ring of truth’, ‘Something
about the Real West’, ‘Something about the land’ (2982).
Ironically, Lee secures the Hollywood producer’s attention by providing him with updated stereotypical images of the American West. He has
not only identified and manipulated that fiction, ‘he has [also] capitalized on its worth, much as he has stolen a television from a neighbourhood home far more valuable on the black market than all the toasters
Austin swipes in his nighttime raid’ (Kane 143). From this viewpoint,
McDonagh has also capitalised Connemara in the Trilogy, underlining
culture’s contribution to the re/production of fictionalised realities.
As Brenda Murphy points out, ‘Shepard’s true West is the desert, the
domain of the father and the masculine’ (132), a traditional refuge from
the constraining and effeminate forces of civilisation, embodying, thus,
‘freedom, self-sufficiency’ and a spiritual connection with the land (Siegel
246). However, in the contemporary world, the desert is a vacuum, the
nothingness where outcasts are marginalised. Men retire to the desert
because they are unsuccessful within the system.6 This aspect strongly
connects Shepard with McDonagh for whom the Irish West, as Shepard’s
American West, has been exploited as embodying the ‘authentic’, ‘true’,
‘real’ essence of a culture.
It seems pertinent to draw from Jean Baudrillard’s concept of
simulacra, whereby the endless repetition of signs characteristic of a
mass media-saturated society results in voiding them of meaning—
to the extent that the sign ultimately has no relation to reality. This is
clearly illustrated in McDonagh’s work, whereby the clichéd symbols
of Irishness (Catholic icons such as the cross, for example) are foregrounded onstage in order to exploit them and make them, at least
metaphorically, explode. It should be taken into account that despite
the depiction of the west of Ireland as backward, the community is
familiar with mass culture—the ultimate producer and conveyer of
simulacra—such as American and Australian soap operas or major sport
events. However, in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, this, facts
are presented as unreliable:
McDonagh’s Leenane is an apparently conventional image of authentic,
if backward, rural Ireland. […] But it turns out to be a place of intense
communication problems. All messages and stories are shown to be mediated and distorted here, none can be trusted. Emphasizing this sense of
mediation, McDonagh overlays his ‘photograph’ of rural Connemara with
a ‘postmodern landscape’ of media saturation, a dripfeed of cheap television and American popular culture. (Arrowsmith 240)
This analysis, particularly relevant for The Cripple of Inishmaan, equally
enlightens McDonagh’s treatment of intercultural borrowings in The
Leenane Trilogy. The commodification of culture via the ongoing reproduction of its icons leads to what Jameson has described as ‘the waning of affect in postmodern culture’ (61). Even when Valene and
Coleman engage in regretting their mutual wrongdoings and apologising to each other after Father Welsh’s (or Walsh?) suicide, their sincerity remains dubious in view of all that has happened on the stage. Their
acts of contrition end up being a ‘contest that escalates into all-out war’
(Nightingale 925), a reflection not merely of extreme competitiveness in
the contemporary world, but also of the magnification of trivial matters
versus the trivialisation of serious issues. Valene is more concerned with
his brother’s cutting his dog’s ears than his killing their father. This attitude parallels the effects produced by mass media’s constant repetition
of images, whereby acts of violence are played down and social events
blown out of proportion. As such, the Leenane Trilogy may be read as an
exercise into revealing the effect of simulacra in the contemporary world.
Arguably, McDonagh cannibalises ‘a West of Ireland setting’ due
to its identification with ‘a culturally distinct area because it was once
regarded as the source and basis of genuine Irishness’ (Kurdi 99). This
phenomenon can be dated back to the beginning of the Irish Literary
Revival, a period during which ‘the Irish peasant was fundamentally “created” and characterized for posterity’ (Hirsch 1116). The Irish peasant
and, by extension, the Irish landscape, were ‘aestheticized’ in order to be
equated with ‘the folk’ (Hirsch 1117). The peasant was thus conceived
as a ‘spiritual figure, the living embodiment of the “Celtic” imagination’ (1119) and, consequently, ‘the essence of an ancient, dignified Irish
culture’ posited against the values of industrial progress, urbanisation,
commerce and an obsession with materialism associated with Englishness
The Lonesome West portrays a violent sibling rivalry between Valene
and Coleman Connor after the ‘accidental’ death by shotgun of the
patriarch who, we are led to believe, designated Valene as his only heir.
The play is set in the familiar-looking kitchen of an rural Irish house,
complete with fireplace, worn-out furniture, and ‘[a] long row of dusty,
plastic Catholic figurines, each marked with a black “V”, [which] line a
shelf on the back wall, above which hangs a double-barrelled shotgun and
above that a large crucifix’ (129). McDonagh writes a West of Ireland
dystopia, in the context of 1990s Ireland, when the country had undergone deep socio-cultural changes. As Tom Inglis highlighted about
Ireland before the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008:
The emergence of the Celtic Tiger economy created major changes in Irish
social and cultural life. Although there are still major gaps between the rich
and the poor, particularly between a new cosmopolitan elite that is globally
orientated and a local underclass that is dependent on welfare, a large new
middle class has emerged whose standard of living has increased dramatically. (19)
At first sight, the play’s initial stage picture bears no connection with
the mid-1990s Ireland of affluence. Yet, as discussed earlier, Merriman
argues that McDonagh portrays caricatures of a rural Ireland stereotypically associated with poverty so as to provide the bourgeois audiences
with a possibility of laughing at, and distancing themselves, from a not
altogether distant past. The crudeness of these characters, as in the case
of Marina Carr’s theatre, comes to the fore,
not because of poverty but in spite of relative prosperity. Material security
does not fix what ails this world, and the characters’ internal emptiness
may actually be a point of uncomfortable self-recognition for a new, more
commercialized Ireland, struggling to discover meaning in a consumptionfuelled, post-nationalist world. (Doyle 498)
From such a perspective, and particularly in the post-Celtic Tiger era,
McDonagh’s work may be approached not only as a reflection of the
gradual erosion of former cultural landmarks (Catholicism in the case of
The Lonesome West), but also of the shallowness of the Celtic Tiger identity with which those were substituted—an identity based on economic
achievements now shattered as a result of the world financial crisis:
Irish people are now part of a culture in which the emphasis is on selfrealization. The culture of the world capitalist system is based on using
mostly mass-produced, commodified consumer symbols to create personal
identities and an individual sense of difference. What binds Irish people
more together now—what creates a sense of bonding and belonging—
is a commitment to self-realization through consumer choice. The Irish
way of being in the world is now constructed more by market and media
forces which emphasize the importance of difference, self-realization and
continual self-transformation and which rarely emphasize the importance
of self-denial and self-surrender. The world capitalist system has changed
the conditions in which we realized our sameness and difference. It has
changed the nature of our social bonds. (Inglis 6–7)
This evolution is clearly revealed by characters being far more concerned with objects than with personal relationships. Religious icons—
the plastic figurines—are conceived as symbols of property, accumulation
of wealth and, hence, status. McDonagh, an English Irish Londoner,
shows Catholicism literally melting away when Coleman, out of spite,
burns the plastic figurines in Valene’s stove and Father Welsh/Walsh is
incompetent to re-establish, let alone sustain, its values—a phenomenon
related to the erosion of religiousness in western culture. The obsession
with ownership and consumerism extends to such piteous nourishment
as Tayto crisps and poteen, and the epitome of capitalist values can be
found in the iteration of ownership of a common stove. Thus, Valene
warns his brother:
This stove is mine, them figurines are mine, this gun, them chairs, that
table’s mine. What else? This floor, them cupboards, everything in this
fecking house is mine, and you don’t go touching, boy. Not without me
express permission. (141)
McDonagh again coincides with Inglis by highlighting how globalisation in Ireland, amongst other factors, has to do with the country’s move
‘from a Catholic culture based on practices of chastity, humility, piety
and self-denial to a liberal–individualist consumer culture of self-indulgence’ (Inglis 3).
The principles associated with a globalised economy and a supposedly globalised culture by which the liberal individual, via talent and
effort, may achieve happiness through the freedom of choice in the market (Inglis 27) have reached McDonagh’s remote, violent and lonely
Leenane. However, its inhabitants are not its beneficiaries, but rather
those marginalised and denied access to its possible advantages. Valene
moved to England where he became familiar with the TV show Alias
and Jones (1971–1973),7 the only reference in the play to a character’s
attempt to improve his situation via emigration. Moreover, what he has
achieved back home has not been through the liberal principles of personal effort and talent—unless blackmailing his brother for not reporting
him to the authorities for the patricide he has committed in exchange
for his half of the inheritance could be classified as talent. Valene and
Connor, like Lee, are men who have not ‘made it’.
Overall, McDonagh’s portrayal of the West, as Lonergan states, not
only undermines how it has been idealised but also highlights how ‘it
has been marginalised and impoverished in many ways—not just economically, but culturally and (perhaps) intellectually’ (30). According to
Inglis, ‘global westernization’ has the effect of homogenising aspects of
our lives, particularly in fields such as labour, communication, consumption or leisure:
The same terminology is being used all over the world to find the cheapest, fastest, most reliable, predictable, rational way of producing goods and
services. … Life becomes an endless task of perfection, of increasing production and efficiency. It invades not just one’s work and private life, but
one’s sense of self. (26)
However, this process of homogenisation creates the need for searching
‘authenticity’ as a means of defining our individuality in a given community. In other words, global practices draw from the local and the particular so as to offer something different to the world market. Scholars
such as Lonergan have underlined how theatre, cinema and even the
tourist industry draw from stereotypical images of Ireland in order to
become global. ‘Familiar’ images of Irishness are exploited so that audiences worldwide will be able to connect, identify and consume those
cultural products as typically ‘Irish’ and, consequently, become globally
successful. This phenomenon was illustrated by the promotion material
of the 2012 production of The Lonesome West in Barcelona, whereby the
play was introduced as: ‘Ireland: green landscapes, hills, lakes, and above
all people: Passionate people, open people and at the same time closed
people, contradictory, conflictive, interesting people and, on top of all
this, the pubs’ [my translation].
A prototype of this phenomenon, McDonagh’s work may also
paradoxically be approached as a criticism of the process by which
McDonagh himself has become an internationally renowned playwright.
His plays could be considered as a critique of what Roland Robertson
refers as ‘glocalization’, the interaction between the ‘global’ and the
‘local’: ‘the concept of globalization has involved the simultaneity and
the interpenetration of what are conventionally called the global and the
local or,—in more abstract vein—the universal and the particular’ (30).
Like Shepard, McDonagh participates in the Hollywood industry as a
scriptwriter. Perhaps because of their dealings with the business industry on a global scale, they warn us about ‘the danger of commodifying
the imagination’—the commodification of the arts in general terms (B.
Murphy 131).
McDonagh and Shepard point at the collateral effects of globalisation
that, notwithstanding the opportunities it offers due to the rapid and
ever-increasing flow of goods, people and ideas, nonetheless enhances
the marginalisation of those denied full access to global institutions. As
Shaun Richards underlines regarding McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, an
argument that equally relates to Shepard’s work, both playwrights offer
‘theatrical experiences’ concerned with a cynical recycling of ‘worn stereotypes’ (253). However, like John Millington Synge before them, their
view is ‘unforgiving’ and ‘just as alert to the condition of those idealised
on stage [and nowadays in mass media] but marginalised in reality’.
1. My translation. See Castuera.
2. For the exchange of roles in Shepard’s play, see Brenda Murphy.
3. The reference is to Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘The Significance of the
Frontier in American History’, a paper delivered in 1893 which greatly
contributed to the idea that the frontier/West was fundamental to the
development and progress of the United States.
4. The only female character in the play is a teenager referred to as Girleen
whose real name is Mary. This is an obvious ironic reference, for Girleen
is no mother figure, not only due to her age, but mainly to her failure to
establish a stable loving relationship with Father Welsh which, itself, would
breach Catholic rules. This means that, in turn, she fails to prevent Father
Welsh’s suicide as a sacrifice for Valene and Coleman.
5. See Bigsby, 15.
6. ‘Lee. Hey, do you actually think I chose to live out in the middle of
nowhere or somethin’? I’m livin’ out there ‘cause I can’t make it here!
And yer bitchin’ to me about all yer success!’ (Shepard 2992)
7. The show’s plot evolved around two outlaws of the American West who,
as a result of the region’s modernisation, gradually found it harder to continue making a living out of robbing trains and banks. Again, this reference
is relevant due to the conflict between the myth of the West and a changing reality.
Works Cited
Arrowsmith, Aidan. ‘“Genuinely Inauthentic”. McDonagh’s Postdiasporic
Irishness.’ The Theatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. Eds.
Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 236–245.
Bigsby, Christopher. ‘Born Injured: The Theatre of Sam Shepard.’ Cambridge
Companion to Sam Shepard. Ed. Matthew Roudané. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006. 7–33. Print.
Billington, Michael. Rev. of Lonesome West, dir. Garry Hynes. Guardian, 28 July
1997. Theatre Record. 16–29 July 1997: 923–924. Print.
Castuera, Àngels. ‘Pepa Fluvià parla sobre The Lonesome West.’ Interview. Teatralnet
(2012). Web.
28 April 2015.
Castleberry, Marion. ‘Comedy and violence in The Beauty Queen of Leenane.’
Martin McDonagh: A Casebook. Ed. Richard Rankin Russell. Abington, Oxon
and New York: Routledge, 2007. 41–59. Print.
Chambers, Lilian and Eamonn Jordan. ‘Introduction.’ The Theatre of Martin
McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. Eds. Lilian Chambers and Eamonn
Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 1–12. Print.
Coveney, Michael. Rev. of Lonesome West, dir. Garry Hynes. Daily Mail, 1 Aug.
1997. Theatre Record. 16–29 July 1997: 923. Print.
Doyle, Maria. ‘Slouching Towards Raftery’s Hill: The Devolving Patriarch in
Marina Carr’s Midlands Plays.’ Modern Drama 53.4 (2010): 495–515. Print.
Eldred, Laura. ‘Martin McDonagh’s Blend of Tradition and Horrific Innovation.’
The Theatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. Eds. Lilian
Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 198–213. Print.
Gordon, David. ‘2014 Tony Nominee Sarah Greene Is Having a Feckin’* Time
on Broadway in The Cripple of Inishmaan.’ Theatermania, 31 May 2014.
sarah-greene-on-broadway-in-cripple-of-inishmaan_68726.html. 5 June 2014.
Grene, Nicholas. 2006. ‘Ireland in Two Minds: Martin McDonagh and Conor
McPherson.’ The Theatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. Eds.
Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 42–59. Print.
Hirsch, Edward. ‘The Imaginary Peasant.’ PMLA 106.5 (1991): 1116–1133. Print.
Hutcheon, Linda. ‘Limiting the Postmodern: The Paradoxical Aftermath of
Postmodernism.’ A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New
York: Routledge, 1988. 37–56. Print.
Inglis, Tom. Global Ireland: Same Difference. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.’
New Left Review 146 (1984): 53–92.
Kane, Leslie. ‘Reflections of the Past True West and A Lie of the Mind.’
Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard. Ed. Matthew Roudané. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2006. 139–153. Print.
Kurdi, Mária. ‘The Helen of Inishmaan Peggin Eggs: Gender, Sexuality and
Violence.’ The Theatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. Eds.
Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 96–115.
Lanters, José. ‘The Identity Politics of Martin McDonagh.’ Martin McDonagh:
A Casebook. Ed. Richard Rankin Russell. Abington, Oxon and New York:
Routledge, 2007. 204–222. Print.
Lee, Robert G. Orientals. Asian America in Popular Culture. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1999. Print.
Lonergan, Patrick. The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh. London:
Methuen, 2012. Print.
McDonagh, Martin. Plays One: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in
Connemara, The Lonesome West. London: Methuen, 1999. Print.
Merriman, Victor. ‘Decolonization Postponed: The Theatre of Tiger Trash.’ The
Theatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. Eds. Lilian Chambers
and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 264–280. Print.
Moroney, Mic. Rev. of Lonesome West, dir. Garry Hynes. Independent, 25 June
1997. Theatre Record, 16–19 July 1997: 921.
Murphy, Brenda. ‘Shepard Writes about Writing.’ Cambridge Companion to Sam
Shepard. Ed. Matthew Roudané. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2006. 123–138. Print.
Murphy, Paul. 2006. ‘The Stage Irish Are Dead, Long Live the Stage Irish: The
Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara.’ The Theatre of Martin McDonagh:
A World of Savage Stories. Eds. Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin:
Carysfort, 2006. 60–78. Print.
Nightingale, Benedict. Rev. of Lonesome West, dir. Garry Hynes. The Times. 28
July 1997. Theatre Record. 16–29 July: 925–926. Print.
O’Toole, Fintan. Enough Is Enough: How to Build a New Republic. London:
Faber, 2010. Print.
Peter, John. Rev. of Lonesome West, dir. Garry Hynes. Sunday Times, 3 Aug.
1997. Theatre Record. 16–29 July 1997: 926–927. Print.
Richards, Shaun. ‘“The Outpouring of a Morbid, Unhealthy Mind”: The Critical
Condition of Synge and McDonagh.’ A World of Savage Stories. Eds. Lilian
Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 246–263. Print.
Robertson, Roland. ‘Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity.’
Global Modernities. Eds. Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash, and Roland
Robertson. London and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995. 25–43. Print.
Roudané, Matthew. ‘Introduction.’ Ed. Matthew Roudané. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2006. 1–6. Print.
Shepard, Sam. True West. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol.
E. Eds. Jerome Klinkowitz and Patricia B. Wallace. New York and London:
Norton, 2007. 2960–2999. Print.
Siegel, Mark. ‘The Mythic Cowboy in the Plays of Sam Shephard.’ Rocky
Mountain Review of Language and Literature. 36.4 (1982): 235–246. Print.
Spencer, Charles. Rev. of Lonesome West, dir. Garry Hynes. Daily Telegraph, 23
June 1997. Theatre Record. 16–29 July 1997: 921–922. Print.
Stratton, Kate. Rev. of Lonesome West, dir. Garry Hynes. Time Out. 30 July 1997.
Theatre Record. 16–29 July 1997: 922–923. Print.
Westgate, J. Chris. ‘Negotiating the American West in Sam Shepard’s Family
Plays.’ Modern Drama 48.4 (2005): 726–743. Print.
Wilson, Rebecca. 2006. ‘Macabre Merriment in McDonagh’s Melodrama: The
Beauty Queen.’ The Theatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories. Eds.
Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort, 2006. 27–41. Print.
Author Biography
Maria Isabel Seguro is finishing her Ph.D. thesis on the theatre of Martin
McDonagh in the English Department of the University of Barcelona, where
she also teaches English literature. She has researched and published on Asian
American drama as well as contemporary British and Irish theatre, for instance,
‘Disabling Mainstreamised Representations of Irishness in Martin McDonagh’s
Leenane Trilogy’, published in Nordic Irish Studies (2016). A member of the
Contemporary British Theatre Barcelona Research Group (CBT), she is contributing to the European project ‘British Theatre in the Twenty-First Century:
Crisis, Affect, Community’.
The Physical and Verbal Theatre of Michael
Nicholas Grene
Tom Mac Intyre’s The Great Hunger, staged in the Abbey in 1983, is
often seen as a landmark production in the history of Irish theatre. The
adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s great poem was planned as a collaboration between the playwright, director Patrick Mason, actor Tom Hickey
and designer Bronwen Casson. It represented a form of theatre animated
by physical movement, sound and image rather that scripted language.
As such it was taken to be a breakthrough in the Irish stage tradition
that had always been dominated by the writer, in which the word was
sovereign, all the more striking because based on a major literary work.
The same team of collaborators working with Mac Intyre produced
three more shows in this theatre of the image through the 1980s before
the playwright reverted to more conventionally language-based plays
again.1 It was only in the 1990s that a physical theatre movement began
to spread and gather momentum in Ireland. Blue Raincoat was established in Sligo in 1991 as an initiative of actor Niall Henry, trained in
Paris, working with Malcolm Hamilton. Two years later, Mikel Murfi,
also from Sligo, also Paris-trained, was one of the founding members of
N. Grene (*) 
Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_6
92 N. Grene
Barabbas… the Company in Dublin. And in 1995, the American actor
and director Annie Ryan, with her Chicago background in commedia
dell’arte and theatre games, set up The Corn Exchange.
Michael West, Ryan’s husband, has been associated with Corn
Exchange from the beginning. Ryan, in fact, has said that she began
working with West after seeing his A Play on Two Chairs (1990) at a
student drama festival at which she was also performing. ‘When I saw
Michael’s play it really struck me because it looked like it was straight
out of the Chicago training that I’d had in improvisation and story theatre and theatre games’ (Chambers, FitzGibbon, and Jordan 424). A Play
on Two Chairs, first performed in Trinity’s Players Theatre in 1989, is
indeed a spare physical theatre piece, a virtuoso performance vehicle for
the two actors, a man and woman, with no continuous narrative but a
series of brilliant sketches on and with the two chairs of the title. This
sort of style was elaborated in West’s Snow, produced by Bickerstaffe in
1993, directed by West himself with Ryan in the cast. The six characters,
with their non-committal all but monosyllabic names—Green, Mags,
Polly, Bram, Heck and Kip—might well be students in a flat-share but
there is nothing to tie them to any specific social context. Each has a
routine of compulsive behaviour and there is a ten-minute wordless overture in which the characters are presented ‘in the light of their motif or
key obsession’ (West, Snow 2). When the dialogue does begin, it often
consists of no more that broken bits of speech, as the several characters
locked each in his or her mania clash and collide in the idiom of zany
comedy. ‘It sprang’, West told me, ‘from an obsession with scoring an
abstract, musical, physical language theatre. And like the OCD characters who run around in it, the play returns obsessively to ideas of pattern
borrowed from […] fugue, motif and musical structure’ (Message, 14
March 2014).
While virtually all of West’s early original plays took the form of this
sort of physical theatre, he worked in another predominantly linguistic mode in his adaptations. These included a version of Molière’s Dom
Juan (1990), when he was still a student, in which the lead was played
by a then eighteen-year-old Dominic West (no relation), and a translation of Tartuffe for the Gate in 1992 (West, now famous for his leading part in the TV series The Wire, was a close friend of the playwright
and also acted in A Play on Two Chairs).2 All the same, it was a surprise
to me when I first read and then saw the one-man play Foley (2000).
I should explain that Michael West is a former student of mine whose
work I have followed from the beginning, and I had very much placed
him as a physical theatre man. Ryan accounts for the decision to mount
the monologue Foley as a matter of economic necessity; in 2000 Corn
Exchange could not afford to pay a whole company of actors (Chambers,
FitzGibbon, and Jordan 425–426). True as that may well have been, for
anyone who had seen A Play on Two Chairs or Snow, Foley represented a
startling change in style and mode.
It is very much in the literary style of Anglo-Irish Gothic. George
Foley, last down-at-heel descendent of a whole line of landed George
Foleys, reflects on his self-destructive, self-hating life. There are grotesque vignettes of his eccentric parents and the appalling, repressed life
of the Protestant Big House, an atmosphere Foley so detested that he
married a Catholic he did not love and turned Catholic himself out of
sheer spite. The monologue is in the fastidiously self-correcting style pioneered by Brian Friel in Faith Healer, as in Foley’s minutely described
encounter with a horse: ‘He came up quite quickly and halted abruptly
some three yards off. He wanted… that’s too venal. He was hoping…
too pathetic. He was… curious, to see if I had brought him something,
an offering’ (7). But there is also the rancorous recoil against his own
capacity for phrase-making that is characteristic of Beckett. He comments on his own conversion, ‘In fact, becoming a Catholic was the
most Protestant thing I ever did,’ but then adds, ‘My taste for inversion
and glibness disgusts me’ (11). The play was wonderfully animated in
the performance by Andrew Bennett—always one of West’s favoured
actors—but its rich linguistic texture and literary self-awareness are its
main strengths.
As The Corn Exchange became more successful and attracted significant funding, it was possible for Ryan to build what she had always
wanted: an acting company skilled in the physical training tradition of
commedia. West collaborated with them in the creation of two shows
performed in full commedia style, Dublin by Lamplight and Everyday.
Dublin by Lamplight was produced in 2004 as a play very conscious of
the two Dublin centenaries being commemorated that year: Bloomsday
and the founding of the Abbey Theatre. Much of the action constitutes a
free fantasia on the early history of the Abbey; two of the central characters are Frank and Willie Hayes—for Fays—and Eva St John, belligerent
political activist and the theatre’s angel, who is a combination of Maud
Gonne and Annie Horniman. West has great fun with a spoof Yeatsian
play within the play—it is called ‘The Wooing of Emer’, but misprinted
94 N. Grene
in the newspaper advertisement as ‘The Wowing of Emer’. There are
plenty of Joyce echoes also. The title itself is taken from the name of
the laundry where Maria works in the Dubliners story ‘Clay’, from which
West also borrows other incidents and allusions. A terrorist explosion
and an assassination move the play in the direction of tragic farce. The
performance style of exaggerated stylised gestures and the commedia
make-up gave an alienating edge to the production, all the more piquant
because so antithetical to the low relief naturalistic style for which the
early Abbey actors were famous.
Everyday from 2006, like Dublin by Lamplight, was credited as a collaboration between Michael West and The Corn Exchange; but in the
case of the later play the effects of the collaboration are much more evident. Plotting the lives of a diverse group of contemporary Dubliners
as their paths crisscross through a single day became virtually a devised
piece, with the individual actors working up the storylines of their characters. Though the effect was visually impressive in the tableau scenes
where the figures all appeared together, the Irish Times critic expressed
reservations about the credibility of the characters:
Some are too clichéd or stereotyped to sustain our interest over 90 minutes; the Ukrainian barmaid/au pair comes across as a tokenistic attempt
to incorporate immigration. The life-stories, developed through workshops, seem too generic to have a real impact, while the reconciliations and
hints of new possibilities at the end feel unearned. (Meany)
The issue is an interesting one because of the way it highlights the relationship between a writer and a devising company of actors. While it may
not be necessary for a writer to have complete control of a script, without the informing vision of a writer working with a director, a play may
lose incisiveness, subtlety and depth.
West’s most recent play, Conservatory (2014), was a commission by the
Abbey and was produced at the Peacock without any involvement of The
Corn Exchange. As far as subject matter and milieu is concerned, it is very
much back in Foley territory. The two characters, a long-married couple,
are terminal representatives of ‘oul dacency’, Anglo-Irish Protestantism.
There are extended riffs on their status as survivors, like the litany of the
names of those who attended their wedding, not one of whom is still
alive. There is even less occasion for physical movement than in Foley,
due to the age of the characters. The wife sits in her armchair, doing a
crossword, knitting, darning socks, for almost the entire action, and the
man is so old and infirm that he can only shuffle in and out. The drama
consists entirely in the vicious ping-pong of their dialogue, trading taunts
and put-downs, the mutual animus all that holds them together. He has
apparently been a faithless drunken spendthrift with not a single redeeming feature. But there is a jaunty wit to the language that leavens the show
beyond Beckettian gloom—at least in the wonderful comic performances
of Stephen Brennan and Deirdre Donnelly. He is so ghastly and so aware
of his ghastliness that it almost becomes a pleasure to the audience, if not
to his long-suffering wife. Though for much of the action it seems not to
go beyond the back and forth of marital venom, it has a real narrative arc,
as the story unfolds of the son who killed himself in the offstage, never
seen conservatory of the title. In this sense the play looks like a conventional naturalistic drama of a dysfunctional marriage, foundered yet in a
terrible sense maintained by a shared tragedy, Strindberg with laughs.
Yet the starting point for the play, as West explains in a prefatory note
to the printed text, was the image of a man and a woman and two armchairs. The characters are never given names; they are simply He and
She. So, in one sense, West is working with just the same formula as in
his very first work, A Play on Two Chairs, where the figures are also only
named as He and She. The main bulk of the action is taken up with the
extended dialogue of Scene 2, but this is framed by the wordless tableaux of Scenes 1 and 3. West himself has stressed how important mime
is even within such an apparently verbally dominated play as this. Early in
the action the man leaves the room, as it turns out to fetch a box of the
dead son’s Stephen’s belongings, and has to reconstruct his movements
offstage in order to re-locate his mislaid spectacles. This West uses as an
illustration of ‘the contemplation of silent stage action’, what ‘can be
conveyed by a gesture’ (Message, 21 March 2014). ‘The mime sequence
in Conservatory where He is trying to remember where he left his glasses
[is] softened by the conventions of Naturalism but it’s a visceral way to
get Stephen’s room and presence on stage and is an important haunting
Ryan stresses that ‘commedia work’ can in fact be ‘a really good
tool for naturalism… What it does is it breaks every moment down. It
makes you see every moment as it happens’ (Chambers, FitzGibbon,
and Jordan 426). What Ryan brings out here is the limited value of placing verbal and physical theatre as absolute opposites. Both sets of skills
can enhance the best sort of drama. We have all seen physical theatre
96 N. Grene
performances where the actors desperately need training in voice production, and slack naturalistic performances where the actors simply try to
‘act naturally’. Freefall, the play I regard as West’s best work to date, is
an excellent example of what can be achieved by a blending of all the arts
and techniques available to a contemporary playwright, one successful
way to populate the stage.
Like so many of West’s plays, it had its origins in abstract patterning
rather than a character-based situation. In his ‘Writer’s Note’ to the published script, he talks about the ‘geometry’ of the piece, and how the
alphabetically identified characters ended up as A, B, C, D and G without an E or F. At the centre of the action is the still nameless A, who suffers a stroke and in his dying hours goes through a jumble of scenes of
his life going back to childhood. The retrospective storytelling is a standard technique of West. But the story of A is quite different from that of
the decayed Protestant gentry in Foley and Conservatory both in its substance and in the way it is told. This is an ordinary Irish life and his lack
of a name, West tells us, ‘quietly underlined his anonymity and unassuming nature’ (Freefall 2).
Ryan, the play’s director, stresses the importance of contemporary
events in Ireland to the genesis of the play, the collapse of the economy
and the issuing of the Ryan report into the abuse of children in Catholicrun orphanages and industrial schools. What I find significant are the
stage idioms West uses in Freefall as they relate to his other plays. It has
a quite definite shaped story, as Foley and Conservatory do: A’s adoption
by his aunt and uncle on the death of his mother; his sense of guilt at a
lost sister who was not so adopted, which leads him to obsess that his
wife Louise, who never knew her birth parents, might be that sister; his
relationship with his yobbish cousin Denis; the crisis in his marriage that
comes immediately before his stroke. The play contains some of West’s
best comic writing in the disastrous dinner-party involving Denis and his
most recent girlfriend Lydia, and the brilliant scenes of Dry Rot Man
inspecting the basement fungi with professional delight. But at the same
time the virtuoso performance of all the parts by the five actors makes
it a showcase for the playing style of The Corn Exchange, even without
commedia make-up.
The play is framed by an amateur video being made by Jack, the
teenage son of A and Louise, as a school project, in which we see the
camera-shy father asked to talk about himself. This introduces the extra
dimension of film to the play, used most effectively in the scenes in the
hospital where the inert body of A is doubled with screened images as
from his point of view. West has had a longstanding interest in cinematic
techniques. Everyday used filmic rapid cutting from scene to scene, and
Man of Valour from 2011 was designed as a ‘one-man action movie’ performed by Paul Reid, supported by ‘sound, music, video and lighting’
(1). Freefall works so well because it makes use of all the resources available to a contemporary playwright, virtual as well as live performance and
the interplay between the two.
It is understandable in Ireland, where writer-based drama dominated the
theatrical tradition for so long, that alternative forms of physical theatre—
theatre of the image, theatre of clowns—when they finally came along,
should have defined themselves in opposition to that tradition. The example of West’s work shows that such an opposition of verbal to visual, word
against movement, is not really a helpful one. He is an extremely skilful
writer, who uses language with subtlety and self-aware precision. But he
has always been drawn to the choreographed structure of action on stage,
and it is that which has made his partnership with The Corn Exchange so
fruitful. Live theatre throughout the modern period has had to struggle
for its continued existence against the overwhelmingly popular rival media
of film and television. Highly stylised physical theatre has the advantage of
putting on display the performance skills of the actors. Where it is combined, as in Freefall, with strategic technological borrowing, and given
unity and coherence by a writer and director’s imaginative vision, the result
is a genuine form of Irish theatre for the twenty-first century.
1. These were Rise Up Lovely Sweeney (1985), Dance for Your Daddy (1987)
and Snow White (1988).
2. I am very grateful to Michael West for giving me copies of Snow and other
plays of his, and for his comments on his work.
Works Cited
Chambers, Lilian, Ger FitzGibbon, and Eamonn Jordan, eds. Theatre Talk.
Dublin: Carysfort, 2001. Print.
Meany, Helen. ‘Everyday.’ Rev. of Everyday. The Irish Times, 12 October 2006: 16.
West, Michael. Snow. Unpublished script, 1993. TS.
———. A Play on Two Chairs. Dublin: Mermaid Turbulence, 1999. Print.
98 N. Grene
———. Foley. Unpublished script, 2000. TS.
———. Dublin by Lamplight. London: Methuen Drama, 2005. Print.
———. Everyday. Unpublished script, 2006. TS.
———. Freefall. London: Methuen Drama, 2010. Print.
———. Man of Valour. Unpublished script, 2011. TS.
———. Conservatory. London: Methuen Drama, 2014. Print.
———. Message to the author. 14 March 2014. E-mail.
———. Message to the author. 21 March 2014. E-mail.
Author Biography
Nicholas Grene is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Trinity College
Dublin, a Senior Fellow of the College and a Member of the Royal Irish
Academy. He has published widely on Shakespeare and on Irish literature. His
most recent publications include Home on the Stage: Domestic Space in Modern
Drama (Cambridge University Press 2014) and the Oxford Handbook of Modern
Irish Theatre (Oxford University Press, 2016). The Theatre of Tom Murphy:
Playwright Adventurer was published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama in 2017.
A Dark Rosebud on the Irish Stage:
Ailís Ní Ríain’s Tallest Man in the World
Thierry Dubost
Writing about a recent dramatic work always proves difficult since a critic
may fail to perceive major elements of a play that a future generation of
commentators will consider obvious, but which are so ingrained in the
mood of the times that a contemporary analysis fails to highlight them.
Despite the challenge inherent to a lack of temporal distance, it seemed
interesting to question Irish theatre at the beginning of the twenty-first
century, and to do so through a single play performed during a festival. Looking at the Irish stage at a distance from Dublin and from the
National Theatre does not amount to a militant gesture, but merely aims
to highlight that in a globalized world, the capital can no longer claim to
be the sole reflector of the Irish theatre stage. This chapter focuses on the
ways in which The Tallest Man in the World—written by Ailís Ní Ríain and
produced by Corcadorca—became one among many defining elements of
the Irish stage during the 2013 Cork Midsummer Theatre Festival. Two
factors may—if not justify—at least explain this selection. The first one is
a subjective impression due to a personal feeling, which results from the
discovery of an author who has a voice and has the makings of a good
T. Dubost (*) 
University of Caen Normandie, Caen, France
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_7
100 T. Dubost
playwright. The second point has to do with time. Clearly, no single production can reveal how the Irish stage is currently populated, and one
should not mistake the production of a play for a litmus test. Moreover,
for any outside outlook on cultural features, caution is called for as the
traps of misconceptions are set as soon as one treads on the uncertain
grounds of alien cultural modes. However, in an attempt to highlight
a few elements of the Irish stage, The Tallest Man in the World will be
examined from a number of angles. The starting point, almost an ethnic
approach, will question the nationality of this dramatic work, a preliminary step leading to a questioning of its political nature. The playwright’s
aesthetic choices will also be taken into account as revealing features of
the ways in which The Tallest Man in the World resonated on the Irish
theatre scene and helped characterize it.
To begin this reflection on how the Irish stage is populated, some
information on the playwright may prove useful. On Ní Ríain’s website,
her self-definition reads as follows: ‘Ailís Ní Ríain is an Irish contemporary
classical composer and writer who aims to produce work that challenges,
provokes and engages.’ Reviews, as well as international prizes, indicate
that her musical talent is widely recognized, and that, ‘[h]er music has
been performed all over Europe and in the USA, on BBC Radio 4 and
RTE Lyric FM.’ Ní Ríain’s dramatic production is more limited. She is
the author of three plays: the first one, Beaten (2007), published as Tilt
by Methuen, has been performed in Cork, in the United Kingdom, in
Germany and Sweden (2008–2009). Her second play, Desolate Heaven
(2011), also published by Methuen (2013), premiered in London in
2013, and was produced in Cork in February 2014, while the yet unpublished The Tallest Man in the World opened in Cork in 2013.
In her self-definition, the playwright highlights her nationality, which
calls for a comment. Ní Ríain was born in Cork, where she resided for
about twenty years. She has now lived in England for more than a decade,
and while her personal motives for emigration are outside the range of this
study, it remains that as an Irish composer and writer living abroad, she
becomes part of a tradition of Irish creators who left their home country.
This individual choice is undoubtedly important at a personal level, but if
it turned out that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, other playwrights had taken the same path, and if contemporary plays were written
by Irish writers living abroad, it would unfortunately echo a dark colonial
past, when Irish artists had to emigrate, and it would reveal something
about the links between Ireland and its artists. Is The Tallest Man in the
World an Irish play? An immediate answer would be positive since it was
written by an Irish playwright, and premièred in Ireland. Yet, to answer
this question, one probably needs to include criteria which go beyond the
nationality of the author, or places of performance.
The Tallest Man in the World presents three lost individuals, who
are brought together on a stage but never speak to one another, even
when they are supposed to meet in the last scene. Felim is an alcoholic
in his late fifties, at a final stage of liver cancer. His daughter Erin, and
Eamonn—the tallest man in the world—are in their late twenties. Felim
started to drink after his wife left him. Beyond his personal misfortune,
striking family disconnections somewhat characterize The Tallest Man in
the World as a family play, with a missing mother and a helpless father.
Family connections and break-ups play a central part in the characters’
stories. Even at death door, Felim’s rejection of his daughter is so intense
that he cannot even imagine meeting her.1 An encounter is unlikely,
since Erin is confined in a mental hospital, after abducting a child and
causing his death. Ní Ríain views her as the ‘epitome of a modern
woman’, who has not found her place in the world (Interview). Eamonn
is both a god-like figure and an individual whom society only views as a
freak. He has become a human phenomenon, whose mental salvation lies
in his love for Erin, whom he met once.
From these portraits, one can hardly state that the play is specifically Irish, since the story could almost be set anywhere. Nonetheless,
the characters’ names give an Irish touch to the play,2 and some cultural
references indicate that the scene is set in Ireland. In this, The Tallest
Man in the World differs from Beaten, Ní Ríain’s first play, which was
more definitely grounded in Irish culture, and in which the characters
had ‘strong Southern Irish accents’ (2). In spite of an occasional reference to an Irish accent or Irish-speaking modes, for a foreign spectator,
The Tallest Man in the World does not bring to mind exotic forms of
Irishness, which one could associate, for instance, with old or updated
versions of the stage Irishman.
According to Patrick Lonergan, globalization redefines what may be
viewed as an Irish play. Consequently, one could start from his definition
to see whether The Tallest Man in the World corresponds to his criteria:
To see a play that is branded as ‘Irish’ does not mean that we encounter
a work that literally originated in Ireland itself. It means that we consume
a work that accords with our predefined notions of Irishness. It is not
102 T. Dubost
important the work be Irish; it is important instead that as people consume
it, they are aware that it seems Irish. (Lonergan 217)
It is interesting to note that The Tallest Man in the World does not seem
Irish in that it does not play with a series of stereotypes that a touristoriented audience might expect, with updated versions of the Stage
Irishman. Should someone hope to find, for instance, an entertaining
view of contemporary Irish life, which would correspond to the expectations of a non-Irish spectator, there is little doubt that this person would
be deeply disappointed.
To help define the Irishness of a contemporary dramatic work, an
older reference comes to mind. Hoping to bring new perspectives onto
the Irish stage, the most famous Irish playwright of the late twentiethcentury set an agenda for Irish theatre, which Lionel Pilkington summarized as follows: ‘As Brian Friel has put it, Irish drama is concerned
primarily with defining the nature of its Irishness’ (305). This 1995
commentary, echoing Friel’s article published in The Times Literary
Supplement in 1972, enlightens us as to how a highly respected playwright characterized the prime object of Irish theatre. Although some
theatre practitioners or playwrights would undoubtedly question this
statement today, and even if one takes into account that Brian Friel’s
views were necessarily more complex, Pilkington’s digest remains interesting as a landmark. It provides a contrasting backdrop with Ní Ríain’s
plays. One could argue that although The Tallest Man in the World
is an Irish play, it is far from concerned with defining the nature of its
Should one consider that there is a strong political opposition
between Ní Ríain’s plays and those of her forebears? Not really. Her
work is disconnected from the postcolonial issues that Friel and other
major playwrights deemed vital for Irish theatre, but only because her
priorities lie elsewhere. She has a different agenda, and for her own reasons, would probably be closer to Declan Hughes’ analyses regarding
former dramatic models:
I never again want to see an Irish play set in a community where everyone
talks and thinks the same and holds values in common. Because that is not
truth: that’s nostalgia: the illusion that there is something that still binds
us together. Increasingly there isn’t. (13)
In 2000, Hughes questioned the communal ideal, with its implicit political agenda. Paradoxically, the ‘never again’ syndrome, almost a tradition
with young playwrights attempting to define new staging modes, seems
alien to Ní Ríain. She concurs with Hughes, but for different reasons.
While she does not specifically reject the aesthetics of the former generation, she differs from the promoters of nostalgia, and her characters’
allusions to their pasts mainly retrace bruising experiences in a gloomy
world. Regarding ‘the illusion that there is something that still binds us
together’, Ní Ríain has different perspectives on fragmentation or disconnections. The real meeting-point between the two playwrights could
be the ‘truth’ that Hughes mentions. While Ní Ríain’s interest in calling
into question established national myths seems limited, she joins Hughes
on an unswerving examination of life that excludes easy ways out. As
playwrights, their common desire to stage the truth should come as no
surprise; indeed, another major contemporary creator in that field, David
Mamet, echoing numerous authors, grants it a central part in his definition of what it means to write for the stage:
People, though they may not know it, come to the theatre to hear the
truth and celebrate it with each other. Though they are continually disappointed, the urge is so inbred and primal they still come. Your task is to
tell the truth. (102)
According to Mamet, being a playwright means being a truth-teller, and
Ní Ríain’s self-definition shows that she shares his views on that point.
She writes that she ‘aims to produce work that challenges, provokes and
engages’, showing that she does not consider theatre as entertainment.3
In The Tallest Man in the World, she commits herself through the voices
of three characters who endure different forms of alienation and whose
sufferings are variously exposed. In scene 14, for instance, Erin, who is in
a mental hospital, remembers a traumatic event in her life:
Erin. I reported the rape
Tried to press charges
But instead of justice
I receive death threats.
Middle-management man’s boss
Has his meaty fingers in many pies.
I’ve no choice but to retract my statement.
104 T. Dubost
The unfairness of it
Sinks me low
Reduces me to needlepoint deadtime.
If you ever find yourself being rapedTry and enjoy it. (29)
The text is written like a poem. After ‘rape’, ‘charges’ or ‘justice’, Ní Ríain
starts a new line, turning Erin’s suffering into a list of social aggressions.
As a result, seven short lines give a factual account of the ways in which
society forced a victim to keep silent about a group rape. The next paragraph moves from societal to personal perspectives, and the audience
learns how Erin felt. Again, rhythmically, the typesetting of paragraphs
shows that, before and after Erin voices her feelings, the playwright
expects silence. The last two lines, a conclusion of sorts, scathingly question society about its handling of such cases. The young woman’s account
is brutal, and her post-rape narrative confronts the audience with factual
echoes of unbearable experiences which give the play its dark tinge.
For different reasons, Eamonn and Felim also provide a bleak outlook on their own world, thereby reinforcing Erin’s dystopian perspective. Eamonn, the tallest man in the world, reminds one of John Merrick
in Elephant Man. Although this character has a different status from his
two counterparts, he too contributes to the portrayal of a grim society.
Through factual accounts, sometimes slightly disconnected from his own
harsh experience as an individual turned into an object, he highlights
banal gestures of destruction: ‘The press descend in droves. Stamping on
Mam’s flower beds’ (22). His depiction is literal but, metaphorically, it
also reveals the bruising, destructive power of his contemporaries.
In the course of the play, spectators discover that this dark, pessimistic
portrayal of Ireland also concerns non-natives. For instance, Erin mentions a former lover of hers, a student:
He’s a wealthy American
With a dull future mapped out for him back home.
‘Trinity’ will be just an anecdote for his kids. (23)
Unfortunately for him, neither his stay in Ireland, nor his affair with Erin
alleviate the crushing power of former sexual abuse when he was a child:
His body was returned to the US as freight.
Trinity sent a wreath. (24)
In scene 15, Felim also mentions a young woman who puts an end to
her life. These two examples, with suicide as a way out of suffering, may
seem extreme but one notes that the death impulse, or equivalent forms
of destruction, shape the lives of many of her characters.
Hurt by strangers, people can hardly thrive within their families.
Eamonn’s mother loves but misunderstands her son; Felim, once the
tallest man in the world in his daughter’s eyes, turns out to be the smallest one. The indifference of Erin’s mother for her daughter’s future,
when she leaves her husband, also illustrates a dysfunctional family unit.
Ní Ríain extends her investigation beyond banal domestic strife, and
more radical questionings come forth:
Erin. His grandpa used to rape him
I sleep with him,
Have sex with him […]
He is small, hardly an intrusion at all
And when he cums
His eyes drain to grey.
I can tell he’s battling something deep:
Grandpa is still whispering obscenities over his shoulder
Stiff with the pain of penetration. (24)
Again, brutal realities are revealed in contrasted but almost ordinary
ways. The familiar ‘grandpa’—an expected verbal prelude to a form
of family love—explodes into another instance of child abuse. The
American student is no reassuring foreign exception; a beaten wife and
child abuse are also at the core of Beaten, which is set in Ireland. Like
her other dramatic works, The Tallest Man in the World shows what people endure in the course of their lives, and this truth cuts through to
the bone. This thematic choice proves significant within an Irish background. It partly characterizes the author and helps see how she populates the Irish stage. The content of the play poses the question of the
political status of her theatre, a genre which Martin Esslin’s compares to
a ritual:
106 T. Dubost
In ritual as in the theatre a human community directly experiences its own
identity and reaffirms it. This makes theatre an extremely political, because
pre-eminently social, form of art. (29)
If, like Esslin, one considers that the stage mirrors communal identity,
there is no denying that The Tallest Man in the World is a political play.
Some spectators may even feel uncomfortable with its challenging content. Still, the play cannot be reduced to a list of themes that happen
to be controversial, which do not quite reflect what is arresting about
The Tallest Man in the World. Beyond a series of disturbing elements,
its major political feature may actually be rooted in what Hughes had
rejected: ‘something that still binds us together’.
The Tallest Man in the World is about alienation, the impossibility
to belong, to speak and to be heard, or to engage in a relationship with
someone, in a world where togetherness—Hughes’s ‘us’—no longer resonates. Ní Ríain reflects this by insisting on the ontological loneliness of
the characters, which she shows by using three solitary voices: Eamonn’s,
Erin’s and Felim’s. To make her point about their disconnection, the playwright resorts to monologues. They help gain an insight into the characters’ feelings. However, to be quite precise about the writing process, one
should note that each character is introduced by a dialogue. In the opening scene, Felim speaks with a friend; in scene 2, a journalist interviews
Eamonn. Scene 3 follows the same pattern; it begins in a mental hospital,
with a ­psychiatrist asking Erin why she abducted a child. After these initial
dialogues, reminders of conventional opening scenes providing information about the general situation, the friend, the reporter and the doctor
disappear. Interestingly, monologues do not reveal the complexity of the
characters’ minds. They testify to the impossible interaction between the
characters, which becomes even more visible as the playwright refrains
from writing soliloquies. Instead, she often intertwines the three voices.
Thus, she highlights the disconnection of individuals who occasionally talk
about the same topics, but who actually fill the stage with solitary words.
In performance, this text-centred theatre proves powerful, but within
limits that call for investigation. To probe into the aesthetics of The
Tallest Man in the World, and to analyse it in terms of staging, one may
use Thomas Kilroy’s extensive definition of playwriting:
We write plays, I feel, in order to populate a stage. It is this curious desire
to move about actual living bodies, to give them voice and the mantle of
character in a conspiracy of play, which distinguishes playwriting from all
other kinds of writing. (Theatrical Text 91)
‘To move about actual living bodies’ somewhat summarizes the difference between Ní Ríain’s play and Kilroy’s approach to the stage. In
Corcadorca’s production, which Ní Ríain approved, Erin, Eamonn and
Felim remained seated, and their static bodies brought a distant echo of
Beckett’s characters.4 In The Tallest Man in the World, the themes of the
play can justify immobility and the use of monologues. Harsh realities
are voiced, but never staged. This particular aesthetic approach turns The
Tallest Man in the World into in-your-ears theatre, leading a few spectators to characterize it—wrongly—as a radio play.5 There’s the rub. When
depictions prevail over enactment, populating the stage becomes something of a paradox, a double one as the etymology of ‘theatre’ is a Greek
word, ‘theatron’, namely a place for viewing, and here story-telling prevails over action.
What should the audience see? In scene 20, Erin and Felim recount a
trip to the beach. Using one of her mother’s blouses and her perfume,
Erin tries to arouse the sexual interest of her father, first by touching
him, and then by exposing her body.
She has her hand between her legs.
Her head thrown back.
I tell her to stop.
Looks me straight in the eye
Slips her pink tongue
Slowly back and forth over her lips.
She sees my growing.
I am mortified. (41)
Then, her father ejaculates, but does not touch her. For a playwright
who wishes to dramatize such a situation, the choice lies between telling and showing. In classical Greek theatre, dramatic codes banned some
actions from the stage, hence the need to recount stories. Today, Marina
Carr’s On Raftery’s Hill (2000), with the staging of an incestuous rape,
proves that censorship does not explain Ní Ríain’s choice of words over
that of sight. If one looks for explanations of her writing strategy, one
would seek in vain superficial reasons. Ní Ríain sometimes resorts to very
challenging phrasings, and shuns easy ways. Her artistic intent prevails
108 T. Dubost
over everything, and she would not shock the audience for the sake of
sounding avant-garde. Reading her dramatic works, one notes that she
seems fearless and is very demanding. Consequently, her decision not to
stage the daughter/father scene does not result from a wish not to elude
challenges; she simply lets words prevail over sight.
A 1959 article titled ‘Groundwork for an Irish theatre’ may underscore why Ní Ríain’s attempt at populating the Irish stage leaves something to be desired. In this seminal paper, Kilroy severely criticized Irish
theatre; he explained why Irish productions were unsatisfactory, highlighting the role of playwrights in this state of affairs:
More often however our dramatists to-day are guilty of a worse defect than
mere lack of technical proficiency. They are inclined to shirk the painful,
sometimes tragic problems of a modern Ireland which is undergoing considerable social and ideological stress. […] Ours is a mateless, incomplete
theatre and fulfilling only part of its function in society. The serious dramatist should fulfil the role of commentator on current values, practising espionage for everyman. (195)
Although Ní Ríain’s plays do reflect some of Ireland’s ‘tragic problems’,
her prime objective—whatever it may be—is not to be a commentator
on current values, or to practise espionage for everyman. On the other
hand, she does not shirk difficult topics and, in this respect, does not
correspond to the unflattering portrait of her predecessors. Regarding
the first aspect, while a ‘lack of technical proficiency’ would be too harsh
a judgement on her creation, it remains that The Tallest Man in the World
raises a number of points about her writing mode.
For instance, to come back to the opposition between telling and
showing, there is little doubt that the implicit frame of realism chosen
by the playwright to write her play proved an obstacle. A realistic enactment of some scenes would have been credible, but it might also have
masked the characters’ intimate lives, contrary to monologues which
build word sceneries and disclose how much Erin, Eamonn, and Felim
suffer. Because of this exclusively word-centred approach to the stage,
one could argue that The Tallest Man in the World fails to take up some
dramatic challenges inherent to theatre as a place for viewing and showing. Indeed, the aesthetic concept of representation brings to mind a
practical paradox, not only how to make immobile characters give life to
their worlds, but also how to use the actors’ bodies in order to give more
depth to what is staged. This would have been the case if, for instance,
Ní Ríain had opted for a ritualized acting mode, or demanded that puppets be used, thereby inviting directors to illustrate the characters’ plight
in non-imitating and innovative ways.
While viewing and showing prove vital, another central point is the
author’s expectations regarding the public reception of her work. In
this respect, Ní Ríain’s attitude is contrasted. In the opening scenes, for
instance, she fails to challenge the audience when she introduces Felim,
Eamonn, and Erin. Her over explicit introduction may be frustrating,
since one could argue that filling the blanks and facing unsolved mysteries is part of a spectator’s pleasure. On the other hand, a playwright
should make sure that major points of the play can be grasped in performance, which is not always the case. This can become an issue—especially
in the last scene—Felim’s last words echo a former assertion of his:
‘I want her back in my arms’ (42). Consequently, when he says,
To cover your body with mine
Only to protect.
I wanted to love you.
As a Father. (47)
spectators may briefly wonder what the past tense of ‘wanted’ really
means, since it could express Felim’s regrets at failing to act according to
standard moral principles. However, Erin eventually makes it clear that
her father resisted incest when she asks: ‘Why wasn’t that enough?’ (47).
Through this question, Erin explicitly mentions her frustration at the lack
of carnal embrace and, as a result, reveals that the seduction scene was no
accident but part of a larger strategy. She expresses herself in a very challenging yet fleeting way, which might actually escape the spectator’s attention. Her daring statement brings about a reversal of usual perspectives
on incest, since Erin becomes an initiator of her father’s desire, and Ní
Ríain portrays her as a woman who laments her father’s resistance to her
sexual overtures. Although Eamonn repeats ‘Why wasn’t that enough?’
spectators can hardly measure the question’s full significance, since Felim’s
question ‘Where are you?’ immediately follows, leading the audience in
a different direction, a prelude to Erin’s concluding answer: ‘I’m looking for you’ (47). Her final words make sense in view of her formerly
expressed desire, but may puzzle an audience listening to overlapping
sentences, which makes it somewhat difficult for each spectator to see the
coherence of the characters’ speeches when the lights go down.
110 T. Dubost
Finally, the play structure is unsatisfactory. Erin’s and Eamonn’s
last line is, ‘I’m looking for you’ (47), a conclusion that, paradoxically,
depicts the two characters’ ongoing quest. Obviously, Erin’s search for
Felim will only come to a close when he dies. In view of this, one may
regret that the composer did not influence the playwright, highlighting the repetitive aspect of Erin’s suffering with a Da Capo, taking up
Felim’s real opening speech, which follows his meeting with Dan:
Felim. Memories happened.
Guilt happened.
Resentment happened.
Jealousy happened.
Rage happened.
Shame happened. (4)
In the Corcadorca production, Daniel Reardon uttered these words in a
simple and moving way, and I felt that these unadorned sentences testified to the author’s talent. One play among many, there is no denying
that The Tallest Man in the World represents a mere fragment of the Irish
theatre scene. However, one should also keep in mind that while it is
impossible to draw the contours of contemporary theatre in Ireland with
a single play, this dramatic work reveals a young playwright’s attempt to
bring original, demanding works onto the Irish stage. Thematically and
aesthetically, Ní Ríain investigates new fields, and one may anticipate that
her future creations will be nurtured by a confluence of stagings and dramatic reflections, since a playwright’s collaboration with the technicians
and artists who put up a play usually proves a very efficient way for playwrights to hone their skills. With this prospect in mind, one may hope
that in the next few years, this promising playwright will populate the
Irish stage with remarkable works.
1. Dan. Fancy tracking her down?
Felim. I’d prefer a hole in the head.
Dan. That bad?
Felim. Worse. (6)
2. Erin, for obvious reasons, but there are also other significant echoes due
to their first names, Felim (the failing man) and Eamonn, a god-like figure
3. See
4. It is worth noting that Ní Ríain’s other plays do not follow the same pattern,
and in Desolate Heaven and Beaten she opts for a realistic acting mode.
5. Some spectators were struck by the characters’ immobility, hence their
misunderstanding of the director’s aesthetic choice, in the immediate aftermath of the performance.
Works Cited
Esslin, Martin. An Anatomy of Drama. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Print.
Friel, Brian. ‘Plays Peasant and Unpeasant.’ Times Literary Supplement,
17 Mar. 1972: 305–306. Print.
Hughes, Declan. ‘Who the Hell Do We Think We Still Are? Reflections on Irish
Theatre and Identity.’ Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish
Drama. Ed. Eamonn Jordan. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2000. 8–15. Print.
Kilroy, Thomas. ‘Groundwork for an Irish Theatre.’ Studies: an Irish Quarterly
Review of Letters, Philosophy and Science 48 (Summer 1959): 192–198. Print.
———. ‘Theatrical Text and Literary Text.’ The Achievement of Brian Friel. Ed.
Alan J. Peacock. Gerrard’s Cross: Bucks, Colin Smythe, 1993. 91–102. Print.
Lonergan, Patrick. Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger
Era. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Mamet, David. True and False. London: Faber, 1998. Print.
Ní Ríain, Ailís. Ailís Ní Ríain. Composer and Writer. Website. 2016. http:// 17 Dec. 2016.
———. Personal interview. 5 Dec. 2013.
———. The Tallest Man in the World. Unpublished script, 2013. TS.
Pilkinton, Lionel. ‘The Superior Game: Colonialism and the Stereotype of Tom
Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark.’ Ritual Remembering: History, Myth and
Politics in Anglo-Irish Drama. Eds. C.C. Barfoot and W.Z. Van den Doel.
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995. 165–179. Print.
Author Biography
Thierry Dubost is Professor of Irish Literature at the University of Caen
Normandie, France. He is the author of Struggle, Defeat or Rebirth: Eugene
O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity (McFarland) and The Plays of Thomas Kilroy
(McFarland). He has co-edited La Femme Noire américaine, aspects d’une crise
d’identité; George Bernard Shaw, un dramaturge engagé; Du Dire à l’Etre,
Regards sur l’intime en Irlande; Music and the Irish Imagination, and has edited
L’Adaptation théâtrale en Irlande de 1970 à 2007, all with Caen University Press,
and a revised version, Drama Reinvented: Theatre Adaptation in Ireland (1970 to
2007) for Peter Lang (2012).
Practitioners’ Voices
Death of a Playwright
Geoff Gould
If necessity is the mother of invention, she is also the mother of reinvention.
When we founded the West Cork Fit-up Festival in the summer of 2009,
this reinvention—or reincarnation since the fit-up genre had been in existence since the 1930s—was definitely through necessity. Ireland was in the
middle of the Great Recession and writers, actors, directors, and technical crews were suffering a major dearth of employment opportunities. The
decision to launch the West Cork Fit-up Festival resulted from many factors.
I had recently come back from touring Donal O’Kelly’s play Catalpa
to the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Newfoundland. Although Gros
Morne has a population of only sixty people in the winter, it manages
to run a theatre festival for three months in the summer. Living and
working in Ballydehob (West Cork), I was also aware of the lack of professional theatre available in the West Cork area, where tourism substantially increases the population in the summer months. Ian MacDonagh,
the Arts Officer with Cork County Council, had consistently investigated
possible solutions to counter the lack of theatre in the area but the costs
always appeared excessive. Niall Black, who was then Technical Director
with the National Theatre of Scotland, visited West Cork and was the
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116 G. Gould
final impetus in the foundation of the festival. He quickly pointed out
that even though the National Theatre of Scotland had no venue, it presented new plays in numerous village halls all over Northern Scotland in
places as far afield as the Hebrides and the Shetlands. Blood in the Alley,
the theatre company I founded in 2002, decided to follow suit.
With support from the Arts Office of Cork County Council, the
Fit-up Festival opened its doors in July 2009. The budget for shows was
limited. However, thanks to company manager Jessica Finken, four professional actors—Joan Sheehy, Michael Harding, Denis Foley, and Don
Wycherley—and Shane Ward’s technical prowess, the Festival opened
with three productions running over three weeks. It provided eight
nights of theatre in six different locations in West Cork (from Cape Clear
to Sherkin, and Bere Island to Kilcrohane). The entire technical equipment consisted of six stage lamps, some blacks, an amp and speaker;
everything, including the actors, was squeezed into a fifteen-year-old
Renault 19.
During my time as Artistic Director of The Everyman Palace Theatre
(1996–2001), with a very supportive Board we had succeeded in building a very strong audience for theatre. I was and am still convinced that
the only way to develop regular audiences for theatre is to provide them
with challenging works of high professional quality and to break down a
class elitism that has been attached to theatre in Ireland for many years.
The provision of quality theatre was easier then, as a number of groundbreaking theatre companies such as Barabbas … the Company, Druid,
Red Kettle and Rough Magic were touring unforgettable productions
around the country.
With a small budget and no marketing, our idea was to bring
a compelling show to a village hall on a Monday night and return on
two successive Monday nights, with local word of mouth bringing our
audiences. Approximately 360 people came to see the opening festival, which brought encouragement but left us with financial losses. Yet,
with increased support from the County Council and the Arts Council
the audience figures for 2014 were around 2300. Since that first Festival
week, we have presented twenty-seven different productions in sixteen
locations around West Cork. In July 2014, over 135 people came to see
the Abbey production of Maeve’s House on Heir Island that has a winter
population of twenty-two people. Over 90% of the productions are new
plays. Pat Kinevane has performed all his new plays—Forgotten, Silent
and Underneath—at the Festival, and they were presented to West Cork
audiences long before they were staged at the Peacock in Dublin and the
Opera House in Cork. Carmel Winters’s Witness (2013) premiered at
the Festival and went on to do a nationwide tour; similarly, Blood in the
Alley’s production of Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow was presented
in West Cork prior to a national and international tour.
For the first four years of the festival, the ticket price was maintained
at eight euro until rising diesel, ferry and accommodation costs forced
an increase to twelve euro with a ten-euro concession. In addition to a
no booking policy, these prices allow access to everyone on a first-come
first-serve basis. Many of the plays performed at the Festival have been
written and performed by actors themselves, a realisation which instigated much discussion and debate amongst the artistic and production
crews: are we witnessing a change in theatre writing? Is there a move
towards a new ‘type’ of playwright (i.e. the actor playwright)? Or are
playwrights themselves stymied by their inability to perform their own
From the 1970s, Ireland was particularly fortunate to witness the
development of playwrights such as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Thomas
Kilroy, Tom Mac Intyre, and Frank McGuinness, as well as the nurturing
of a new generation of playwrights including Marina Carr, Enda Walsh,
Conor McPherson, and Mark O’Rowe. One main reason for this was the
contribution made by The Peacock Theatre under the stewardship of
Patrick Mason. Successive artistic directors have failed to recognize the
importance of the Peacock to Irish theatre and also as a feeding house
for the National Theatre’s main stage. Unfortunately the Peacock space
has recently spent much of its time in darkness.
In Ireland, our conception of a ‘playwright’ is someone of great writing talent who has the ability to continually question our understanding
of life and present those observations through dramatic constructs, elaborated in a written script, performed by actors in a particular setting. It is
to be noted that celebrated playwrights have generally submitted themselves to a long and often arduous apprenticeship. When we consider the
word ‘playwright’, individual authors immediately come to mind, along
with their work and the characters they have created. One cannot think
of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come! without thinking of Gar and
Old Screwballs, or O’Casey’s Juno and The Paycock without remembering the trials and tribulations of Juno and the Captain. O’Casey wrote
25 plays, Shaw 67, Beckett 22, and Friel 35. These four playwrights
have contributed over a hundred and fifty plays to theatre, many of them
118 G. Gould
classics. These plays provide an extraordinary contribution to theatre and
represent the output of only four playwrights.
Arguably, in Irish theatre, forces are currently conspiring in the extinction of what we understand to be the traditional ‘playwright’. While the
idea of forces conspiring may be construed as overly melodramatic, and
while there is no suggestion that these forces are consciously plotting the
demise of the ‘playwright’, it seems to be happening nonetheless, in a
small country that has produced some of the world’s finest playwrights.
Three of them, Beckett, Shaw, and Yeats were Nobel Laureates, and
many more have received world acclaim. Plays and playwrights have been
an integral part of Irish history with both Synge’s Playboy of the Western
World and O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars causing riots. Why then,
when our playwrights are so central to our culture, does it appear that we
attempt to eradicate them? I suggest that it is happening now in Ireland;
we are not only allowing it to happen but are complicit in it.
On being told that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, Yeats
answered, ‘How much is it worth?’, making no bones about the necessity
of income to survive. Professional actors, writers, and directors have to
make a living from theatre. They require a regular income and, without
it, their sense of professional status is called into doubt.
The playwright’s difficulties begin with the Arts Council—though
this is no attack on the Arts Council. Everybody working in theatre
in Ireland is aware of the regular cuts in funding which, from the Arts
Council’s point of view, result in a constant renegotiation of their internal structures. Unfortunately, due to Arts Council decisions, the position of the Irish playwright has deteriorated over the past ten years, to
a situation which can only be described as precarious. The Playwright’s
Commission Scheme ceased to exist in 1999–2000. It was a highly supportive system for emerging playwrights insofar as it fostered their development. The system was replaced by the Theatre Bursary Award and
the Theatre Project Award, but these are not specifically for playwrights
and did not run in 2014 due to severe budget constraints. Furthermore,
none of these funding schemes are easily accessible except to those well
accustomed to applying for such grants.
Another difficulty for the playwright lies in the reduction of annual
revenue funding for theatre companies. In doing so, the Arts Council
aimed to eradicate a system that had supplied numerous theatre companies with large annual incomes despite their inconsistent production
values, and which had resulted in companies virtually corporatizing
themselves—i.e. creating a large administrative and costly base that
reduced the amount of funding available for productions and artists. The
knock-on effect has been disastrous for those working in Irish theatre. In
the late 1990s, there were over thirty independent companies in Ireland
continually producing plays, touring them nationally and often internationally. Companies such as Red Kettle in Waterford, Meridian in Cork,
Island in Limerick, Gallowglass in Clonmel, Ouroboros in Dublin and
many more up and down the country were providing work for actors
and playwrights alike. It is impossible to estimate the value that these
companies contributed to Irish theatre. Red Kettle championed the
work of Jim Nolan and Jimmy Murphy resulting in compelling productions of Moonshine, The Salvage Shop and The Kings of the Kilburn High
Road respectively. Island brought Mike Finn’s magical promenade play
Pigtown to the stage and Harriet O’Carroll’s moving Bottle of Smoke.
Ouroboros premiered Conall Quinn’s The Death of Harry Leon and
Paul Walker’s Stoker, while Meridian brought Johnny Hanrahan’s work
to life in Craving, Reading Turgenev and his adaptation of Volpone.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, but the non-existence of
these companies and the subsequent loss to the emerging playwright is
­palpable. Swingeing cuts can be detrimental and have collateral damage in any industry; it is no different in theatre. It is sobering to search
Irish Playography for popular theatre companies of the past twenty years
and, in numerous cases, to read in bold print: ‘PLEASE NOTE: THIS
The loss of these companies and their productions proved equally
brutal to the actor working in Irish theatre. Today, there are less than a
dozen independent companies still operating in Ireland with annual Arts
Council Revenue funding. Combine that with a larger number of graduate actors looking for work than in the 1990s and the picture shows
a greater number of people looking for a larger slice of a smaller cake.
Unable to find work and driven by an absolute sense of isolation and
frustration, actors have started to write their own one-man shows. Irish
theatre is replete with this style of production. Over the last five years at
the West Cork Fit-up Festival, despite limited funding, we were able to
programme almost twenty new plays, a large percentage of which were
one-actor shows written by the actor. Some of them like Pat Kinevane’s
Edinburgh Award Winning Silent, Sonya Kelly’s Wheelchair on My Face
and Noelle Brown’s Postscript are groundbreaking works and were wonderfully received. This led to the creation of a new type of author, the
120 G. Gould
‘actor/playwright’ whose plays are often of an autobiographical nature,
and it is difficult to gauge its long-term impact. Some actors have
already crossed that bridge from actor to playwright—or will in the near
future—but many will not have the natural ability or the discipline to
emerge as a playwright. Furthermore, I would suggest that this type
of theatre is challenging the position of the playwright as it effectively
endows anybody who writes a play with the mantle of playwright and
allows for no real apprenticeship, no ‘honing of skills’ necessary to shape
a canonical play.
The conspiracy to extinguish the playwright as a species consists of
a number of factors, and few of us are aware of our own contribution
to the problem. When Blood in the Alley receives a new play from an
emerging playwright, the first element that we look at is the number
of characters. The cost of large casts is prohibitive to all but the largest
(that is annual-revenue funded) companies in the country. Consequently,
irrespective of how good a play is, most companies are unable to produce it. The flip side of this difficulty is that many playwrights are fully
aware of the disadvantage of large cast productions; as a result, they
write only plays with two or three characters in the hope that companies might be able to afford to produce them. Would we have envisaged Brian Friel or Tom Murphy being approached to keep their plays
to a maximum of three characters? In 2014, a very talented emerging
playwright sent us a three-hander script. She even offered to use her
own finances to stage a production and to reduce the script down to a
one-man play. The Everyman Palace Spring programme for drama this
year had almost 60 per cent of its programme allotted to monodramas.
Every venue in the country is in a similar situation. They can rarely programme larger shows, not only for financial reasons but also because few
companies stage and tour plays in Ireland today.
The damage being caused is evident. If Mac Intyre, McGuinness,
and Murphy are the senior playwrights and Marina Carr, Conor
McPherson, Enda Walsh, and Mark O’Rowe are their successors, who
represents the upcoming generation of writers? The playwrights in the
latter group are over forty now and they all emerged on the scene in
the late 1990s. Where are the playwrights in their early thirties who are
honing their skills in the wings? I am convinced that a whole generation
of younger writers has been ignored and lost over the past fifteen years.
Many are still writing in the shadows, but the lack of recognition can
be soul-destroying for any writer over a long period of time. Playwrights
like Micheál Lovett (This Ebony Bird, Tricky, Jumping The Sharks and
Macbeth at the Gates), Ailís Ní Ríain (The Tallest Man in the World,
Beaten and Desolate Heaven), Liam Heylin (Slates, Girl From Gdansk,
and Love, Peace and Robbery), and Carmel Winters (Witness, Best Man,
and B For Baby1) are just four of a number of playwrights who have yet
to be allowed the freedom to emerge onto the mainstream stages and
instead are in danger of toppling through a hole in the theatrical floor.
Many actors and directors in theatre write plays, make theatre or
improvise a new piece but few of them will concede that they consider themselves ‘playwrights’. To be fair, modern theatre practitioners
are slow to place themselves in the same professional category as Yeats,
Beckett, Friel and their ilk. Yet, we often have no difficulty in assuming
the mantle of a ‘playwright’, albeit for the short run of the production.
It is easier and often cheaper to ‘write a piece’, ‘do a bit of improv’ or
gather some people together to ‘make theatre’. An interesting recent
development is the increase in the number of people working in theatre who now describe themselves as ‘theatre-makers’. Many of these
‘theatre-makers’ have no experience in acting, directing or writing, but
believe that since they place themselves or others on a stage, they are
effectively ‘theatre-makers’. It appears as if the traditional idea according to which a playwright writes a play and the actors perform it in front
of an audience is now considered ‘old hat’, ‘boring’, ‘not really cutting
The past seven years of the Fit-up Festival have shown that theatre is
alive and well and that audiences will come to the theatre when it is of
high quality and the price is right. Clearly, the evidence also supports the
argument that the playwright is alive and well but that his/her shape and
practice has had to evolve in response to exterior circumstances. More
worrying is the state of play with regard to the talented playwrights who
have been honing their skills for the past twenty years without the benefit
of acting talent to perform their works on the stage. How much damage are we at the festival, and in other venues all over the country, doing
to the emergence of these playwrights by championing work that, while
engaging and entertaining audiences, is not challenging those audiences
at the level that some of the ‘real’ playwrights are capable of doing?
In Star Wars Episode 5, The Empire Strikes Back, there is a scene where
Han Solo and his colleagues are trapped with snake-like creatures up to their
knees in liquid trash, in a trash compactor. Suddenly, the walls begin to move
upon them. Han uses a line oft used melodramatically in Star Wars: ‘I have
122 G. Gould
a bad feeling about this.’ Many highly talented playwrights in Ireland are in
a similar situation: up to their knees in ‘theatre-makers’ mediocre writing,
surrounded by flattering directors and producers who never produce them,
they slowly watch the walls moving in around them. They should, like Han,
‘have a bad feeling about it’.
1. B for Baby premiered at the Peacock.
Author Biography
Geoff Gould trained at LAMDA. The former Artistic Director of the Everyman
Palace Theatre, Cork (1997–2001), he is the founder and Artistic Director of
Blood in the Alley Theatre Company and the West Cork and Blackwater Fit-up
Theatre Festivals. Over the past ten years he has worked with new writers including Micheal Lovett, Cónal Creedon, Shane Mac an Bhaird, Elizabeth Moynihan
and Ailís Ní Ríain. He has toured nationally and internationally with productions
by Brian Friel, Marina Carr and Donal O’Kelly and is currently developing two
new plays by Micheal Lovett (Goddess) and Ailís Ní Ríain (Bitterweed).
Looking Back and Forward on Sound
Design: Irish Theatre Transformed
Cormac O’Connor
What follows is the personal experience and technical background of an
Irish sound designer.
My route to becoming a sound designer began with an unhealthy
obsession with music as a teenager. I learned how to play the guitar and
joined a local band which brought me into contact with sound systems
and music technology. In 1993, one of the musicians from my teenage
years contacted me, and asked me to provide some music for a play he
was producing. The play was Steven Berkoff’s Greek. The musician was
Pat Kiernan and the theatre company was Corcadorca.
For this initial foray into theatre sound design, I was asked to compose music for various scenes, based on discussions with the director. I
was not familiar with Berkoff and was not involved with the mechanics of the production. One day, I handed over the music on a cassette
tape and the next time I heard it was on opening night in the Everyman
Theatre Cork. The following Christmas, I received a visit from Kiernan
and Enda Walsh who were putting on a production of A Christmas Carol
in the Cork City Goal. They were dissatisfied with the sound design they
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124 C. O’Connor
had commissioned from a third party and they asked me to create a new
score. The production was beginning technical rehearsals the following day, so we stayed up all night and had the bones of it in place in
time for the 10 a.m. start. I was asked to work on the production as the
sound operator and thus began a long and fruitful relationship with the
My approach to sound design is still guided by the musical and cultural influences I absorbed as a young man, writing songs, playing guitar
and singing in bands. Joy Division, Magazine, Crass, Talking Heads, the
Sex Pistols: the bands I was devoted to emerged from the punk era, with
heaps of attitude, artistic pretensions and a healthy ‘do it yourself’ ethos.
The art house indie bands of the 1980s that I revered so much had a
razor-sharp message and a hunger for truth, originality, and authenticity.
Corcadorca, the young theatre company with which I became involved
in 1993 shared similar influences. It also had a passion to create theatre with a punky do-it-yourself punch and a youthful disdain for conventional Irish playwrights.
The journey from there to here has been a constant learning experience about theatre. While formal training became available for sound
design in the 1990s, my experience has developed through on-the-job
training. Technology innovation moves very quickly so a good sound
designer needs to maintain a constant interest in new technologies and
work practices.
Over a hundred theatre productions later, collaborating with a diverse
range of theatre groups and practitioners ranging from Graffiti Youth
Theatre Company to the Royal Opera House and from Enda Walsh to
Angela Betzien, I am still fascinated by the grand coalition of sound,
lighting, visual design, storytelling, acting and directing. Contrasting
personalities with completely different aesthetics often come together to
somehow create something special and cohesive in usually too short a
period of time.
Changing Times
The successful presentation of a production used to be routinely hampered by technical difficulties. Frustration and tension would appear
when a seemingly brilliant artistic vision could not be realised because
we did not have the technical capability to deliver it, but things have
changed, and providing an immersive experience is at hand.
Over the last twenty years, the delivery of sound design in theatre has
been a constantly evolving process. The quality of the work has been
heavily influenced by new technology and the technical ability to conjure
up ideas into sonic reality, and this in all sorts of theatres throughout the
country, from the largest to the smallest ones.
Cassette Tapes
When I first started in the late 1980s, reel-to-reel tape was the standard
sound replay system. Recording music was an expensive process and the
sourcing of recorded sound effects was difficult. Moreover their range
and sound quality was poor. I had no access to a reel-to-reel tape player
so I used cassette tapes. As a sound operator, I devised a system for playback of cues whereby each audio cue was recorded onto a separate cassette tape. I would mark each tape with a pencil and before every show
would line up the cues by finding the pencil mark on the tape.
From a design perspective, it was often desirable to have more than
one sound cue running at a time. Sometimes a piece of music would
crossfade with another, or a sound effect would play over an existing cue.
To do this, I needed two and sometimes three tape machines to enable
me to prepare the next cue while the show was running. I sometimes had
thirty or forty cassette tapes lined up in front of me. I would play a cue,
take the tape out (quietly), put in the next tape and so on.
The next innovation was the minidisc. The minidisc was a device which
could hold up to eighty minutes of digitised audio. The audio still had
to be recorded onto the disc in real time but the big advantage was the
ability to mark and name tracks. Therefore you could fit many cues onto
an eighty-minute disc and switch between them using a simple button
press. The access time for triggering the audio was much quicker than
the cassette. The ability to name cues took a lot of the stress away from
operators as they could always be certain of triggering the correct one,
assuming they were all correctly labelled.
126 C. O’Connor
The age of personal computers, as it did in so many spheres, has revolutionised both the creation and delivery of sound design in theatre.
Initially very unstable and prone to crashing, PCs configured appropriately for audio are now rock solid and can be trusted to deliver extremely
complex designs without a hitch. Sound cards with multiple inputs and
outputs can route audio from multiple sources to multiple speakers, only
limited by the imagination of the designer.
Qlab has become the industry standard computer program used for
triggering sound, lighting, and video cues. It is noted for its reliability
and flexibility. Today, the software used by any local amateur dramatic
society is exactly the same as was used at the London Olympic opening
ceremony in 2012. Because Qlab can be used to trigger lighting, sound
and video cues, its shared use by the different disciplines can lead to
more cohesive design. For example, fade times can be exactly the same
and multiple cues can be triggered by one press of the ‘GO’ button. In
execution of the technical, designers would need to talk to each other
more and plan together.
Ableton Live
Ableton Live was conceived as a platform for electronic musicians to create and manipulate music on the fly, seamlessly adjusting and remoulding
audio in real time without interruption, hence the ‘Live’ part. Ableton
is very good for creative theatre sound design because one can edit and
contort an audio file to conform to the needs of the production in lightning quick time. If a piece of music is six seconds too short for a scene,
time stretch it to suit by simply dragging a box. Pitch can be adjusted in
real time. Live voices can be manipulated and altered in unusual ways,
using tools designed for DJs.
In the world premiere of Angela Betzien’s Where in the World Is Frank
Sparrow? (2012), the actors switched from playing characters in the real
world to playing characters in the underworld. The live mic effects were
employed to alter the sound of the actors’ voices when they became the
underworld characters, which helped the audience to follow the story.
In Hoods, another play by Betzien produced by Graffiti in 2014, two
characters enter a fantasy world where they become characters in a video
game. Using live microphones and effects in Ableton, I created a sonic
palette of sounds which the actors could draw from as they went about
their business shooting, fighting, and jumping. As it was live triggering
of effects, the actors could modulate the impact of each effect by dynamically changing the loudness of their voices or by making short or long
One can map multiple audio files to multiple speakers with triggered panning and move audio around the room with a few clicks of the
mouse. Passion Play by Cónal Creedon was a site-specific theatre production produced by Corcadorca as a one-off performance on Good Friday
2000 in Cork City. The playing area spanned three city streets culminating in a field at the highest point of Cork, where Jesus was crucified and
rose again. Using Ableton Live, I was able to program the sound cues
to travel to multiple speakers in each location, controlled from a central
In Ableton, the tools can inspire the creative process in inventive
ways. For instance, a ‘plugin’ designed for dance music can be put to
good use in a theatrical context. One such plugin, ‘Beat Repeat’, is
designed for making creative changes to drum and percussion tracks,
but when used on a live human voice it can render some very interesting
results. It affects the voice in unpredictable ways, creating a new sound
world and altering the sound of the voice often beyond all recognition. It is important to note that these tools are a means to an end. The
end result should be seamless. If an audience member does not notice
the sound and really enjoyed a production, my endeavours have been a
The internet and reasonable download speeds mean that one has
unlimited access to pre-made sound effects and music that can be simply dragged into the project and triggered as required in seconds. All of
this innovation is leading us to a situation where the sound designer can
deliver his or her vision to the theatre production without compromise.
This is where it gets exciting!
Theatre is a collaborative process, since stage and lighting designers,
directors, and actors work together to present a production. There are
many ways to reach the opening night. Directors often act like gods, dictatorially calling upon the designers and actors to implement their vision.
Some directors have a more laissez-faire attitude, allowing the creative
128 C. O’Connor
parties to follow their own path, confident in the knowledge that due
to diligent preparation and/or a rich shared history of collaboration
the production will come together with a cohesive design. Many creative teams develop and stay together for many years. Whichever way a
production works, numerous opinions and philosophies come into play
when sound and music are concerned. The sound designer often has to
contend with actors and designers who do not like having sound and
music in theatre at all! Sound and music can be off-putting for actors
if they do not understand its purpose at a given time. They may feel a
particular piece of music underscoring their monologue is inappropriate
and undermining. This may be due to a text-centred tradition in Irish
theatre, where the playwright’s vision is supposed to prevail, granting the
rest of the staging aspects an inferior status. It can become very difficult to implement a cohesive design when the very people the design is
being created for are resistant to it and actively work towards curtailing
its impact. Creating a bond of trust with the actors is important for the
sound designer so that sometimes actors can be persuaded to go along
with the more outlandish and lateral notions. Ultimately when the sound
design is referred to as a character itself, I know it has succeeded.
Another factor to consider is that designers often work independently.
Although theatre is a collaborative process, they meet the director separately. They only speak to each other at production meetings. Only
during technical rehearsals is all revealed, sometimes with mismatched
results. Some actors can be very resistant to sound design whereas others thrive upon it. A piece that throws one actor off course may provide a
compass or an anchor for another.
Why Sound Design?
What is the point of sound design? Why have it at all? It is not simply a
question of whether there should be sounds, but also to consider where
silence should be. What is silence? The absence of sound? There is always
sound in a theatre: the audience breathe, cough and sigh (sometimes
even snore), the traffic outside wafts in through the air vents; in major
cities with a subway system, some sound cues have been created especially to coincide with the trains passing underground. Sound design can
be extremely helpful in a theatrical context. For example, a play in which
one or two actors play different parts may prove difficult for the audience
to follow. Clever sonic cues can take some of the hard work out of the
equation, allowing the audience to follow the story and the emotional
journeys that really matter.
Music can be soothing, unsettling, riveting or noisy. It’s all about context. A good sound design helps understand the play on many levels; it
moves things along, helps solve logistical problems, and fills holes in the
story. A bad sound design unintentionally draws attention away from the
action and misleads the audience. It can cheapen the style and flair of a
production. Film-makers often say that the quality of the sound has more
of a bearing on the perception of how good a film is than the quality of
the image. One could argue that the quality of the sound design in a
theatre production could influence one’s perception of the quality of the
overall show without one being aware of its influence.
Collaborating with Enda Walsh
Disco Pigs (1996) by Enda Walsh was a challenging production to create sound design for. Having previously worked with Enda on The
Ginger Ale Boy (1995), we had developed a relationship whereby he
wrote highly unusual and sophisticated stage directions for sound design
into the script, directly challenging my abilities to deliver. The play—
a ­two-hander—is about two young friends, Pig and Runt, who have a
symbiotic relationship and develop their own language, which only they
understand in their struggle to interact with the world around them.
Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh performed the original roles, seamlessly morphing into all the characters they encountered whilst telling the
story in a high octane explosive style. The sound design was essentially
the other character in the play. I controlled the sound elements for each
performance, playing the sound cues like a musical instrument, locked
into the tempo of the actors’ performance. I created live sound effects on
a microphone from the back of the room like a foley artist on a film.
At the climax of the play the character ‘Pig’ brutally attacks the character ‘Foxy’. The emotional arc of the beating was made by both the
actor and myself in tandem. He physically acted out the beating and I
created visceral, guttural sounds through the microphone, always reaching a shocking climax.
Working with Enda Walsh was a very important point in my career.
His originality and brilliance was always challenging and influenced me in
developing my practice in an experimental and lateral way.
130 C. O’Connor
Research and Development
I constantly strive to discover better ways of interacting with theatre,
finding new ways of creating and delivering sound design. Sensor technology has been around for some time and innovation in video game
control is an extremely competitive field. The makers of Xbox and
Playstation etc. have come up with some very clever and fun products for
people to play golf, tennis and disco dance.
I have begun using one such product as a sound controller. The
Microsoft Kinect is a motion sensing input device. The device features an
RGB (red, green and blue) camera, depth sensor and multi-array microphone running proprietary software that provides full-body 3D motion
capture, facial recognition, and voice recognition capabilities.
A software program converts movement into midi messages, which
control audio. Performers ‘map’ their bodies to the Kinect by adopting a specific pose that the device recognises. Once the machine detects
the body, it tracks the movements of the performer within its field of
vision (approximately six square metres). The programmer assigns a midi
command to the movement of the arms using the XYZ axis, where X is
stretching the arm out horizontally, Y is moving the arm up and down
and Z is pushing forward to the front and back. The sound designer
decides what audio events are triggered by each movement or combination of movements. For example, stretching out the arm on the X axis
horizontally could be mapped to control the volume of an audio clip.
Moving the arm up and down on the Y axis could be mapped to add
reverberation or echo to the same audio clip and pushing forward could
control the volume of a second audio clip. Depending on where the performer puts the arm, the sonic possibilities of the combination of these
three options are numerous and highly nuanced. Performers can respond
to the audio consequences of their actions in a tactile intuitive way, constantly modifying and evolving the sound using tiny or big gestures. The
control over the sound becomes part of the performance. It empowers
the performer with responsibility over how the sound design impacts
on the production. In practice, there is a lot of planning and interaction
between the sound designer and the performer.
There is still a major role for the director in terms of making the theatre piece. Someone always has to keep an eye on the ball and be aware
of the overall picture. To invent new aesthetics, conventions need to be
decided upon, design choices carefully considered.
The sound design becomes a musical instrument played by the performer who knows where sounds are in the virtual space, how they
can be accessed, manipulated and delivered. I have conducted many
workshops and experiments with willing performers who have all
had similar positive responses to the experience: actors felt a sense of
empowerment with the process opening up new pathways of developing their own practice. The Kinect can be used in all kinds of theatre
depending on the conventions decided upon as to its use but as it is
still a relatively new concept, its possibilities need to be teased out by
actors, choreographers, designers, and directors through exploration
and play.
One experiment prompted playwright Adam Wyeth to write a performance piece, Radiohead, with the Kinect at its core, in which the character discovers that he can eat the sounds around him and then regurgitate
at will. Here is an extract:
Scene 2: Bedroom
No longer dreaming, Hero is lying down in bed with alarm going off. (He
could turn on Radiohead song, ‘The Morning Bell’ on stereo.) He slowly stirs
looking from his disturbing dream. Disorientated, slowly come back to consciousness, he explores world around him. Despite the stage being empty a very
definite physical world is evoked through movement and familiar, recognizable sounds: planes, trains, traffic, dogs barking, etc. he gets up, goes to sink,
turns on tap, throws water over face, brushes teeth, etc. He opens bathroom
window and hears a blackbird singing, stops to listen to its song above the
town sounds. (But these sounds could also be interspersed with stranger sounds
coming from inside Hero’s head. Just as our own heads are filled with strange
sounds as we daydream, threads of conversation, songs, recollections and
thoughts etc. play out. These inner world abstract sounds are mixed with outer
world concrete sounds throughout the piece.) Certain gestures, movements set
off these sounds as he moves through his world and the audience grasp from
certain sounds where he is and what actions he is carrying out at home: making breakfast, coffee, toast, he turns on radio/TV etc.… He flicks through
channels, everyday shocking news stories are heard, he stops when he gets to
nature documentary. Voiceover about how female black widows eat the male
spiders after they mate. Perhaps listens to voice mails. Again each part of his
environment is informed/created through sounds. Opening, closing doors…
putting on coat. Walking out on city street. So we are looking at a mixture of
mime but a mime where the performer of course is simultaneously creating the
sounds of his world.
132 C. O’Connor
The Kinect is currently limited to small performance spaces, but
although limited in scope I have yet to find an idea that cannot be developed by its use. I imagine there will be many technological innovations
that Irish theatre practitioners will co-opt into their practice superseding this one. The future development of theatre in Ireland will no doubt
continue to be challenged by technological advances competing with
high-tech video games and other media for the attention of hearts and
minds, but I’m confident that a great story well told by brilliant live
actors with the support of an exceptional creative team will always have a
place in our cultural lives.
Author Biography
Cormac O’Connor has worked in Irish theatre as a composer and sound
designer for twenty years, and has composed the sound score for over 100 theatre productions. Highlights include: the award winning Disco Pigs for Corcadorca
Theatre Company (1996); The Enchanted Room, a sound installation at Royal
Festival Hall (2002); a Herald Angel award for Paine’s Plough’s The Straits at
the Edinburgh Festival (2003); Two Step at the Almeida and Another America at
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London (2004); Demon Juice at the Royal Opera House,
London (2007). He runs the Maple Rooms, a small recording studio in County
Lightning in a Bottle: The BrokenCrow
Ronan FitzGibbon
Company History
BrokenCrow Theatre Company was founded in 2011 by Ronan
FitzGibbon. We staged our first full production, Mantle, in April 2012,
followed by Madame Chavelle in the autumn. In 2013, we produced
three shows: Bug, Hang Up and Lifedeath, some of which enjoyed multiple stagings. In June 2014, we produced probably our most ambitious
show to date: Enter Juliet. We also premiered Prospect House at the Show
Festival in the autumn. We like to keep busy.
Company Structure
The company consists of an annually shifting team of multidisciplinary
theatre practitioners and myself as Creative Producer. The company goes
dark every August and the Ensemble is reborn in September with a mixture of old and new faces. We work all on an equal footing, with equal say.
Every year the BrokenCrow Ensemble brings together actors, designers,
directors, writers, and producers. The only common criterion is that they
R. FitzGibbon (*) 
BrokenCrow Theatre Company, Cork, Dublin, Waterford, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_10
134 R. FitzGibbon
are professional, energetic and open to honest collaboration. They have to
really want to make plays. The time that we have together as a group is
limited, so our aim is to quickly set up a working shorthand. We maximise
this connection by sharing and collaborating online. This gives every member quick reference points for each other’s thought processes, methodologies and influences: ‘What are you reading?’, ‘What are you working on?’,
‘I just saw this show that was amazing!’, ‘I just saw this show that was…
less than amazing!?’ It’s a free and open forum. However, these online discussions do not suit everyone, and they are really designed to complement
our fortnightly creative sessions, which can be just about anything.
Frequently, they will involve developing a project brought in by one
of the Ensemble. Sometimes it is a question of discussing or playing
with a loose idea that is rattling around someone’s brain: this can mean
a reading, a song, an ‘improv’ game or discussing religion for two hours.
As long as it is productive and engaging, it is valid. Of course, sometimes, people bring in scripts that are in development. This is an aspect
to the company that I find tremendously useful, as a writer. Getting to
hear your words and ideas performed, considered, and discussed is something that has become an integral part of my own practice. I remember, at one point, receiving very positive responses to a few things that I
had brought in and I wondered whether the feedback was truly honest.
That was until the day I brought in a screenplay I had been developing
for a few months. The group were aware of its development and broadly
what I was trying to do. We read it. We played with it. Then, as a group,
they reached into its core, pulled out its still beating heart and tore it to
pieces before my eyes. This was bad news for my famine zombie project.
Of course it hurt a bit but I quickly realised what a fantastic environment
this was. It is a great feeling to be working in that kind of room. A room
that is respectful but honest. A room full of professionals that trust each
other enough to shoot completely straight.
Sometimes, in these sessions, we ‘skill-share’. One of the group will
devise a workshop based on their own area of expertise—clowning,
design, the role of producer, vocalisations, Meisner, Chekhov, funding applications, colour wheels, and yoga—and we all participate. The
aim is to offer the Ensemble the chance to expand their craft and learn
new things. We also propose ourselves as a development service to other
practitioners. Companies and individuals have come in with everything
from vague ideas to finished scripts. I think that most writers benefit
from hearing their words aloud and that most have benefitted from our
multi-disciplinary examinations of their projects. We do not claim any
ownership of the work but instead see it as having someone throw us a
ball. It gives us something to work with, the opportunity to hone our critical skills and work together as a unit. It gives us something to play with.
Sometimes we just play. We play a lot. Drama games. Improv. Singing.
Silent walks. Tailing strangers through town and stealing their identities.
You know … Playing.
My good friend Jack Healy of the company Theatre Makers has
a great take on making: it is to ‘find your joy’. Whether it is in the
applause or the pay cheque, writing ‘the end’ or sharing your vision. As
artists, we should identify the source of our joy and put that at the centre of our practice. I like to think that we do that at BrokenCrow. We all
know that a life in the arts is not likely to lead to retirement on a private
yacht or even any sort of retirement for that matter; so, for me, the least
that this life owes you is some laughter lines.
With that in mind, let me quickly explain ‘Incrediball’. This is a game
that we play a lot. It is simple and silly, and I think it speaks to a lot of
how we work. It is basically a game of ‘keepy-uppy’; working together to
bounce a ball around and stop it from hitting the floor. You can use your
hands, feet or head. You can use whatever gets the job done because the
idea is that it is really important. There is no show-boating allowed. No
egos. Nothing fancy. You keep it simple. It is almost boring and easy
and then it starts to go out of rhythm and get unpredictable and then it
bounces off a light and on a head and a chair and a boob and the next
thing you know a room full of people are staring at this Euro Shop kids’
ball with a look of utter joy, willing to hurl themselves onto the ground
just to keep it alive for another second.
You could never plan what is going to happen. It cannot be forced. All
you can do is set the right conditions, keep things simple, and then let
a process take its course. We do not set out to innovate but instead just
create a space where the unpredictable is not only possible but celebrated.
How We Make Shows
Someone puts their hands up. Any member of the Ensemble can
decide that they want to present a project. It could be their own, or a
collective idea, or a script brought in from the outside. Once that person decides to run with it, s/he is the project leader. Thus far, that has
largely involved people wanting to direct but, in theory, it could be any
136 R. FitzGibbon
role. That project then goes onto a production footing. At this point the
project leader has complete creative autonomy. People usually involve
the ensemble at certain stages but, fundamentally it is their project.
BrokenCrow acts as a support network and a platform for their vision.
They must adhere to certain guidelines and codes of conduct obviously, as they are representing the company. These are:
•That their room and practice is rooted in openness and respect
for everyone in it: producers to performers to stage managers.
Everyone should feel happy and engaged.
• That all of their finances should be equitable and completely transparent to everyone involved.
•Possibly most importantly, that they are professional in their
approach. BrokenCrow has no artistic director.1 We have no single creative aim or vision. Our only calling card to our public is the
consistency of our approach. No two BrokenCrow shows are the
same. We have done dinner theatre, comedy, drama, trippy drama,
trippier comedy, and are currently working on our first production
for young audiences. If an Ensemble member says to me they want
to do an all nude, musical of Godot, then I want to say, ‘Hell yeah.
Let’s!’ The hope is that our audience will say that too because our
aim is that they can come and see something and like it or not like it
or even hate it but walk away recognising it as a well realised vision.
As something that was professional, engaged, and entirely unafraid.
The Ensemble commit to be part of the company for a year. There is no
physical contract and it is always on the understanding that the company
will not be their full-time focus. The aim is that, in that year, they will
get the opportunity to explore new roles, build on their own craft, make
connections, realise projects, and maybe plant the seeds of a few more.
A lot of this might seem almost altruistic on the company’s part but it is
more like a trade, a trade between the company and its members.
The energy that sustains BrokenCrow is the enthusiasm of those
members. That is a hard thing to sustain. I would argue that it is almost
impossible to sustain in the long term. That is why the dissolution of
the Ensemble every August is automatic. People cannot just stay in it
through inertia. They must actively decide to commit for another year
and then start afresh in September on the exact same footing as every
new member. (By the way, in case you were wondering how it works, we
nominate and vote internally for new members that we would like to see
invited before we break up.)
As I say, it is a balancing act. And because of that, it is in need of
constant adjusting. Sometimes, the Ensemble are not bringing enough
energy and output. Sometimes, the company is not giving them enough
in return. That is why I call it an experiment. I hope BrokenCrow is
around for a long time but, if it is, then it will have to always be in a
state of flux and adjustment. With new voices, energies, personalities and
visions coming through constantly. It is not a linear model, it is more like
perpetual motion.
This non-linear planning can sometimes be at odds with the prevailing wisdom in the sector. On more than one occasion, I have been asked
‘What next for BrokenCrow?’ or ‘Where do you see yourselves in five
years?’. My answer is always the same. I see us doing exactly what we are
doing now, only with some new faces, (hopefully) a bigger audience, and
(hopefully) more funding but, fundamentally, this is it. This is what we do.
That is not a lack of ambition. We would like to tour more and play
some bigger houses but those ambitions exist only to make the creative
aims of each member more sustainable and achievable. The company is
the project. The company is the experiment. There is no long-term plan
to get a building and an office. We have been lucky enough to form in a
city—Cork—that has opened up massively in terms of the relationships
between institutions and artists. We have been able to do our thing in
rooms right across the city, from Graffiti to Sample Studios, the Everyman
to the Theatre Development Centre. I am convinced that this vagrancy
assists the company. It allows us to interact regularly with a host of institutions and practitioners that we might otherwise miss. It means that we are
in a constant dialogue right across our sector with makers and facilitators.
Why Structure A Company Like This?
The structure of BrokenCrow was something that I came up with over
a number of years working in theatre. There were two main reasons for
devising such an arrangement.
138 R. FitzGibbon
One is about priorities. The company is not the primary focus for any
member of the group. They can put it to the fore of their practice for
the duration of a project, but it does not require the investment of their
future plans or ambitions. They must feel free to use it as it suits their
creative ambitions, but not feel burdened by their membership.
The second is to do with the patterns that I have observed within a
multitude of companies. (Obviously, there are many exceptions to these
patterns.) Most companies are started by practitioners in their twenties.
They are energetic, free and, above all, fearless. Assuming that they are
successful in producing a consistent level of work and do not fall foul of
interpersonal difficulties, they then tend to fall into two categories.
In one, they are unsuccessful in receiving regular funding or sufficient
ticket sales to make the company tenable and the stakeholders succumb
to the financial pressures imposed by their shifting demographic (for
example, marriage, mortgage, children, all that stuff ). The company falls
completely or becomes the focus of just one stakeholder’s practice.
In the other, the company secures a level of financial stability through
audience or subsidy. This now means that the creative stakeholders have
equity in the company and are, therefore, inclined to take safer options
and fewer risks. In this instance, the company usually either stagnates or
becomes reliant on a single vision from the artistic director. Even the latter model becomes very difficult to sustain over the long term and places
enormous pressure on the director.
Obviously, I am presenting a very simplified case here. There are a
multitude of different models and trajectories when it comes to the lifecycle of a theatre company. Apart from the standard group model, there
is the one-man-band approach, there are collectives and couple companies. I do not suggest, for a second, that BrokenCrow represents a
one-size-fits-all approach to theatre making and it has its own inherent
challenges. It is not a perfect model, but it is one that I believe in. That’s
why I call it an experiment.
What I Do
I made up the term Creative Producer. I could not think of another term
for what I do because what I do is hard to define. I try to keep the group
moving. I do some cat herding. I juggle. I try to keep them enthused. I
make decisions, when necessary. I get us to break bread together, play
together and create together. I try to keep people focused on what they
need to bring to the company and what they can take from it. I look out
for opportunities for members to take chances and realise their ambitions.
I put people in a room.
Sometimes, when a production gets moving, I am little more than
audience. I just get to come watch, and then people come up to me
afterwards and say ‘Well done!’ It’s great! Sometimes, I am there as a
referee between … ‘competing visions’. Sometimes, this involves a large
phone-bill and late night peace-keeping. Mostly, what I do is gather
together with people I admire and spend time playing and making and
I get to fan the sparks of ideas. I get to encourage work that I want to
see happen. I get to share in that wonderful moment when a room full
of people suddenly start to speak the same language and share the same
vision because, ultimately, that is where I find my joy.
1. In 2015 BrokenCrow was reconstituted as a company with the seven
members of the multidisciplinary ensemble becoming permanent artistic
directors working across Waterford, Cork and Dublin.
Author Biography
Ronan FitzGibbon who originally trained as a sculptor, is a stage designer
and writer based in Waterford. Over the last fifteen years he has worked with
companies such as Corcacorca, Graffiti, Ex Machina, Barabbas, Asylum, Bowler
Hat, Spraoi, MCD, Hammergrin, and for numerous festivals, as a set designer
and constructor, puppeteer, tour manager, production manager, occasional actor,
and director. He founded BrokenCrow Theatre Company in 2011, and started
A Little Room (Theatre Development Centre) in Waterford with Nicholas
Kavanagh in 2016. His plays include Madame Chavelle (2010), Mantle (2012),
Enter Juliet (2014), Prospect House (2015).
Interview with Bríd Ó Gallchoir
Anne Etienne, Thierry Dubost and Bríd Ó Gallchoir
Anne Etienne: How did you become a director?
Bríd Ó Gallchoir: I wanted to be a director from when I was very
young. I was interested in film when I was a teenager, then I became
more interested in theatre. I applied to do drama studies and English in
Trinity College Dublin and I studied there for four years. That course
was not for actors. It was geared towards people who wanted to write,
direct, or design within theatre, potentially academics as well. From
there, I did my final year dissertation on The Seagull and the work of
Meyerhold. He had an alternative way of looking at Chekhov’s work,
kind of opposed to Stanislavski’s methodology. I did that, and then,
our department was building a relationship with GITIS State Theatre
Institute in Moscow at the time. There was a personal relationship
between our Head of Department, John McCormack, and the Head of
A. Etienne (*) 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
T. Dubost 
University of Caen Normandie, Caen, France
e-mail: thierry.dubost@unicaen.f
B. Ó Gallchoir 
Aisling Ghéar, Belfast, Northern Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_11
the GITIS. They wanted to do an exchange programme, so he selected
me and another student to go to Moscow and study there, while two
students came to study in Trinity. To go there, study, and live in Moscow
was really an amazing experience for me. I was there from 1990 to 1991.
When I came back, Sylvia Cullen, one of my friends, had written a play
and so I decided to set up a small theatre company in Cork. We called
ourselves The Wild Geese, the play was titled Crows Calling, and we
performed it in the Firkin Crane theatre. That’s how we started. It was
slightly coincidental, and slightly off my own back, making things happen, but I think it’s the usual story in theatre. You find yourself on the
dole, then work eighty hours a week, not actually officially getting paid
and that’s the way it worked then. Set up a company, get some advertising, everyone works for a share of the profits, and hope to get some
money at the end of the run, but in reality it usually amounts to three
pints on the last night. It was really great. Then I was incredibly lucky
because Patrick Mason came into the Abbey theatre. He decided that
there wasn’t enough training for directors in Ireland, which was true of
course, and that he would select two young directors, bring them into
the Abbey to be staff directors. To do a lot of casting, a lot of assistant
directing, and then get to direct a couple of shows yourself. I had a brilliant two and a half years there.
AE: That was your starting point. When and why did you turn to theatre in Irish?
BÓG: When I left the Abbey, a theatre company had just been set
up by the government. It would be very different if it had been set up
from the ground like the company I work for, and run in Belfast now.
This company was called Amharclann de hÍde. The theatre was named
after Douglas Hyde, who was the first President of Ireland. He had a
great interest in Irish language and in the arts, and was the first president of Conradh na Gaeilge, the Gaelic League. The setting up of that
company was very important and it was really run by the board. When
I came out of the Abbey, I directed a show for the company and was
ultimately offered the job of artistic director. I worked with the company and the company worked on new writing, which was really great,
but very demanding. It is difficult to get audiences for new writing in
English and at least as difficult in Irish. The first production I did was
a play that was on the school curriculum and I kind of revamped it and
adapted it. It was very well-received and was a ‘must see’ in The Irish
Times, which was very unusual for Irish language theatre. However, I
have to say that’s where I have to pause and that is the big gaping problem at the moment in the Irish language. It was then and still is now:
the development of new writing. One of the big worries people have is
that the writer should be coming from the Gaeltacht, the Irish language
areas, and there really aren’t any coming from there. I made a strenuous effort when I was working with Amharclann de hÍde. I actually
went around Gaeltacht areas, setting up writing groups. I worked with
County Council Arts officers to bring enthusiastic local people together
for weekend workshops in each of the major Gaeltacht areas in Donegal,
Galway and Kerry. But sadly no new writers emerged from this project.
This was all for free. Nobody was charged a fee. You’d get a venue and
work with people at the weekend, just lots of fun writing workshops. I
got around about eight people in each of the Gaeltacht areas and said:
‘Send me your work, meet once a fortnight, once a month, to keep it
going’. Nothing came out of it. Absolutely nothing. It’s something
that we are addressing here at the moment at Aisling Ghéar, finding a
new model for encouraging new writing. I’ve spent the last five or six
years building an audience and building credibility. It’s only in this last
while that I’ve turned to finding ways to develop writers, because I
felt we needed to build a loyal audience base with more populist work.
Though I would be less concerned with having an emphasis on finding
new writers from the Gaeltachts, I think that there is just as much validity in finding writers in the urban Gaeltachts of working-class Dublin or
working-class Belfast, or indeed working-class Cork. These are the places
where there is energy. And now in these urban areas there are children
being raised with Irish as their mother tongue, and although my opinion
would be considered controversial, I view this generation as native speakers. We are also taking a new approach to new writing programmes. You
need to have lots of different new programmes, and rolling programmes
in order to successfully develop new writers. It’s becoming difficult
because you don’t really make any money out of writing in the Irish language, and people are less interested in writing for the theatre in general.
Increasingly, and understandably, people are more interested in writing
for TV or film. What would you want to do if you were twenty? You
would write a movie.
AE: Within the company, do you have a troupe, or do you choose
actors that also work in English theatre?
BÓG: That’s what we do. Like all theatres in Ireland—I think the
Abbey theatre was one of the last theatres in Western Europe to have a
full-time company, they lost that as well, they gave up on that ten years
ago—so we have actors that would work with us regularly, particularly
here in Belfast. Two actors work with us a lot. They are really great, they
are multi-talented, and they write as well. I got together these two performers, Tony Devlin and Nuala Ní Néill, myself and Aisling Ghéar’s
founding artistic director, Gearóid Ó Cairealláin, to write a comedy
sketch show around the Irish language, aimed especially for our local
Belfast audience. The show, An Aisling/The Dream, was first produced
in 2010; we keep adding sketches and it is still going. It is a show with
just two performers and little need for set, that we have been able to
perform on the street, in cafés, pub clubs, and most recently in a tent.
This means we can bring our work to a wide and diverse audience. It’s
worked really well for us and we’re actually going to be performing during the Tall Ships Festival in Belfast, doing those sketches and entertaining people. I’m trying to give a point you could hang to, and the
general point would be yes, it is more difficult, yes we do struggle for
instance with finding actors, and in general we bring actors from Dublin.
We don’t have a huge bank of actors here in Belfast who speak Irish
for many reasons. We have the whole of the island to take from. So, of
course, we have to bring people to Belfast and put them up. It’s great
as well that we tend to work with the people from all of Ireland and not
just be stuck in a bubble of Belfasters. This is a very provincial city.
AE: How does the company interact with Belfast?
BÓG: We have many strings to our bow, so I’d say this is something
that we concentrate on, but actually in the last three years I got very
tired, particularly as somebody who is from the South. I’m not used to
the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland, particularly to the degree to
which Irish is vilified by Unionism, by unionist politicians in particular of course, and how it is viewed literally as if I were just opening my
mouth screaming ‘I support the IRA’ every time I speak Irish. So, I felt
this was something we had to address, because it puts us all in a terrible box. We are based on the Falls Road—it’s West Belfast—so there are
so many assumptions and presumptions made about us. I also felt that,
more importantly, sometimes it’s good to live in places which are a bit
messed up if you’re an artist, because we really do have the responsibility and the opportunity to be the ones that will fix it, because the politicians here are not going to fix anything, or change anything. I don’t
know how invested politicians are in actually breaking down sectarian
barriers, and creating a unified society. So, I decided that I wanted to
find a way to do work that would take us out of that box. Four years
ago now, I approached the award-winning playwright Gary Mitchell.
He’s been performed in London and Dublin in the Abbey theatre. He
comes from a Loyalist background, that’s paramilitary Protestant background. His story is extraordinary. He grew up in a working-class estate
called Rathcoole, and his first play was called In a Little World of Our
Own. He’s a fascinating character and they’re great plays, kind of unified, almost Greek, all the unities there, very tense, domestic dramas, set
in that community, and in the end, he had to run for his life. He literally had to leave Northern Ireland; the paramilitaries were after him
because they didn’t think that he was saying nice things about them. I
approached him and said, ‘Let’s find a way that we can work together’.
So we commissioned Gary Mitchell, and he wrote Love Matters for us,
and it was great. He worked closely with my husband, who translated
the play, to create a language, an urban language—though of course still
Irish—which would fit the characters that Gary creates. We attracted
audiences for the first time from the Unionist community over here, but
we had actual Loyalists and ex-paramilitaries who came to view the play.
It did everything. I think that one of the most interesting things—­sitting
watching it myself—was that when you watched these working-class
people on the stage, although they were Loyalists and you knew where
you were, but they were speaking in Irish, what was highlighted was the
fact that these two communities, the working-class on both sides, are so
alike, with all the same issues, all the same fears and paranoia: the true
colour of the working-class community was up here. Then, I also developed a project which for the first time we performed in English, The
Search for Robert McAdam. He was a Presbyterian, a Protestant, from
the late eighteenth century, and he was a kind of genius. He was a polymath. He spoke eleven languages, played the flute, was an engineer by
profession, and had his own foundry. He was passionate about the Irish
language. He was a unionist, but he was an Irishman who spoke fluent
Irish, and he did fantastic work in gathering poems and stories by local
Ulster poets that would have been lost. We decided to perform that
play—it was really just a one-man show—entirely in English, to bring it
to Protestant areas in order to say to people: ‘Look, this is your background, this is your language’; ‘You have been actually hoodwinked,
culturally, and left out in the cold, and separated from something that
you own.’ There have been some very hopeful changes in relation to
the protestant community and the Irish language, in large part due to
the work of an amazing individual, Linda Ervine. She’s from a workingclass Protestant background, but a very interesting background. Her
parents were communists, trade-unionists, so very fascinating, which
made them very anti-sectarian of course. She went to Irish classes and
then she did her research, found out about the background of the Irish
language, found out that her husband’s grandparents had actually spoken Irish. She set up classes in East Belfast, in a very working-class part
of East Belfast. We started making contacts with her, working with her,
and we brought our sketch show to her Irish-language classes. She now
has eighty people, learning Irish in East Belfast, who are now realizing
that they own the language, just as much as the Catholic community do.
We’re still working with her and we’re doing a lot with her. I guess that
what defines us in some ways is that we’re very cross-community and we
have a big agenda there with that.
Thierry Dubost: You’ve talked about Irish playwrights who tend not
to write in Irish, so how politically significant is it to use Irish language
for the staging of a play? How do people react, politically?
BÓG: Well, there are three aspects to this. In the North, some people, mostly nationalists, think that it’s wonderful. But you have to work
very hard to make them come and see the plays. Obviously, there’s a
slab of the community who think really we’re the cultural wing of the
IRA. In fact this company has been audited by the Arts Council twice,
and we’re the only theatre company in Northern Ireland to have ever
been audited. That’s very telling. The first time we were audited was just
after a very large post-ceasefire bank robbery, the Northern Bank robbery, in which millions were stolen. I couldn’t posit any opinions here,
just to say that the timing was interesting. But we have an almost worse
political problem, which is that the Southern media—that’s largely
the Dublin media, The Irish Times, RTÉ, etc., all of these organs—are
only interested in the Irish language when it comes from what they feel
is the ‘authentic’ part of the island. As far as they’re concerned we’re
urban, they don’t see us as authentic because of where we are. We got an
opportunity to get a media mentor and I said this to him: ‘Look, we’re
viewed as urban, we’re viewed as Belfast, possibly political.’ And his
advice was to own that identity, which I found useful and intriguing and
this notion helped me think about how to do that; to consider where we
are based and to bring that more into the work we do. It served to help
me focus on this idea of being urban and political. We’re going to be
twenty years old in 2017, and the first show the company ever did was
Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. The play was translated and
set in Belfast of the early nineties. It was political and it was very successful. I’ve decided that we’re going to book end this twenty-year story
and I’m going to produce Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay by Dario Fo, in Irish,
set in West Belfast. It’ll be our next major production because yes, we
are urban, we are Belfast. We are political, with a small ‘p’, in the sense
that all art is political, and when you live somewhere like Belfast, you
need to be political. That is the direction that I’m going be pushing this
company in. To say that the Irish language, ironically and, to me quite
rightly, is going to be one of the forces to unite this incredibly segregated, divided society that I happen to live in.
AE: You mention Dario Fo, an Italian playwright, but are the other
plays in Irish mostly influenced by or adapted from Irish mythologies,
from plays in English? Would you like to stage Irish mythology?
BÓG: I wouldn’t take that company in the direction of doing stuff
with Cúchulainn or Queen Maeve or all of that kind of stuff, because of
the environment that I live in and the type of theatre that I practise. I
wouldn’t be even a good director of that kind of material. The company
was set up by my husband, Gearóid Ó Cairealláin. At that time, with the
Troubles ongoing, there was very little money and really no support. He
was a complete maverick and he did the plays he wanted to do. That
was it. That was the artistic policy. Those were Pinter and Max Frisch,
and Ionesco and Beckett. It was difficult to get an audience into theatre, particularly if we were doing Amédée by Ionesco. I don’t know if
Amédée has had a professional production in Ireland ever. It’s such a difficult play. It reads great, and it’s an extraordinary idea, but very difficult
to stage. Anyway, he asked me if I would take over the company—I was
working in Dublin, and my relationship with the board was bad and getting worse, so I was quite miserable. I had just started a relationship with
Gearóid and used to commute up and down to Belfast. He said: ‘I’m
going to start a TV production company, so why don’t you come up and
take over Aisling Ghéar?’ I said: ‘I will, but there’s going to be a big
change. We need to build audiences. These works were interesting, and
fascinating, but theatre really doesn’t exist without an audience. It’s not
a painting, it’s not a sculpture, it doesn’t happen’. So I took the theatre
company in that direction, that’s not very interesting artistically, but literally I sat down and said: ‘Every play we pick, we have to decide: why?
Do we have an audience? Is there a guaranteed audience somewhere
for this play? We’re not looking for thousands, but at least hundreds.’
The very first time, I looked through the listings of the West End, for
instance, and thought, ‘when they do a difficult play, how do they sell
it? Because there is Judy Dench or Daniel Day Lewis in it? What else is
there?’ I noticed they were doing a production that became very successful, The Thirty Nine Steps, from the old movie, and that’s because
people know that old movie and they love it. The first decision I made
was to adapt for the stage a comic novel by Myles na gCopaleen, An
Béal Bocht/The Poor Mouth, which everybody in Ireland knows the title
of, everyone assumes is very, very funny but very few people have read. I
did a bilingual version of Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones, some new
writing, a new play set in West Belfast, with young people and singing
and music that actually sold great to young audiences.
AE: So, you are trying to avoid the risk of Irish theatre becoming a
BÓG: Yes, that’s right. I felt that until we built an audience, a regular audience, we had to eliminate the risk, and there is no doubt that
this was a decision I did make. Possibly because I’m an outsider here—I
wasn’t part of this community—I approached it from that point of view.
I feel now having been here for such a length of time, and knowing it so
well, and having become passionate and not so scared about the issues
that surround being an Irish language theatre company here in Falls
Road, I feel surer, braver about what we are doing and what we ought to
be doing. In the course of the last three years or so. I feel strangely confident and optimistic, despite the fact that David Cameron is probably
going to destroy the economy of this place, but I think we’ll survive.
AE: You mentioned your concern for audiences, what about spectators who do not speak Irish and have to read the surtitles, their eyes
moving from the stage to the screen. Does it have an impact on the way
you choose and direct a play? Is audience response influenced by this
aspect of the productions?
BÓG: Simultaneous translation is about to change, that’s very interesting. Gearóid got money from Europe, peace money. Back in the nineties, there was a lot of peace money thrown at this place, and he got
a translation system where you got a headset, and there’s a live actor
backstage, with a headset, translating every line of dialogue. Rather than
surtitles, that’s the system we’ve used. That’s the system we’ve been
using. It’s now out of date. The company that produced it are out of
business, and we’re having increasing problems to get it mended. We’ve
been thinking about changing that. We’ve just found out that a Welsh
theatre company are developing an application that gives you a couple
of choices. For instance, if you have a smattering of Welsh, it will give
you a précis of everything, or you can get a translation and you get your
headphones and you listen to the translation on your mobile phone. You
could also use that for blind people, and if there was a particular type of
project, you could have it translated into Mandarin, into Polish … You
don’t pay them to do it every night, you just get them in and record it.
AE: I’d like to move from Northern Ireland to the rest of the country. The plays produced in Belfast sometimes tour in Ireland. Do you
see a difference in terms of public reception between Ulster and the
BÓG: Yes, I do. For instance, in Belfast, Irish people with not a word
in Irish will come to our shows, lots of them. Very often, our audience in
Belfast, we would have fifty per cent people listening to a translation and
fifty per cent understanding the Irish. When you go down South, if they
don’t speak Irish, they don’t go to theatre in Irish. They think that it’s
for Gaelgóirí [Irish speakers] and it has nothing to do with them. In fact,
very often, it’s something they’re very negative about. The response to
the language in the North is very different, even those who cannot speak
Irish feel very proud about it, delighted that it’s there and that Belfast
has become a centre of Irish language; whereas in the South, particularly
in Dublin and Leinster, you would find people that are actually annoyed
by the Irish language. They certainly wouldn’t consider coming to see an
Irish play and putting headsets on. Part of that is that people don’t really
learn Irish in school. There’s more potential now, but for people of my
husband’s generation, it was like going to school in England, whereas in
Ireland, in the Republic, everyone learns Irish all the way up till they’re
eighteen. When they find themselves later in life that they don’t speak it,
they feel slightly ashamed; so the last thing they would do would be to
sit in a theatre with a pair of headsets translating what is supposed to be
the first language of the island, the first language of the nation.
TD: Even to attend a performance of Dario Fo, or any other playwright they wouldn’t know?
BÓG: Yes, I know what you mean, but there are lots of mixed attitudes and difficulties about the Irish language, a sense of shame, guilt, all
of this.
TD: I see. My concluding question will be about gender, sexuality and religion. They have been deeply questioned in recent years. Can
plays written in Irish address these issues in a different way?
BÓG: I think they could. I have to say it’s not something I’ve given
any great thought to. But I think it’s a great question, and I think it
is something that theatre could attend to very, very well. It would be a
very thorny question for a theatre company in Belfast who work in Irish
to address, because the role of women in a conflict society is not great.
They’re left out. The place where I live is very behind in terms of gender politics in comparison with the rest of Ireland. I know Europeans
think Ireland is not very progressive, but believe me, it’s a lot worse up
here. Women tend to take a background role when a conflict goes on
and it becomes a very male-oriented society. Women don’t speak up in
this society. It feels very old-fashioned to me.
TD: But you speak up.
BÓG: Yes, I do. I’m one of the few. But literally, I was at an important meeting yesterday about the media and leaders within Northern
Irish society and, in a half hour, I was the only woman who spoke. And a
third of the people there were female. I was the only woman who spoke.
That would often be my experience in Northern Ireland. Even in small
details. Women here all take their husband’s name. Everybody does it. In
the Republic very few people do that any more, it’s very unusual.
TD: What are your expectations for the future?
BÓG: I want us to be working in a society where everybody believes
they own the Irish language. I want to have brought work to the South
and toured my own place, where I grew up, the Republic of Ireland. I
want people to recognize that Irish language theatre done by a company
in Belfast is important and vital and authentic. I would like to see that.
Author Biography
Bríd Ó Gallchoir after taking her degree at Trinity College, studied at the
State Institute of Theatre in Moscow, spent two years as a staff director with the
Abbey, before becoming artistic director of Amharclann de hÍde (1997–2001).
Ó Gallchoir’s work has been seen in the UK and Scotland, Lithuania and Russia.
In 2002 she was appointed Artistic Director of Aisling Ghéar Theatre Company,
where her production of Translations/Aistriúcháin was nominated for Best New
Production at Belfast City Council’s Theatre Awards. In 2009 Bríd undertook
her first writing project, with Gearóid Ó Cairealláin, a stage adaptation of Flann
O’Brien’s An Béal Bocht.
Interview with Pat Kinevane
Anne Etienne and Pat Kinevane
Anne Etienne: You have worked as an actor for twenty years. How did
you start?
Pat Kinevane: I began 26 years ago actually, in 1989, working with
the Team Theatre Company. They’re a theatre in education company
based in Dublin. I got a lucky break. Patrick Sutton, who was the artistic
director, saw me perform at an amateur summer camp and asked me if I
would be interested in auditioning for this professional theatre company.
At the time I was working in the civil service, at the post office, and I
was unhappy there. I auditioned for a play that they were going to tour
in secondary schools all over the country and I got the role. I worked
with Team for a year and half with a steady contract right through. I left
my ‘proper’ job at the post office and I moved to Dublin. But before
that I had done a lot of community and amateur drama, since I was a
child, which was a good grounding to go into the business.
AE: Is it a likely path for most actors? Is there a specific training to
become a professional actor (like training at RADA in England or the
Conservatoires in France)?
A. Etienne (*) 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
P. Kinevane 
Dublin, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_12
154 A. Etienne and P. Kinevane
PK: There are a lot of training schools in Dublin now: there’s the
Gaiety School, there’s Trinity College, there’s Lir [the Lir Academy], and
other courses for actors. But at the time, there were not that many schools
of acting around. I could not afford it anyway. I couldn’t have afforded
to move to Dublin and train full-time as an actor. The way it worked out
was very fortuitous. And the timing was right. Financially it allowed me
to move from an office job to a creative job and to have a pay. I don’t
know how a lot of actors manage nowadays. It must be very difficult. The
rents are so high, the cost of living is so high, that everyone needs to have
a second job now in order to go through training or to survive between
contracts. Whereas at the time, I had humble wage but it was enough to
pay my rent; I was able to eat and have a few pints, and to enjoy myself.
AE: And you learnt by doing?
PK: Absolutely. I always had a passion for acting, through the community and amateur drama and watching older actors and actresses, and
working with sets and costumes. But the Team Theatre experience at the
start was incredible because we had to go into schools in the morning,
put the set together, look after our costumes, and we had to be very selfdisciplined. I learnt a lot from that. After that I got lucky breaks into
mainstream theatre in Dublin with Passion Machine, the Abbey and the
Gate. That’s how it happened for me, very smoothly.
AE: Do you have to be in Dublin and to pass through the Abbey to
be established professionally as an actor?
PK: I don’t think so. But the National Theatre was always very
important to me. And it still is. I think it stands out as a particular
icon in European theatre as well. Don’t ask me why, but as a teenager,
I always aspired to work at the Abbey—maybe it’s because I have a
strong nationalist identity and I wanted to work in this iconic theatre
for me. But I don’t think that any other actor has to pass through it in
order to be established. There are other ways of doing it. To me it was
important from a spiritual point of view and because of my background,
which is very rooted in my Irishness. I would always go to the Abbey,
any chance I got. Even before being an actor, I would go there for the
Abbey style, which is pure theatre and celebrated in the most skilful way.
As a young actor, and still now, I look up to the older Abbey actors and
actresses that would have come up through the ’50 s and ’60 s. People
like Joan O’Hara was a goddess to me. I had the pleasure of working
with her, and I always thought she was an incredible actress: she had
that skill in body and in voice, which I always aspire to. People like Des
Cave I would have looked at as a younger man, Clive Geraghty, Máire Ní
Ghráinne, Maire O’Neill, Niall Buggy, the list could go on … All those
actors that came up through the National Theatre were all influential,
because they were unique in themselves but they had a collective energy
which was very strong on stage, as an ensemble. I was always interested
in that, the power of Irish actors, and particularly the National Theatre.
When I finally worked at the Abbey was the proudest moment of my life:
I remember thinking, ‘I’m on my National Theatre’s stage, I’m on the
same stage as all of these actors that went before’.
AE: What production was that?
PK: The first time was at the Peacock; that was Tom Murphy’s The
Patriot Game [in 1991]. My first time on the Abbey stage was [Lennox
Robinson’s] Drama at Inish, in 1992. I was so thrilled to be on that stage,
I could not believe it. It looked huge. I was terrified. I suppose there was
this romantic side of me, when I was a young man, of thinking of the
actors who laid the way for the next generation. Now I’m in the middle
of my life, but I remember being blown away then at being on the same
stage as Niall Buggy. It was a defining moment. Marie Mullen, Barbara
Brennan and Deirdre Donnelly were also in that production, people I had
looked up to for years. It felt like becoming part of something special. I
admired their style, and their craft, their confidence—they might not have
been confident but they always had this amazing presence. A few years
ago I was touring my own work with Fishamble throughout Bulgaria. It
was astonishing because they knew everything about the Abbey Theatre,
they had read books on it. Everywhere we went, they would talk about the
Abbey, the productions. They had studied its history and they knew about
all the actors I was talking about and going right back. It was fascinating
that an Eastern-European country knew so much about the Irish National
AE: Ireland is famed worldwide for its theatre scene. Do you think it
is the playwrights or the actors that make theatre such a strong export?
PK: I’d think it’s a healthy balance of both. Sometimes a good play
can be elevated to a wonderful play by its actors. And sometimes a wonderful play can bring a good actor to being wonderful. One serves the
other, they’re not exclusive. There’s a great tradition of serving the
writer, not in a submissive way, but certainly the actor would want to
work at the Abbey and at the Peacock, and other companies focusing
on new writing. There is definitely an intuitive quality about Irish actors.
They respect the writer. They respect the fact that the writer has done
their research, their work, and has come to this point of creativity; the
actor honours that. Equally, Irish writers are brilliant in that they are very
156 A. Etienne and P. Kinevane
open to interpretation by actors, they allow the actor to continue the
creative process. It’s not us and them. We merge together as a beautiful
way of serving each other.
AE: Have you always been a physical actor?
PK: I never thought about it. I certainly didn’t know I was, as a
younger actor. But then, people would mention it, sometimes positively,
sometimes negatively. They’d say, ‘You move your body a lot.’ It was the
most natural thing in the world for me, I was always very comfortable
in my body. I always felt that if I was interpreting a character, it had to
be embodied, not just created in the mind and vocally. I always felt that
I had to be versatile and try and make every character different to the
next. And I would use my body to do that. I was aware that a lot of
people would be directive on that issue: they would say, ‘I don’t like the
fact that you use your body.’ Afterwards I figured out that maybe it was
because it was unusual from a male point of view. I had admired people
for years, particularly Barbara Brennan and Kate Flynn, who were masters of the craft of embodiment. As male actors, Niall Buggy and Tom
Hickey influenced me far more than any other, more contemporary actor
who would not use their body. I remember as a young man loving actors
for their vocal work and for the words they were acting, but not being
convinced because the voice was immaculate whereas the body belied
what the intent was. I couldn’t understand that, so maybe that’s a subconscious hangover from these impressions as an audience member. If I
have to immerse myself as a character, I need to be physically at ease with
it. Now, from a more contemporary point of view the work of Olwen
Fouéré, who is also a friend, is a reference because she’s been using her
body like no other actor.
AE: Have you found it easy to be a physical actor in a theatre context
heavily defined by textuality?
PK: That’s a very good question. It was something difficult to break
through with it. But I was lucky in that the actors who influenced me,
like Kate and Tom, I had seen them do it before me. If these actors can
be successful and bring their entirety to acting, it means there is a way of
breaking through. I was also lucky that the parts I got and the directors
I worked with were open and allowed me to experiment. I was with the
right people as a young actor.
AE: How do you think new technologies have affected what it’s like
to be an actor today? Since when and how?
PK: I think it makes it very exciting. Technology just jumped ahead.
From a mainstream point of view, there were always technical shows:
they would have been the plays of bigger theatre companies that could
afford them. But now, it’s easier for most companies to exploit and
to have fun with technology from a very basic level. In terms of timeline, I’d say for about ten years. Even the visuals are moving on now,
and sound is moving on. I’m working with Denis Clohessy [on Silent
and Underneath] and he’s moving the sound forward: it becomes threedimensional, it’s no longer flat, so that the audience is surrounded and
enveloped by sound now in a way that you couldn’t do fifteen years ago.
The layers, the texturing of the sound, the fact that it can come at you
from any angle in a theatre, it’s almost cinematic. Visually, with projections and the use of laptops you can create a whole world on stage. I
think that frees up a lot of young companies because they don’t have to
invest in huge clonky sets, big flying sets and what used to be the norm.
Now we can take the audience on a cinematic journey but it’s still theatre because of the live performance.
AE: So that the imagination of both director and actors are given
freer rein?
PK: Absolutely. It gives the young actor an opportunity to work.
Productions that small companies would not have been able to afford
are made possible by the advanced technology. It opens up the list of
roles and the possibilities of playing with the stage environment. The
challenge for the actor today is to be open to interact with anything: a
projection or a hologram or a sound. It’s more sci-fi than it ever was
before. And actors have got to go along with it, and have fun, rather
than resist it. I think in the future, we will be looking at performances
where the actors are holograms and robots. It’s a development of
theatre, as long as there is an element of live performance somewhere.
That’s what defines theatre for me.
AE: Have financial considerations affected the status and the reality of
being a professional actor?
PK: Even at the start of my career I would have been insecure calling
myself a professional actor. As far as everyone was concerned, if you had
an Equity card, you were officially a professional actor. But that doesn’t
matter any more because a lot of Irish actors are members of Equity but
you don’t have to be in the Union any more, so others aren’t. When I
became confident of being called a professional actor was about ten years
into it. I realised that I was able to pay my rent and I was earning a living
158 A. Etienne and P. Kinevane
as an actor. That was my milestone. I think it’s very different now, and
I feel desperate for a lot of young actors because it’s almost impossible
to earn a full living in the current economic environment. It’s a generational thing as well: I remember when there was always an ensemble
piece, either at Christmas or in the summer, which employed twenty
actors. Now there are much more actors and less employment, so you
get a lot of people just sitting around. It must be very frustrating because
you want to get on with your career. There are so many talented young
actors out there and they’re not getting the opportunity to show their
wares and develop.
AE: Are there regional differences? Is Dublin the place where you
make it as an actor?
PK: I think it used to be. I would have thought that about 70% of
actors who wanted to make a living out of it would have had to come to
Dublin. But I don’t think that’s the case now because regional theatres
are claiming it, and theatre has become decentralised. It’s really important because Dublin shouldn’t be the beyond and all of theatre, nor
should any city be. I think that it should spread through the country,
so that in five to ten years’ time, it will be completely decentralised and
you can live economically in your area and make a living as an actor. I
think that’s going to happen actually. Because necessity is the mother of
invention. And once audiences are looked after, and once children are
brought to the theatre at a very young age in every area of the country, then audiences can be cultivated. When audiences are cultivated then
there’s room for actors to make a living even away from Dublin.
AE: Talking about changing practices, is there a standard time to be
spent on rehearsals?
PK: In my experience it was always around a four-week period.
Though it might be down to three with a few companies, mostly I’d fall
into a natural circadian rhythm of four to five weeks. If you were cast a
month beforehand, you would have the chance to do your research on
the character and it was not too far away either, so it would be a good
time to be cast. Then go into rehearsal the first week, when you’re free
for endless possibilities; second week, you start and find your feet and
tie down little things; the third week is the copper-fastening week, when
you make big decisions; and the fourth week for polishing, for energy,
for drive. And then going into production week after that, and that’s the
week for technicalities. I always said that was my week for shoes and for
getting used to my costumes, getting used to the lights and finding my
way geographically on the stage. That was always my rhythm. If it was
cut down, very rarely, to three weeks, I always found that disconcerting
because I didn’t have my pattern, my athletic period of training like an
athlete would prepare. It’s at the end of the four-week period of rehearsals that I felt I had the work done.
AE: It’s interesting because the pattern you practice ties in with
Patrick Mason’s notion of a six-week period needed for rehearsals, and
the fact that of course you can work with less but the director and actors
should expect no less to develop the work.
PK: That’s especially true with new work. I remember talking to
Frank McGuinness about a new play I was working on and he said, ‘with
new work you should have at least five to six weeks’. Because if you’re
rehearsing a classic, you don’t change the writing, but the rehearsal of a
new play needs to have that extra time for cuts, the actors working with
the script, the author realising, ‘this is not working, got to write a new
scene here’… it needs breathing space, and you need to give the author
and the actors the respect to be creatively in control of it.
AE: You provide transitions for me. Does the author tend to be
present during rehearsals in your experience? Because there are two
PK: If an author doesn’t want to go into the rehearsal room and just
hands the text over to the actors and director, I think that’s very brave.
I prefer when the author is there for the first two weeks and then lets
the actors and the director claim the piece for themselves creatively. And
then, two weeks later, the author returns to make final stitches, but there
is a point when they need to get out of the room otherwise they wreck
your head.
AE: In practice, how are productions developed in your experience?
Has there been a visible evolution in the past twenty years?
PK: I suppose the constant is dignity. If the director gets paid, and
the actors get paid, and they are respected, that’s where you see good
work. Going into the rehearsal room in an economic climate that means
you can’t buy your lunch, that affects creativity, even subconsciously. The
lack of big equipment and sets can sometimes be a good thing because it
forces the actors and the director to be more creative. And it forces set
designers (I’m a big fan of them) to be more creative. When we have less
to play with visually, less fuss, that makes us create out of nothing and
that, to me, is pure theatre. It’s nice to go to the theatre in this generation sometimes and to see an opulent set but I don’t think it is necessary
160 A. Etienne and P. Kinevane
and when it’s done too much, it becomes vulgar: it’s using money that
can be used to employ more actors, or more set designers to come up
with more scaled down beautiful ideas. I’m interested in recycling, recycling sets and turning them upside down. I think there’s been a lot of
waste in theatre over the last thirty years. And I still go to the theatre
and see waste: big classic plays with big classic sets, and there’s no need
for that excess, for this set that cost twenty grand. In this day and age,
the creativity of an audience is being numbed, they’re not being allowed
to imagine. Sometimes less is more.
AE: Do you think theatre is populated more and more by devised
work rather than traditional scripts penned by authors?
PK: There certainly is more devised work than there ever was and I
think it’s economic. Young companies don’t have the money to pay a
writer. I think it’s good for the development of collaborative work but
it has to balance itself off. It is important that playwrights are supported
and that the process of commissioning a work and giving the words to
the company is supported. It’s kind of intrinsically Irish as well in overprotecting the author. At the same time it is interesting that a new generation of theatre is developing and perhaps there is more emancipation
in that. Perhaps it emancipates the actor to use their life experiences and
reference in their work.
AE: According to Geoff Gould (whom you know very well since you
toured with Fit-Up), the craft of playwriting is being lost, the essential
Irish drama being rarefied and replaced by the work of theatre-makers.
Would you agree?
PK: I do, and I really respect what Geoff is talking about. But I think
there is room for devised and collaboratively developed work. I do it
myself. I write my own work, and I sit down and change it and devise it
again. I respect people who call themselves theatre-makers today, but I
don’t get it. It’s a new phase, it’s a new role. But I think there’s a danger
with that; it’s almost a dismissal of the delineation of different roles in
the making of theatre. The magic for me is that everybody involved in
putting a performance on stage is part of a team, with everyone having a
precise role to play in bringing the piece of theatre to fruition: it can be
the PR department, the director, the props maker, etc. All that is theatre
AE: But at the centre of theatre, for you, is the text.
PK: Absolutely. Drama for the audience. Maybe it’s just a redefinition
of what was there already but I don’t think it needed to be redefined.
People were making theatre anyway. It’s just a word to me. The director is a theatre-maker, the actors are theatre-makers… So when you call
yourself a theatre-maker, what is your exact role in the process?
AE: Have you witnessed a shift between the amount of collaborative
work and sets-up where the director directs?
PK: I worked at a time which might have been the tail end of it
[working with an authoritative director]. The collaborative process is
really important. I loved working with Jim Culleton for example, who
is a collaborative director. He’s very open, so I use him as an example
of someone who works collaboratively, but he also has strong ideas,
he’s very creative and he will make decisions. Of course we can discuss
stuff and it’s give and take. And this is wonderful. As a younger man,
I worked with directors who are the opposite of that. They were vehemently single-minded, and intimidating to actors. It was a place where
people could get bullied very easily and the actor was like a second-class
citizen in the room. There was a time in the 1990s when the actors’
names were taken off the posters and all that was on the poster was the
director, the lighting designer, and the author. We’ve gone through
those times, thankfully they’re not around any more. Everyone is the
same in the rehearsal room nowadays. But there used to be people who
were aggressive in their direction and who actually stifled the actors. It
was about their vision. At times I remember watching things and being
in productions where we were almost puppets to the director. I think the
change to more collaborative work is important also because actors need
to feel equal to the director and the director needs to feel equal to the
actors, so that everyone is together. Everyone has a dignity and a calmness, rather than a chaos.
AE: Is it something within theatre that has enabled this shift?
PK: I think it’s a reality check. Maybe in the past the author and the
director were revered too much. Maybe it’s a kind of humility that has
come along. Maybe people realised we’re all in this creative experience
together. In any job you have to behave with grace. Maybe it was a generational thing as well, and now there’s no need for shouting and roaring
in the rehearsal room any more.
AE: From the outside it seems that the communal model of companies has collapsed and the actor is more than ever a lonely figure. Is that
a true assumption?
PK: I think so. The sheer factor of being in contact with other actors
regularly and working with other actors regularly—it would be the same
162 A. Etienne and P. Kinevane
in Paris, there would be actors working with the same actors from company to company. One of the greatest losses in the country was the loss
of the Abbey Theatre Company. Other people would disagree with me.
But I think that the Abbey company of actors set an example for other
companies in Ireland and abroad. It bonded a troupe together. It made
the ensemble learn from each other. It also set up a familiarity: talking about rehearsal theories, if you’re with actors that you know and
you admire, it can shortcut rehearsal periods because you already know
this person. It is good to have fresh blood in there all the time and to
have new actors coming in, but I think the whole idea of ensemble is
exactly that, this togetherness: it’s a collective that empowers the actor.
It’s also a networking power because you tell each other of auditions
and other trade news. And all this has gone now, and I think it’s purely
economic, because of cutbacks. I think it’s to do with lack of awareness
from particular sections of the Arts Council: they don’t fully understand
the importance of a community of actors. The director has always been
out there, alone, same with set designers and sound—even though they
might have a guild … But the actors are pack creatures, they need to
feel a sense of security around them, and when they have this sense of
security they work at their best. I work by myself now, and have for the
last ten years, but I have no regrets because I worked in ensemble theatre for years. I had that experience, and I miss it sometimes. For actors
it is important to feel protected by an ensemble, to be encouraged by
an ensemble, to learn from an ensemble. It’s sad if they’re denied this
grounding, supportive, nurturing experience and this unique apprenticeship that allows you time to work your way toward bigger roles. You
learn to be patient and very humble. I think directors need to be humble
too. It’s important that the ego does not come in front of the work. Jim
Culleton has no ego; he’s an extraordinary man to watch and work with.
AE: Many actors turn to writing, directing or producing at times,
rather than sitting by the phone waiting for a call. Did you start writing
because of that oppressive factor or because no one else was writing the
type of theatre which you wanted to perform?
PK: It was a mixture of those things. One impetus was that I wanted
to say something about societal issues, for instance the care of the elderly
in Ireland [in his first play, Forgotten, first produced in 2006]. At the
same time, I had worked with a commercial theatre on a show, and I saw
what money and greed could do. I gave it a try but realised that I was
not interested in theatre like that. I’m interested in theatre that respects
everybody and that is done for the right reasons. When commercial theatre is done right, it’s wonderful, but I also wanted to challenge myself
and to be able to try things I had never done before.
AE: Writing?
PK: Writing; and also character-wise, performance-wise, to push the
boundaries of what I could do before I got too old. Because I was nearly
forty and I knew there would come a time when I wouldn’t be able to
perform physically and I had one chance to do it. So it was a combination of all that. And I’m glad I was frustrated with commercial theatre,
and with myself, that I was at an impasse. Because it was the right time,
and either it would work or not, but I became fearless about it. I didn’t
care, I just had to do it.
AE: Fear is a recurring concept, it seems. A theatre director recently
said that at one point he started to work with fear, due to the economic
climate, and it negatively affected his creativity.
PK: Yes, it’s very interesting, isn’t it? In my case, Jim [Culleton] was
really supportive of me, and Fishamble was really supportive of me, so I
didn’t feel completely exposed and I was able to be fearless. I had people
around me. I could be abandoned in my creativity but I always felt protected. In all forms of theatre it’s important that people are aware of how
delicate the creative process can be. This delicacy needs to be protected:
it’s like before a flower blooms, you protect the flower, you keep it at the
right temperature; but if you change it and you expose it too much, it’s
not going to flower, it’s not going to give you colour or beauty, it will
remain closed. There’s nothing more frustrating than just a bud. And
that’s to do with care and consideration. I have been lucky to work with
beautiful directors and beautiful actors through the years.
AE: For Underneath in particular, you wanted to work with a dancer,
Emma O’Kane.
PK: Yes, I had seen her work and I started talking to her four years
ago in Edinburgh. I wanted to work with a female choreographer
because of the gender of the character but also because her work has a
particular strength and definition, a beauty which I had always admired.
It’s another example of paths crossing and leading to a collaboration.
She was the right person to work with on that play.
AE: Writing your own roles, similarly to Donal O’Kelly, would you
say that this blending of professional boundaries is specific to Ireland?
Is it a strength, or do you think it affects recognition as an actor or as a
164 A. Etienne and P. Kinevane
PK: I remember a time when that wasn’t welcome at all, to the
point of snobbery. About twenty years ago, there wasn’t this crossing
of boundaries. Maybe the people who didn’t welcome it were insecure,
and they did not accept people who were multitasking for fear that they
would be replaced. I also thought there should be cross-skills, that all
artists should be able to experiment if they could do it. I think it’s really
important that that continues, that actors are welcome as directors or
writers, and directors as actors or composers, that a stage manager may
end up playing the lead in the show.
AE: Is this blurring of roles what defines Irish theatre nowadays?
PK: I think it needs to blur even more. Because it is a relatively recent
development. There were rigid structures, with people in precise roles,
and more and more the new generation of theatre practitioners is shaking it up. Also the system needs to change with the economics, and the
possibilities are endless for rejuvenating theatre: it will make it for everybody and not just an elite set of the arts. It will also make it more accessible to young people. With creativity and flexibility, you create work that
is almost pop-up.
Author Biography
Pat Kinevane has worked as a professional actor for thirty years, performing in plays by Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Tom MacIntyre, Marina Carr, Frank
McGuinness, and Michael West. Following The Nun’s Wood (1998), he has pursued his collaboration with Fishamble and director Jim Culleton with his solo
pieces Forgotten (2006), Silent (2011), and Underneath (2014), which garnered wide acclaim throughout Europe and in New York, and an Olivier Award
(2016). His plays explore the underbelly of society, the uncomfortable places
where we’d rather not look, lending his physicality to give body and voice to
those ‘forgotten’ people we might prefer to ignore.
Interview with Mark O’Rowe
Thierry Dubost, Anne Etienne and Mark O’Rowe
Thierry Dubost: The starting point of our reflection on contemporary
Irish theatre was Tom Kilroy’s statement: ‘We write plays to populate a
stage.’ Before coming to this specific aspect of your work as a playwright,
could you tell us why you started writing for the stage?
Mark O’Rowe: For practical reasons, really. For a long time, I wanted
to write, and at some point in my mid-to-late twenties I decided it was
about time I got on with it. I thought about trying a novel, but didn’t
think I had the vocabulary or the stamina required. I thought about writing
a film, but there were very few being made here, so the chance of having a
script produced seemed very small. I thought, then, that if I wrote a play, at
the very least, if nobody else wanted to do it, I could put it on myself. Or,
failing that, it could exist as a piece of literature, something that might have
T. Dubost (*) 
University of Caen Normandie, Caen, France
e-mail: thierry.dubost@unicaen.f
A. Etienne 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
M. O’Rowe 
Dublin, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_13
value simply in the reading. Theatre was the form I had least interest in at
the time, but it seemed like something I might be able to achieve.
TD: But now things have changed, so how would you define yourself
as a playwright?
MOR: That’s a tough one. That original impulse probably still
applies, the desire to create something literary. This is probably why I
write so many monologues, I suppose—although I’m not sure that’s
quite true either, since, in more recent years, I have been gravitating a
little more toward more dialogue-based plays. I’ve always enjoyed writing fantastical, larger-than-life stories. I suppose the challenge is that
these events and characters and environments must be made to come
alive through language more than anything else, but, when it works, it
can be very gratifying.
Anne Etienne: Are there other types of theatre that you are tempted
to explore in your future work? 
MOR: I never plan ahead in that way. The play I’m working on at the
moment, for example, is a departure of sorts in several ways, but this is
only because, again, a new form has been necessary to serve its particular
idea, and the idea, I believe, must always come first. I know in the future
I’ll explore other forms, but for me, to decide up front what they’ll be
would be a little like putting the cart before the horse.
TD: I see. You write plays, but you are also a screenwriter. How do you
make choices between writing for the stage and writing for the screen?
MOR: Do you mean in the actual work in terms of deciding what I’m
going to take on next?
TD: We could put it another way. Do you want to investigate different fields when you are writing for the screen for instance?
MOR: I’ve written some scripts for film that were made and some
that weren’t. Some were adaptations, which I did for the money, and
others were originals, which I did for myself. Cinema suits certain types
of stories better than theatre does, so if an idea feels like it’d be better
served in that form, then that’s how I’ll write it.
TD: Like any artist, I guess you have been influenced by other playwrights. Would you care to mention them and tell us why they were (or
still are) important for you?
MOR: Novelists, I suppose, had a greater influence on me starting out
than playwrights. James Ellroy was a big one in terms of his pared-down
style of writing. There was a lot of plot in his novels, and so he had to
devise a dense, economic style in order to keep his page count under control. I found that way of thinking translated very well to my monologue
plays because, of course, in a theatre, you’re limited by how long an audience will stay in their seats. Elmore Leonard was another American writer
I adored (and still do). Again, it’s about economy, though in a slightly different way, and his style really is the most satisfyingly fluid and rhythmic
I’ve come across. Plot is less important here, but you can read his books
over and over simply for the pleasure of the writing itself. Anyway, there
was Ellroy, Leonard, then there was Cormac McCarthy. In terms of subject matter, he was dealing in very dark and violent stories, as I often like
to do. And again, the language; biblical and purposeful and completely
transfixing. In terms of playwrights, the ones who inspired me starting out
were those who used the least amount of words, like Pinter and Mamet,
and through them, of course, I discovered Beckett. All three dealt in musicality and silence and repetition, elements I responded to very strongly.
Then there were Beckett’s novels, which felt very much like they created
their own world, and again, the paring down, the repetition, the music.
TD: Yes, he mentioned a syntax of lessness. This is the background,
the novelists and the playwrights. Now, let’s focus on you as an Irish
playwright. In a TLS interview, Brian Friel once said that ‘Irish drama
[was] concerned primarily with defining the nature of its Irishness.’ Is
this outlook still relevant for you today? 
MOR: Do you mean relevant for myself or for the playwright?
TD: Both.
MOR: No, it was never relevant for me. I grew up as part of a television generation, I suppose. The culture we were exposed to came from
abroad, from the UK or America. There are Irish novelists and playwrights I have read since I became a writer, and who are incredible, but I
discovered them too late to be influenced in any way by them. And, yes,
many are very concerned with the nature of Irishness, but that’s a subject I’ve never been interested in exploring.
TD: Your work is occasionally defined as violent. Do you view this as
a reflection of contemporary Irish society? 
MOR: Again, no. My stories take place in a kind of hyper-real territory, and the area I’m writing in … it’s a tough question to answer,
actually. For me, the use of violence is more about its possibilities as an
element of drama or storytelling, rather than needing to comment on it
or to explore it. It’s also a taste thing, I suppose—these are the kinds of
stories I like to tell, just as another writer might like to write a comedy
or a piece of social realism or a musical. My plays were never designed
to reflect contemporary Irish society, and if they have in places (which I
doubt), it’s never been intentional.
TD: Let’s move from Ireland to the rest of the world. Is there a difference
for you between putting up a play in Ireland or in another country?
MOR: Well, seeing your work done in a country which might have
a very different idea of what theatre is and how a piece should be
approached can sometimes be dismaying. You just have to grit your teeth
and say, ‘Well, I suppose that’s the way they do it there.’
TD: Could you elaborate on ‘dismaying’?
MOR: Theatre in certain countries is so much more director-led,
which means a show always has to be about a concept or series of concepts which have precious little to do with your play. So, when what
you’ve written requires an actor to stand on a stage and tell a story,
and then you go see it, and it’s full of flourishes and ‘ideas’ and distractions, that’s dismaying, because, instead of the emotional and intellectual
power of the play being communicated to an audience, the only thing
that’s communicated is the director’s need to draw attention to himself.
TD: So, what do you expect from a director?
MOR: To serve the script and to mind the story for what it contains
and to help the actors to make that story as clear as it can be. Not to
add video projection! Having directed a couple of times myself, I’ve
found, working with actors, set designers, whoever else, that theatre is
at its greatest when it’s completely collaborative and there’s no one person trying to impose some element that will shine a light on them rather
than on the work. And by the work, I don’t mean the script, but the end
result, the show that the audience will be paying to see.
TD: You mentioned actors, what is your relationship to them?
MOR: For certain actors, every role they play is life or death, and
these, obviously, are the ones you want to work with. I believe, in
rehearsal, that the actor should have as much freedom as possible to
discover and develop a character and that this results in a more truthful
and spontaneous performance. But alongside this, the piece’s technical
demands have to be met; the rigorous drilling of its cues and rhythms,
which, at least in my work, are always very specific and demanding. This
is the dullest, least enjoyable or creative part of the rehearsal process, but
it’s very important to the play’s working, so I expect the actors to work
just as hard on it.
TD: We mentioned the creative part of theatre, now what about critics
at the receiving end?
MOR: We have a weak culture of criticism at the moment. This is
probably down to the limited space given to critics, particularly of
theatre, in newspapers and magazines. The internet has taken up the
slack a bit on that, but even there, proper criticism is extremely rare. It
can be depressing sometimes when a piece of theatre full of detail and
meaning and complexity is engaged with only the most cursory, superficial level—you end up feeling that these two disciplines which should be
mutually nourishing, have no relationship whatsoever to one another.
TD: I’d like to speak about Hedda Gabler. With his adaptation of The
Seagull, Tom Kilroy initiated a new trend in Irish theatre: adaptations
of foreign works rejecting traditional English aesthetic frames. With your
adaptation of Hedda Gabler at the Abbey, why did you choose to follow
your elders on this path? 
MOR: I’d been talking to Annabelle Comyn, the director, about
doing something together. I liked her work and we were originally going
to do a remount of an older play of mine, Crestfall, but we weren’t able
to get it on, so we decided to look at maybe doing an adaptation of
something. I’m a big fan of Ibsen and I decided I’d like to see Hedda
Gabler written in a way that felt a little more fluid perhaps, or naturalistic, than it normally does, though without updating it to a contemporary
setting, if that makes any sense.
TD: It does. You are following the same path as Tom Kilroy in terms
of trying to redefine an aesthetic so that it would fit within your frame.
MOR: That’s right. Although, for me, that process is mostly instinctive. Apart from what I’ve just said about dialogue, I never made any
decisions beforehand about trying to present it from this or that particular angle.
TD: Well, I’ve published a book on theatre adaptations in Ireland,
and it’s a trend. Most Irish playwrights resort to adaptations, which is
positive in some ways. At the same time, you have to be cautious because
if you provide the type of adaptation that the public wants to have, then
you are moving away from the foreign outlook of the plays. But this was
not what Tom Kilroy was addressing when he first adapted The Seagull,
and this is not what you are addressing through your new aesthetic
MOR: I suppose. One factor we should also consider, though, is
money. This project sounded like a job I would be paid for, but which
would take far less time to complete than an original piece. The most
difficult elements of playwriting, I believe, the ones which take the
most time, are plot and structure. With a play like Hedda Gabler, those
elements are already in place, so an adaptation takes far less time to
complete than an original piece and is attractive for that reason above
many others. Although I can only speak for myself here.
TD: Your reading of Ibsen is based on a translation since you don’t
have access to the original, hence the need to update translations.
MOR: I know certain writers very much value the idea of nailing
all the local details and nuances of the original, but that’s not quite as
important to me as allowing the play to flow in a way that feels dramatically alive and coherent. Channeling it through my own inner voice or
creative inclinations so that it remains respectful to Ibsen but also contains something of myself.
AE: Why Hedda, the female character considered anachronistic even at
the time: is it a plea towards recognising the rights of women in Ireland, a
warning towards the dangers of societal pressure and conformity?
MOR: I think it’s more than that. She’s such a mass of contradictory needs and impulses. She wants the standing society has to offer and
yet is suffocated by it; she desires certain men and yet seems repulsed by
the idea of sex; she wants to break free of marriage and forge her own
path, but is terrified of what people will say about her if she does. Where
Hedda differs from, say, Nora in A Doll’s House is that Nora’s goals and
obstacles are quite clear to us, or at least become so over the course of
the play, and her psychological journey follows quite a linear trajectory.
Hedda has twin sets of obstacles: the constraints of society and her own
self-confounding pathology. And it is the combination of both which
makes her unpredictable and dangerous, both to herself and others, and
which ultimately closes off all options to her but suicide.
AE: I see. I’d like to move to a very different question. At a time
when the directorship of the Abbey is changing, thereby renewing scrutiny on the institution, what do you think is the role of the National
Theatre in the twenty-first century?
MOR: I’d like to see more new plays, I suppose. Although if there
aren’t many out there, then there isn’t much you can do. People talk
about the National Theatre’s responsibility to engage with contemporary
issues, etc., but I’m not quite sure I agree: I believe its responsibility,
or at least its prime objective (and I would say this of any institution),
should be to provide us, its audience, with as many unforgettable, transformative theatrical experiences as it possibly can. For me, anything else
is secondary.
AE: Has the economic rollercoaster from the Celtic Tiger to the current crisis affected your work?
MOR: I never made that much money when things were great, and
that didn’t really change when things went bad. So, no.
AE: In terms of sex and in view of your working in both film and
theatre, do you find yourself limited on stage by technical aspects and
decorum but free to explore on film?
MOR: No, it’s quite the opposite, actually. I’ve always found more
freedom on stage than on film. I’m not crazy about sex in film anyway. Unless is has a function in terms of character or plot, it’s boring. It
works, I feel, even less well on stage because an audience is always worried about the actors, whether they’re embarrassed or whatever, and so
you’re taken somewhat out of the world of the play in these moments.
I suppose it might work a bit better in monologue plays, since, as with
literature, we have the distancing effect of language.
AE: Have you ever experienced a form of censorship (self-censorship
MOR: I’ve occasionally been bullied and overruled in film by producers and development people in the name of dumbing-down, but no, I’ve
never had content censored in the traditional sense of the word. There’s
a greater respect for the writer in theatre, so naturally it hasn’t happened
there either.
TD: You’ve never been censored, but you’ve talked about self-censorship before. Now you say that you’ve never been censored as a playwright when you brought your script and it was produced on stage. Is
that what you’re saying?
MOR: Yes, or by someone telling me, ‘We won’t produce this unless
you change it.’ Also, you could argue that the creative act itself is full of
self-censorship—although that phrasing isn’t quite correct. It’s more a
search for the right tone from moment to moment in service of the play
itself. I’ve cut elements from plays because they went too far within the
context of the piece, but never because I felt people might be offended
by them.
TD: Yes, it’s style, aesthetics. Basically, you don’t want to be waylaid
into avenues that are easy.
MOR: Absolutely.
AE: Howie the Rookie was originally written for two actors but became
a one-hander with the performance of Tom Vaughan-Lawler.
MOR: One common misunderstanding is that I altered the script to
make it work for a single actor, but this wasn’t the case. Apart from a
couple of tiny tweaks, it remains the same play. We were originally going
to do it with two actors, but you need a particular dynamic between
them and I couldn’t find anyone who would complement Tom in that
way. So I thought, what if he just did the whole thing himself? A big
question in rehearsal was: should he give two physically very different
performances, with different sets of mannerisms, etc.? But we realised
that, if we allowed both characters to remain obviously the single performer, then the story itself would differentiate the two and flesh them
out. This is not to say that Tom didn’t bring incredibly detailed psychological and emotional subtleties to his performance—he did—but these
were played moment to moment, and through the drama rather than a
broader, more physical set of choices. The overall idea, I suppose, was
that if the performer had an honest and uncomplicated relationship with
them, then the audience would actively imagine whatever he suggested
to them. And they did. I have to add that working with Tom was one
of the nicest experiences I’ve had in theatre. He’s a wonderful actor and
a gentleman and a true collaborator. Can I also say that that play works
equally well with two actors!
AE: Is the monologue replaced nowadays by the monodrama as
Wesker calls it, or plays for one actor (e.g. Mikel Murfi’s The Man in the
Woman’s Shoes; Donal O’Kelly’s Catalpa; Carmel Winters’s Witness)? Do
you include yourself in this move?
MOR: No, I’m definitely a monologue playwright. I enjoy monodrama—I’ve seen two of the plays you mentioned, Catalpa and Witness,
and enjoyed both of them very much. I think it’s a far more theatrical
form than the monologue and that much of the pleasure comes from
seeing the mechanics and the virtuosity with which an actor can take
on and seem to become multiple characters, and how stagecraft can be
used to create actual pictures using lighting or props or the actor’s own
physicality. It requires great theatrical inventiveness, I’d imagine. The
monologue seems simpler in many ways. In the end, whatever form the
language takes, it’s just storytelling really.
TD: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MOR: No. I’m sorry I can’t give you better informed views on my
own work. Even retrospectively it’s difficult to articulate exactly what I
think about it. And my relationship to it is constantly changing too, I
suppose, so none of these answers can ever really be definitive. One of
the great joys of creativity for me is the process of discovery, the moving
forward, almost blindly, into the unknown. You never really know where
you’re going, and nor should you want to really.
Author Biography
Mark O’Rowe is an internationally acclaimed Irish author who writes for the
stage and for cinema. His first success came with Howie the Rookie in 1999. His
plays include Terminus, Made in China, Crestfall, From Both Hips, and recently
for the Abbey Theatre an adaptation of Hedda Gabler as well as Our Few and
Evil Days.
Enda Walsh, in Conversation with Ger
Ger FitzGibbon and Enda Walsh
Although he is now approaching the age of fifty, there is something
incredibly youthful about Enda Walsh, something that refuses to age.
This is evident in his personal energy, his enthusiasm for work, his willingness to explore new writing possibilities. Within the last few years his
work has embraced everything from a children’s play (The Twits) to the
most challenging opera (The Last Hotel); from scripting an award-winning screenplay (Hunger) to creating actorless installations (Room 303).
More than anything else, his work is distinguished by the energy that
radiates from the stage. And yet it is nearly thirty years since he wrote
his first plays, Insipid and Shades of Havilla, for Dublin Youth Theatre,
of which he was a member at the time. A small note here may be useful. While in the last twenty years Ireland has seen a huge increase in the
phenomenon of youth theatres (professionally-led clubs or organisations
that encourage young people to use drama and theatre as a means of
personal and social development), at the time when Enda Walsh joined
Dublin Youth Theatre, these were few and far between. What is more,
G. FitzGibbon (*) 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
E. Walsh 
London, UK
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_14
the more ambitious and visionary youth theatres, such as DYT, supplied
not just a social outlet but also a significant early training for young people interested in becoming theatre professionals. I mention this to make
clear that scripting a play for DYT could be challenging, facing the scrutiny of both the young membership and the professional leadership who
had high expectations for the project.
By his own admission, his passion for writing was ignited during his
schooldays by the presence of three teachers, each of whom would go
on to establish a substantial reputation later. The teachers were Roddy
Doyle (who later moved from plays to novels), Brendan Gleeson (who
became one of the most famous Irish actors of his generation), and Paul
Mercier (a playwright and director who became the leading energy in
establishing The Passion Machine, a radical, political theatre company on
the Northside of Dublin).
Having ‘graduated’ from DYT, Enda moved to Cork to take up a
contract with Graffiti Theatre Company, working on Roger Gregg’s
script The Dogs of Chullain. This was a theatre-in-education piece in the
classic mould and Enda got on extremely well with the company. He
wrote his first commissioned play for them, Fishy Tales, a play for very
young audiences, notionally performed inside a giant fish.
While in Cork, he teamed up with a young director Pat Kiernan and
Corcadorca Theatre Company and it was with Corcadorca that his career
was to take its first great leap forward. As he worked with Pat Kiernan,
developing adaptations based on Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and
Dickens’s Christmas Carol, as well as performing established stage texts,
two significant shifts in his theatre took place. One was the emergence
of a very strong commitment to creating theatre in unexpected locations—The Clockwork Orange in a local nightclub called ‘Sir Henry’s’,
for instance. The other was his exposure to the work of English playwright Steven Berkoff. His early work with Corcadorca on adapting and
developing scripts for performance undoubtedly gave him a context and
a way of working not often available to budding playwrights. This gave
rise to The Ginger Ale Boy and, soon after, to Disco Pigs. It was this latter
play that launched Enda Walsh as a powerful and distinctive voice on the
Irish theatre scene and eventually gave him enough coverage to establish
himself internally as a playwright. I met Enda at his home in Kilburn,
London. We spoke initially about his DYT experience and then about
Corcadorca and Disco Pigs.
Corcadorca and Disco Pigs
GF: You’ve said you wrote The Ginger Ale Boy as a response to the needs
of the Corcadorca group, incorporating elements for everyone in the
company, and I know that around this time you also appeared in Steven
Berkoff’s Greek. Where did Disco Pigs spring from and do you think
Berkoff’s style had an influence on it?
EW: I knew what we wanted to do and, like many young writers,
my first ‘in’ into work was just through words, trying to invigorate the
words. I tried to find a language first, a language that was robust. In
hindsight it feels really easy to do that, but you don’t know what you’re
doing there initially. The work of Berkoff is really naive and cartoonish,
a bit stupid and thin, and masculine and show-offy [but] as a young man
you’re attracted to that. And also, you think, ‘I can do that; that seems
something manageable.’ And I was into poetry and so on. I was into
rock music and various types of indie music and all that type of thing.
And you think ‘actually, I understand language rhythmically; I can plug
myself into that.’ So I can see all that early work, and also our life-style,
having a complete impact on that piece.
GF: I find Disco Pigs quite distinctive. Pig and Runt in Disco Pigs seem
quite different from virtually all the other characters you’ve written and
the play seems to me to have quite a strong political dimension.
EW: It might do, alright. It wasn’t until I was working on Once that
I thought ‘God, this is the same as Disco Pigs!’—exactly the same bittersweet love story and the same form. The tonality of it might be different
but in terms of trajectory and general arc, it’s exactly the same as every
play I’ve written. It’s all about characters constructing something and
then characters leaving the construction, whatever that is. That’s a recurring thing. But in terms of its political-ness, I wasn’t aware of that until it
started working internationally, in various translations, and people really
found that, and sensed that … but it certainly wasn’t intentional. It did
capture something of that Northside Cork thing. And the IRA.
For me, it was a blessing, arriving down there with Em [Emelie
FitzGibbon, artistic director of Graffiti, who had cast Enda in The Dogs
of Chullain, by Roger Gregg] and stepping into the city and going ‘how
people talk like this!’ It shocked me. And also, looking at the geography
of the city, and the shape of it, I kept on thinking this is a gift for a playwright. It feels like there’s a lot of pressure in the very centre of it, and
it’s very beautiful, and feels like an amphitheatre. And in terms of what
is ‘up there’ [a large working-class area on a hill to the North of the city
centre], the roughness and the edge of it. I lucked out I think. I would
have become a writer in Dublin, of course, but it was just so fortunate
that part of the journey of becoming a writer was completely stepping
outside of myself and my voice and going ‘oh, I can write in this dialect.’ I was obsessed with the size of the city and the shape of it and,
without even referring to that, I can sense sometimes that it’s there, that
the characters are being affected by environment, being shaped. Initially
when I was writing it I felt I was getting real enjoyment from writing
those words. But actually, the way it hit the air [in performance] I was
getting more enjoyment because I sensed the audience were only understanding maybe thirty per cent of it. And I was thinking ‘this is much
more interesting than what I’ve written, because now actually they’re
understanding the subtext.’ And also, their ears are fighting with their
brains and they are going ‘I cannot compute this.’ And that is a much
more interesting thing than me turning a phrase. The bigger thing—
that is actually something I’m constantly coming back to—is that I’m
constantly going ‘oh god, I’m tied into these words’ and the words can
be a terribly literal thing, while the only thing I’m interested in, and all
writers are interested in, is sub-text. It’s trying, actually, to charge the
Family of Characters
GF: Reading the plays together, it seems there are family resemblances
between different characters. I’m not asking you to say whether any of
these derive from your own family but do you have a sense of a gallery
of characters? Do you think your characters talk to each other across the
EW: They do. I’m not actually conscious of that until after the
event, whether that just means I’m really thin on content, or whether
there’s something in that—that you’re dealing with some echo chamber
in your head. At its best you allow the work to write itself initially and
then you go back and craft it. But there’s so much of my family and my
extended family, my aunts and my uncles [in the work], and lately there’s
been quite a lot of Ada, my ten-year old daughter, that has crept into
the work. She made an appearance at the end of Ballyturk and now in
the new Bowie piece is central to it [the musical Walsh has worked on,
Lazarus, based on The Man Who Fell to Earth]. Now, I’m not conscious
of that, but I suppose part of it is that you do resource yourself from
your history, and it is what you know. And if I close my eyes and think of
the work, I can sense trips to Loughshinny, and sitting in my dad’s shop,
and what it is to sit around a table in our house.
I’m not interested in writing directly about that. It’s never that. But
I know that those impulses and those smells and that sense of it really
do creep up on me. Bedbound is probably the most autobiographical
piece and yet people would go ‘What? [laughing] Your dad’s a fucking
murderer?’ And yet, when my brothers went to see that they just pissed
themselves laughing because they understood every joke in there and
every character in that. My Dad read it, and roared laughing. He died
in the first week of rehearsals. I gave it to him just before rehearsals—he
was a very sick man—but he read and he got it. [I was saying] ‘Look.
I’ve just done something incredibly exaggerated, but the reason why I’ve
done it is that I wanted to get to a piece of truth, a real moment of
truth, but I’ve had to completely make grotesqueries out of not just the
situation they’re in but these characters and the way they talk.’ To me all
it was about was me reconciling with my Dad and that we didn’t completely hate one another.
GF: Had you had a very difficult relationship?
EW: No, not at all. But I remember in my early twenties I went
through four or five years when I know he really didn’t like me and I
thought he was an asshole. And then we reached a moment where
we were suddenly contemporaries. And then we became friends and I
wanted to acknowledge it with a play.
GF: Speaking about family connections, can I ask you about The
Small Things. It’s a nightmarish piece, and I was astonished when I read
your comment that this was really about your mother and father.
EW: It was, yes, it was. It’s like a real twisted fairytale. When I look
at it I think ‘I have no idea where that came from.’ I know at that time
there were many, many wars going on. The initial impulse was I wanted
to write a piece about the last two people who are left talking and the
idea that the last word is ‘yes’ is a very positive thing, and very beautiful. But as I started writing it I thought ‘actually, I’m writing about
my Dad, who is now dead, and my Mom who is keeping him alive’….
That to me is beautiful, when a person will allow themselves to do that.
It’s not a madness, it’s reaching out and trying to connect with someone and feeling that connection. But the actual content of it, of course,
is completely nightmarish and to this day I will read it and think ‘this is
horrible. Who’s this chip-shop man, this man who’s doing all that, and
the dad with the cornflakes?’
GF: Is it like the political surrealism of an earlier period, which is mad
in one way but whose logic is hideously recognisable, the logic of ISIS?
EW: Yes. It comes from a place of just wanting to completely understand something. Even before forcing an order on something, the idea of
wanting to understand everything. Whoa! It’s completely unachievable
and yet you watch that person go about it.
GF: To move to more recent work, tell me about Ballyturk and My
Friend Duplicity. There seems to be a genetic connection between those
EW: I think there is a genetic connection there, but what is the connection? It’s almost willing imagination to win.
GF: And about being a writer?
EW: My Friend is completely about being a writer, without a doubt.
Ballyturk does have that too but for me it’s just a much more personal thing. I think of it as being a really positive play. [It’s about] facing death, and understanding death, watching Cillian’s character going
‘actually, I can really value every second, I can value those twelve steps
towards the outside, and know that I’m going to die when I reach the
twelfth step.’ I wanted to write that, and wanted to impart a little bit of
that to Ada, that idea. And yet, knowing that death is final. Working on
Ballyturk, the thing that I said to the guys again and again was … that
that room is just life. That’s all it is. We’re just harvesting children: it’s
like we’re just growing them, we’re keeping them, we’re holding them
and then we’re telling them we’re going to die—and let me die. And
then another child comes in and we hold them, we entertain them, we
sometimes get fit, we eat, we go to sleep, we talk shit to one another, we
talk about five-legged bunnies, we entertain ourselves and our obsession
with voices on either side of us, the community on either side of us, all
this type of thing. That’s all it ever was to me. It was only ever a meditation on that.
I wasn’t particularly interested in telling the story of it. And that was
a step forward for me, that play. I’m putting a lot of it out there but
I’m saying to the audience you are part of the discussion on what this
piece ultimately is about. It needs to be that open so that it can have
many interpretations for people. It frustrated the shit out of some people, because they were going ‘no, it’s too bleak, what are you saying?
Do you not know what you’re saying?’ So my response—which is really
irritating to people—is ‘I’ve got my version of it but I’m not going to
impose it on you. It seems terrible to do that.’ I don’t think it’s the job
of the playwright to say ‘this is what the piece is about.’
GF: Did this discussion focus on the appearance of the child at the
end? Some people seemed to see that as a new beginning and some people regarded it with horror.
EW: Yeah. We talked about it ourselves. There is a slight horror to it
and at the same time there is a continuation, there is a new life coming in
and there’s going to be other things, other stories. I mean, it’s that cycle.
It’s shocking, but it’s the exhausting cycle, but wonder, of living.
GF: I was very struck by the figure of Death in the play, and Stephen
Rea’s performance, which was so unpleasant and seductive at the same
EW: The character needed to be like [that]. I would say to all of
them, ‘listen, I’ve got no interest in back-story, I’ve no interest in who
these people are. I don’t think an audience see that. The audience just
see the second and that’s the important thing. If you want your backstory on stage then fucking put it on stage. So, I don’t want to talk
about any of that.’ It was great. The one thing I said to Stephen was to
me this is just a man that’s doing a job and imparting information. It’s
that, that character. I was conscious of [people saying] … it’s Godot, or
it’s God, or it’s Consciousness, or it’s Death. It’s all of those things and
yet, I always go back to my own dad and I just think I’m writing about
him all the time. I think it’s a man turning around to me to explain to
me, ‘look, people die. You need to understand.’ Seeing my grandmother
die, I was shocked at that. So, it needs to be a real thing. You can’t play
ideas, and yet an audience might see it as an idea. That was the great
thing about Stephen. He understood that. That this was a guy who
wasn’t going into mass, he was just standing around with a cigarette.
Directing, Rehearsal Process, Working with Actors
GF: Not content with writing so much, you are now directing your work
as well.
EW: Lately, more and more, I really enjoy directing. I don’t know
whether I’m any good at it, but people seem to be really enjoying their
time in the rehearsal room and come out of it happy with their work.
And I understand the work, ultimately. When I finish writing it I’ve got
an instinctive understanding of it but it’s not until I’m in the rehearsal
room that I add a rigour to it and present it and find levels to it.
GF: Don’t you miss the rehearsal room challenge of having another
director interrogating the work?
EW: Yeah, but Mikel Murfi—when I’m in the rehearsal room with
him, and I’ve worked on a lot of those pieces with him, and I begin to
doubt something, and I’m scratching my head—Mikel’s really good
at going ‘trust yourself, give yourself a little bit of time, you have this,
you have the instinct of when you wrote it and you just need to find
that again.’ When I’m in the room with a director? I love collaboration but there are times—it’s only happened a couple of times—where
I’ve changed things and I really regret changing them and really what I
should have done was say ‘no, I’m not going to change it and you’re just
going to have to work it out.’ But that will never happen again.
GF: So is this all about control?
EW: It is. I just need to see things through. And you need to fight
your corner, and you need to go ‘you know what? I’m right, I know I’m
right, this is why I’m right.’
GF: Are you protective of the script afterwards? If I wanted to do an
all-female version of Disco Pigs on ice, you wouldn’t mind?
EW: I don’t mind that. I really care, of course, about the first outing
but once it’s out, it’s out, and I really don’t care. There are many versions [of Disco Pigs], dance versions and so on, loads of things. I don’t
think I am a complete control freak. I’m really good at going into the
room and going ‘the room is going to direct this; I have no answers.’ I
arrive completely unprepared; I have nothing to say. I do believe in process. I believe that in time the people in the room will collectively find it.
And yet, the bottom line is that I’m going to have to call it.
GF: Do you go in with a complete set in your head?
EW: I come in with the set. The set is done. The last three now—the
opera and Misterman and Ballyturk—were the same design team, and
that’s really helped me.
GF: Right from the beginning, from Disco Pigs through to Ballyturk
and beyond, you seem to enjoy putting actors under pressure, giving
them huge challenges.
EW: Yeah, I do. I think it’s something really inherent, that we see as
an audience, sitting there, watching an actor going through what they’re
going through: this memorisation, this ritual thing that we’re aware of:
that every night they’re up there, they’re doing something physical, and
they’re emoting on our behalf, and they’re bringing us on this journey,
creating character out of nothing and story out of thin air … And I feel
I need to push that: I need to feel they’re really, really alive; that there
is the possibility that they are going to completely forget all these lines;
that they’re going to turn and twist an ankle or break a leg; that physically it’s a dangerous place to be; that the environment is hard. When
we worked on Misterman that was our big note to ourselves. We have
to feel that Cillian [Murphy] is really, really going to hurt himself at any
one time. And that’s something that feels so dangerous to an audience,
it’s an added element to it, and they care for him. It’s outside of the
character. He’s an actor on stage and he’s going to be really hurt. He’s
working incredibly hard and he’s going to get no prize at the end of it.
He’s going to be battered and bruised. I’ve always had that [impulse].
With someone like him and Mikel Murfi—these are my two closest
friends—they both, thank God, really respond to that work. It’s like that
scene in Ballyturk when the guys have just been told [about death] by
Stephen. Stephen walks out, the wall goes back up and they start exercising because it’s impossible to process that. What they need to do is
they need to exhaust their bodies, they need to be completely broken
and exhausted, so they can begin to talk. There’s that and there’s always
been that.
Audience, Information and Story-Telling
GF: You seem to think about your audience quite a bit.
EW: I don’t know, to be honest. What’s happening lately, Ger, is that
I can sense an audience craving information and I’m holding it back
later and later and later in the work. I’ve always been aware that ‘oh,
I need to begin to tell them’ and yet the strain between that [craving]
and that [telling] has always really interested me—what they’re thinking
and the frustration they’re feeling. So I’m aware of the frustration and
the hunger. And also, people know this of my work, that I love work
that is really kinetic, so the work is very theatrical and it’s very [explosive
sound]. You’re not just sitting down watching. It’s big and it’s fast. I
adore movement and sound and the shape of things—quietness hitting
like [smack of hand] fast aggressive movement—hitting one another.
I’m conscious that I am entertaining them but in entertaining them I’m
bringing them deeper and deeper into a world whereby they’re now in a
world and are surrounded by something that is really kinetic but is giving them no information. And then I’m conscious of telling them some
information. But also, lately, I’m thinking I’m not interested in stories.
I have some interest in it but all I’m doing is trying to get them to get
I listen to music all the time and you have a deep experience of listening to music and you’re just in it and I think ‘oh god, can I not do that?’
Can I not just do that with the work, so you feel surrounded by a constructed world, and a language, and a way, and a logic that’s completely
outside but feels familiar to us, and mixes the abstract with something
really banal and everyday, so we’re in a world that is slightly elevated
from ours but underneath that is still connected to the world in some
way? Once they [the audience] are in there, that’s really all I’m interested
in. And I want them to understand characters’ worlds and desires I suppose. The desires of the characters are really important. The mechanics
of story and narrative? It’s never been about that. It is down to the wants
and desires and hopes the characters have, more than anything.
GF: Yet story-telling is a huge part of your work. Your characters are
constantly telling each other stories.
EW: They are, but they’re to no great purpose. In The Walworth
Farce it’s like a weapon but in Ballyturk there’s no point to them, they
serve absolutely no purpose.
GF: What about New Electric Ballroom?
EW: In New Electric Ballroom it does [have a purpose] but the stories
are similar to the construction of a day and a week, that these are things
we have to live through. They’re just a ritualistic sort of thing.
GF: Although, in New Electric Ballroom, they seem very close to the
heart of the piece.
EW: That’s true. I think the heart of it is moving—willing that love
story to happen that can’t happen, the bitter-sweetness of that. And yet,
I look at that piece and I think that’s the most traditional piece I’ve ever
Enda as Irish Playwright
GF: Moving back from the plays a little, you’ve been living in London
now for twelve years. How do you see yourself in relation to Irishness
and Irish theatre?
EW: I certainly see myself as an Irishman. I never think about it. I
never think about what I might be in relation to Irish playwrights or
international playwrights. I think about the project, or the world of it.
And that’s all it has ever been. As a boy, I only ever wanted to feel I’m
not me: I only wanted to get lost in worlds, to be able to make something that hasn’t existed, and get lost in that. I look at the work, and it
feels really Irish to me.
GF: And to what extent is what is going on in Irish theatre or the
work of Irish playwrights part of your zeitgeist, part of your landscape?
EW: It’s not, I must say. Where is my zeitgeist? Well, living in
London, there’s enough of it. I’m not conscious of what people are making or anything. I love making work over there, but I’m living over here
and I know what’s going on in the city here and I go to work here a lot.
GF: What kind of work really interests or excites you?
EW: What I find difficult in English work—and of course I will always
be seen over here as an Irish playwright, because we don’t do these
kitchen-sink sociological plays about now and about today—[is] the idea
of going to see a play about a council debating budgets. It’s not really
theatre, it feels like television to me. The work I’d be attracted to is the
work that ends up in the Barbican, which is a lot of international work,
and there’s another dimension to it than simply holding a mirror up the
world, which seems to me quite a weird thing. I don’t see why or how
theatre should be doing that. It always seems ridiculous to me. I always
thought the job of theatre and plays was to look in between the cracks
and underneath the nails of the world, and into the corners. I adore
poetry, and what poetry can give you that a novel can’t, that you’re
understanding something you didn’t know existed. That’s interesting.
That sort of work is fascinating. If I want to see the world, I’ll just open
the window.
GF: Are there English playwrights or companies you particularly
admire? Caryl Churchill, for instance?
EW: Caryl Churchill, yeah. For me she’s one of the greatest Englishspeaking playwrights. I adore her work. Of my generation and younger?
I find it frustrating. We lost Sarah Kane, who was a contemporary of
mine and—the same way that Caryl was—was really, really pushing it.
There was something really deep in her work, and where she was going.
There’s no-one really like that, at all. But it’s driven by theatres and literary managers and there are pressures, presumably, on them that there is
a particular type of play that people now want or like—I have no idea. I
mean a lot of the work is fucking terrible. But then, Simon McBurney
[founder and artistic director of Théâtre de Complicité] is still hugely
ambitious in his work; he keeps trying it, and pushing it out there. For
me it doesn’t have to be understood, and doesn’t have to be entertaining all the time. Ultimately what you hope it is, is just trying something,
pushing it a little bit, forcing the agenda. I look at other art forms and
I feel slightly frustrated—‘god, we’re still doing traditional landscapes
and those painters have done away with all that sort of thing and yet
we’re tied to the work, because we’re using these words.’ You could say
‘surely it needs to be literal, it needs to be understood.’ But I think ‘yes,
it needs to be understood but not always in an intellectual or worked-out
[way]. It can be felt.’
Writing Process
GF: If you don’t mind a crass question, how do you write?
EW: Lately I’ve been writing on computer. I used to keep a notebook, as writers do, and write ideas; I’ve got my phone and I might write
the odd note on my phone and that’s about it. But a lot of the big plays,
I think about but really abstractly. I think about them for maybe two
I’ve got this idea for a play at the moment and all I know about it
is it’s going to be something to do with—my mother has Alzheimer’s,
but I don’t want to write a play of course about Alzheimer’s—I want
to write about an old man trying to construct a day and the details of
it are completely disappearing. There’s many characters in it but it’s
completely ending. You’re trying to force the story to happen in some
way. And then the story begins to happen and the man tries to steer it
in a direction but it won’t go in that direction, it will go in this direction. I want to do that with a children’s choir as soundtrack. That’s all I
need to know at this stage. But I’ll think about that and then I’ll think
a little bit more about the setting, about Loughshinny—where we went
on holiday when we were still kids, and I can still remember the layout
of the caves we went into. So maybe I’ll end up writing about a day
in Loughshinny—which feels like a memory play, or a memory of that
day, but I don’t want to write that kind of play. When I set out to write
Walworth Farce I wanted to write about Irish builders constructing the
London skyline out of boxes and bricks. That was my initial idea but I
knew I’d end up writing something completely different. But that was all
I needed.
GF: The first impulse might come as an image?
EW: Yeah, more and more. Or a sense of something. This piece feels
like it’s a tonal [thing]; I’m trying to sense the tone of it and what that
might be. Other things definitely might have images. Ballyturk had
a complete rhythm about it. The only idea I went into Ballyturk with
was the idea of lab-rats. I thought, ‘oh! I might as well do a piece about
GF: Does it take you long to write, after that gestation period?
EW: No. It takes about three weeks. They write really, really fast.
They feel like they’re ready. But then, I’m really waiting for them. This
piece I’m thinking about, I’m buying time, and thinking I should be
able to do it in March. And if I can do it in March I’d have something
I’m ready to put on stage in autumn next year. They’re weird things.
What’s great about it is that I do have the confidence they will happen.
I’m extremely positive that they will find their way but it’s up to me as
a maker to really work on the craft and the other elements of the stuff.
The stories will come out and they’ll pass through me, but I’ve got to
change the way I’m thinking so it will upset the telling.
GF: In one interview, you talked about a particular character and said
you wrote because you didn’t know what she would be like, or what she
would do. You seemed to be saying ‘why would you write something
you already know?’
EW: I think that’s true. When I think about my old man, my dad
used to run a furniture shop and his way of dealing with strangers and
customers and so on was to try and get to know them. I feel it’s a similar process for me. You begin a character, you don’t know them but you
get to know them. And you get to know them in the same second that
an audience gets to know them. And that really charges the second. Do
you know what I mean? So what’s happening with the work in the last
while is that the way I’m introducing characters is purely visually. So the
guys in Penelope [EW performs a little Herb Alpert] arrive down and do
their shtick, and in Misterman I think it’s Doris Day, and in Ballyturk it’s
‘The Look of Love’ by ABC while they’re running around and getting
dressed. But I, Enda Walsh, I’m writing that, but I have no idea who
these people are yet. I need to watch them, watch them as an audience,
watch how they operate physically. And then, in the second, I’m unsure
what they’re giving me. But twenty minutes in I have a sense of the
characters developing. That’s really important. That’s why I’m going—
‘okay, there’s this man, and it’s in Loughshinny, and there’s a choir …’ I
have no idea [where it’s going] but I don’t need to know any of that. All
I need to do is to sense the tone of it. With Sarah Kane, I said ‘are you
working on a piece?’ and she was going ‘yeah, I haven’t written a word
of it, but I can hum it.’ And that’s exactly what plays are like. You get a
real, invisible sense of what they are and you go ‘actually, it’s written. All
I have to do is write it now.’ The words are the easier part; the construction of character is easy; how characters interact with one another is easy.
It’s the tone and the invisible stuff, and the invisible structure and subtext of it which is really hard.
GF: You mentioned music a minute ago and your desire to generate in theatre the kind of absorption we take for granted with music. Is
that what leads you into this new stream of work? I was really astonished
when I heard you were doing the book for Once. I thought about The
Small Things, which is so gruesome, and then about Once and I wondered.
EW: The thing is, I don’t actually think about content. I’m thinking about the form of it and that’s a really interesting form. So when
I think about both those plays I don’t think really about what happens
in the play or the content of them or the words in them or the worlds
of them. I actually just think about the form of it. And I took it on,
Ger, for the same reason I took on the opera—because I felt ‘this is
really good for me. I need to understand the many dimensions of performance: what it is, to hit the air, and what an audience carry out with
them.’ My instinct—and perhaps it’s completely wrong—is that if you
get the form of something right it’s the form that moves an audience and
captures an audience. As opposed to ‘they told me a great story and I
really connected and had empathy with those characters’. We do all have
that; that’s part of what the job of a playwright is. But there’s something about the movement of a piece, that if you get that completely right
that’s what carries it, makes it, grabs people and can deliver.
GF: Were you happy with Once?
EW: Yes. It was a great thing to do, and I did do it for that reason.
I’m always scratching my head and going ‘I have so much to learn.’ So
I thought it was a really good thing to do and that I need to develop
another side to my work.
GF: And did that lead you on to The Last Hotel? You mentioned that
that was a slow-burning project.
EW: Yes, it started with Misterman. Donnacha Dennehy wrote the
music for Misterman so when we were working on it together, he said
‘what about doing something else, like an opera?’ And I thought ‘wow!
Okay’. He told me he had the basis for this idea and I thought it was
a fantastic idea, why don’t we do it… I took it on because I thought
this is really interesting, because there are more dimensions to working
in opera. It was fascinating.
GF: Do you see those music pieces as a completely different life from
the other work?
EW: Yes. Although the Lazarus piece does feel really like a continuation of Ballyturk. It will be interesting to see if you can write a musical
with that level of complexity. It’s a strange, difficult piece that feels like
it’s about mental illness. It’s very hard to explain what it’s about, which
is exciting for me. So that work is [connected]. But all the other work,
like The Twits and so on, is just fun. Once was a lesson. And the opera, in
fairness, I’m going to learn a lot from this. One of the things I’ve learned
is that I’m desperate to do another one. I had this conversation with
Donnacha—it was half-way through a rehearsal—and I said ‘I just had this
dream last night and I think there might be something in it. We should
do a piece. I have this image of a large proscenium arch and there’s three
stages on top of one another, and the middle one is a forest and the bottom one is an apartment and the top one is a street-scape and I’m going
to write three interlocking stories, but I’m not going to add any speech.
I’m just going to tell it completely visually. So I’m going to write it—and
there’ll be interlocking stories and characters and so on—but it will all just
be movement. And we’ll put it to music and I’ll direct it.’
GF: No words?
EW: Exactly! I think it’ll be really great for me because it will mean
I’ll go back to the plays, and it will have a huge impact on the plays.
The thing about New Electric Ballroom and Penelope and Walworth Farce
is that they, to me, were like clockwork plays. They were just incredibly intricate. The construction of them was all linguistic and they had
nowhere to go, there was no visual element to it. I couldn’t write those
plays any more. I just couldn’t. It was right, though, in that there was
no air in those plays: they’re driven by rhythm. And there’s just such a
shit amount of images, of linguistic images in them there doesn’t seem a
space for actual visual image, and I’m finding there’s a move away from
that. And also, a move away from telling or that need to tell or to show
everything. I think that’s the development.
Authors Biography
Ger FitzGibbon is former Head of Drama and Theatre Studies at University
College Cork where he taught theatre from the Renaissance to the contemporary
period. He contributed extensively to The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (1995),
has written on contemporary Irish theatre and co-edited with Lilian Chambers
and Eamonn Jordan the seminal volume Theatre Talk: Voices of Irish Theatre
Practitioners (Carysfort, 2000). His own plays include The Rock Station, Siobhan,
The Watchman Falls in Love, Matched (adapted from Chekhov) and The Bed. He
has directed a wide range of work from Sean O’ Casey to Beckett and Martin
Enda Walsh was brought up in Dublin but had moved to Cork when
Corcadorca Theatre Company premiered his play Disco Pigs (1996), bringing him international success and establishing him as an important new voice
in Irish theatre. Among his many works are misterman, Chatroom, Bedbound,
The Small Things, The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom and Ballyturk.
He has written the stage adaptation of the musical Once, co-authored a musical,
Lazarus, with the late David Bowie and written an opera, The Last Hotel, with
composer Donnacha Dennehy. The Same—a new Corcadorca commission—was
produced in 2017.
Political and Societal Reflections
on the Stage
Slump and Punk in Ray Scannell’s Losing
Steam: Envisioning Corcadorca
Anne Etienne
In the context of contemporary Irish theatre historiography, despite
international and national nods in the direction of some of their productions, Cork-based theatre company Corcadorca has escaped academic scrutiny—something that this case study intends to consider in
the first instance to fill critical gaps.1 Corcadorca was founded by Pat
Kiernan and Conor Lovett in 1991 to ‘make theatre’ with no venue, no
money, no policy, but a desire to contest the middle-class carcan of theatre audiences and rituals. The company has since become synonymous
with theatre in Cork for its regular production rhythm, unconventional
locations, and (mostly) successful reception. Their twenty-fifth anniversary prompted a self-reflective pronouncement of the company’s central
focus and future direction as ‘site-specific’, which would relegate their
work in developing new writing to second place and therefore offers an
apt angle to interrogate the company’s artistic vision. In doing so, this
chapter investigates the run of Ray Scannell’s Losing Steam (2004) at
the Midsummer Festival for two reasons. Firstly, if site-specific work is
one of ‘those genres where dramatic literature does not necessarily play a
A. Etienne (*) 
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_15
194 A. Etienne
central organising role’ (Pearson and Shanks xiii), a study of the commissioned script will shed light on the tension between the textual and the
spatial. Secondly, in view of the play’s political dimension, re-enacting as
it did the economic depression of the 1980s at the height of the Celtic
Tiger, contesting naturalism by exhibiting postdramatic strategies, the
production addressed the notion of Irish drama as ‘a theatrical mimesis
of the national narrative’ (Grene 1). This chapter will revisit the creation
of Losing Steam, analysing the script and its political discourse, before
considering Corcadorca’s concern for site as a rejection of the ‘chocolate-box image’, and how the production served an artistic vision that
encompasses space, text and audience.
The study of Scannell’s play illustrates both Corcadorca’s interest in
new writing and Kiernan’s process in directing large-scale off-site productions. The hybridity of the piece, combining text-based dramaturgy
with postdramatic exchanges with site, informs their mutual relationship
within the company’s search for alternative theatre venues in borrowed
spaces. The chapter will draw on these strands to sketch the artistic
vision of a theatre company whose choices in favouring its local community also determine its identity. This study adopts an empirical approach,
using new material to record traces of the performance: on the one hand,
Scannell’s unpublished scripts2; on the other, interviews carried out with
Kiernan and actor Julie Kelleher (Shirley Geraghty in the play) as well as
audience responses to Corcadorca productions,3 those testimonies, however ‘shaky and incomplete’ (Reason 54), being sought in an attempt to
‘align […] archive with memory’ (49).
Development of New Writing
A writer, a performer, a musician, Scannell has exhibited the capacity to
navigate and blend practices since the beginning of his career.4 In 2004
he was twenty-six and finishing his Masters degree in screenwriting. In
the previous years he had penned Breathing Water (2000), appearing at
the Dublin and Edinburgh Fringe festivals, Striking Distance (2001),
which toured schools with Graffiti, Mix It Up (2002), produced at the
Triskel Arts Centre by Corcadorca, and Beats’n’Pieces (2003) directed by
Johnny Hanrahan for Meridian at the Cork Opera House. He had performed in both Striking Distance and Beats’n’Pieces and was acclaimed
locally as the singer-songwriter of trip-hop band ‘The Shades’.
Losing Steam was the fifth play of an eclectic practitioner who had
already successfully experienced different theatrical processes within an
array of venues and contexts, and represented a significant point in his
emerging career. The play was commissioned by Kiernan, who wanted
Scannell—following their Mix It Up collaboration—to revisit the story of
Cork’s economic collapse in the 1980s; it was site-specific; it dealt with a
time and issues outside of his experience; it involved a large cast; and it
held a key place in the Midsummer theatre festival programme. In other
words, Losing Steam was an ambitious project for a young writer, even
as prolific as Scannell. Yet, his youth permitted him to craft a story unbiased by prior personal knowledge. Stepping into the past of local history
and a legendary music scene with free licence fuelled the excitement of
creating the piece, an energising factor which the young actors also felt
when actor Liam Heffernan (playing the Union man) taught them how
to pogo dance (Kelleher). Scannell’s research into the 1980s as a culturally bygone age, and the closure of the Dunlop and Ford factories as the
event that shook Ireland and marked the death of Cork constituted a historical contextualisation.
His objective was ‘to do a play about the time itself. […] It was an
unbelievable time when Cork was literally obliterated’ (Scannell, qtd.
in O’Connell). The fight from the Dunlop Union and men to extract a
decent redundancy payment from the directorship makes for the central
action (as the sit-in is being played) spanning one week, from September
30th to October 8th, before some 700 men and women lost their
jobs at the tyre factory. Ford would close on 13 July 1984 and terminate a further 800 jobs around the car assembly line. Dunlop had been
one of Cork’s main employers since 1935 and its closure spelt the slow
death of the industrial power of the city. The closure of the Ford factory, implanted by Cork man Henry Ford in 1919, was perceived as a
desertion and a betrayal.5 Ford had promised life-time employment for
men and their children and the generations following. The slogan of
‘job for life’ was understood as a reminder of loss, a bygone era of stability throughout the country and echoed in Michael West’s Freefall and
Cónal Creedon’s The Cure. As Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald stated in the
Dáil, ‘Fords [sic] touches every home and every person in Cork because
everybody had either a friend or a relative in Fords’ (220). Such contemporary responses may have influenced Scannell to develop the human
aspect over the economic debates for it is striking how he understood
the city to be a pulsing organism kept alive by its industries, a metaphor
196 A. Etienne
which sees death as the only natural outcome: ‘The Marina itself seemed
to be the heart of Cork, a heart that suffered from ill health and eventually collapsed, leaving the body of Cork shocked and lifeless’ (Scannell,
‘Making of’).
The play intersperses snapshots of the lives of two families struggling
to come to terms with the first blow of the city’s economic slump, in a
seemingly conventional three-act structure. The first act sets the action
at the core of the conflict between the Cork Dunlop men and the international management which has decided to close down the factory, the
words of the local director being relayed verbatim by Christy Hartnett,
the ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers Union) chief negotiator:
Today is a very sad day in the history of the Irish Dunlop Company, for its
employees, for Cork and for Ireland. It is with the utmost reluctance and
regret that the final decision was taken to close the Cork factory, reflecting
the particularly severe circumstances of the European tyre industry. The
company realises the special relationship and association between Dunlop
and Cork and in this knowledge today’s closure is even more unfortunate.
The act fulfils its function of exposing spatial locations and the main
characters. Bernie Dempsey, a widower, lives with his two sons Finbarr
and Frank, all floor workers at the Dunlop factory. Fin is engaged to
Shirley Geraghty, a UCC student, whose father, Bob, holds a management position at Ford’s while her mother, Amanda, drinks the days away.
Christy Hartnett, the chief Union negotiator, appears sporadically to
ground the narrative in its historical, sometimes verbatim context, and
to boost the Mob. This last central character is composed of a community cast of thirty non-professional actors whose identity shifts from the
Dunlop or Ford workforce to the Arcadia concert crowd or reporters.
Each character introduction is located on one of the seven staging areas,
the act closing on the first of its live numbers with the discordant sounds
of Nun Attax’s ‘Reekus Sunfare’ performing on the elevated platform
prefiguring the Arcadia.
The second act develops each plotline to a climax. Fin has accepted
Bob’s job offer at Ford’s rather than hold the picket line with his coworkers, leading him to fight with Shirley and betray both her and his
comrades. The Dunlop men intensify the sit-in by taking actions, the
first of which consists in appearing at the Davis Cup during the Doyle–
McEnroe game:
Frank: Dunlop shoes, Dunlop trunks, Dunlop shirt, armbands, racket. And
right on his head wearing it proud like the crown of cunts the Dunlop’s
headband. You can’t buy this. Placards ready and waiting. The world’s
press at our fingertips. Dunlop’s vulnerable to bad publicity. (27)
While the Mob initially cheers for the Irish champion, ‘The little fella
against the world. He’s us now’ (29), they soon realise that ‘[w]e have
to lose. If Doyle beats McEnroe that’ll be the news. Not the Dunlop’s
workers’ (30). The demonstrators take out placards denouncing
McEnroe’s sponsors and exit the stage marching through the audience,
singing the anthem ‘We shall overcome’ (31). As this attempt proves
vain and Dunlop issues ‘an ultimatum for calling off all industrial action’
(40), the strikers decide to cut off the steam supply needed by Ford to
dry the cars. This focal gesture is explained literally and symbolically.
The workers’ response, ‘I’ve been talking to our friends over in Ford’s,
any layoffs for their workers that are caused by factors beyond their control they are entitled to 80% wages while they’re laid off’ (41), illustrates not only the men’s solidarity but also the two industries’ symbiotic
relationship. In a parallel monologic aside, Frank describes the closing
of Dunlop as a ‘fatal disease’, one that needs to become ‘contagious’ to
have an impact, emphasising once more the body metaphor. As the act
closes, Dunlop retrieves their ultimatum and the men return the steam
back to the Ford assembly line, a victory saluted by the sound of steam
being released.
This bold move, however effective, disregards the fact that Ford was
‘losing on average eighty cars a day’ (41), a predicament that leads to the
thinly veiled announcement of Ford’s similar demise in the brief final act.
There is no need to play out this renewed economic blow and Scannell
opts for the haunting effect of letting the impending repetition linger at
the end of the play. While Bob Geraghty admits, ‘We can’t compete with
Belgium and Japan. Robots don’t take tea breaks’ (52), Bernie Dempsey,
amid the Dunlop men’s celebration, reminds them that they have been
cheated all the same: ‘We shouldn’t have to fight for what’s rightfully
ours’ (55). Leaving their fathers behind and abandoning traditions,
Shirley and Fin have called off a wedding that neither wanted, and head
for London in hope of diasporic success.
198 A. Etienne
The inter-relationship of the two plots is established from the opening scene, which uses a process of dramatic accumulation to stress the
urgency of the action and involvement of all strata of the community.
This long scene mixes Christy Hartnett’s verbatim cues with slapstick
humour: as the mob chant ‘No’, refusing the measly terms offered to
them, the climactic ‘Yes’ of Shirley and Fin echo in the pink bedroom.
At the same time, in front of the emblematically locked gates, Bernie and
Frank’s repeated chorus, ‘It’s a disgrace’, provides a human perspective
to the battle carried out by the Union: ‘For my 30 years I get £12,000.
How long will that last me? […] I’m 53, just short of the pension
y’know? Where am I going to get a job? Sher there’s no jobs for my sons
either, even at their age. They promised not only our sons jobs. But our
sons’ sons jobs’ (4). In these parallel actions, Scannell signals two plots,
two generations, in the cultural and social context of ‘no future’. Yet,
he contrasts the lovers’ sexual ecstasy with the workers’ political arousal
as a comedic device which, while reinforcing the domestic context, also
undermines the tragic loss at stake.
The action of both plots hinges on conflict and betrayal, allowing
Scannell to play on both the domestic plane (Fin cheated on Shirley)
and the economic one. For the young lovers, England is the way out, in
London, its opportunities tested by other Irish emigrants before them.
For the ones who remain, Scannell paints a mixed picture. Bernie closes
the play at home, alone, slumped in his chair, with no expectations.
Yet, Scannell counterbalances the tragic image by awarding a win to the
underdog when Frank realises he has won a Spot the Ball competition.6
The ending is bittersweet. Bitter for the city as an industrial power but
showing, perhaps naively from the height of the Celtic Tiger, that the
next generation may survive somehow, though not necessarily at home.
Against ‘Chocolate-Box’ Theatre
Corcadorca has primarily directed pieces outside traditional venues
because they shunned the ‘chocolate-box image that can inhibit a firsttime theatre goer’ (FitzGibbon, Hennessy, and Kiernan 169), a statement which highlights Kiernan’s desire for initiating new spectators and
‘creat[ing] a whole experience’ for their spectating community (175).
The company’s work since its inception betrays hints of their aspirations and resistance to the chocolate-box, proscenium-arched, middleclass, middle-aged, sugar-coated, comforting, ‘elitist’ (Kiernan, qtd
in Sheridan) theatre. After early and promising off-site experiments—
such as Owl in the round at City Hall and an adaptation of Burgess’s
Clockwork Orange at Sir Henry’s (the night-club in the 1980s–90s)—
Corcadorca was soon hailed for its innovations.7 Whether they performed (rarely) in a theatre venue or developed off-site work, whether
they devised (once, Love) or explored a text in space, they defied conventions by consistently challenging, and mostly abolishing, the fourth wall.
For instance, Enda Walsh recalls how the idea of Disco Pigs came up after
‘a terrible, terrible production of Animal Farm’ (qtd in O’Riordan),
an adaptation which was staged at the Everyman Theatre and therefore
engaged neither with new writing nor site.
In Losing Steam, if the mob is a character with changing faces, the
site itself is another performer, an integral part of the narrative. Since its
first application in the late 1980s around the pioneering work of Welsh
company Brith Gof, theoreticians and practitioners have interpreted and
modified the concept of ‘site-specific’, the fluidity of which continues to
be fed by innovative practices. The eruption of such nuancing terms as
‘site-sympathetic’, ‘site-responsive’, ‘site-generic’ or ‘site-exclusive’ further testifies to the richness of the field. To frame Corcadorca’s practice
within opposite ends of the theoretical spectrum, Patrice Pavis considers any work outside a theatre with any text to be site-specific, ‘theatre
[…] beside itself’ (Routledge Dictionary 228); Wrights & Sites define as
site-specific a ‘performance specifically generated from and for one site’
(Wilkie 150), which limits any textual basis to a devised format emerging from the location and eliminates any pre-existing scripts.8 From
Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the former Women’s Gaol (1994) to
Walsh’s Gentrification at the Cork Savings Bank (2015) via Shakespeare
in the Park (2001; 2006) or O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape on the Docklands
(2008), Corcadorca’s productions are primarily based on literary texts;
they also entail a relocation in ‘venues’ as objets trouvés, this approach
clearly adopting Pavis’s interpretation to encompass any theatrical event
in sites other than theatres. While he declared that each production is
‘site-specific because it cannot tour, because the site is unique’ (‘On
directing’), arguably Kiernan navigates the range of off-site practices
insofar as the text comes first and the site is then selected either for its
extradiegetic or metadiegetic narratives, or for its spectacular nature,
and employed to explore the text by framing, lifting or dislocating it.9
In engaging with Losing Steam, however, the production stands as their
only truly site-specific work: it was generated from the specific idea of the
200 A. Etienne
Dunlop–Ford closure and commissioned for its associated site. If the play
could lend itself to other symbolic locations, other factories abandoned
during other economic crises, the Ford factory represents much more
than a mere ‘vessel’ for a piece which sits ‘wholly in that site in both its
content and form’ (Wilkie 149).
The site carries meaning. For Losing Steam, the warehouse was the
disused Ford plant—a dismembered skeleton in the Marina—where the
writer and the director discovered an old car, the eerie forgotten remnant
of a thriving factory and, in the circumstances, a concrete image calling
for(th) its story to be told. In writing and performing a moment of history in a space that was part of that history, Corcadorca transformed the
site into its own theatre, a haunted stage to be populated anew. It thus
exposed political and social issues to a contemporary, sometimes unaware, audience. It also underscored the documentary aspect of the play
by engaging with those who had worked there—since part of the mob
was composed of original Dunlop men, some coming from England to
take part in the performance.
When building the raw content of the performance, Kiernan’s focus
was to engage in dialogue with the site as context and live presence/
structure. The site carried a structural echo of the subject material, the
post-industrial cultural frame, the script, this association of pieces creating the dynamics between space and dramaturgy. If Scannell’s first draft
concluded a period of research, his final script was in tune with the site,
torn and reshaped as it was during rehearsals, losing dramatic texture
but gaining pace, which enabled the practitioners to listen to the space.
According to Lehmann, in this process, the site ‘becomes a co-player
without having a definite significance. It is not dressed up but made visible’ (152). In this instance the site was selected for its ‘definite significance’, but the perspective otherwise applies to Kiernan’s approach to
the performance space in letting the site’s authenticity by inserting the
spectacle without illusionistic purpose.
The original warehouse contained one elevated office area, which was
used because it would offer both a commentary about status and the
overview of the factory which management, such as Bob Geraghty, had
over the floor. Otherwise, the space was massive, empty, dark, smelling
of car oil: it had to be constructed for the audience to see adequately, for
the various stages to come through as natural habitat, and for Scannell’s
rhythmic script to be heard. The centrality of the space can be witnessed
house (bed
Factory gates
hanging over back
Podium for
Union rep
Ford office
(elev ated)
Fig. 15.1 Stage structure of Losing Steam
in the fact that Kiernan scheduled only one week for table work to spend
the remaining four weeks of rehearsals on site:
It’d be coming bit by bit with us. We’d kind of tit-tat between construction and rehearsal. […] I would have worked very closely with Ray on the
text. Especially with a new play. If I develop, when we get in on site, I’m
very liberal with adjusting it, with of course the writer’s approval. I think
we tightened quite a bit. You can adjust the text when you’re in rehearsal,
but the reason you can do that is that you’re getting used to the place, and
it’s beginning to inform you about what should be happening and what
you should do. […] That’s why it’s brilliant to spend time in the site, and
have the flexibility with your designers. It works best for me when you can
begin to change stuff around. Collectively. Whether it be the script or locations. (Interview)
This rare insight into the director’s process underlines the predominance of his conversations with the building as narrative contributor and
in shaping the performance. The warehouse slowly filled with platforms
constructed at different levels, sets mounted on scaffolding, to form
seven performing areas designed minimalistically to be both practical for
the actors and instantly identifiable for the audience (Fig. 15.1).
This positioning of the acting spaces rendered the triangular action of
the opening scene (discussed above) most effective, being played, and lit,
202 A. Etienne
alternatively or concomitantly between the podium, Shirley’s hovering
bed, and the factory gates, and permitting the spectators to follow the
actions without having to move from their vantage point, whereas the
unfolding plots would thereafter involve a journey back and forth and
across the floor to relocate adequately in front of each stage.
What Kiernan also conveys is that the script is ‘adjusted’ to the site—
not a predominant feature any longer in that it has to adapt to fit the
space—rather than the contrary movement, which would define performances in theatre venues. This further explains the evolution from
the first draft to the final script, which tended towards the reduction of
domestic scenes. In an earlier version, Scannell had chosen to reunite the
estranged Geraghty couple, after the tragicomic episode of the murder of
Bob’s cherished budgie: as the usually tipsy Amanda confesses to killing
the bird that received all of her husband’s attentions, they realise how
they have fooled themselves on misconceptions for the past twenty years.
On the opposite set, Bernie literally translates what the closure means for
him and commits suicide, silently putting his head in the oven. The cuts
removed the tragic and comedic hints that would have affected the openendedness of the play. Yet, these textual revisions prevented the development of in-depth characterisations; a couple of monological streams were
truncated or discarded to focus on the historical plot. The cuts clearly
targeted the brisk pace of the show, a component which the musicality
of Scannell’s writing served admirably: ‘Ray writes a lot of rhythm, like a
rap, not unlike the kind of work that Enda [Walsh] writes, but with Ray
you’ll have that rhythm all the time’ (Kelleher). The lean script, crafted
with the workers’ claims and punk rhythms as its leitmotiv, mixed dramatic and epic strategies, in the same measure as the site itself which historicised the economic context.
The Ford plant stood as the symbol of Cork’s industrial death. But,
inhabited as it was by a Punk band, it took on a wider cultural and political symbolics tainted by the 1980s’ iron rule of Thatcherism. ‘You have
the right to food money’, spits Joe Strummer in the anthem ‘Know Your
Rights’, the first Combat Rock single released by the Clash in 1982.
‘Words don’t put food on the table’ (3) echoes Bernie when interviewed
in front of the factory, a contrapuntal response to Dunlop management’s
concluding understatement that the closure is ‘unfortunate’. The idea of
basic human rights being wiped away resonated once more in the gutted
factory as a spectral repetition. Beyond the global and local history, the
constructed upon and re-inhabited space of Losing Steam materialised as
a political statement, prophetic in the economic aftermath of the Celtic
The performance did not propose any solution other than the aesthetic iteration of solidarity (the gestus of the Ford men accepting that
Dunlop halt the assembly line by cutting off the steam supply) and resilience, as the workers’ banner took centre stage again on the show’s programme: ‘The fight will go on’. The plant was brought back to life as an
unconventional yet fitting and fitted theatre; Scannell’s narrative fleshing up and inhabiting the bare bones of the vast structure created what
the Evening Echo titled ‘a tribal event’ (Heylin) for performers and audiences.
Space, Text, Audience: The Trinity of an Artistic Vision?
Despite their avowed preference for off-site venues, from 1995 with The
Ginger Ale Boy to 1999 with Misterman, Kiernan’s collaborations with
Walsh were all staged in theatre venues. Thus privileging experiments in
writing and directing—over site-finding—turned the young local company into an international name: Disco Pigs, premiered in 1996, went
on an international tour in 1998–1999. After reuniting for Misterman,
Walsh left Cork for London. Kiernan stayed, intent on building a local
audience around ‘theatrical events’, productions which gather the community around borrowed spaces, to make them see theatre differently, to
allow them freedom of movement within the performance, to show them
the city as their (performing) space: ‘I felt that Cork was more important
for us than anywhere else. We had built new audiences through this kind
of event theatre’ (Kiernan, qtd in Creed 18).
In observing how contemporary Irish drama has expressed national
identities, Grene has suggested that, ‘a three-way set of relationships
between subject, playwright and audience has to be considered in the
complex act of negotiation which is the representation of Ireland on the
stage’ (1). Corcadorca’s programming over the years demonstrates that
their objective is driven neither by political agendas nor a reinvention of
Ireland, but their aspirations point to a yearning for civic theatre through
their efforts to work with their community and for their community in
tackling topics of concern (e.g. The Merchant of Venice or Gentrification).
With Losing Steam, the attraction was dual: Kiernan was drawn to that
part of Cork history which comprised the 1980s musical scene and the
derelict site. In interview, the sense of the project emerged as ‘what
204 A. Etienne
happened back then. I asked Ray about the subject-matter material and I
asked Ricky [Dineen] if they’d play, if they’d put a band together for it’
The event started at 10 p.m., transforming the audience members
rallied in front of the factory into darkening shapes, trespassers at dusk.
Entering the vast cold space prompted impressions of being allowed in
a museum after hours or disrupting a ghost sonata as spectators wandered around the space, actors and structures visible but still inanimate,
the sound of the assembly line—‘Clomp Weeeeee Vooom Chugga veee
boom Clomp Weeeeee Vooom Chugga veee boom’—growing from a
whisper to ‘the sound of the angry Dunlop’s workforce’ (1) as the lights
began to fade up on the mob. McLucas and Pearson identified the concepts of host and ghost as two elements of a trinity which, with the audience as witness, forms the performance event: as explained by Turner,
‘The host site’—the abandoned Ford factory—‘is haunted for a time by
a ghost that the theatre-makers create’ (373). The idea of this collaboration between site, creation and audience as the three components of
theatre-making is appealing in redefining the dynamics of performance,
but limits the role of the audience to that of a mere witness. As illustrated by the figure above, the 200 standing spectators of Losing Steam
occupied a central location and had to pivot or walk around, the actors
playing around and across them. There was no formal partition between
stages and auditorium, so that the actors crossed the space, making their
way through the audience—which then became an anonymous crowd—
to reach one stage or the other. There was no direct invitation from the
performers, but the audience had the opportunity to join the concert
and pogo with the cast, or to stand as more members of the striking mob
since the acting space was both sufficiently delineated yet open enough
to experiment with boundaries, to select peripheral or central positions
between performers and spectators.
One might suggest that this merging phenomenon mimicked the
dynamics at play between the script and the space, the presence of the
factory’s own narrative and lived experience fusing with that of performance (Turner 374; Pearson and Shanks 111). In defining modes of
such ‘creative friction’, Pearson and Shanks evoke usages among which
the idea of cultural intervention applies to Losing Steam, despite its reliance on dramatic exposition:
Site may be directly suggestive of performance subject-matter, theme or
form. Its usage, or former usage, may directly inform dramatic structure
[like a] hand-in-glove congruence […] Performance, in turn, may reveal,
make manifest, celebrate, confront or criticise site or location, its history,
function, architecture, microclimate. (111)
The friction between the live workplace of the 1980s and the ghosting
structures of 2004 produced dramatic strands that cocooned themselves
congruently, intimately, within the host, this intimacy engineered by
three factors relating to the trinity. The dismembered host in itself told
the story of Ford: the physical place of economic death and symbol of
the industrial heart of Cork as a city, as well as its betrayal. The ghost
recreated through various images the Dunlop fight, its human repercussions, and the Punk anti-Establishment and youth sub-culture of the
1980s. The host lifted history from its ashes, the ghost gave the Dunlop
and Ford men an afterlife by re-inhabiting the symbolic and physical
space. The spectator became a privileged witness, since the site-specific
performance was not to be repeated elsewhere, and a constituent of the
historical promenade. The performance divulged a transgressive vision in
2004, when Cork was enjoying the Celtic Tiger effect, a vision which
forced a dystopic reading. Twenty years earlier, the city had bled and
Scannell’s immersion into the musical and political scene of the 1980s
via research in the newspapers as well as interviews with Ford management and Cork people led critics to define the play as documentary
drama (Irish Examiner, 25 May 2004; 8 June 2004). The militant discourse of Christie Hartnett and archival footage contextualised the fight,
reminded the audience of its historicity, and endowed the play with an
epic flavour. Yet, the play asked no political question nor did it build any
ideological argumentation. The political debates around redundancy
payment and state intervention were aired to conjure up the backdrop
needed for Scannell’s human story, anchor it in its specific time and place
for the younger generation in the audience. One may infer that the politics were diluted because the performances afforded anger and frustration to be released elsewhere.
The raw pounding of the mob about the place upon entering the
warehouse gave the audience not only a taste of the soundscape built
within the performance but also a sense of the space to be invested.
206 A. Etienne
Whether live or not, musical pieces spiked the dialogues, not merely covering changes of location for actors but becoming yet another character,
embodied in the reformed Nun Attax: the live band acted as a focal point
from the beginning, located straight across the entrance, and its contextual oddity added to the appeal of its relentless drumming and dissonant
tunes. Rebellion, albeit youthful, was represented in all its violence in the
anarchic crowd of the Arcadia, the Sex Pistols-inspired ‘No future’ slogan brandished as their response to the bleak environment. The cultural
import of punk when coming of age in the 1980s was further emphasised by letting it dictate its own rhythm, disrupting the space, ensuring
that each scene was reduced to its essential scream, be it ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Scannell’s writing responded to the necessities of the musical and spatial
narratives, his script forming fragments for the audience to see and hear
as a tribe bound by this communal experience.
A Corkonian audience, more than the mixed crowd present during
the festival, would have been familiar with Corcadorca’s off-site productions and with Scannell’s emerging work, with the post-Punk bands Nun
Attax and Five Go Down to the Sea, they might have attended concerts
at the Arcadia or lived the closure of the factories.11 The local element,
exclusive to the performance taking place in that warehouse in Cork,
added to the impression of being privy to an event, the uniqueness of
which was inscribed within the resuscitated site. Most reviews were positive, praising all aspects of production from the ‘warm-hearted’ script
that ‘treads a difficult line between historical accuracy and entertainment, triumphantly providing both’ (Hopkin 14), to the excellent performances, marvellous sets and unflinching direction. However, the vast
echoing space raised two problematic aspects. Even if the opinion that
‘the variety of stagings dilutes the effectiveness of the text and its thesis’ (Leland 2) was solely noted in the Irish Times, the suggestion that
the space was ‘too large’—‘at times it is hard to hear what is happening, making it difficult to fully engage with all the threads of the play’
(Andrews 38)—is reiterated, leading to the conclusion that ‘unusual
acoustics worked against total audibility’ (Hopkin 14). This complaint
applies to other of their large-scale outside productions and I would
argue that in the case of Losing Steam engagement did not rely on ‘total
audibility’ because Scannell’s text had privileged a brisk rhythm, musical commentary and striking images rather than dramatic development.
Interestingly, when Corcadorca audiences were asked to look back on
the value and striking components of the company’s work, the results
reflect Kiernan’s opening statement: apart from their partnership with
Walsh, what appears valued by a majority of respondents is the ‘innovative’ use of ‘unusual locations’ and the ‘large scale’ nature of performances. What they find striking is ‘the togetherness of the audience’ and,
linked to that point, the promenade style often adopted by the company
which prompts ‘the fact that the audience moves instead of the staging’.
Despite both his directorial flair for space and strict definitions of sitespecific performances involving a text as secondary element, a clear staple
of the company is that the text always comes first, in the sense that it
pre-exists the search for a venue and often dominates the performance.
This indicates not only the implicit centrality of drama and of a literary
texture in the company’s work but also a relation to space that explicitly differs from other site-specific theatre companies. In selecting offsite spaces, Kiernan yearns on the one hand to escape the structure of
naturalistic middle-class theatre and, on the other, to create a large-scale
theatre event for a community, rekindling with the notion of civic theatre and flirting with epic forms of catharsis. Losing Steam offers a unique
example of these three defining elements.
Staging the painful local chapter in the cold factory that housed it,
fleshing it up with endearing characters, snappy dialogues and musical anarchy, the punk history play combined raw energy and dramatic
conventions to create a spectacular hybrid piece. Losing Steam was not
Scannell’s most accomplished play, nor was it Corcadorca’s most successful production. Nonetheless, the study of this production permits
to gauge Corcadorca’s artistic vision and process in combining text and
space to surprise their community. It proposed an experience where spectators were free to roam and to react to dramatic, political, or musical
contexts, and which instilled in them the sense of a ‘tribal’ community.
While discourse on site-specificity articulates the notion of an invasion
of the site, Kiernan’s relation to the site—not only in this instance—is
one of mutual enlightenment and intimacy rather than alienation. One
may infer that the same principle has guided his relationship to his audience, and his decision to create events for his local community. In view
of its content and context Losing Steam takes on a canonical dimension
for the Cork community. It is equally significant because the local may
allow to define fragments of the national picture or to contrast and question it. Corcadorca’s director-led vision embraced the development of
new writing, as exemplified through their work with Walsh and Scannell,
and more recently Pat McCabe and Ailís Ní Ríain. But Losing Steam
208 A. Etienne
also suggests—and this might foreground the company’s anniversary
statement—that the text, whether it pre-exists or is developed on site,
will be shaped to adapt to the site while the site’s authenticity remains
undisguised. In developing new writing in direct conversation with a site,
Corcadorca manufactured a different theatre experience, not only a new
‘aesthetic gaze’ (Lehmann 152) but an innovative practice. The production stands alone in the history of Corcadorca as, for the first time, it
united the three strands of new writing, site-specificity, and large-scale
1. Corcadorca tends to be mentioned in connection with Enda Walsh’s early
work. The only study devoted to the theatre company is Lisa Fitzpatrick’s
article ‘Staging The Merchant of Venice in Cork: the concretisation of a
Shakespearean text for a new society’, Modern Drama, 50/2 (2007):
2. I wish to thank Ray Scannell and Corcadorca Theatre Company for giving
me access to their records of Losing Steam (scripts and press cuttings).
3. See The project
included a questionnaire which asked Corcadorca’s audiences what they
expected and what they valued more in the company’s work.
4. In 2012, Scannell co-wrote with Phillip McMahon Alice in Funderland,
an extravagant musical adaptation of Lewis Caroll’s novel directed by
Wayne Jordan at the Abbey. His name is associated with DEEP, a show
which he wrote and has been performing since its creation at the 2013
Cork Midsummer Festival. In both plays music holds a central role and
Scannell composed the musical score of Alice in Funderland. He had
also flexed his acting muscles in Druid’s production of Enda Walsh’s
Walworth Farce (2009–2010), performed with Rough Magic, and paired
with Olwen Fouéré in 2016 for Death at Intervals.
5. The Evening Echo article ‘Ford and Dunlop: reliving the nightmare’
announced the forthcoming production with the opening word ‘Betrayal’
(24 April 2004). The production engineered copious press coverage surrounding the two corporations’ lifetime in Cork as well as the Dunlop
protests, a fact which would somehow render any historical background
redundant in Scannell’s script.
6. In Frank, Scannell wrote a nuanced character, vulnerable and clownish,
more rounded in his honest awkwardness than the other figures. When
asked by the middle-class housewife Amanda how the ‘sit-down’ is going,
he answers: ‘Oh fine, fine. […] Well, pretty boring really. We’re taking it
in shifts, like being back at work again’ (25).
7. In March 1992 The Irish Examiner wrote that Owl ‘defies description’; in
December 1995, A Clockwork Orange led the Irish Theatre Magazine to
declare: ‘If you ever wondered “why theatre at all?” Corcadorca provide a
good answer’.
8. In the past ten years, the immersive work of Dublin theatre company
ANU—devising site-specific performances to access specific times and
confront a national memory—embraces this strict understanding of the
term. See Singleton. For other critical perspectives on the range of ‘sitespecific’, see Keating.
9. See Etienne 81–4.
10. Ricky Dineen is one of the original band members of Nun Attax and Five
Go Down to the Sea.
11. The Arcadia in particular was an urban legend since the late 1950s when,
as The Arcadia Ballroom, it welcomed the Dixielanders cover band as
their resident band. The popular venue was the biggest in the country,
gathered a predominantly working-class audience, and elicited the ire of
the Church. The associated urban mythology that the devil’s footprint
could be seen outside would complement its equal success in the 1980s,
when showcasing Rock and Punk bands.
Works Cited
Andrews, Rachel. Rev. of Losing Steam. Sunday Tribune, 20 June 2004: 38.
Corcadorca Theatre Company archive. Press cuttings.
Creed, Tom. ‘20 years a-growing.’ Youth Drama Ireland (2011/12): 18–20.
Web. 23 June 2014.
‘Dunlop’s Last Gasp.’ Irish Examiner, 13 Sep. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
Etienne, Anne. ‘Challenging the Auditorium: Spectatorship(s) in “Off-site” performances.’ Journal of Contemporary Drama in English 4–1 (2016): 74–89.
FitzGerald, Garret. ‘Closure of Ford Plant in Cork: Statement by Taoiseach.’
Dáil Eireann Debate, Vol. 347, No. 1, 18 Jan. 1984: 217–220. Web. http:// 20 Mar. 2015.
FitzGibbon, Ger, Ben Hennessy, and Pat Kiernan. ‘Ben Hennessy, Pat Kiernan
and GerFitzGibbon in Conversation.’ Theatre Talk. Voices of Irish Theatre
Practitioners. Eds. Chambers, Lilian, Ger FitzGibbon and Eamonn Jordan.
Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2001. 167–180.
Grene, Nicholas. The Politics of Irish Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1999.
210 A. Etienne
Heylin, Liam. ‘Corcadorca’s Losing Steam a tribal event.’ Evening Echo, 18 June
2004. Corcadorca Theatre Company archive. Press cuttings. n.p.
Hopkin, Alannah. Rev. of Losing Steam. Irish Examiner, 22 June 2004: 14.
Keating, Sara. ‘What site-specific really means.’ Irish Theatre Magazine, 26 Sep.
2009. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
Kelleher, Julie. Personal interview. 25 Feb. 2015.
Kiernan, Pat. ‘On directing site-specific work.’ Perforum series. Theatre
Development Centre. 27 Jan. 2016.
———. Personal interview. 27 Jan. 2015.
Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Oxford: Routledge, 2006.
Leland, Mary. Rev. of Losing Steam. The Irish Times, 19 June 2004: 2.
Corcadorca Theatre Company archive. Press cuttings.
O’Connell, Brian. ‘Catching the many shades of Ray.’ Irish Examiner, 7 Sep.
2004. Corcadorca Theatre Company archive. Press cuttings. n.p.
O’Riordan, Alan. ‘Looking back at Corcadorca’s influence on theatre in Cork
and beyond.’ Irish Examiner, 29 Apr. 2016. Web. http://www.irishexaminer.
com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/looking-back-at-corcadorcas-influence-on-theatrein-cork-and-beyond-395594.html. 20 June 2016.
Pavis, Patrice. The Routledge Dictionary of Performance and Contemporary
Theatre. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Pearson, Mike and Michael Shanks. Theatre/Archaeology. Abingdon: Routledge,
Pilkington, Lionel. Theatre and Ireland. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Reason, Matthew. Documentation, Disappearance and the Representation of Live
Performance. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Sauter, Willmar. The Theatrical Event. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.
Scannell, Raymond. Losing Steam. Unpublished scripts, 2004. TS.
———. ‘The Making of Losing Steam’. Programme note, 2004.
Sheridan, Colette. ‘Full steam ahead for Marina trip to darker days in Cork.’ Irish
Examiner, 17 June 2004. Corcadorca Theatre Company archive. Press cuttings. n.p.
Singleton, Brian. ‘Politicizing Performance: ANU Productions and Site-Specific
Theater.’ Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies. 10 July 2014. Web. 22 May 2016.
Turner, Cathy. ‘Palimpsest or Potential Space? Finding a Vocabulary for SiteSpecific Performance.’ New Theatre Quarterly 20.4 (November 2004): 373–
Wilkie, Fiona. ‘Mapping the Terrain: a Survey of Site-Specific Performance in
Britain.’ New Theatre Quarterly 18.2 (May 2002): 140–160.
Author Biography
Anne Etienne lectures in Modern Drama in the School of English, University
College Cork. Her research is concerned with three areas. She has published
widely on censorship (Ethnologie Française, Etudes Irlandaises, Etudes Anglaises,
Revue d’Histoire du Théâtre, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique) and is
the main author of Theatre Censorship: from Walpole to Wilson (Oxford University
Press, 2007). She has written on Arnold Wesker for the Dictionary of Literary
Biography and Studies in Theatre and Performance, and co-edited an issue of
Coup de théâtre (2014) on Shylock. Her latest work focuses on Corcadorca
Theatre Company.
Through a Glass, Darkly: Priests on the
Contemporary Irish Stage
Virginie Roche-Tiengo
Elaborating on Shakespeare’s seminal definition of theatre holding ‘the
mirror up to nature’ (Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2), Christopher Murray
writes that, ‘in Irish drama the mirror does not give back the real; it
gives back images of a perceived reality. […] Drama helps society find
its bearings; it both ritualises and interrogates national identity’ (9). In
the current decade of commemorations, looking back and remembering the birth of the Republic of Ireland, and following turbulent political, economic and societal transformations that have reshaped the young
nation, aspects of national identity are being questioned, realities breaking through images. A controversial question raised in the 2016 census
was that of religious identity. This central element is embedded in the
Constitution, even if today De Valera’s vision of ‘an Ireland—happy, vigorous, spiritual—that fired the imagination of our poets’ and ‘a people
living the life that God desires that men should live’ (qtd in Moynihan
466) seems to belong to the realm of well-worn myth. If a politician and
a priest (Father John Charles McQuaid) drafted the Irish Constitution to
define the Irish national identity as Catholic, playwrights have responded
V. Roche-Tiengo (*) 
University Paris XIII, Villetaneuse, France
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_16
214 V. Roche-Tiengo
to this ideal not solely to comfort it but also to challenge it. The birth
of the Irish nation was closely linked with the birth of the Irish National
Theatre, and one may contend that Yeats had implicitly opened the way
to criticise the Irish catholic priest through his borrowings to Celtic
myths and the creation of the Celtic Literary Revival; or that Synge—
another dramatist with a Protestant background—alluded to or portrayed priests in his plays in a less than flattering light. Since the 1990s,
publicised scandals involving the Church and the Irish State have had a
compelling impact on the national psyche, partly contributing to waning religious practice and leading to new representations of priesthood
on the Irish stage. In the context of a nation traumatised by political and
religious crises, this chapter examines how stereotypical figures of the
Catholic priest have shifted in contemporary Irish drama, foreshadowing,
echoing or denouncing abuse, performing contestations to propose new
bearings for a traumatised society, giving back real stories to construct
new images of the past.
It also investigates how contemporary productions have expressed
changing attitudes to the Church, from ambivalent relations in Brian
Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), to dichotomic images of priesthood
in Thomas Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us! (2010) and direct accusations of
abuse in the Abbey Theatre’s triptych ‘The Darkest Corner’. Arguably,
the ‘religious unconscious’ evoked by Seamus Heaney pervades both
Friel’s and Kilroy’s plays, and turns their defrocked priests into figures of
rebellion. The disruptions embodied by these characters paved the way
for the clinical examination of abusive practices inscribed in the three
plays of ‘The Darkest Corner’, a theatrical project which highlighted
the long heard but untold secrets of child abuse in industrial and reform
schools in the aftermath of the Ryan Report (2009) and, later in the
same year, the Murphy Report.
Heaney wrote, ‘we and our language still possess a religious unconscious, whether we are striving consciously to secularize ourselves or are
being secularized, willy-nilly’ (qtd in Pratt 445). Friel’s drama certainly
contains this struggle. His personal desire for the transcendent was demonstrated by his early study for the priesthood, but the experience ‘nearly
drove [him] cracked’. ‘It is one thing I want to forget. I never talk about
it—the priesthood’ (qtd in Furay and O’ Hanlon 302–3). Rather, his
search for transcendence transposed into his work1 and the characters
who ‘most closely represent the artist are priests or priest-like figures’
(303): Saint Columba, Archbishop Lombard, and above all faith healer
Frank Hardy. Beyond his stage figures, Ger FitzGibbon considers Friel’s
drama to be,
animated by a sacerdotal impulse—a sense that, despite the flawed means,
there is an artistic imperative to find images, emblems, gestures, narratives,
which can transcend existential isolation and which can allow individual
human needs and experiences to find communal articulation and release. (79)
This suggests that the religious unconscious has been replaced by a
secular experience: in the theatrical temple, reception is as powerful a
communion. Linking these two realms one may conclude that his ‘few
secular prayers’, at the opening of the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast on
1 May 2011, further illustrated Friel’s yearning for an unworldly and
­spiritual dimension of drama:
I pray that by taking part in the ritual here we rediscover—find access
again to—those areas of our consciousness where the spiritual has gone
silent from neglect. I pray that this may be a sacred place because what will
happen here—when it’s at its truest—really has to do with the unworldly
and the spirit. (‘Secular Prayers’ 16)
Like Friel, Kilroy’s religious education in St. Kiaran College in Kilkenny
inspired his drama. The boarding school where he sets Christ Deliver
Us!, his adaptation of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, foreshadows ‘the
contemporary clerical scandal’ and derives from personal history: ‘I never
experienced clerical sexual abuse, […] but I experienced a great deal
of physical abuse’ (Kilroy, ‘Interview’). Christ Deliver Us! opens with
Fr Joseph carrying a cane: ‘Boys are lined up and a caning on the hands
begins by the priest, six wallops to each hand. Lights down the beating continues’ (11).
Kilroy’s commentary is subtle as ‘the play captures the innocence and
simplicity of Irish teenagers in the 50s’. Yet, it ‘is also a play of great
darkness’ (‘Interview’) both for the choice of original text and for the
fact that it was premiered after the Ryan report, exposing the weakness
of a society so dominated by the all too powerful Church that it led to
decades of abuse. The opposition between good and evil, life and death,
pervades the last scene, when Michael is addressed by the defrocked
216 V. Roche-Tiengo
Fr Seamus, surrounded by two ghosts: Michael’s best friend—who committed suicide—and his girlfriend—who died giving birth to their stillborn child. Like in The Big Chapel (1971) and Talbot’s Box (1979),
Kilroy revisits Irish Catholicism to supply a personal artistic vision. Both
respectful of faith and challenging, Talbot’s Box,
started out as an attempt to write an angry, satirical play about the way
in which this human being could be so humiliated and losing his dignity
through this awful self-punishment. As it went on, the character of Talbot
refused to allow me this kind of licence, he refused to let me away with
satire, and he became a much more insistent figure […] I guess it was a
yearning inside myself for a spiritual dimension. (Kilroy, ‘Interview’)
Kilroy’s yearning for a spiritual dimension is also a Frielian issue of
­concern. Like Frank Hardy in Faith Healer, facing a despairing people,
some spectators and the lead actor of Talbot’s Box had undergone a mystical and theatrical experience during the first production at the Peacock
(1979). As he recalls,
we were just around the corner from the Church of Matt Talbot himself
and we had people coming in from the church holding up rosary beads. I
remember standing at the back of the Peacock and watching these hands
raised with beads up towards John Malloy. It was a good experience of art
taking over. […] It gave me mixed feelings. (‘Interview’)
The actor playing Matt Talbot and the presence of the church next door
could be viewed as echoing Ancient Greek theatre, the Dionysia that
had common points with the sacred mysteries in that they supposedly
brought catharsis and healing to the spectator.
According to Patrick Lonergan, ‘the success of Irish theatre internationally has been predicated on a “branding” of Irish identity as representing a narrow set of characteristics [and] appears largely determined
by their use of familiar Irish stereotypes’ (196). In staging religious
cross-dressing and defrocked characters, contemporary Irish ­dramatists
have subverted the familiar stereotypical figures of the benevolent priest,
the alcoholic friend of the family or the famished spiritual priest. In contemporary Irish drama, the priest has relinquished his ‘institutionalized
third gender’, ‘a zone between the sexes in which [he is] protected from
sexual interaction’ (Arnold 250) to interact sexually, abusing his authority and the confidence of powerless victims. Symbolically the stripping
away of the holy garments featured in both Dancing at Lughnasa and
Christ Deliver Us! signifies a journey towards a spiritual self-discovery,
the defrocked priest breaking with and being freed from the Catholic
In Dancing at Lughnasa, Father Jack’s defrocking is seen as a descent
into madness by the villagers, but according to his sister Kate, he is
merely following ‘his own distinctive spiritual search by the stripping
away of his holy garments’ (60). The dual perspective is paramount in
that devout Kate shows her own capacity to change when she finally
accepts Jack’s pagan aspiration: ‘In the opening tableau Father Jack is
wearing the uniform of a British army officer chaplain—a magnificent
and immaculate uniform of dazzling white; gold epaulettes and gold buttons, tropical hat, clerical collar, military cane’ (1). The image of ideal
priesthood, immaculate, pure, untainted is but fleeting. In Act II,
‘Jack enters […] not wearing the top coat or the hat but instead a garish-­
coloured—probably a sister’s—sweater’ (45), the ‘bizarre’ attire signalling
his religious downfall. By the end of the act, ‘Jack is wearing a very soiled,
very crumpled uniform—a version of the uniform we saw him in at the very
beginning of the play. One of the epaulettes is hanging by a thread and the
gold buttons are tarnished (68), the soiled and torn garments testifying to
his removal from the Catholic Church and to a spiritual search through
pagan practices and rituals. No longer holy to her, they are disrespectfully used by his sister Chris—‘Chris, who has been folding Jack’s surplice,
tosses it quickly over her head and joins in the dance’ (21)—substituting a
Dionysian dance scene to access a communal, transcendental experience,
a shared joyous digression if only for a short while.
Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us! populates the stage with heavy cassocks,
abusive censors that fit Liam O’Flaherty’s vision of ‘soutaned bullies
[who] hurl accusation of sexual indecency at any book that might plant
the desire for civilization and freedom in the breasts of their wretched
victims’ (qtd in Carlson 140). As other priests want to punish one of the
college boys for hiding ‘filthy pictures’, Fr Seamus stands up to them,
and identifies the pictures as works of art by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
His tentative, stuttering voice metaphorically represents the muffled
voice of reason countering the hypocrisy of the Church as well as its
abusive and amoral nature: ‘Hypo-hypo-hypo-hypocrites! The lot of us!
Whi-whi-whi-whited sepulchres! That’s—what-we-are! […] Who among
us is p-p-p-p-pure? Who ca-a-can ca-ca-cast the first stone? Which of us
is fi-fi-fi-fit to judge?’ (39). The stripping of garments offers a striking
218 V. Roche-Tiengo
image of (vulnerable) flesh when Fr Seamus ‘throws off his soutane and
clerical collar, becoming a shivering old man in a ragged white shirt and
braces’ (39). Having abandoned the coded apparel of his priesthood,
he demands a similar honesty, a communal confession: ‘Hi-hi-hi-hiding
under the black! Hi-hi-hiding our trans-transgressions, seeeeeecret sins!
Off with it! Off with it! The Truth! The truth will out!’(39). His words
stumble against the priests’ incomprehension, or rather their refusal to
admit their transgressions: ‘What is he talking about?’ (40). Suspended
and defrocked, he has regained his intellectual integrity as well as his
freedom of speech—his stutter having symptomatically disappeared at
the end of the play.
Conversely, Fr Joseph embodies the repressive force, submitting the
boys into silence: ‘I intend to wipe out the evil in this college […] The
three boys line up and he canes them on the hands’ (36). Not only does he
abuse the boys physically, but he also violates the sacrament of Confession:
Fr Joseph: I just told him [Mossy] in the confessional that he’d have
to repeat what he said but outside the confession box. […]
If he wasn’t willing to do that I wouldn’t give him absolution, you see. (25)
His abuse of power and violation of the confessional seal will drive Mossy
to suicide. However, he will be neither defrocked or excommunicated,
nor convicted under common law: no punishment will meet his crime, a
legal perspective which more recent plays do not share.
In 2009, following the publication of the Ryan Report—the report of
Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA)—Taoiseach
Brian Cowen denounced in the Dáil ‘this shame and evil’, the large scale
of abuses perpetrated by priests and nuns: ‘It is made even more appalling, by the fact that those who perpetrated the abuse had promised to
uphold and practise the gospel of love and belonged to congregations
founded to serve the very noblest ideals.’ Outlining the relationship and
shared responsibility of Church and State, he further described the findings as a ‘searing indictment of the people who perpetrated that abuse,
of the religious congregations who ran the institutions in which it took
place and of the organs of the State which failed in their duty to care for
the children involved’ (Cowen).
According to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, from
the 1930s onwards the State failed to protect ‘the sturdy children, the
athletic youths and the comely maidens’ (De Valera, qtd in Moynihan
467), as written in Article 42 of the Irish Constitution. In 1999, ten
years before the Ryan Report, Mary Raftery’s documentary series States
of Fear detailed the shocking abuse suffered by children in reformatory
and industrial schools between the 1930s and the 1970s. Her book,
Suffer the Little Children, had made public abusive practices that were
known but unspoken. On this occasion, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had
offered an apology on RTÉ: ‘On behalf of the State and of all citizens
of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue
apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to
intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue.’
The achievements of the Ryan Report lie in the disclosure of the
neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children in reformatory and industrial schools. It denounces as well the flawed system of
inspection of the Department of Education. The public naming of the
abusers—advocated in the Commission Report—was blocked by a legal
challenge launched by the Christian Brothers, ‘the largest provider of
residential care for boys in the State’ (‘Systematic Abuse’) and the object
of eight chapters in the Report. The Christian Brothers received permission to deal with abusers anonymously, thereby rendering the judicial
system’s response to the Ryan Report inadequate for most of the victims.
For Emilie Pine, who has written on the Ryan Report, ‘The Darkest
Corner’, and the role of the arts in ending a ‘culture of contempt’ (The
Politics of Irish Memory 18—51), the responsibility lies with the audience
not only as witness, but as agents of change; as active readers of the Ryan
Report taking responsibility in the process of naming and understanding
the widespread denial of what happened, and in the endemic sheltering
of the abusers by state and religious institutions. To that end, she has
launched the Industrial Memories Project (2015–2018) which,
treats the Ryan Report as a data corpus, which can be mined and analysed
and focuses on the intellectual/ethical principles of treating this material as
data, the emotive impact of the material, the methodology of approaching
a governmental report as a corpus, and the potential outcomes of identifying behavioural, cultural and linguistic patterns.2
On the National Stage, ‘The Darkest Corner’ (2010) offered a prompt
theatrical response to the revelations of systemic and widespread abuse
of children detailed in the Ryan Report. ‘The Darkest Corner’—a title
220 V. Roche-Tiengo
inspired by Taoiseach Cowen’s claim that the Report had shed ‘a powerful light into the darkest corner of the history of the State’—was comprised of three plays performed in sequence in April 2010.
The first panel of this triptych is a documentary play titled No Escape
(14–24 April 2010), based on the findings of the Ryan Report, compiled and edited by writer and Irish Times journalist Mary Raftery, and
commissioned by the Abbey Theatre. Following it are two plays that
were written prior to the Report but adopt a similar approach in presenting evidence of the abusive system, both testimonies of the accused and
more importantly those of the victims. The second panel The Evidence I
Shall Give (26–27 April 2010), written in 1961 by District Court Judge
Richard Johnson, is a courtroom drama which centres on the case of a
13-year-old girl transferred from an orphanage to an industrial school
due to her alleged unruly behaviour. Based on actual events, the play was
highlighted in Volume 4 of the Ryan Report under the heading ‘A Play
at the Abbey Theatre’, referring to its initial 1961 production:
On 30th January 1961 a play by Richard Johnson, The Evidence I Shall
Give, was premiered at the Abbey Theatre. It ran for 42 performances,
and then was restaged in July of that year when it ran for a further nine.
It returned in August for 21 more, in September for nine, and finally in
October for six. Such a run, with a total of 87 performances, was most
unusual. (CICA report)
The long run certainly signals a significant attendance and raises the
question of the lack of governmental or societal response at the time.
Also preceding the results of the Ryan Report, Gerard Mannix Flynn
had launched the theatrical performances of James X in 2003. This third
panel (running at the Abbey 29 April–1 May 2010) tackles the eponymous character’s action against the State for the recurrent sexual abuses
he had suffered in the industrial school system.
Trauma resists representation because, ‘the trauma aesthetic is uncompromisingly avant-garde, experimental, fragmented, refusing the consolations of beautiful forms, and suspicious of familiar representations’
(Luckhart 81). In its fragmented form and unadorned aesthetics, ‘The
Darkest Corner’ investigates trauma, questioning not only the ‘abject’, as
defined by Julia Kristeva,3 but also how it can be staged. The three pieces
that form ‘The Darkest Corner’—No Escape, The Evidence I Shall Give,
and James X —intertwine the abject, the horror of the institutional abuse
of children in Irish industrial schools or orphanages, with the necessity
to counteract these long-kept secrets. The plays all hinge on the Ryan
Report and the fact that the Abbey should produce a documentary programme is of particular importance if we consider that ‘[u]nlike Britain
with its tradition of documentary theatre, the genre did not exist in
Ireland, apart from some exceptions, prior to 2001’ (McCormick 180).
Gerard Mannix Flynn, who wrote and performed James X, was himself
a victim, at St Joseph’s Industrial School in Letterfrack, one of the religious institutions mentioned in the Report. The Evidence I Shall Give
(1961) is mentioned in Chapter IV of the Report. Mary Raftery took
extracts from the Report to write No Escape. Pine inferred that, with this
project ‘the Abbey Theatre acknowledged the particular role of theatre,
with its multiple aspects of seeing and listening, in combating the aporia—the sins of not seeing and not listening, which typified the period of
abuse’ (Pine, ‘The Abuse of History’ 207), spanning the years since the
No Escape contains excerpts of Judge Sean Ryan’s report and is
divided into a prologue and six acts. The play focuses on four institutions
(Artane and Letterfrack, both run by Christians Brothers; Goldenbridge,
run by Sisters of Mercy; and Ferryhouse, run by the Rosminians) to
examine physical and sexual abuse as well as its cover-up by the religious
congregations. The testimonies of the victims are intertwined with those
of the abusers—religious or state figures—and the questions of Judge
Ryan. The historical narrative presented by members of religious orders
such as the Christian Brothers is contradicted by that of their victims’,
who as children lived in a climate of fear and are finally enabled to reveal
the fabricated institutional lies and regain trust in their own stories by
sharing their memories. While the abused children had no escape, the
play also presents an aftermath where their abusers, though denying and
distorting memory, cannot escape either, trapped by the spectatorial gaze
and their victims’ accusations. The character of Judge Ryan stands at
the threshold of the play; he remains onstage, asking questions, making
comments or reading from Bertie Ahern’s apology on behalf of the Irish
state. Brother Reynolds, a representative of the Christian Brothers—
among other religious and state figures—is the first to be interviewed.
He refuses to acknowledge the widespread instances of abuse, choosing
to refer to individual instances. His testimony is followed by those of victims abused by priests, ‘They were Gods, the priests were God, no one
would believe you’ (37), which illustrate the internalised trauma of the
222 V. Roche-Tiengo
victims, the equation between God and his priests emphasising the powerlessness of children within ‘this systemic culture of abuse’ (Pine, ‘The
Abuse of History’ 219). What the Ryan Report, the ‘Darkest Corner’
and other plays since have achieved is to shift perspectives: ‘No longer
are the religious granted godlike status, and this shift enables the witnesses to take back authority over their own history and their own
­stories’ (218).
The widespread cover-up involved priests being sent from institution
to institution, thereby avoiding prosecution from the victims and endangering more children. These relocations are concretely represented, and
exhibited, by a map of Ireland marked out with the location of the abusive religious institutions: the audience confronts the wide geographic
web of systemic abuse. The production shuns a formal tribunal setting:
the stage is bare, divided by glass screens, at the same time symbols of
transparency, visibility and a quest for truth; the glass partitions of this
open tribunal contrast with the veiled enclosure of the confessional box.
Upstage, archival boxes piled from floor to ceiling serve as a symbolic
backdrop, directing the gaze towards the disclosure of the CICA material. No Escape empowers the dispossessed, enabling them to speak and
to be believed, finally freed from the discourses enforced by State and
Church. Is justice achieved if the abusers are not convicted while their
victims are sentenced to an endless cycle of mnesic and psychic sufferings? Similarly to ‘the ringing bell which reverberates quietly and persistently in the head long after the curtain has come down and the audience
has gone home’ (Murray, Brian Friel 180), the victims’ testimonies have
a lingering effect. The play thus urges the audience to listen, because the
mirror effect is now reversed; the play encourages society to copy drama
in its disclosure of hidden secrets and its quest for honesty and justice: ‘It
is only by refusing to forget Judge Ryan’s devastating conclusions that
we can show our determination as a society to learn how not to repeat
the crimes of the past. No Escape is one contribution to keeping the Ryan
report alive’ (Abbey Theatre n.p.).
The second section consists in a rehearsed reading of Richard
Johnson’s The Evidence I Shall Give:
The author was a District Court judge. The play depicted a day in the
life of a District Justice and the principal case was an application to have
a 13-year-old female inmate of an orphanage transferred to an Industrial
School because her alleged disobedience made discipline impossible. The
protagonists were the defending solicitor, who was a kind and humane
character, and who argued that ‘small children need kissing and caressing’
and the Mother Superior of the home, who was unloving and was driven
by the need to enforce severe discipline and through it to bring the children ‘to humility’. (CICA Report)
Like Brother Reynolds or Sister O’Donoghue confronting the judge
(Justice Ryan) in No Escape, Sister Cecilia refuses to acknowledge the
negative vision of their institution given by the lawyer (the well-named
Mr Verity) in The Evidence I Shall Give:
Cecilia: M
y lord, I feel that a very unjust picture of St. Malabar’s is
being built up by Mr. Verity’s questions and suggestions. I
would be very grateful if I had your permission to make some
remarks… something to put things in their proper perspective.
Sister Cecilia’s testimony fulfils two functions: blaming Margaret
Raffigan, the defendant and victim; disclosing the treatment she inflicts
on children in St Malabar’s, her codified punishment of ‘H.C.’ for ‘Hair
cut’ (68), one of the corporeal punishments forbidden in the 1946
rule book of the Department of Education rules for certified industrial
schools (Pine, ‘The Abuse of History’ 217–18).
You mean someone cut the
child’s hair just after she was
brought back by the Gardaí?
Yes, I did. […]
Verity (still not grasping the truth):Punished? I presume that from
your point of view punishment
was necessary. But...what... (he
turns to Margaret Raffigan)
Come here.... come here
Margaret (she comes to him)
Take off that scarf. (She does so.
Verity takes scarf and utters cry
of anguish when he sees her head
of hair cut irregularly on one
side... husky with rage) O...h
224 V. Roche-Tiengo
my...God! (turns fiercely on
Cecilia) You did this?
Cecilia (still defiant):Yes, Mr. Verity. (68)
The play closes on the poignant image of a young girl revealing her
shaven head, her punishment for absconding, accompanied by the
solicitor’s conclusion: ‘What a dreadful commentary on our so-called
Christian State that the soul of a little child should be thus crucified in
order to instil humility’ (69). The success of the play in 1961 was understood by the CICA commission to indicate, ‘the readiness of the public
to hear the criticisms made by the play’ (CICA report). This courtroom
drama is not only one of the first plays to stage the issue of child abuse,
but it had also an effect, albeit limited, on the extent of the problem:
‘there is evidence to suggest that Johnson’s play helped to reduce the
number of children sent to industrial schools, “because his willingness
to speak out gave other people courage”.’ (McCormick 183). Yet, the
play failed to prompt any enquiries. Like No Escape, the play’s legacy lies
not only in its undisguised presentation of an unspoken reality but in the
societal consequences of confronting this mirror pattern.
In the form of a documentary monologue, James X presents an autobiographic ‘human history of one of those children who is trying to
emerge from a place of darkness into the light; a light in which the human
spirit is allowed to triumph in its full magnificence’ (Abbey Theatre n.p.).
Flynn accuses Irish society of knowingly ignoring the industrial schools
and obvious signs of abuse. The audience of James X face his haunting
imagery of buried and long-lasting traumas. They witness and are enticed
to act. They find themselves both judge and witness, presented with a
threnody not only of James’s sufferings but also of the world’s cruelty,
indifference and crimes. When James X has finished reading his statement
to the audience—revealing that he was sexually and physically abused by
priests and brothers in three different institutions from the time he was
eleven—he places the piece of paper on the stage in front of the audience
and concludes: ‘this is yours’. The gesture is powerful. Since silence no
longer prevails, the audience, and the whole of Irish society is thus implicitly invited to a dual task: acknowledging their role in this chapter of Irish
history, whether they were directly affected by it or passive accomplices;
and protesting against institutional violence. There are no priests on the
stage; only a mindscape of their abuse. The text combines Flynn’s autobiography and other stories of victims, young boys who suffered physical,
sexual and psychological abuse. These singular stories thus fused into one
revised history of abuse are given to the audience on a piece of paper to
counteract the impossibility of telling the whole truth and the insufficiency of language to convey an unspeakable trauma.
The damaged psyche of the survivor is investigated and put in relation with the shameful trauma of a whole nation because for Flynn,
‘what cures trauma is ownership’ (Flynn and Byrne, ‘Interview’ n.p.).
The title, James X, points to the truncated identity of the character of
James O’Neill. Actor Gabriel Byrne, who directed Flynn in James X
for the New York 2011 run produced by Liam Neeson, was attentive
to this notion of social invisibility, adding that ‘one of the most pernicious aspect of abuse is that it is internalised’ (‘Interview’ n.p.). James X
challenges the authority of the Church and the State and, like the other
two plays, gives a voice to victims. Byrne ventured that, ‘Gerard found
an answer in art to be saved from hell because art has a great capacity
to heal’ (‘After James X’). Flynn wrote the play as ‘a tool, a companion’ that helped him find a voice for those who had none by textualising
and staging trauma. According to Byrne, the theatricalisation of trauma
extends beyond the healing process to define the tension between
art and society: ‘Art makes it real. Art confronts society, provokes and
questions and comments and moves.’ Art disentangles the victims from
traumatic memories and nightmarish visions, thereby transcending the
unfathomable mnesic suffering. For Flynn, ‘[t]he system investigating
the issue was the very system to be investigated (i.e. the Church and the
State)’ and his play was an urgent response to inertia.
The Abbey’s ‘Darkest Corner’ demonstrated that the executive and
legislative powers failed to protect children for which the State was
responsible. In 1961, Johnson suggested that any individual injustices
can be righted by a humane judge or solicitor. The last scene offers an
ambivalent image as a repentant Mother Cecilia opens her arms to a
bewildered but eager Margaret:
There is a tense silence. Mother Cecilia stands motionless gazing at Margaret,
who is now quite close to her. Suddenly she with impulsive gesture sweeps the
child into her arms and embraces her. After a moment of surprise Margaret
responds ardently. Exeunt both with Mary. (72)
The play uneasily points to Cecilia’s behaviour as a harsh example of
the necessary discipline and Margaret as a particular wayward child.
226 V. Roche-Tiengo
As a result, the ambiguous ending of a sudden clichéd reconciliation
between the brutal Cecilia and victimised Margaret fails to suggest that
the injustice and abuse can stop when the silenced voices of children are
finally heard and trusted, but rather that individuals like Cecilia—not
the system—are to blame. However, in the other two plays, the survivors’ voices prevail, this ‘theatre-as-memory, not only opening up the
repressed memory banks of Irish society but also […] formally mirroring the processes of memory and remembering’ (Pine, ‘The Abuse of
History’ 212). No Escape closes with the testimonies of thirteen witnesses, and James X leaves a piece of truth on the stage for the audience
to be part of the mnesic therapy.
Contemporary Irish drama refuses to bury the past in the shameful
and voiceless amnesia of Irish society because theatre and life were ‘born
under the sign of a question mark’:
Fr Seamus: K
now nothing! A clean slate! Ignorance is the start of
everything, Michael. That’s what drives us forward.
Questions. Always questions. We are born under the sign
of a question mark, Michael. And that’s how we end, too.
Questions, questions! (66)
Silence, which has surrounded decades of child abuse, has finally been
broken, and questions have been raised. These challenging questions
offer the image of a traumatic societal drama on the Irish stage. Victims,
cast aside and often unfairly condemned, can step up centre stage, populating it with more than ‘images of a perceived reality’. The survivors of
abuse are empowered because their voices can be heard on the stage: the
‘real’, in documentary form or thinly dramatised one, has unveiled the
lustreless back of an idealised Irishness and constructs new bearings in a
confrontational interrogation for State and citizens.
Contemporary Irish drama not only alludes to abuse, this aporia we
cannot access, but it also focuses on the observer in No Escape, as the
ultimate object of investigation and agent of change. Friel and Kilroy’s
staging of priests foreshadows ‘The Darkest Corner’ production insofar
as the physical, sexual and emotional traumas of children and the silencing strategies of the institutions populate all their plays. They echo the
abject and offer a depiction of contemporary child abuse scandal and
trauma. In Friel and Kilroy’s plays, characters suffering from traumas
linked to child abuse by religious figures are in the dark, off stage in a
kind of confessional motive. By contrast, in the ‘Darkest Corner’, victims and abusers are both centre stage, their bodies highlighted to give
shape to the working of memory. All three plays are staged in a lawcourt, the pieces of evidence fully, neutrally and clinically disclosed. As
a result, there is no escape, no drowning in aporia or amnesia. If there is
a trauma, a wound at the heart of Irish identity, there is also an enduring ability of the Irish stage to scrutinise the past and to interrogate its
relationship to the present in constructing a national identity from real
rather than perceived images.
1. In Minneapolis with Tyrone Guthrie in the 1970, he said that he ‘learned
a great deal about the iron discipline of theatre, and discovered a dedication and a nobility and a selflessness that one associates with the theoretical
priesthood’ (Murray, Brian Friel 42).
2. See DHC 2016, ‘Industrial Memories: Methodologies for Analysing
the Data of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Report (Ryan
Report)’, Digital Humanities Congress.
3. ‘The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them,
takes advantage of them.’ Kristeva, 15.
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239–254. Print.
Carlson, Julia, ed. Banned in Ireland. London: Routledge, 1990. Print.
Cowen, Brian. ‘Speech by An Taoiseach.’ Dail Debate on the Report of the
Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse. Roinn an Taoisigh (Department of
the Taoiseach). 11 June 2009. Web.
19 Dec. 2016.
CICA Report. Vol IV, section 5. ‘A play at the Abbey Theatre.’ Web., 19 Dec. 2016.
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FitzGibbon, Ger. ‘Interpreting Between Privacies.’ Brian Friel’s Dramatic
Artistry: The Work Has Value. Eds. Donald E. Morse, Bertha Csilla, and
Maria Kurdi. Dublin, Carysfort Press, 2006. 73–92.Print.
Flynn, Gerald Mannix. James X. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2012. Print.
——— and Gabriel Byrne. ‘After James X.’ Post-performance Q&A. New York
City Alliance Against Sexual Assault at the Cultural Project. New York. 15
December 2011. Web.
Talkback_with_Mannix_Flynn_and_Gabriel_Byrne, 19 Dec. 2016.
———. ‘James X in New York.’ Interview. 30 Nov. 2011. Web. http://www., 19 December 2016.
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———. ‘Secular Prayers for the Lyric.’ Dancing at Lughnasa Programme.
Lughnasa International Friel Conference, 20–31 August 2015. Print.
Furay, Julia and Redmond O’ Hanlon, eds. Critical Moments, Fintan O’Toole on
Modern Irish Theatre. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2003. Print.
Johnson, Richard. The Evidence I Shall Give. Unpublished script. 1961.
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Kilroy, Thomas. Christ Deliver Us! Loughcrew: The Gallery Press, 2010. Print.
———. ‘Interview.’ Drama on One. RTÉ Radio 1. 2010. Web. http://www., 19 Dec. 2016.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia: Columbia
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———, ed. Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries, Interviews: 1964–1999, London, Faber &
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Pine, Emilie. ‘The Abuse of History/A History of Abuse: Theatre as memory
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———. The Politics of Irish Memory, Performing Remembrance in Contemporary
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Author Biography
Virginie Roche-Tiengo teaches legal English at the University Paris XIII,
France. Following her Ph.D. at the Sorbonne on Lost Unity: The Poetics of Myth
in the Theatre of the Irish Playwright Brian Friel, she has published on Irish
drama, in particular the work of Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy, Frank McGuinness,
and Samuel Beckett. She is currently working on the Brian Friel Papers in the
National Library of Ireland and in the archives of NUI Galway as part of a new
book project. Her research also focuses on law and the Irish stage.
Populating the Irish Stage with (Dis)Abled
Bodies: Sanctuary by Christian O’Reilly
and the Blue Teapot Company
Katarzyna Ojrzyńska
In a scene of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
the Player, the omniscient and somewhat menacing leader of a theatre
company, who frequently comments on the nature of theatre and acting, recalls a situation in which one of his actors was sentenced to death
by hanging for a mischief he committed. In order to make their performance more appealing, the company had received official permission to
hang him in the middle of the play. This solution, however, proved to
be a complete failure. ‘[H]e just wasn’t convincing! It was impossible
to suspend one’s disbelief—and what with the audience jeering and
throwing peanuts, the whole thing was a disaster!—he did nothing but
cry all the time—right out of character—stood there and cried….’, complains the Player before concluding: ‘Audiences know what to expect,
and that is all they are prepared to believe in’ (84). This story shows that
theatre is supposed to be an illusion and that reality is the hardest thing
for the audience to accept on the stage, since their tastes are shaped by
K. Ojrzyńska (*) 
University of Łódź, Łódź, Poland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_17
the stage conventions and stereotypical ideas about theatre to which they
have been exposed. There is yet another lesson to be learnt from this
story. The scene from Stoppard’s play suggests that the audience is particularly unwilling to face the truth about human frailty and death, which
is neither gallant nor entertaining. The actual intrusion of death within
the realm of theatre performance is therefore despised by the crowd,
whose members prefer comfortable illusions to uncomfortable, trivial,
and unlofty truths. Conventional theatrical representation makes a death
scene tolerable, if not arresting, but simultaneously creates an illusion
which has little to do with reality and usually allows safe distance. Similar
problems related to the relationship between the stage and the auditorium come into play when actors with disabilities enter the acting space.
To explore this issue further, one should consider the reasons behind
the limited number of actors with disabilities who pursue their careers
in traditional text-based theatre. According to Bree Hadley, three factors
explain this situation. First of all, conventional realistic plays tend to be
deeply rooted in ‘the dominant discourse [which] insists on configuring
disability as an individual problem detached from the sphere of identity
politics’ (10) and, therefore, are not effective in changing social attitudes
towards disability. The second point concerns the traditional stage and
auditorium division. Hadley suggests that artists with disabilities often
consciously choose performance art because they do not wish to address
their works only to a uniform group of theatre-goers. Instead, performed
in a public space, their live art is a form of large-scale intervention
addressed to a more diverse audience (14). Finally, Hadley underscores
the ‘additional challenge in accessing the theatre stage, subsidy and training required to create these [conventional] sorts of performance’ (18). It
is possible to argue that this results from the fact that the performances
created by people with disabilities are often labelled as therapy, and
therefore considered in medical rather than artistic terms. Furthermore,
disabled people may find it hard, or even impossible, to develop the acting skills possessed by their abled colleagues and thus may prefer to avoid
the patronizing attitude of the audience.
One must remember that the body of a disabled actor hardly ever
undergoes full stage semiotization. This, as Polish theatre scholar Irena
Jajte-Lewkowicz notes, eliminates our feeling of safety created by
‘the distance between the audience and a mimetic performance,’ and
leads to ‘cognitive “uncertainty” resulting from the increased confusion between the signified and the signifier’ (282), between what Erika
Fischer-Lichte defines as the actor’s semiotic and phenomenal bodies
(26–33). Therefore, disabled artists often resign from stage illusion and
use postdramatic strategies which employ the actors’ bodies in a completely different way than conventional theatre. According to Hans-Thies
Lehmann, in postdramatic theatre, ‘[t]he body becomes the centre of
attention, not as a carrier of meaning but in its physicality and gesticulation’ (95), avoiding traditional semiotization.
Finally, one could add at least one more factor to this long list of reasons
for the lack of people with disabilities in traditional text-based performances,
which reaches far beyond theatre; namely the fact that the presence of a disabled body on a stage can also be a source of fear for Western audiences. As
Julia Kristeva argues in her letters to Jean Vanier, otherness defined through
disability incites the deepest, catastrophic fears that are rooted in the human
psyche. This is because, by facing disability, and not just its theatre representation, we are also faced with the limits of existence, the fear of ultimate loss,
and the threat of death (38–9)1 —the taboos that Western societies tend to
relegate from their everyday experience.
This broad reflection on disability in theatre provides a general context for the introduction of Blue Teapot, an Irish theatre company
which not only creates professional theatre productions, but also offers
QQI/FETAC accredited theatrical training for people with intellectual
disabilities (IDs).2 When it became an independent professional theatre company in 2009,3 Blue Teapot entered the field of Irish culture
which had until then remained underexplored by people with learning
disabilities and, together with other similar initiatives in Ireland, such
as the Shadowbox Visual Theatre Company4 or the Equinox Theatre
Company,5 has since been paving the way for people with IDs to the
world of performing arts. Petal Pilley, the Company’s director since
2006, states on their website that her work with Blue Teapot aims ‘to
provide Ireland with the national model of a professional theatre company for people with learning disabilities, to lead the way as to how that
can be achieved and maintained’. Although text-based performances are
commonly believed to be less effective in challenging established misconceptions about disability than the postdramatic strategies used by disabled performers, Blue Teapot has ventured into the field of text-based
performance, by staging William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s
Dream (2010) and Christian O’Reilly’s Sanctuary (2012). This experience opened the Company members to new forms of creative activity
and recently encouraged Pilley to organize creative writing workshops in
response to their desire to write their own plays.
A play that deserves particular attention since its production marked
a crucial turning point for the Company is Sanctuary.6 Although the
execution of the text on the stage was not always flawless by traditional
‘able-bodied’ theatrical standards, the performance has been very successful in reinforcing the visibility of people with IDs on the Irish stage,
largely because of the authenticity of acting and the fact that the play
does not conceal the characters’ frailty nor does it simplify the problems
they face.7 Consequently, addressing some of the most pressing issues
surrounding the identity and social status of people with IDs in Ireland,
Sanctuary has stirred up a debate on the Irish laws that regulate their
sexuality and garnered many enthusiastic reviews.8 Christian O’Reilly’s
creative process for this play was based on his collaboration with the Blue
Teapot actors. It started with a series of very open conversations with the
ensemble, which the playwright clothed in a dramatic form and later discussed with the Company’s members. As O’Reilly admits,
Their feedback helped me discover and shape the play into something that
felt authentic to their experiences. The play comes from them, is a reflection
of them and is performed by them. The play only exists because of them
and, if it’s any good, this is also due to this remarkable group of people.
(Qtd in ‘Finding Sanctuary’ 18)
The playwright’s engagement with disability rights was also important for
the process; O’Reilly is the author of the story for Damien O’Donnell’s
film Inside I’m Dancing (2004). Based on his experience as personal assistant to Dermot Walsh, a man with cerebral palsy, the story illustrates the
struggle of Irish people with disabilities for the right to independent living. Eight years later O’Reilly wrote Sanctuary, which addressed a number of crucial issues in the context of disability rights, and this time, unlike
in the case of O’Donnell’s film, it was performed by disabled actors. It
is also telling that Sanctuary premiered soon after the events which took
place in September 2012, when disabled people and their families protested in the streets of Dublin against Health Service Executive cuts to
personal assistant services, since the play asks basic questions which
remained somewhat neglected by disability activism in Ireland.
Sanctuary tackles the sexuality of people with learning disabilities, which remains a contentious issue in Irish society.9 The play draws
attention to the fact that, under Irish law, the right to consensual sex is
denied to people with intellectual disabilities, unless they are married. It
presents the story of a couple who attend the same care centre. During
an organized trip to the cinema, 31-year-old Larry, who has Down
syndrome, bribes his care worker Tom with a considerable amount of
money (200 euro), and secretly slips out of the screening room with
his epileptic girlfriend Sophie. They spend a couple of hours in a hotel
room, where they have their first sexual encounter. Their escape is eventually discovered, when their fellow care centre attendees with various
IDs—Andrew, Peter, Sandy, Alice, William, and Matthew—notice that
the couple are missing. They eventually find Larry and Sophie in the
secret sanctuary—the hotel room—only to realize their own suppressed
emotional and bodily longings and desires.
A number of problems emerge from this simple plotline: the right of
people with IDs to sexual autonomy, their reproductive freedom, their
infantilization by the able-bodied members of society, their right to privacy and the question of their independent living. Sanctuary offers a critique of the social system which deprives people with learning disabilities
of access to sexual experience and, by placing them under constant surveillance, increases their dependence and vulnerability. The play addresses
the misconceptions that inform the contemporary constructs of disability as well as Irish legal regulations which govern the erotic lives of people with IDs. The formulation of Sect. 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual
Offences) Act of 1993, which aims at the ‘[p]rotection of mentally
impaired persons’ through criminalizing ‘(a) ha[ving] or attempt[ing]
to have sexual intercourse, or (b) commit[ting] or attempt[ing] to commit an act of buggery with a person who is mentally impaired (other
than a person to whom he is married or to whom he believes with reasonable cause he is married),’ seems but a relic of the pre-Celtic Tiger
Ireland and its excessively strict Catholic morality. O’Reilly’s play examines the problems resulting from the above-mentioned legal regulations.
Addressing the question of unequal access to intimacy, it manipulates the
ocular relationship between the audience and the actors/characters in
order to problematize the socially constructed dichotomy between the
world of the able-bodied and that of the disabled.
Staged by Galway’s Blue Teapot Theatre, the original production of
O’Reilly’s play belongs to the tradition of realistic theatre, which separates the lit stage from the dark auditorium with an imaginary fourth
wall, and thereby introduces a clear-cut division between spectators as
starers and actors as starees. Furthermore, since the aim of the play is
to raise awareness of the legal regulations that are based on prejudice
against people with IDs among those who enjoy all the privileges granted
to the abled members of society, we may assume that it is addressed
above all to the able-bodied. Such was the case when it was staged for
instance at the Galway Theatre Festival, where the Blue Teapot actors
faced a mainly non-disabled audience.10
The realistic convention used by the playwright and the Company
creates a comfortable environment for the audience to stare at those
at whom it would otherwise be improper to look. This is facilitated by
limiting the interaction between the starers and starees, both of whom
remain safely separated by the fourth wall. This solution eliminates the
feeling of guilt involved in looking fixedly at people with disabilities in
public, and satiates what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson views as a natural
human craving to stare at a body which is defined as abnormal or unusual
by the given social or cultural standards. She explains: ‘Disturbances in
the visual status quo literally catch our eye, drawing us into a staring relationship with a startling sight’ (13). Here a distinction has to be made
between the freak show aesthetics, which emphasizes the distinctiveness
of the given biological phenomenon, and the presentation of an abnormal body in an ordinary, everyday milieu, which aims at neutralizing its
‘otherness’. The latter strategy, clearly visible in O’Reilly’s play, seeks to
make the stareable body a recognized and, therefore, in a way invisible/
unstareable part of the everyday landscape. It opposes the practice of
hiding ‘otherness’—defined through intellectual disability—from public
view, and helps the disabled to gain acceptance and the status of ‘normality’ both in theatre, and in life outside the stage. As Garland-Thomson
notes, the public presence of disability ‘can expand the range of the bodies we expect to see and broaden the terrain where we expect to see such
bodies’ (9). What additionally reinforces this effect is the close identification between the disabled actor and the disabled character—the blurring
of the boundary between reality and representation—which highlights
the authenticity of the performance, and offers an opportunity to confront the spectators directly with their disabled others. The play gives the
audience a chance to verify their (mis)conceptions about intellectual disability and eventually accept the difference between themselves and the
actors/characters, not so much in terms of otherness, but as a form of
individual variety.
Jana Pilátová maintains that, ‘[u]nlike traditional societies, we do not
know how to treat their [disabled people’s] otherness’ (193). Therefore,
communication between the actor and the audience in a theatre created
by people with disabilities involves a somewhat nostalgic return to the
more fundamental social arrangements unspoilt by the categories of uniformity and usefulness governing contemporary Western societies whose
dominant discourses, in Hadley’s words, ‘see the disabled body only in
terms of the personae projected onto it, not on its own terms, and thus
position it as very invisible’ (7). Thus, according to Jajte-Lewkowicz,
in the theatre of people with disabilities, we are dealing with the ‘multiplication of masks’ worn by the actor: the mask of nature, the stage
mask, and the social and cultural mask of disability. This intensifies stage
expression in a unique way. Such theatre demands that ‘the members of
the audience should perform a certain absolution—they should take off
their own masks’ (283). This process of unmasking the audience may be
closely connected with the subconscious need to identify with the characters. In O’Reilly’s play, this identification takes place on the level of
basic sexual and emotional needs, which are experienced by both the
able-bodied starers and the disabled starees. It involves the renouncement of what Bourdieu defines as a social ‘symbolic violence,’11 which in
this case is exercised in order to impose normative, socially-constructed
models of disability on people with various impairments. As GarlandThomson posits, while staring at a person with disability, we ask ourselves a question: ‘Why […] does that person […] look so much like and
yet so different from me? Such confusing sights both affirm our shared
humanity and challenge our complacent understandings’ (20). There
is something uncanny, both familiar and alien, attractive and repulsive,
about this kind of otherness. Faced with such cognitive dissonance, the
audience is forced to reach beyond the social constructs of disability and
is thus encouraged to re-embrace and redefine it—to make the uncanny
familiar. They realize that the emotional and sexual needs of the characters and the actors who perform their roles are not much different from
their own.
The taboo topic of the sexual needs of people with intellectual disabilities hardly ever hits the audience directly in the face, but provides a
considerably safe and comfortable environment both for the audience
and, more importantly, for the actors. This largely happens because the
play avoids antagonizing the two sides of the stage/audience divide. In
order to explain this strategy, we need to refer briefly to the pre-Socratic
theory of extramission, according to which the process of seeing involves
our eyes sending out a kind of fire or ray of light which touches the
object of our perception. Postulating that by looking at an object we
influence it in a direct fashion, this theory lay foundations, for instance,
for Foucault’s idea of panoptical gaze. In general, speaking metaphorically, the gaze tends to mould/shape the perceived object often in a violent fashion. For Garland-Thomson, ‘the gaze […] has been extensively
defined as an oppressive act of disciplinary looking that subordinates its
victim’ (10). Staring, by contrast, is associated with ‘wonder [which]
places starer and staree in dynamic relation’ (Garland-Thomson 51)
and thus, can be compared to recognizing the perceived object by delicate and unobtrusive touch. What seems particularly relevant to the discussion of O’Reilly’s play is Garland-Thomson’s baroque stare which
‘overrides reason and restraint, revels in contradictions and arouses fervor’
(51), yet at the same time this excessive form of staring ‘indicates
wonder rather than mastery [and thus] can lead to new insights’
(Garland-Thomson 51). The idea behind O’Reilly’s play is communicated
mostly by means of creating an ocular situation in which gaze is largely
replaced with stare, and the normalizing power of the social gaze is only
suggested, rather than explored in a direct fashion, in terms of the relationship between the audience and the stage.
It is possible to argue that the title of the play refers not only to the
dark movie theatre and the hotel room where the characters find refuge and intimacy, but also to the safe spaces occupied by the audience
and the actors. As regards the characters, although the viewers in a way
infringe on the intimate space they create for themselves, the actual sexual initiation takes place during a blackout between the scenes, thus protecting the audience from feeling guilty of voyeurism. The play makes its
point, not so much through embarrassing the audience by allowing them
to experience a form of guilty pleasure, but by operating within a conventional realistic tradition, which allows for a safe, acceptable degree of
insight into the private and intimate spheres of both the characters’ lives
and the lives of the actors whose experiences served as source material
for the play.
One may claim that by maintaining the division between the stage and
the audience, the play is not entirely successful in creating a fully integrative environment. And yet, in a number of scenes, Sanctuary effectively
challenges the traditional distribution of agency along the stage/audience
divide. Even though the interaction with the audience seems to be limited,
there is at least one moment in the play when the auditorium is defined
as a site of ableist aesthetic values, which suggests that the audience performs a social gaze informed by traditional concepts of beauty and normality. Soon after, this gaze is, however, reversed by the disabled characters
in an act of self-empowerment. This happens in the opening scene in the
cinema, when the characters, equipped with drinks, snacks and popcorn,
chaotically take their seats ‘facing the audience’ in order to watch a film.
Tellingly, the film is a cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast. In the wider
context of the play, the choice of the fairy tale is important for a number
of reasons. First of all, it is designed for children, which suggests the infantilization of the characters, who would prefer to watch a good action film
with Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, Bruce Willis or Demi Moore. Secondly, it
addresses the issues of love and otherness, which are central to the play.
Thirdly, the cartoon convention highlights the artificiality of the fairy tale
as well as the constructs and values it promotes. Since the characters face
the audience while watching the film, their comments have a double meaning, which is conspicuous in the following exchange between Peter and
Sandy in the cinema:
Peter:Why would you want to be like Beauty?
Sandy:‘Cos she’s beautiful.
Peter:Yeah, but she’s only a cartoon character. You’re real. (14)
The comment refers both to the film and to the audience, whose aesthetic values are ridiculed and deemed fake. It is an instance of the critical
reversal of society’s gaze, which seeks to reveal the social constructedness
of the ableist categories of beauty and ugliness.
O’Reilly’s play also creatively uses the traditional distribution of
agency, showing the transformation of the characters from passive cinema audience members into active participants in life. Sneaking out of
the cinema, Larry and Sophie actively resist the infantilizing practices to
which they have been subjected, and the passive role of the viewers of
the cartoon which fails to respond to the complexity of their emotional
and sexual needs. In a sense, this reflects the nature of O’Reilly’s and
Blue Teapot’s undertaking, which challenges the common preconceptions about people with IDs, who, as Wilkerson posits, ‘regardless of age
[…] are considered children, incapable of forming substantive life preferences, learning the skills necessary to negotiate sexual choices, or making
meaningful decisions in general’ (204). This aim is achieved by giving
the Company members a chance to voice the problems and dilemmas
which they experience from their own perspective.
Since they are forced into the roles of children who need constant
supervision, the disabled characters lack any experience in the area of
courtship. Consequently, they rely on the patterns they have observed
in the abled, adult world, to which, however, they have limited access.
Therefore, their attempts at courting often seem to be very clichéd and
clumsy, which both emphasizes the characters’ desire to fit in and ridicules the conventions governing the abled world. This idea seems to be
endowed with some metatheatrical self-irony, since the members of Blue
Teapot also strive to fulfil certain standards governing the traditional
(abled) realistic theatre. Much as she is ‘astounded by their level of emoting, the drive and the depth of understanding for the characters and the
play itself’ (qtd in Crawley), Pilley, for instance, openly admits that the
actors needed prompting due to the length of the text which they found
difficult to learn by heart. Furthermore, one may observe a deep sense
of anxiety and insecurity underlying the characters’ behaviour, which is
most conspicuous when Larry and Sophie are about to be left alone in
the room without any supervision. Although their fears do not serve as
an obstacle to sexual and emotional satisfaction, the characters are much
more aware of the fact that they have transgressed certain social norms,
and this act of non-conformity should not be made public. When Larry
asks his partner, ‘Do you think they’d let us be together if they knew we
wanted to be together?’, she instantly responds, ‘Probably not, no. We’d
have to keep it a secret’ (35).
In their everyday lives, the characters remain under the constant surveillance of their parents, care workers and ‘the big boss’—presumably
the head of the care centre. Most of the time, these people are referred to
as ‘they’, which shifts the responsibility for the surveillance from specific
individuals to society as a whole—a faceless power which decides about
the fate of people with IDs. It is also conspicuous that the characters, and
especially Larry, have to some extent internalized the gaze of society. In
fact, throughout most of the play, he and Sophie follow opposite emotional trajectories. Initially full of fear and doubts, Sophie gradually grows
more and more confident—at one point, she suggests to her partner that
they should have sex in the bath and ponders upon the possibility of having a baby. Larry, by contrast, is strongly aware of the fact that he and
Sophie won’t be allowed to make their own decisions about their future
life: ‘But it wouldn’t be up to us. It would be up to everyone else—my
parents, your staff’ (47). Thus, overwhelmed by the possible consequences
of his ‘misbehaviour’, Larry soon returns to his safe habits—he straightens the bed cover, turns on the TV and makes tea, which will help him
and Sophie cover up the fact that they have been drinking champagne.
As Foucault argues, the ultimate goal of the panoptical gaze is to induce
in a person ‘a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the
automatic functioning of power’ (201). O’Reilly exposes the workings of
the panoptical gaze which regulates the behaviour of people with IDs and
forces them into the desexualized models of proper behaviour. This is also
conspicuous when, upon finding the couple in the hotel room, Andrew, a
fellow disabled participant in the cinema outing, calls Sophie ‘a slut’ and
‘a whore’. Unable to properly channel his jealousy, he resorts to the strict
Catholic moral values that have been instilled in him and tries to restore
order by punishing the moral offenders.
The situations presented in the above-mentioned scenes bear close
resemblance to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, which was extensively
analyzed by Foucault, according to whom this institutional building is
a perfect example illustrating the concept of internalizing the discipline
imposed on an individual by the apparatus of power. Bentham himself
described his architectural project as ‘a new mode of obtaining power of
mind over mind, in a quality hitherto without example’ (31). The circular arrangement of cells around the central tower with a guard who
remains invisible to the inmates guarantees that they will act as if they
were under constant surveillance, which leads to the internalization of
the guard’s regulatory gaze. As Foucault explains, ‘He who is subjected
to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the
constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection’
(202–203). Furthermore, it is logical to assume that, in the event of the
others’ indocile behaviour, the prisoner may also exercise the regulatory
gaze himself or herself so as to reinstate order. In general, the panopticon aims ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’ (201), so that the
guard will no longer be needed.
This form of optic surveillance, which may be compared to a selfpropelling perpetuum mobile, is fully explored by O’Reilly in the context
of disability. Like the inmates of Bentham’s panopticon, the characters
with IDs depicted in Sanctuary have been kept under close surveillance
all their lives and, as a consequence, tend to control themselves and one
another, without the need for external supervision. To use Foucault’s
words, ‘Visibility is a trap’ (200) in which they are caught, because
they have never been given a chance to escape the disciplining gaze of
their parents and guardians. Thus, when Tom is about to leave Larry
and Sophie alone in a hotel room, the couple are extremely anxious to
spend some time together without the fear of being interrupted at any
moment. Sophie complains that her life lacks any degree of intimacy. As
she explains, ‘I’ve people coming into my room the whole time, even
the bathroom sometimes if they think you’ve been in there too long.
Sometimes you want to be in the bathroom a long time, I do tell them,
but they get all worried about you and they burst in. It’s awful embarrassing’ (21). Yet, she seems to procrastinate the moment when she and
Larry are left alone by Tom. Sophie asks Larry a number of questions—
concerning many possible emergency situations—which shows that the
new circumstances she finds herself in evoke mixed feelings of fear and
anxiety within her. Still, as later events show, it is possible to break such
habits and inhibitions—many of which are caused by the internalization
of the panoptical gaze. This is also conspicuous in Peter’s case. When
left alone in the movie theatre, after their fellow care centre attendees
have gone to search for Larry and Sophie, Peter and Sandy enjoy their
first moment of intimacy. Peter, who earlier felt very uncomfortable with
Sandy’s advances, now totally changes his attitude. He admits that this
is the first time he has had a chance to ‘talk […] properly to a girl’ (18)
and speak openly about his emotions, which he would never have done
in the others’ presence for fear of being laughed at. The couple kiss and
express their hope that the others will never return (17).
Constantly watched, the characters in the play are paradoxically
never seen by people around them as individuals with specific needs and
desires. For this reason, Sanctuary is informed by a desire for social visibility, which challenges the normative model of society. The plea or
demand for social visibility is stressed a number of times in the play.
When Peter and Sandy are left alone for a moment in the movie theatre,
Peter admits, ‘Ah, Sandy, you’re grand. […] At least you paid me some
attention. If it wasn’t for you, I might not have known I even existed’
(16), which underscores his need for understanding and his sense of
social alienation. Then, at the end of the play, after Sophie has a strong
seizure, the group of disabled characters who have gathered in the hotel
are faced with a dilemma whether to leave the room to seek help or to
stay inside so that the couple’s romantic rendezvous will remain a secret.
Eventually, a sense of camaraderie overcomes any fear of the possible
consequences. The play ends with a makeshift wedding ceremony performed by Andrew who pronounces Larry and Sophie ‘man and wife’,
and a powerful scene in which the disabled people exit the hotel room
to seek help for their friend and in this act of ‘coming-out’ to the world
reveal their so-far concealed sexual and emotional needs. These serve
as acts of rebellion against the oppressive social system, which has been
forcing the stereotype of asexual innocents on the characters.
Towards the end of the play, the characters also attempt to find a connection between their situation and the fairy tale in which ‘The bad guy
fights the Beast for Beauty at the end, but he gets killed and then the
Beast gets turned into a prince’ (9). Peter asks, ‘Do you think Larry will
turn into a prince?’ and Sandy replies, ‘I hope not. I like him the way he
is’ (54). The characters do not undergo a miraculous transformation in
order to fit into the able-bodied models of beauty and love. Still, in the
eyes of the audience they change—they are finally seen as they really are.
The disabled other turns into a familiar element of the theatrical and social
landscape. The audience starts to perceive the people in front of them as
both professional actors and individuals with emotional and sexual desires.
In her book about staring Garland-Thomson alludes to the ideas of
Susan Sontag. She states:
Good staring, Sontag suggests, reaches out. So the ‘unworthy desire’ to
look hard at ‘repulsive attractions’ can be transformed into an ethical relation if it is mobilized into political action. If starers can identify with starees enough to jumpstart a sympathetic response that is then ‘translated
into action,’ staring turns the corner toward the ethical. (186)
Widely praised by the critics, O’Reilly’s Sanctuary seeks to change the
social and cultural perception of people with IDs. It transforms the stare
of the audience into an informed and sympathetic look. It challenges
the processes of othering and replaces them with identification. The play
tackles a difficult subject in a subtle but insightful way, carefully avoiding exhibitionism. Performed by people with IDs, it is an instance of
both looking back to the centre—re-examining the stereotypes and values of the able-bodied world—and of performing back to the centre—
reclaiming the theatrical space which has often been either inaccessible
to, or avoided by, people with disabilities. On the one hand, the Company
shows that it is Irish society, and not them, that needs therapy to
effectively change its approach to people with IDs. On the other, by
accentuating the often insurmountable obstacles they come across in their
everyday lives, the actors do not aspire to ‘supercrip’ status—the status of
a heroic disabled super-achiever who overcomes all his or her ­limitations—
but are not afraid to show their fragility, insecurity and sometimes even
helplessness when faced with Irish reality. Lauded by Breda Shannon
from Irish Theatre Magazine as ‘[a] brilliant insightful piece of work that
enlightens and entertains [and] also brings to the fore the amazing talents
of Pilley’s first rate cast,’ the play rings true in the way it brings recognition and a new visibility to people with learning disabilities, who have
emotional and sexual needs.
1. I’ve paraphrased a fragment of Kristeva’s letter published in Polish translation in the volume entitled (Bez)sens słabości: Dialog wiary z niewiarą o
2. The Company focuses exclusively on people with intellectual disabilities.
3. The origins of Blue Teapot date back to 1996, when it was founded
within Brothers of Charity Services, Galway. It is crucial to note that the
group, which later became a professional ensemble, was formed in the
times when disability activism in Ireland gained momentum. The early
1990s were the times of the struggle of people with disabilities for independent living, with the first Irish Centre for Independent Living opened
in 1992, when the idea of using personal assistant services to empower
people with disabilities was popularized in Ireland.
4. Founded in 1998 in Bray, Co. Wicklow, by Gemma Gallagher and Frieda
Hand, Shadowbox works with senior citizens and people with learning
disabilities and mental health issues. The performances staged to date,
e.g. Maze (2004), Outside (2005–2006), and Cloud House (2007–2009),
were mostly pieces of physical theatre, devised during workshops. The
company organizes workshops for people with intellectual disabilities,
both in Ireland and the UK.
5. Based in Callan, Co. Kilkenny, Equinox was founded in 2008 as part of
KCAT Art & Study Centre. The work of the ensemble involves collaboration between people with intellectual disabilities and other disadvantages
with able-bodied theatre artists.
6. I would like to express my deep gratitude to Christian O’Reilly, who
kindly sent me the manuscript of the play.
7. Blue Teapot explores the ambiguity of this abbreviation (identity/intellectual disability) in their 2014 piece entitled iD.
8. The play was very successful in drawing public attention to this problem,
which was further publicized to a broad audience by the RTÉ One documentary directed by Anna Rodgers titled Somebody to Love (2014). The
documentary features the Blue Teapot actors and short fragments of the
9. Every five years, the National Disability Authority commissions a national
survey in which 1000 adults are asked whether people with IDs should
have the right to have sexual relationships and to procreate. In 2011,
51% of respondents expressed their support for people with learning disabilities or autism to have the same right to sexual relationships as the
abled, and 38% supported their right to have children if they wished (The
National Disability Authority).
10. Sanctuary premiered at the Galway Theatre Festival in 2012; in 2013 it
was performed as part of Galway Arts Festival and Dublin Fringe Festival,
and in 2014 it was staged at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway and at
Dublin’s Liberty Hall Theatre. To date, the Company has not given performances outside of Ireland.
11. Bourdieu and Passeron describe symbolic violence as ‘every power which
manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force’ (4). It is a
form of covert manipulation that serves to sustain a certain social status
quo and legitimize the power relations that exist in it.
Works Cited
Bentham, Jeremy. Preface to Panopticon. Panopticon Writings. Ed. Miran
Božovič. London: Verso, 1995. 31–33. Print.
Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean-Claude. Reproduction in Education, Society
and Culture. 2nd ed. London: Sage, 1990. Print.
Crawley, Peter. ‘Special-Needs Actors Centre Stage: “For once they have the
power in the room”.’ Irish Times 17 July 2013. Web.
news-post.aspx?contentid=932. 17 Jan. 2015.
Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act of 1993. Sec. 5. Irish Statute Book. Office of
the Attorney General, n. d. Web.
act/pub/0020/sec0005.html#sec5. 11 Sept. 2014.
Hadley, Bree. Disability, Public Performance and Spectatorship: Unconscious
Performers. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. Print.
‘Finding Sanctuary in a Teapot.’ The Craic in Galway 7 (2013): 16–18. Web. 17 Jan. 2015.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Routledge Introduction to Theatre and Performance
Studies. Ed. Minou Arjomand and Ramona Mosse. Trans. Minou Arjomand.
New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. Trans. Alan
Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2009. Print.
Jajte-Lewkowicz, Irena. ‘O improwizacji, czyli zamiast zakończenia.’ [‘On
Improvisation – Instead of Conclusion.’] Terapia i Teatr: Wokół Problematyki
Teatru Ludzi Niepełnosprawnych. Eds. Irena Jajte-Lewkowicz and Agnieszka
Piasecka. Łódź: Poleski Ośrodek Sztuki, 2006. 279–288. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Letter to Jean Vanier. 10 Aug. 2009. (Bez)sens słabości: Dialog
wiary z niewiarą o wykluczeniu. Trans. Katarzyna and Piotr Wierzchosławscy.
Poznań: W drodze, 2012. 35–52. Print.
Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jürs-Munby.
London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
O’Reilly, Christian. Sanctuary. Unpublished script. 5 Dec. 2012. TS.
Pilátová, Jana. ‘Zadanie: dar i dola.’ [‘The Task: the Gift and the Lot.’]
Spektakl jako wydarzenie i doświadczenie. Ed. Irena Jajte-Lewkowicz, Joanna
Michałowska and Agnieszka Piasecka. Łódź: Oficyna, 2013. 189–212. Print.
Pilley, Petal. ‘About Us: Our Team.’ The Blue Teapot Company. Blue Teapot
Theatre Company, n. d. Web.
11 Sept. 2014.
Shannon, Breda. Rev. of Sanctuary, by Blue Teapot Theatre Company. Irish
Theatre Magazine 13 Oct. 2012. Web.
Reviews/Current/Sanctuary. 17 Jan. 2015.
Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove,
1967. Print.
The National Disability Authority. ‘A National Survey of Public Attitudes to
Disability in Ireland.’ Disability Research Series 14. PDF File. NDA. Web.
pdf. 30 Jan. 2014.
Wilkerson, Abby. ‘Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency.’ Feminist
Disability Studies. Ed. Kim Q. Hall. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
2011. 193–217. Print.
Author Biography
Katarzyna Ojrzyńska is an assistant professor in the Department of Studies in
Drama and pre-1800 English Literature at the University of Łódź, Poland. Her
academic interests revolve around modern drama, theatre, and cultural disability
studies. She has published several articles on W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Brian
Friel and Christina Reid, and is the author of ‘“Dancing as if Language No
Longer Existed”: Dance in Contemporary Irish Drama’ in Reimagining Ireland
ed. Eamon Maher (Peter Lang, 2015).
Queering the Irish Stage: Shame, Sexuality,
and the Politics of Testimonial
Cormac O’Brien
While Ireland’s recent Marriage Equality referendum merits much
intellectual consideration and critique, as a preamble I want to fore­
ground the highly performative nature of the pro-marriage equality
campaigns, which operated collectively under the umbrella organisation
‘Yes Equality’. Few would disagree that the resounding success of Yes
Equality—which translated into a polling victory of 62.1% in favour,
37.9% against—was the result not only of the campaign’s remarkable creativity coupled with astute mobilisation of social media and other nontraditional political platforms, but also because, through this creativity,
the campaign evolved to symbolise broader notions of human rights.
Like the subtext underpinning Irina Prozorova’s yearning for Moscow
in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Yes Equality became about something much
bigger, much more important, than the right for gay and lesbian couples
to get married. Yes Equality became about finally dispelling a lingering
form of religiously inflected but nonetheless modern homophobia that
has been prevalent in Ireland since the earliest gay liberation movements
of the 1970s. Anti-marriage equality campaigners utilised several dated
C. O’Brien (*) 
University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_18
250 C. O’Brien
and largely debunked myths and stereotypes of queerness that were,
at their essence, rooted in the disingenuous trope of predatory homosexuals armed with a ‘gay agenda’ that, while turning the nation’s children queer, would also see ‘traditional family life’ outlawed.1 While it is
arguable that many on the ‘No Side’ had read Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick’s
seminal The Epistemology of the Closet, a book considered foundational
to queer theory, their campaign was modelled along what Sedgwick
identifies as the ‘homo/hetero’ binary whereby queerness becomes,
through the machinations of discourse and propaganda, linked with several unrelated but nonetheless very sinister and suspect activities. Thus
the No Side based their campaign, under the banner of ‘Mothers and
Fathers Matter’, on the assumption that queerness is somehow contagious and gay people therefore should not have any part in the education or upbringing of children. This tactic cost them a large swathe of
voters, given that their promulgation of the heteronormative, nuclear
family both excluded and demonised single-parent families while also
calling into question any rights that non-reproductive heterosexual couples might have to a full and healthy sex life. In many ways, then, the
Yes Equality campaign and the success of the referendum became about
disrupting several long-entrenched homophobic assumptions about
the lives and lifestyles of queer citizens. Moreover, Yes Equality mobilised grass-roots strategies that were as creative as they were effective. As
opposed to the No Side’s traditional ‘posters and speeches’ campaign
that traded, largely, on discourses of sexual shame, Yes Equality’s strategies were contemporary, upbeat, infused with pride rather than shame,
and happened concurrently on many media platforms.
It almost goes without saying, given the buoyant, multi-forum nature
of Yes Equality, that theatre and performance played a large part. A year
before the campaign’s official launch, in February 2014, drag-artist
Panti Bliss—a media icon for Yes Equality—gave the ‘Noble Call’ at the
Abbey Theatre. The Noble Call is a ten-minute slot at the end of James
Plunkett’s play The Risen People (1966, in revival at the Abbey at that
time), whereby a different public figure is invited each night to speak
on matters of social concern. Panti’s Noble Call, in which she held forth
on the machinations of everyday, casual homophobia, went viral and
was lauded around the globe by politicians and celebrities alike. During
the referendum campaign, Amy Conroy’s 2010 play about a long-term,
deeply committed lesbian relationship, I ♡ Alice ♡ I, was given a revival
at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin. A week before the referendum, the
Abbey Theatre, building on Panti’s previous success, hosted ‘A Noble Call
For Marriage Equality’, an event for which prominent actors and theatre
makers came together with the public to advocate for Yes Equality. The
Students Union of Trinity College Dublin launched a performance-based
campaign called ‘Tell Your Granny’ for which students videoed themselves
speaking to their grandparents about voting Yes and then uploaded the
videos to YouTube, while many other prominent campaign voices such
as BelongTo, the national Youth Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender
(LGBT) organisation, maximised the potential of social media and
YouTube. In this performative vein, the twelfth Annual International
Dublin Gay Theatre Festival too played a timely part. Running from early
May until just five days before polling day, the festival featured several
shows that addressed issues not just of marriage equality but also of the
type of insidious homophobia inherent in the No side’s campaign. Most
significantly, many Yes Equality campaigners, both unknown citizens and
public figures, with some coming out as gay or lesbian for the first time,
disclosed their life-narratives, performing testimonials of lives marked,
sometimes ruined, by homophobic attitudes and violence. And while two
of these coming out narratives, that of then-Minister for Health (now
Prime Minister of Ireland), Leo Varadker, and leading political journalist,
Ursula Halligan, received massive media coverage, it was the life-stories of
ordinary LGBT citizens, told on social media and, importantly, on strangers’ doorsteps on the campaign trail, that moved many hearts and minds
towards a Yes vote. This phenomenon of life-narratives that were marred
by troubled pasts being performed to the Irish public clearly mirrors the
upsurge of both monologue dramas and documentary theatre in Ireland
since the 1990s.
The ways in which Yes Equality forges links—explicit and implicit—
with Irish theatre is important in terms of a burgeoning queer theatrical culture in Ireland that has risen since the 1990s. Both Yes Equality
and this nascent zeitgeist of Irish queer theatre makers have set about
debunking shame as an overarching feature of queer lives and identities. Crucially, and resonating with Yes Equality, in its efforts to challenge shame, queer theatre in Ireland is currently characterised by
non-­traditional dramaturgical strategies that have disrupted the boundaries of narrative dramatic realism, a genre deeply entrenched in Irish theatrical culture. Yet, these queer dramaturgical strategies do not abandon
narrative realism entirely; they probe at its boundaries, test its limits, play
with and make strange—indeed, make queer—this traditional, familiar
252 C. O’Brien
form. Whether through the performance of powerful and often politicised personal testimony or by queering the familiar narrative realism,
or a mix of both, queer theatre in Ireland simultaneously pays homage
to and transgresses the nation’s rich heritage of dramatic storytelling.
This mix of structural disruption and personal testimony is heady and
potent indeed, and goes a long way towards both foregrounding and
dismantling what former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, identified, during a Yes Equality speech, as ‘the architecture of homophobia
in Ireland’ (Kelly 1). This is an architecture that, as the No campaign
demonstrated, relies on discourses of sexual shame and mobilises, in
particular, the shaming of queer subjects by positing them as antithetical to the principles upon which the nation was founded.
The purpose of this chapter, then, is twofold. First, it critically surveys several landmark plays that have concerned themselves with the
de-shaming of queer Irish subjects since the 1990s. Second, it interrogates how these plays have mobilised non-traditional dramaturgical
strategies and/or powerful testimonials as a means of highlighting and
more fully exploring queer lives and living in an Ireland that has, until
quite recently, struggled to come to terms with dissident sexualities. The
non-traditional and highly performative strategies employed by both Yes
Equality and recent Irish queer theatre make visible what has previously
been invisible by its ubiquity; namely, the ways in which public understandings of sexual shame have been discursively coupled with queerness
and reified as a threat to nation.
Probing the Boundaries of Realism: Shame, Sex,
and Nation
I want to frame my explorations of Irish queer theatre with Jasbir Puar’s
thinking about sexuality ‘not as an identity, but as assemblages of sensations, affects, and forces’ (24). This ‘virality of sexuality’, Puar argues,
not only ‘productively destabilises humanist notions of the subjects
of sexuality’ but also ‘the law’s reliance on performative language that
produces that which it simply claims to regulate, including the ascription of a subject of that law’ (24). In other words, sexuality constitutes
clusters of varied and forceful human emotions, sensations, fantasies,
and feelings that become subject to systems of medico-political taxonomy and are then regulated in law. Sexual identities, in this light, can
be understood as performative, in the Butlerian sense, whereby they are
brought into being by laws that first create and name, and then regulate
those sexual subjects that the law has created by naming them. In terms
of national identity, queerness has traditionally been cast—both discursively and, until recently, legislatively—as antithetical to what Benedict
Anderson calls the ‘collective promise’ of an ‘imagined community’
which ‘imbues a sense of shared and individual pride’ (41). However, as
Sally Munt notes, national belonging ‘is not solely invested in pride’ but
often ‘intractably linked to feelings of shame’ (55). Writing in a specifically Irish context, Munt argues:
Nationalist ideology is sustained by shaming those it considers to be
external to its real and imagined borders, but it saves special regard for
the repudiation of its internal others, those who are considered to be supplementary to the nation’s needs, that it would prefer to make invisible
or expulse. On those groups and individuals nationalism casts a particular
stigma (55).
As a perfect example of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics, this constitutes
an ‘incitement to discourse’ (45), whereby disparate individuals are
grouped together and labelled with a pathologising categorisation,
abjected by discourses of shame, and propagandised as threatening to
nationhood. Shame, then, as Sedgwick contests, moves beyond mere
negation of identity and into the realms of both political and subjective identity formation. For queer subjects, ‘shame is simply the first,
and remains a permanent, structuring fact of identity: one that […]
has its own powerfully productive and powerfully social metamorphic
­possibilities’ (‘Shame’ 51).
Until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Republic of
Ireland in June 1993, Irish theatre—because of its longstanding tradition of nation building—had a negating relationship with queer ­bodies.
Queerness simply did not exist within the national drama by virtue of
not existing within national law. A handful of playwrights produced dramas that attempted to examine the moral conundrum of queer subjects.
While Thomas Kilroy’s The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche (1968),
Brian Friel’s The Gentle Island (1971), or Martin Lynch’s Crack Up
(1983) were laudable in their challenges to a homophobic society and
theatrical imaginary, they nonetheless interrogate the effects of queer
antagonists on heterosexist protagonists rather than examine queer
254 C. O’Brien
subjectivities in their own right. Queer characters are never written as
subjects but always objects, usually figured as shameful victims who pose
problems not only to society but more so to Irishness. Frank McGuinness
smashed through the objectified figuring of queer characters as shameful
antagonists by presenting gay male protagonists front and centre in plays
such as Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985),
Carthaginians (1988), and Dolly West’s Kitchen (1999). Thus, the vital
importance of McGuinness, in David Cregan’s words, as the ‘first Irish
dramatist to rescue the homosexual from the assigned status of object to
the self-defining position of subject’ through the use of a dramaturgy that
‘is most certainly queer’ cannot be overemphasised (46, 45).
McGuinness’s dramaturgy queers national identity by presenting gay
men costumed, sometimes kissing, in Irish military uniforms while situated in traditional family settings such as the cottage kitchen (Observe the
Sons and Dolly West); a strategy that contests, as Brian Singleton notes,
not only ‘the iconic status of the family as having a compulsory heterosexuality’ but also ‘the myth of family as representing nation’ (‘Queer
Eye’ 100). Gerard Stembridge employs similar dramaturgical strategies
in The Gay Detective (1996), a play that melds queerness and national
protection—the primary protagonist is a gay Garda—while also dismantling the shame and stigma attached to HIV—a disease that, as Paula
Treichler observes, constitutes not only a biological epidemic but also
an ‘epidemic of signifiers and meanings’ (11). Set on the eve of homosexual decriminalisation in 1993, Pat is a gay detective-sergeant who
falls in love with Ginger, an HIV-positive Dublin man. Pat is assigned,
by virtue of his sexuality, to uncover an underground sex-ring of closeted gay Irish celebrities and politicians who violently abuse vulnerable
young men at sadomasochistic orgies, a plot-line that, as Singleton notes,
‘helps us to explore how a state in the closet permits such practices to
fester’ (Masculinities 117). Disgusted, however, by the blatant, statesanctioned homophobia and HIV-shaming of his boss, Inspector Bear,
(a delightfully ironic take on an entrenched gay masculine identity),2 Pat
removes himself from the investigation. Wanting to show that ‘there is
good and bad in all of us’ (Stembridge, Personal interview), Stembridge
has Pat and Ginger perform aspects of radical queerness while also making choices that will see them assimilate into heteronormative society—
a phenomenon that many queer theorists identify as ‘homonormativity’
(Warner 141). Pat uses Ginger’s knowledge of the underground queer
scene to further his ostensibly normative police work, while both men
display an interest in alternative sexual practices. Significantly, Pat—the
brave, strong policeman—expresses his sexual preference as that of ‘the
bottom’, i.e., the receptive partner for anal sex: a dramaturgical strategy
that blurs the boundaries of queerness, masculinity, and national protection. Although they opt for a seemingly normative coupling, Ginger
raises Pat’s awareness of queer politics, while plenty of references to radical paradigms for queer living suggest that this relationship will be far
from conventional.
Stembridge, who also directed, probes the boundaries of realism with
dramaturgical strategies such as non-hierarchical characterisations (only
Pat and Ginger have human names with other cast members having
animal names and playing multi-characters), a film-noir mise-en-scène,
abstract and suggested rather than real scenography, and actors changing costume onstage. This enables a dramaturgical exploration of the
correlations between masculine queerness, Irishness, and HIV-positivity.
Much like McGuinness’s theatre, the spectator witnesses an individuated
queer Irishman in the police uniform of the state being supportive, nonjudgemental, and very much in love with his HIV-positive boyfriend,
who, most significantly, does not face an immediate, punitive death.
Stembridge’s dramaturgy approaches that of Brechtian epic theatre, particularly the ‘alienation effect’ whereby the structures and mechanics
of theatrical presentation are laid bare, therefore eliciting the spectator
towards an awareness of the socio-political structures under critique. In
this way, The Gay Detective draws the spectator towards an awareness of
both homophobia and HIV-related stigma as socio-cultural constructs
that are embedded into political and policing structures.
In terms of challenging HIV-related stigma, The Gay Detective deconstructs myths and rumours about the ‘gay plague’, disrupting, in particular, what Susan Sontag identifies as the discursive nexus of AIDS,
punishment, and divine retribution (131). Set in a time when an HIV
diagnosis meant a severely shortened life span, the final moment of the
play conveys hope for Ginger’s future, disrupting entrenched tropes of
the inevitable, fetid death of the punished AIDS-body:
Pat:How long have we got do you think?
Ginger:Hard to tell Sergeant—could be a few years you know.
Pat:As long as that? No way.
Ginger:‘Fraid so—better cancel all your plans.
256 C. O’Brien
(They hold each other)
While Gay Detective touches briefly on discourses of socio-economic
status—Ginger is working-class while Pat is middle-class by virtue of his
job—it never fully explores the links between class and queerness. Much
like Yes Equality’s overriding assumption that not only would every
queer citizen want to get married, but also that they had the means to
do so, popular Irish discourses of queerness subscribe to the neoliberal notion of the ‘pink pound’—the assumption that queer citizens are
aspirational, middle-class, and, not having children, well-heeled. Mark
O’Halloran’s Trade (2011) challenges these assumptions with a sitespecific dramaturgy that not only raises questions about the ‘all comers
welcome’ discourse of LGBT equality, but also by changing the role of
the audience: no longer spectators of a story, the audience becomes participants in a slice of queer working-class life that would certainly have
had no place in Yes Equality’s campaign. Spectators collect their tickets from a pre-arranged location and are brought to a shabby room in a
dingy ‘by-the-hour’ boarding house in an area of Dublin notorious for
a proliferation of such establishments. There are two men already here:
Older Man, ‘in his late forties’, and Young Man, ‘an eighteen-year-old
boy’ (49). It soon becomes clear not only that Young Man is a rent-boy
providing sexual services to Older Man, but that the two have met several times over the course of the last year to transact this queer trade.
However, this time is different. Older Man is visibly upset, he is ‘close
to tears’ (52), he feels that his life is ‘all falling to fuck’ (61). This time,
Older Man wants to talk. He seeks to make sense of the rollercoaster of
emotions he has experienced since his father, a despotic religious patriarch, died a year previously. For this hour, during which the spectator
intrudes into this intimate yet strained maelstrom of stultified masculine emotion, Older Man searches for but cannot find the language to
express his confusion and anger at a world that, up until very recently,
had seemed so solid and reliable.
We learn that he has just been made redundant from a job he has
had since he was sixteen years old; that his wife is now concerned for
his sanity; and that he feels he has never known his son, who is growing
increasingly hostile towards him. Driving the spectator towards the emotional and narrative dénouement is Older Man’s discovery of his father’s
twenty-year affair with a local woman. Comparing his father’s affair to
his meetings with Younger Man, and thus railing against the notion that
he is turning into his father—‘apparently we all do’ (73)—Older Man
finds he is unable to live his father’s life that was ‘at the end an accumulation of fucken lies’ (76). Older Man has, just an hour previously, confessed his sexual encounters with Young Man to his son. Not only has
he told his son ‘What we do. The fucken and that’, but also ‘I told him
I loved you. I told him I loved you more than I loved him’ (79). Upon
receiving this news, Older Man’s son beat him up. Older Man’s confession of love confuses Young Man, bringing him to remind his customer
that ‘This is just this. It isn’t real. It’s money’ (80). Older man ‘is a little
broken’ (80) but quickly restores the sexual economics of their meeting.
Yet, before their sex begins, he begs Young Man to hold him. The final
image is of the two men embracing while Older Man begins to cry.
Trade interrogates the exclusion of certain (usually older) workingclass men from the culturally acceptable, commercialised ‘gay scene’.
The commodification of a youth-obsessed gay male identity, homogenous in its target market and assumption of high levels of disposable
income, coupled with the compulsory heterosexuality of older working-class masculine paradigms, ensures that working-class queerness
is shamed into the closet. In this sense, Older Man performs a queer
counter-narrative to Ireland’s newly found liberal attitudes towards gayness and the concomitant neoliberal proliferation of gay bars and clubs
in Dublin. Older Man rejects what he has seen of commodified gay
masculinities, ‘I’m not one of those you know […] On the telly permanently. With their clothes’ (68). For him there can be no coming out,
no place on the commercialised scene. It is impossible for him to reconcile his lived experiences of hegemonic masculinity with his received
knowledge of discursively and legally constructed gayness: ‘they don’t
have families […] They don’t know what it’s like […] I’m not them’
(68–9). Reiterating Puar’s point about sexuality not being identity but
rather a cluster of sensations and feelings, desiring another male body
has shattered Older Man’s idealisation of working-class manhood. His
heteronormative understanding of how masculine sexuality functions is
now skewed and has been made shameful; he reveals that his preference
during anal sex is that of the passive partner (80). Self-shamed, as Leo
Bersani puts it, by ‘the ecstasy of taking his sex like a woman’ (19), he
is no longer in sexual control, no longer patriarchal penetrator but feminine penetrated.
258 C. O’Brien
Trade’s site-specific dramaturgy amplifies its critique of the commercialised class-hierarchy of neoliberal gayness in Ireland by making the
spectator complicit in the compulsory heterosexuality of working-class
masculinity. Bringing the spectator to participate in the space where
the crass commercialism, the very ‘trade’ of male sex-work happens, in
a room so small that the audience can feel the actors’ body heat, can
smell Older Man’s cheap aftershave and Young Man’s even cheaper deodorant, Trade dispels any notions of an egalitarian ‘gay community’ that
welcomes all comers.
The Power and Politics of Testimony
Concurrent to what Eamonn Jordan identifies as Irish Theatre’s ‘glut
of monologues’ (218), there has been an upsurge in documentary
theatre—with both genres often melding into one, as exemplified by
Mannix Flynn’s James X (2003), an exposé of church and state child
abuse and one man’s life-long struggle to rise above it. Documentary
theatre, much like the life-narratives performed for Yes Equality, provides
powerful and very public testimony to the authenticity of queer lives and
living in ways that fictionalised narrative realism cannot. The performed,
real-life testimonial of documentary theatre, as Janelle Reinelt argues,
‘creates a new real, making manifest the real, embodying the real within
the realm of images and sensation as well as the realm of discursivity’
thereby ensuring that ‘public life’s theatricalization is no longer a contested issue’ (71). Under these terms, documentary theatre makes clear
the social and cultural construction of queer shame while simultaneously
foregrounding the discursive coupling of heterosexuality and national
identity. Testimonial performance thus trades on what Munt identifies as
‘shame’s latent, positive effects’ in that ‘shame has political potential as
it can provoke a separation between the social convention demarcated
within hegemonic ideals and enable a re-inscription of social intelligibility’ (4). Or, as Foucault would have it, the power of testimonial performance lies in its potential to reverse the discourse of shame whereby
just as ‘discourse transmits and produces power’ it ‘also undermines and
exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it’ (101). In
this light we can decode queer testimonial performance operating as ‘a
hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point
for an opposing strategy’ (101); as a dramaturgy that disrupts and troubles preconceived assumptions about the lives Irish queer citizens lead.
This de-shaming dramaturgy has been mobilised to powerful effect in
recent years in queer testimonial monologues scripted by male performers
Neil Watkins, Shane Byrne, and Oisin McKenna. Byrne’s Hungry/Tender
(2011) explores body shaming and male eating disorders, thus challenging popular axiomatics that these issues are solely ‘women’s problems’.
Watkins’s HIV monologues, The Cure for Homosexuality (2006) and The
Year of Magical Wanking (2010) are powerful and heady, not least for
their deconstruction of entrenched misconceptions about the HIV body,
but also for foregrounding the ways in which the populist assumption
that those who enjoy kinky sex are psychologically damaged is embedded into Irish health care policies. Both McKenna’s Grindr: A Love Story
(2013) and Panti’s series of testimonials—In These Shoes (2007), All
Dolled Up (2007), A Woman in Progress (2009), and Restitched (2013–
2015)—challenge the neoliberal commodification of gay identities while
simultaneously calling Irish queers to political action.
BrokenTalkers’ Silver Stars (2008) is, arguably, one of the most powerful performances of queer testimonial to grace the Irish stage in the
last decade. Billed as a ‘song cycle based on the lives of older Irish gay
men’, Silver Stars was devised by its cast and directors, Feidilm Cannon
and Gary Keegan, with songs penned by Sean Millar. Ten men perform
eight song sequences; sometimes solo, sometimes duet, each song has a
chorus sung in unison by all ten. Accompanying cellists sit stage-left of a
bare wooden floor on which the men perform, their songs augmented by
video footage of testimonial interviews and significant events in LGTBQ
history projected onto a screen above. We hear through song, for example, the story of Aiden, whose mother travelled to Paris to tell him that
although her Roman Catholic God tells her that Aiden’s life is a sin, she
loves him more than she loves this God. Aiden’s song segues into the
recorded interview of John, an ex-Jesuit priest, lip-synched by an actor
wearing glasses with painted-on eyes whose face is simultaneously projected on the screen. The focus is then shifted suddenly to video footage of protests against the banning of gay Irish-Americans from New
York’s annual St Patrick’s Day parade. Through these song-sequences
that recount lives of struggle and shame that were yet imbued with hope
and pride, Silver Stars conveys the need for queer subjects to overcome
deeply embedded belief systems that have long been the mainstay of Irish
socio-cultural, political, and religious life—something Yes Equality also
ably achieved. Freed from the confines of the centralised narrative text
and any incumbent fixity of character or need for cathartic resolution,
260 C. O’Brien
Silver Stars moves into the realm of what Hans-Thies Lehmann calls
‘afformance art’ whereby, in Karen Jurs-Munby’s words, the show
‘locates the political in perception itself, in and as a poetic interruption
of the law and therefore of politics’ (Lehmann, 6). By presenting nonhierarchical characters that perform life-long subjectivities in formation,
Silver Stars foregrounds the cultural structures of queer lives and the
ways in which official discourses of Irishness mobilised shame in order to
silence those lives.
But beyond this, the fragmented, non-linear structure of Silver Stars
highlights the ways in which these structures of shame have, until very
recently, been embedded into Irish political structures and have been
used as tools of social control. Silver Stars therefore questions not just
heteronormativity, but also the very concept of norms, and systems of
dramatic and social normalising. Rather than critique heteronormativity as a fixed state of being to which queer subjects are expected to
aspire, spectators are drawn into the experiences of lives that buck normativity, therefore uncovering the structures through which adherence
to any norm is an ongoing series of active processes to which bodies must subject themselves. This fusion of the personal and the queer
political exposes how social bodies are ideologically interpellated towards
a continual rendering into normativity, a rendering that autologously
galvanises heteronormativity’s need for perpetual reinforcement and
rebooting. The men in Silver Stars do not ask for a place at the table of
heteronormativity because asking for assimilation into heterosexist society is to state that queer masculinity needs something outside of itself to
tell it what it is and dictate how it functions. In singing their stories—
a strategy that appeals more immediately to the audience—the men of
Silver Stars experientially inform the spectator that the reason their lifenarratives have played out in these ways is because heteronormative society does not know how to deal with queerness other than to, eventually
and after many years of violent, state-sanctioned homophobia, offer it
crumbs from the table of assimilation.
Challenging what Samuel Yates identifies as ‘the oft-invisible reality
of queer Irish women’ (89), testimony theatre scripted by female performers Veronica Dyas and Amy Conroy disrupts Ireland’s patriarchal
gaze culture by bringing lesbian lives and living front and centre. In a
series of performance installations—In My Bed (2011), All that signified me … (2013), and HERE AND NOW (2013)—Dyas explores how
Irish women have always needed to band together and both explore and
learn from their shared intergenerational history in order to survive.
Simultaneously, her performances recount how, in discarding all but
absolute necessary consumer goods from her life, Dyas discovers a revitalised sense of self that dispels the shame and stigma of sexual abuse.
Conroy’s I ♡ Alice ♡ I debuted at the 2010 ABSOLUT Fringe
Festival and has since won several awards and been in regular revival. A
documentary piece throughout in which the audience are led to believe
that two actors are real-life people, Alice recounts the story of Alice
Slattery and Alice Kinsella who fell in love in 1970s Ireland and have
remained in a deeply committed relationship ever since. They tell us
that they have come before an audience to provide testimony to their
lives because, as Kinsella sees it, ‘one of us will die […] and then where
will we be? […] What will we actually have achieved?’ (194). Costumed
in the comfortable clothes of older women, and thus resonating with
Trinity College’s ‘tell your granny’ campaign, this remarkably ordinary
couple disrupt notions of any gay agenda. As a couple, their life narratives are marked by many quotidian milestones and challenges that
characterise contemporary living: winning a battle with breast cancer;
overcoming an affair; landmark birthdays; retirement from successful
careers—all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life underscore their testimonial. In the final moment, the performance disrupts the truth-telling
ethos of documentary theatre: having informed the spectator that ‘We
will be seen’, the actors then remove their wigs, step out of character,
and boldly proclaim ‘They will be seen’ (219). The characters are thus
revealed as fictional, and suddenly come to symbolise a broader population of Irish queer women that have been ushered out of sight and are
now reclaiming their voices.
Conroy’s mission with Alice is clear; she aims to make ordinary the
discursive extraordinariness that heteronormativity attaches to queer
lives. Yet, from the outset, discourses of queer shaming have intercut
these two lives, making them less ordinary than a heterosexual couple.
The effects of years of hiding their love—from all but a select coterie
of family and friends—is folded into their everyday fabric. Shame has
become their ordinary, their daily performative; the very ordinariness of
queer shame is interwoven into all that they do. ‘I never really wanted
to bang drums, cause scenes or draw attention,’ Slattery informs the
audience, ‘I just wanted to live in peace.’ (194) She feels the need to
remain hidden, while Kinsella, in an effort to debunk shame, thrills at
the challenge of making their love visible to the world. The discomfort
262 C. O’Brien
that Slattery feels is, as Sara Ahmed contends, one of the most defining
characteristics of queerness in a heteronormative environment. Using the
analogy of a comfortable chair that has moulded itself to the contours of
one’s body, and the way one’s body sinks imperceptibly into that chair
without the need to acknowledge or even recognise the levels of comfort
that this process affords, Ahmed argues that:
Heteronormativity functions as a form of public comfort by allowing
bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Queer
subjects, when faced by the ‘comforts’ of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not ‘sink into’ a space that has already taken its
shape). Discomfort is a feeling of disorientation: one’s body feels out of
place, awkward, unsettled (425).
This dissonance of Slattery’s discomfort with her queerness—‘I’ve lied
about us regularly over the years. It’s a horrible guilt’ (Conroy 196)—is
juxtaposed against Kinsella’s relative pride throughout the show: Kinsella
has self-identified as a lesbian since her early-twenties and has had several
same-sex relationships, whereas Slattery is widowed from a heterosexual
marriage and has only ever had same-sex attraction to Kinsella. Slattery
sees making this play as ‘Dangerous, we will be seen’, while Kinsella, on
the other hand, understands it as ‘A testimonial, we will be seen’ (195).
Slattery’s eventual embracement of her queer life symbolises both a new
awareness of Irish lesbians, and also how a broader knowledge of the
social structures of shame can dismantle their incumbent discomfort.
Although Alice presents itself as documentary theatre, it borrows from
several other theatrical genres, and in so doing moves beyond merely
re-presenting the discomfort of queer lives and shifts into the realm of
performative intervention. The play is ‘fictional but presented as a documentary piece’ (187), something of which the spectator is unaware until
that final moment. This fusion of documentary theatre and the realism
of narrative drama means that Alice queers the rules of both genres, and
thus raises questions about the fictions that heteronormativity casts on
queer lives. Conroy’s dramaturgy further borrows from immersive theatre
and monodrama whereby the actors distribute slices of cake and photographs amongst the audience (201), while their intercutting monologues
resonate with plays such as Eugene O’Brien’s Eden (2000) or Conor
McPherson’s Lime Tree Bower (1999). This queer hybridisation of genres
is further amplified through several meta-theatrical strategies that see the
show addressing itself as theatre. There is a ‘map’ of the show hanging on
the wall for the purpose of guiding these ostensibly non-actors through
the unfamiliarity of keeping their place in a scripted play, making clear that
regardless of how discomfort might map across queer lives, here are two
women discovering how best to be in those lives, how best to manage
that discomfort. ‘Were there rules?’ asks Slattery, referring to her unfamiliarity with the label of lesbian—a question that surely resonates across
the whole of this show: it has subverted not just labels, but also the socionormative rules of theatrical genre and the discourse of queer shaming.
Much like Yes Equality, this play asks: where does doing the supermarket
run and folding the laundry fit into the so-called ‘gay agenda’?
Conclusions: Troubling the Queerness of Testimonial
In closing this essay I return to my opening critique of Ireland’s equal mar­
riage referendum which forced many thousands of queer citizens into
disclosing personal, private, and often very traumatic histories in public
spaces: a phenomenon with which the majority of heterosexual subjects
would never have to engage. Moreover, this phenomenon echoes, as does
the very notion of ‘coming out as gay’, the confessional of Catholicism:
the damaged, sinful subjects confess their faults to a benevolent authority
and are thus permitted (re)entry into society. Clearly, the power of testimonial theatre is strong, and the ways in which blurring the boundaries
of realist narrative can foreground social and cultural structures of queer
shaming are often profound. Nonetheless, this drive to narrate, this impetus to confess, I want to argue, constitutes a state- and culturally-sanctioned entry into normative, neoliberal society. It is, in the final analysis,
not only a rendering into normativity and a bolstering of normative structures, but also an assimilatory tactic, one that shoehorns queerness into the
temporalities and expectations of heterosexuality. As queer theorists such
as Puar contend, neoliberal politics and cultural practices sanction LGBT
visibility strictly in terms of happy, hyper-­consumers who emulate heterosexual lifestyles; thereby suggesting that the lived experiences of queer subjects are positive, trouble-free, and easily represented—which then poses
problems for queer dramatists and theatre makers who seek to mobilise
representation to radical, political aims. Indeed, as Fintan Walsh puts it:
264 C. O’Brien
In focusing its social and political energies almost exclusively on the
pursuit of partnership and marriage legislation, queer culture arguably
becomes politically conservative, invested in reproducing state-sanctioned
legitimation of privilege. (9)
Thus, Queer testimonial theatre’s overarching rallying cry that ‘we can
be just like you’, while understandable in the context of Yes Equality, still
elides the counter-normative nuances, and keeps hidden the pockets of
sexual dissidence that make queer sexualities queer and keep them queer.
I will finish by posing a question: to what extent is the demand for
queers to narrate easily digestible life stories—and thus assimilate into
mainstream culture—about centralising and redeeming ­heteronormativity?
By judging queer citizens as fit subjects for the constitutional family and
the institution of marriage, heteronormative societies get to grant humanity to those who narrate queer testimonial, to those who want to be
redeemed and confirmed as a good person by the subjects of their magnanimity. This redemption and confirmation means that, to draw from
Mulhall, ‘in contemporary Ireland good heterosexual and homonational subjects are produced by marriage, given its regulatory function in
enforcing love for the imaginary family, community and nation’ (‘Queer
in Ireland’ 110). But what of those queer subjects that see no need for
redemption, or baulk at the idea of living a normative life? What would
happen if queer subjects refused to tell their stories? Or told their stories in
different, less-digestible and more radical ways? Is there a powerful resistance to be found in non-compliance with the neoliberal rush to confess
and thus assimilate? This raises prescient questions in terms of visibility
and the politics of recognition—because, as the drive for marriage equality
across the Global North makes clear, neoliberal politics and cultural practices seek to make visible only those LGBT subjects whose queerness is
respectable enough to be allowed to be visible. Can resisting the demands
to tell one’s story, therefore, constitute a very powerful form of radical
politics? What are the queer political implications of refusing to be visible
to neoliberal apparatuses, or declining to have one’s stories appropriated
and used in the service of heteronormativity?
Certainly, the work of Neil Watkins and Veronica Dyas moves in
this direction: Watkins’s performances, particularly The Year of Magical
Wanking, are intense, chilling, hard to take—they set the spectator at
unease. These frightening testimonials make clear that his life-narrative
cannot, by virtue of the entrenchment of heteronormative epistemologies within Irish welfare and healthcare systems, assimilate into paradigms of acceptable, commodified gayness—and so Watkins’s uneasy way
of telling his story critiques the ‘assimilate-or-die’ ethos of neoliberal culture and social policy. Yet, Watkins still seeks to reconcile his queer, HIVpositive masculinity with a sense of Irishness by uncovering not only the
unachievable and asymptotic nature of Irish homonormativity, but also
the seductive lure of neoliberal consumerism. Magical Wanking is not a
cry for inclusion in an already broken system, but an uncovering of the
queer discomfort cast upon HIV-positive masculinities. Why, Watkins
asks, is it so impossible for queer, HIV-positive masculinities to exist in
tandem with hetero- or homonormative counterparts? In his quest for
an answer Watkins performs the truth of what it means to be Irish and
queer, Irish and HIV-positive, Irish and shamed, Irish and abused.
Meanwhile Dyas, rather than presenting herself before an audience in
the safe, familiar space of the theatre, summons them to her bed in a derelict building; her audience is there on her terms, not their own. ‘Central
to [her] performance’, then, as Walsh suggests, ‘is an attempt to resolve
her experience of shame’ (78). Dyas’s performance thus provokes probing questions regarding just who is responsible for her shame; she casts
the responsibility for shame-making back out onto Irish heteronormative
society and consumerist culture. In this context, her eschewing all but
the most necessary trappings of consumerism queers not only the performance but consumerism (particularly property-ownership) itself, and
thus her testimony enacts a disavowal of the shame of not being able to
or willing to pander to neoliberalism, rather than assimilation into it.
In the last analysis, both Dyas and Watkins, by telling queer stories in
ways different to the expected ‘just like you’ ethos of assimilation, trouble the safe conclusion that awareness of queer issues, such as testimonial
theatre raises, actually equates with acceptance. Because, although frequently conflated, awareness and acceptance are not the same things.
1. Prominent Irish queer theorist Anne Mulhall recently published an
online essay (with a peer-reviewed version in preparation), ‘Republic of
Love’, that not only critiques the rhetoric and discourse of the Marriage
Referendum, but also reads the referendum in tandem with other urgent
issues of equality and human rights in Ireland.
266 C. O’Brien
2. I refer here to the ‘Bear’, an older, usually portly, hirsute gay male. Once
a stalwart of gay communities, the Bear has come under attack in recent
years because his body shape and size is, under the terms of neoliberal
body shaming, understood to promote obesity. See Hennen (2005).
Works Cited
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author. TS.
Conroy, Amy. I (Heart) Alice (Heart) I. The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary
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Hennen, Peter. ‘Bear Bodies, Bear Masculinity: Recuperation, Resistance, or
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McGuinness, Frank. Carthaginians and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching
Towards the Somme. Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Print.
———. Dolly Wests Kitchen in Plays 2. London: Faber and Faber, 2002. Print.
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Munt, Sally R. Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame. Aldershot:
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Dyas.’ Radical Contemporary Theatre Practices by Women in Ireland. Eds.
Miriam Haughton and Mária Kurdi. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2015. 195–206.
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Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 49–62. Print.
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268 C. O’Brien
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Author Biography
Cormac O’Brien is Assistant Professor of Anglo-Irish Drama in the School of
English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin. His research investigates
relations between Irish cultural representation and governance and citizenship;
gender, sexuality, and national identities; socio-political understandings of HIV/
AIDS; and literary and dramatic narratives of epidemics. Publications include
‘Gay Masculinities in Performance: Towards a Queer Dramaturgy’ (2014)
for Irish Theatre International and ‘Ireland in the Age of AIDS: The Cultural
Politics of Stigma’ (2016) for The Irish Review. He has also contributed chapters
to Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture (2011), and Ireland,
Memory, and Performing the Historical Imagination (2014).
A Gendered Absence: Feminist Theatre,
Glasshouse Productions and the #WTF
Patricia O’Beirne
In November 2015, the Abbey Theatre hosted the inaugural ­meeting
of #WakingTheFeminists (#WTF), a social media-based movement
launched by theatre designer Lian Bell in response to the Abbey director’s announcement of its 1916 centenary ‘Waking the Nation’ programme, which featured an 18:2 ratio of men to women playwrights.
Given the historic importance of commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising
and the theoretically democratic and inclusive nature of the Arts—where
there is an implicit onus in particular on those institutions largely funded
by tax payers to be equitable—this omission was notable to say the least.
A year later, on 14th November 2016, #WTF met on the same stage to
present its research committee’s findings, provisional statistics compiled
on the representation of female authors working in Irish theatres over
the past ten years. Such a movement is clearly in dialogue with a feminist ideology, which many in an allegedly post-feminist world believed
to have foundered at some point in the 1980s when the stated goal of
P. O’Beirne (*) 
NUI Galway, Galway, Ireland
© The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2_19
270 P. O’Beirne
gender equality had appeared to be an accepted and achievable fact. In
fact, #WTF mirrors another grassroots movement which was formed in
1990. A group of four women (Sian Quill, Clare Dowling, Katy Hayes
and Caroline Williams) came together to form Glasshouse Productions,
an independent theatre company that produced plays by women and
‘in addition hosted discussions and debates on the role of women in
contemporary Irish theatre’ (Williams et al. 132). The foundation of
Glasshouse was a response to the fact that Irish theatre did not reflect
their lives as women, due to the lack of plays by female playwrights produced at the time.
The chapter considers #WTF and Glasshouse Productions, two
movements separated by a quarter of a century but with much in common. Glasshouse Productions highlighted a lack of female playwrights
and carried out archival work in reviving playwrights from an earlier
period, while the current #WakingTheFeminists campaign and research
has revealed that women are puzzlingly under-represented on Irish
stages, particularly as playwrights. It is striking that little seems to have
changed in a quarter of a century in terms of gender equality in Irish
theatre. Second-wave feminism’s gains, on issues such as legal autonomy, employment and reproductive rights, and violence against women,
became well established from the 1980s onward in Ireland. However, it
could be argued that a subsequent perception of gender equality as a fait
accompli and the emergence of a new neo-liberal world order resulted
in a resistance to old-style feminism and a ‘post-feminist’ complacency,
meaning that gender imbalances in the higher echelons of the State,
commerce and academia went relatively unchallenged until recently. Kim
Solga writes that the rise of individualism under neo-liberal economic
policies meant that the ‘illusion of gender fairness and equity erases our
ability, as individuals, to see problems that still linger in the bigger picture’ (8) and she further points out that ‘because protest and political
unrest is considered bad for financial market stability, shutting down a
public appetite for feminist protest is considered a “win” for business
and the governments that openly support it’ (11). Irish theatre may be
exposed to those economic policies and market instabilities but, in the
WakingTheFeminists movement, feminist protest has found a strong
voice demanding equality twenty-five years after Glasshouse raised the
issue. In view of the emergence of renewed feminist claims, the chapter
questions whether there has been any improvement in the representation
of women—with a focus on playwrights—in Irish theatre.
Based on the data gathered by myself on the period preceding
Glasshouse (1980–1989) and by #WTF on the period 2005–2015,1
a statistical analysis supplies an answer to Glasshouse’s proposition that
there are no Irish women playwrights. The study limits itself to women
authors because Glasshouse specifically targeted playwrights and the
#WTF results also highlight the abysmal status of this key role. The focus
on new plays—exclusive of revivals—avoids taking on the weight of past
canons consisting predominantly of male playwrights. As Cathy Leeney
puts it, ‘[c]anons are formed and we are the poorer for them’ (Seen and
Heard vii). Beyond statistics, the figures represent plays which reflect
social, cultural, and political contemporary norms, thematic concerns
that might well reveal how playwrights and theatre-makers have engaged
with social, cultural and political feminism—since two such strong feminist movements arose from the theatrical sphere in Ireland. Taking into
consideration plays written in and of the period preceding the formation
of Glasshouse may contextualise the movement’s radical response and
influences. Where did playwrights see the burden of gender inequality
fall during that period? Do their plays show how it impacted on women’s lives? Four plays written in the 1980s are examined to explore these
questions and because they represent an engagement with a contemporary second-wave feminism. In lieu of a conclusion, the chapter opens up
to invite future analytical discussions of the ways in which female playwrights are articulating a more recent feminism, or post-feminism, in
work conceived or produced in the last ten years.
Feminist Responses: From Glasshouse to #WTF
#WakingTheFeminists defines itself on their website as a ‘grassroots
campaign calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector
that ran from November 2015 to November 2016’ (‘How it started’).
#WTF have focused on highlighting instances of discrimination or omission over the year of their existence. They have also instigated a research
project to examine the facts behind the perception that women were
disproportionately absent from the more influential roles in theatre and
performance in Ireland. Quoted in Gráinne Pollack’s analysis of gender
equality in Irish theatre, #WTF’s research coordinator Brenda Donohue
explains that there is currently ‘very little comprehensive research on the
gender landscape in quantitative terms’ (33). This prompted the need to
build a body of research ‘“that will put down a baseline in gender terms”
272 P. O’Beirne
by drawing a standardised picture of what gender in Irish theatre has
looked like over the last ten years’ (33).2 #WTF are not seeking to challenge the overall structure of the Arts in Ireland; rather they are calling
for gender equality to be institutionalised within the existing structures
and in all areas of theatre production. In their volume Feminist Futures?,
Elaine Aston and Geraldine Harris observe how an anti-essentialist feminism may have resulted in ‘a “new” individualism […] the undermining of a sense of “we” as a contingent, collective political position that
is simultaneously an undermining of a sense of agency’ (12). With the
emergence of the #WTF movement, that ‘we’ has clearly manifested
itself again.
In 1990, Glasshouse aimed to foreground a feminist focus: their
intention was to challenge the ‘male voices that were heard at all levels
of the theatre system–from writers to management’ and that fight ‘was
informed by feminism’ (Williams et al. 135). In parallel, they embarked
on an archival project that led to the event, ‘There Are No Irish Women
Playwrights’ (TANIWP), a celebration of women playwrights, new and
old (140–141). The lingering import of the festival can be witnessed in
this 2011 Irish Times article:
‘THERE ARE No Irish Women Playwrights’ [sic] was the name of a
two-part festival staged at the Project Arts Centre in 1992 and 1993 by
Glasshouse Productions. The festival’s aim was two-fold: firstly, to stage
the work of women writers such as Lady Gregory and Teresa Deevy whose
plays had been excised from the Irish theatrical canon, and secondly to
provide a context for staging the plays of emerging contemporary female
playwrights. There are women playwrights in Ireland, the festival programme suggested; it is just that they get neither the critical attention nor
their historical due. (Qtd in Keating, ‘Female Voices’)
The festival offered a historical overview of work by female playwrights,
the first part featuring plays by contemporary playwrights, and the second part plays written between 1920 and 1970. Patrick Lonergan, in
2014, highlighted the dearth of female playwrights on his blog Scenes
from the Bigger Picture and opened a new conversation with Hayes and
Williams about that festival. They expressed their concern that there had
been ‘remarkably little progress in last two decades—TANIWP should
seem dated, but unfortunately still pertinent’ (Williams, qtd in Lonergan
‘Irish Women Dramatists’); ‘we thought we would change the world.
But, eh, the world went back to its old tricks’ (Hayes, qtd in Lonergan
‘Irish Women Dramatists’). Hayes’s comment is indicative as to why,
twenty-four years after Glasshouse Productions’ festival, another group
of female theatre-makers took to the Abbey stage to protest this same
issue within Irish theatre. While both #WTF and Glasshouse align their
demands for gender equality with feminist theory and practice, one
notes differences in their approaches. #WTF demand equality for women
within the existing system, in the board rooms of the current institutions, albeit with recommendations for some revaluation of pay scales
and ‘the varied implications of parenthood’.3 Glasshouse embraced
a more radical ‘women are doing it for themselves’ approach, forming
their own theatre company and featuring plays solely by women. #WTF
used social media to demonstrable effect, building a large support base
and creating a vibrant feminist movement incorporating women and men
working in Irish theatre today.
The data discussed below has two sources: the statistics used for the
#WTF 2006–2015 research period, published on their website, and my
archival research, which deals solely with new plays written between
1980 and 1989. The theatre structures have been listed in order of
the amount of Arts Council funding that they receive, with the largest
recipient being the Abbey Theatre. The data below shows that women
playwrights were poorly represented (Fig. 
19.1); #WTF’s research
shows other categories such as actors and designers doing slightly better
(Donohue et al.).4 Interestingly, the theatre structures with the lowest
numbers of female playwrights produced are among the top recipients
for Arts Council funding: the Abbey Theatre’s gender breakdown stands
at 17% for female authors, the Gate’s at 6%, and Druid’s at 13%.
Using Playography Ireland’s database, which records new productions, a list of plays for the two periods reveals that there is a marked
increase in new plays being premiered in Ireland over the last twentyfive years: approximately 350 English-speaking plays in the 1980s versus
over 700 in the #WTF period. However, taking the three lowest #WTF
scoring theatre structures, this increase is not reflected in the number of
new plays, irrespective of gender: the Abbey’s production of new plays
fell quite considerably (from 97 to 49); the Gate’s and Druid’s slight
increases reached even lower numbers than the Abbey’s (from 7 to 9 at
the Gate; 6 to 10 for Druid), as shown in Fig. 19.2. Two factors need
be considered: on the one hand, the drop in State funding during the
post-Celtic Tiger period; on the other, the growth of new independent
Female Authors 2006-2015 in Arts Council Funded Theatres,
#WTF research data.
Dublin Theatre Festival
274 P. O’Beirne
Project Arts Centre
The Ark
Rough Magic
Fringe Theatre
Pan Pan
Fig. 19.1 Female Authors 2006–2015 in Arts Council Funded Theatres,
#WTF research data5
Number of New Plays in the Abbey, Gate & Druid
New Plays Druid 2006-15
New Plays Druid 1980-89
New Plays Gate 2006-15
New Plays Gate 1980-89
New Plays Abbey 2006-15
New Plays Abbey 1980-89
Fig. 19.2 New plays premiered in the Abbey, Gate and Druid 1980–1989 and
% of New Plays by Women in the Abbey, Gate & Druid
% women in Druid 2006-15
% women in Druid 1980s
% women in Gate 2006-15
% women in Gate 1980s
% women in Abbey 2006-15
% women in Abbey 1980s
Fig. 19.3 Percentage of new plays by women authors, 1980–1989 and 2006–
theatre companies and arts festivals, which continued to fuel the overall
increase in new plays in the Irish theatre scene in general.6
The percentage of new plays written by women in the three theatres
under scrutiny is graphed above (Fig. 19.3).
The Abbey has clearly increased its percentage of women playwrights
over the period (from 9 to 22%) but there is still vast scope for improvement towards parity. It must also be noted that the Abbey exercises
a form of internal hierarchy in terms of production staging, with the
Peacock—from its root as the company’s experimental theatre—­providing
a home for new playwrights and less traditionally structured plays. How
does the choice of stage reflect the gender divide and do the plays themselves fit the perceived categories of the ‘Abbey’ and ‘Peacock’ play?
During the period from 1980–1989 only one new play by a woman
premiered on the Abbey stage: Colours—Jane Barry Esq, by Jean Binnie,
a full-length play about an Irish woman who lived her life as a man,
qualifying as a doctor in 1812, and travelling the world with the British
Army. The press cuttings in the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive (ATDA)
in relation to Binnie’s play are numerous and many remark on her debut
on the main stage as a new playwright. For instance, in the Guardian
(30 September 1988), Robin Thornber wonders, ‘So how do you get a
play put on if you’re a woman and you like writing big plays?’ (ATDA 9).
276 P. O’Beirne
Christopher Murray, in the Sunday Tribune (9 October 1988),
concludes that the play ‘is not a sermonising play and yet it is red-hot
feminist theatre’ (ATDA 20). Binnie’s objective, quoted in the Irish
Times on 19 September 1988, was to highlight Barry’s medical achievements, remarkable for a woman in a man’s world; but she is quick to
assert that she does not see herself as a feminist, or at any rate ‘not a
boring one’ (ATDA 6). The equivalent ratio for new plays by men with
respect to the Abbey/Peacock breakdown is 20/80 respectively, confirming the Peacock’s role as the experimental space and the main stage’s
association with established playwrights and the canonical ‘greats’ during the 1980s. Druid premiered two new plays by women in the 1980s:
Geraldine Aron’s Same Old Moon (1984)—a family drama; and Garry
Hynes’s Island Protected by a Bridge of Glass (1980)—a fantastical play
staging a meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley.
The Gate premiered one female author, Mary Halpin, with her play
Semi-private, the winner of the 1982 Irish Times woman’s playwriting
competition to which 188 plays were submitted for an award of £1000.
Commenting on this response to the competition Anthony Roche suggests ‘that women in the Republic have been writing plays but that those
plays have not been staged’ (229).
During the period from 2006 to 2015, the Gate premiered two
adaptations by Anne-Marie Casey, Little Women (2011) and Wuthering
Heights (2014), while Druid premiered a play by Lucy Caldwell, Leaves
(2007): there is no major change to record from the earlier period. The
Abbey and Peacock stages fare a little better than in the 1980s, with 22%
of play premieres authored by women between 2006 and 2015. These
are: Marina Carr’s plays Marble (2009) and 16 Possible Glimpses (2011);
Mary Raftery’s commissioned documentary drama about the Ryan
Report, No Escape (2010); two Stacey Gregg commissions; a full-length
and a one-act play each by Elaine Murphy and Nancy Harris; a one-act
play by Elizabeth Moynihan; and a Dublin Theatre Festival premiere of a
Carmel Winters play. 82% of these plays were staged in the Peacock; only
Carr’s Marble and Murphy’s Shush made the main stage. The equivalent
ratio of new plays by men for this more recent period with respect to the
Abbey/Peacock breakdown has now become 50/50.
What reasons have been propounded to explain these anomalies in
the gender divide in Irish theatre? Melissa Sihra addresses the absence
of women from the canon of Irish playwrights, asserting that ‘it is crucial to consider the ways in which canon-formation enables an implicit
set of cultural norms and standards to materialize, which perpetuate
hegemonic structures, and which are based upon historically contingent values’ (9). Eileen Kearney and Charlotte Headrick offer the economic factor as a further reason: given men’s greater access to wealth
and the relatively high cost of staging a play, compared to other art
forms, lack of resources must be considered a disincentive for women
artists (3). According to dramaturge Tanya Dean, ‘[t]he problem is the
larger cultural factors that cripple access and support for female artists’
(qtd in Keating, ‘Beyond the Abbey’). She discusses the ‘five Cs’ that
hold women back: culture, confidence, candidate selection, cash and
care, and concludes that, ‘[i]f women aren’t empowered beyond these
conditions to write plays, then the plays simply won’t be available for
theatres to programme’. Theatrical output is difficult to categorise into
absolute values but the two sets of quantitative research carried out highlight both the past and present anomalies. The two movements begun
by Glasshouse and #WTF have brought this lack of representation to
the public arena; in doing so they were motivated by gender inequality and claimed a feminist identity. If one considers the stage as a site
where identities can be formed and the changing shape of women’s lives
articulated, what do plays reveal about Irish theatre’s engagement with
feminist theory and practice during the period preceding Glasshouse
Productions’ intervention and how do the playwrights tell the story of
their times?
Women Playwrights, Feminist Theatre
In 1988 Ailbhe Smyth wrote that the response to the ‘second wave’ of
feminism in Ireland has been involved with ‘very basic, concrete survival
issues. Everything we have gained over the past decade and a half has
had to be literally torn from the grasp of those terrible twin forces of
church and state’ (274). Sue-Ellen Case acknowledges that as the second
wave of feminism began, ‘[a]t first, it seemed that feminist futures were
to be found in feminist pasts’ (‘The Screens of Time’ 105), a re-imagining of the matriarchies, the amazons, and the goddesses that history
had managed to remember. Case’s re-imagining of history and legend
provides a thematic base for many of the plays written by women during the 1980s, as does biography; all allow for the foregrounding of the
powerful or exemplary female as inspirational. Similarly, family and social
dramas are plentiful, exploring themes of domestic violence and social
278 P. O’Beirne
isolation.7 Writing the personal, according to Dee Heddon, is ‘coterminous with the history of “Second Wave” Western feminism’ (130), its
origin rooted in the slogan, ‘the personal is political’.8 From a woman’s
point of view creating drama from domestic situations gained a new perspective, even when the dramatist did not self-identify as a feminist nor
want to be categorised as such.
Following extensive primary research into plays and playwrights of
the 1980s, four plays stand out as overtly engaging with feminist theory
and practice. Dolores Walshe’s The Stranded Hours Between (1989) and
Patricia Burke-Brogan’s Eclipsed (1988) can be read as radical feminist
texts in that they present situations where ultimately no compromise is
possible. By documenting the reality of the Magdalen laundries, BurkeBrogan was instrumental in focusing international attention on the inhumane treatment of inmates in the Magdalen laundries, a predicament
she experienced directly.9 Her play writes the personal into the radically
political and aptly embraces epic and physical theatre languages. Walshe
aligns another inhumane system, Apartheid, with the subjugating/subordinate dynamic of an abusive marriage and in doing so, situates the political within the family circle. In an afterword to her play In the Talking
Dark in 2001, Walshe names her heroes as ‘women who braved ridicule
and marched for my right to have my Child Allowance Book assigned
to me’ (326). In contrast, Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy’s Women in
Arms (1982) and Anne Le Marquand Hartigan’s Beds (1982)10 advocate a liberal feminism, one where negotiation and pragmatism are key
to attaining equality. Burke-Kennedy suggests that the mythical women
of Irish legend ‘engineered the destinies of their men, and of the country’ (Women in Arms 47), despite the dominance of the fighting warrior trope in the traditional telling of the legends. In her re-imagining
of these stories she writes into existence a more equal world but also
warns of consequences. Hartigan’s Beds is the most unconventional; it
deconstructs the problems faced by women, at that time in Ireland, in
an unapologetically direct and angry staging. She utilises the intimacy
and familiarity of bodies and household furnishings to contextualise her
angry feminist challenge to the patriarchy.
Walshe’s The Stranded Hours Between and Burke-Brogan’s Eclipsed
expose the status quo in the late 1980s and, in their choice of antagonists, provide passionate arguments to explain why subjugation must
be identified and challenged. Walshe’s play is set in 1980s South Africa,
when the Apartheid system was in place, a choice of temporal and spatial
environments which establishes her politics. The Stranded Hours Between
is set in an upmarket holiday village in South Africa’s Kruger National
Park. The exclusive park aims to give wealthy tourists a taste of living in the savannah in a pseudo African village secured with an electric
fence and featuring ‘genuine’ indigenous huts fitted with all the modcons required for luxury living. Stoffel, an Afrikaner, and his wife Iseult
are the sole occupants of the village as the play opens. Their teenage
son Hennie is at a youth camp, learning to bear arms and ‘be a man’.
Iseult likens their situation to being animals in a zoo, situated as they
are behind the fence, which, she also mentions, is broken in one spot.
This information introduces a pervading sense of tension and fear, an
atmosphere which permeates the play until the last. What happens if wild
animals breach the security of their village? Added to the threat of the
African wild life is the presence of native refugees from Mozambique
fleeing a tribal war in their own country. This stifling setting is the background to Stoffel and Iseult re-evaluating their relationship, and its fragility is emphasised by the appearance of the other two characters in
Walshe’s play. Stoffel’s jealousy of Andries, the manager of the resort,
betrays his insecurities and vulnerability but also allows him to demonstrate his domineering attitude to his wife. The correlation between the
couple’s relationship and the greater political structure in which they
exist illuminates the nature of institutions held together by fear and
loathing of the ‘other’. Iseult is portrayed initially as a submissive wife,
and plays with this image, making clear her own non-threatening status:
‘Only my big toes are feminist; the rest of me thinks they went too far’
(109). She states that she does not bother with the papers and cannot
read a map but, as the play progresses, it becomes evident that this is
pretence, a negotiation with the oppressor until one event causes her to
challenge her situation.
The device of the loss of a male child who goes ‘over’ to the patriarchy, or is lured over by the father figure, allows Iseult a pivot on
which her relationship with Stoffel turns: from apparent contentment to
resentment and anger. In Walshe’s play the construct of masculinity is
portrayed as performative, with her young teenage son literally having
his masculinity imposed on him. Hennie is being taught gun skills specifically against his mother’s wishes, spending time in his room with his
gun and ‘stroking it the same way he used to stroke the dog’ (125). The
ultimate challenge to Iseult and Stoffel’s relationship occurs when Iseult
befriends an injured and traumatised African woman who is fleeing from
280 P. O’Beirne
violence in her own country and unintentionally ends up in the holiday village. Stoffel’s conflicting response to mKulie veers from disgust
to violent attraction and the play climaxes when the two women leave
together, unable to stay in the system or society as it is constructed.
Patricia Burke-Brogan’s Eclipsed looks at ‘patriarchy by proxy’
through an effective and scathing indictment of the institutions of
Church and State, and their privileged status in Ireland: the narrative
of the Magdalenes is now well known. The play is all the more effective because it is based on fact: it exposes how State and Church dealt
with women who found themselves on the outside of Irish society, ostracised because of ‘unauthorised’ pregnancies, mental illness or by just
being inconvenient for someone who had the power to exclude them.
The orchestral music, chant and Elvis songs, and the dance/movement
sequences serve to instil a Brechtian awareness of moment and message.
The play begins in the present day; a young woman called Rosa visits
a convent to find evidence of her birth mother. As Rosa reads out the
names written on a ledger she summons up the ghosts of the women
whose stories are encapsulated within its pages: the ‘penitent women’ of
Saint Paul’s. Structures of power in the play are represented by two nuns
who run the laundry. Mother Victoria is the foot soldier for the patriarchal hierarchy of the Church, and demands ‘Blind obedience’ from Sister
Virginia, the younger nun who questions the ethics of the laundry and
its systematic cruelty (193).
In the Credo scene Sister Virginia’s prayers are interrupted and paralleled with the voices of the Magdalenes crying out for help; BurkeBrogan leaves no room for doubting the incongruity of the women’s
situations compared to the moral aspirations of Catholicism. Sister
Virginia questions her faith, wondering if she too will become dehumanised if she stays, ‘[l]ocked in by obedience […] [W]as early Christian
History rewritten too? Women’s witness submerged?’ (193). In Walshe’s
The Stranded Hours Between God is also implicated: Iseult states that
between the ‘G’ and the ‘D’ there is ‘a cesspool’ (137). But BurkeBrogan makes clear the role women played in the perpetuation of this
inverted Christian doctrine. The two nuns are one Janus-faced entity:
Mother Victoria is married to the church/patriarchy and will do its bidding regardless of the effects on the vulnerable, while Sister Virginia is
idealistic and wishes to help her fellow man and woman through her
calling to the religious life. When Bridget savagely attacks and torments Sister Virginia with taunts of ‘Scab! Spy!’ it may seem as if she
has chosen the wrong target, but her actions highlight that those who
uphold the system, albeit with the best of intentions, are implicated too
(215). As with Walshe’s play, the institution proves difficult to escape
from: Mandy’s mental health breaks down and she is placed permanently
into the ‘local mental institution’ (226); Cathy dies from an asthma
attack as she tries to flee in a laundry basket. Sister Virginia tries to atone
for Cathy’s death by giving Bridget the keys to make her own escape—
which she does by running through the audience towards an unknown
future, calling to Virginia as she goes: ‘Ye’re the ones that are dead,
Virginia! Dead inside yer Laundry Basket Hearts!’ (223). Ultimately the
characters in these plays have agency, but they act out of desperation and
an urgent need to escape rather than a desire to challenge the patriarchy.
Nonetheless the indictment and rejection of the patriarchy demonstrated
in these plays, with escape through any means the only option, aligns
with a radical feminist rejection of formal politics. The subjects are ordinary women who have been both produced by and become victims of a
power system, which they must reject and leave in order to survive.
On the other hand, Burke-Kennedy’s Women in Arms and Hartigan’s
Beds stage a dialogue being initiated with patriarchy. Applying Moya
Lloyd’s definition, the dialectic attitude towards power in these plays
is a liberal feminist one, where women argue for a share of the already
existing men’s power, ‘seeing this as the route out of sex discrimination’
(73). In Women in Arms—Burke-Kennedy’s stylised and humorous retelling of Irish legends through the prism of female experience—this
longing can be discerned along with an appeal for equality and recognition inherent in the political act of placing the women centre stage.
The play’s first story tells of Essa, a highly educated young woman who
refuses to perform her gendered role as expected. As punishment, her
access to learning is taken away from her: her twelve tutors are all burnt
to death and Essa must now fight back, hunt down the killers and wreak
revenge. She changes utterly; her men are scared of her and change
her name to Nessa, the ‘Tough One’ (11). Nessa is impregnated by a
druid, Cathbad, and tricks King Fergus into allowing this child, her son,
to take the throne for a year—a year which stretched into many when
Nessa refuses to return the throne. Burke-Kennedy portrays Nessa as
the ultimate female politician: she does whatever is necessary to gain
power, whether by proxy, by guile or deceit, and to clean up the house of
Fergus. She forbids the practice of orgies, ‘encouraged the visitations of
poets and musicians’ and ‘“invited” the women to take instruction’ (15).
282 P. O’Beirne
Pragmatic and intellectual, driven and ambitious, Nessa seeks to gain
equality on those terms which already exist, rather than to challenge the
fundamental system itself.
In the story of Macha, a goddess who takes human form in order
to become a mother-figure to a family of father and sons, the pregnant
Macha is obliged to take part in a horse race which she wins. However,
she collapses and gives birth at the finish of the race: ‘Two children came
out of her. She screamed, as they came’ (20). Macha then curses every
man who heard her scream: in time of crisis and threat to their homeland the men of Ulster would ‘feel the agony that she had suffered’
(21). Macha as goddess is all powerful but she desires both motherhood
and equality with her mate. In Maeve’s story, we meet the Queen of
Connaught and her husband Ailill who share the same pleasure-seeking
and free-spirited attitude to life. They are equals and this is very important to them; so important in fact that they have their respective estates
measured and to Maeve’s consternation she is found wanting. One of
her bulls, a magnificent creature, ‘had gone over to Ailill’s herd […]
because it wouldn’t follow a woman’ (36). Maeve despairs that, ‘she was
no more than a kept woman’ (37). Once again Burke-Kennedy’s female
protagonist needs to prove she is the equal of her male counterpart.
Maeve must go to war with Ulster to acquire the brown bull that will
banish her feelings of inadequacy, and in doing so she proves herself as
greedy, proud and aggressive as the fighting Ulstermen. The epilogue,
which relates the background to the fight between the two bulls who
‘ripped each other to pieces’ (46), conjures up images of war as testosterone-fuelled disaster. Critically, however, Burke-Kennedy’s female protagonists are not innocent bystanders in this war, they have agency and
use it, they negotiate with the world as it exists, and they do not leave.
Writing the body into text in her play Beds, Anne Le Marquand
Hartigan performs Cixous’s exhortation for woman to ‘write woman’
(877). Case discusses an approach by feminists to staging the political as
‘up-close and personal’, exemplified by the domestic detail in Hartigan’s
play, thereby extending ‘the anti-patriarchal proximity of such theatre
to a kind of global imaginary’ (Feminist and Queer Performance 126).
Hartigan states on the title page that Beds moves in ‘a life-cycle from pre
birth to deaths of various kinds’ (n.p.). The play features dance, with a
ritual bed-making which is repeated throughout the play. Scene 2 features three beds on the stage with actors as three foetuses, and another
two beings designated as blobs. The foetuses are happy, ‘in tune with
her, my great mother earth’; ‘life is good’ (21) as they swing and float,
speaking to the background sound of a slow heartbeat. However, by designating the early foetuses as ‘lumps of jelly’ who will remember ‘absolutely nothing’ of their first ‘three years’ in utero (31–2), Hartigan is
staging a clear political message. In scene 3, a man and a woman meet
in a deconstructed traditional wedding, staged as a boxing match, with
cross-gendered casting for the bride and groom. Hartigan writes women’s sexuality in an uninhibited if pedagogic manner; the exhortations of
the brother of the groom and the mother of the bride to the wedding
couple resemble instructions from a sex therapist’s handbook (47–50).
The marriage is played out as dysfunctional and the author indicates that
there is an onus on women to take responsibility for their sex lives and
communicate their needs. The control that the Church in Ireland exerts
over citizens’ sexual and reproductive lives is critiqued. Hartigan’s characters address contraception: ‘Our priest told me just to have the first
five or six, then think about Billings’ (55). An abortion is performed in
parallel with a mass, the altar doubling as a bed: according to the stage
instructions, as the priest raises the host for consecration, the girl ‘bears
down and pushes out a child’ (124). A statue of the ‘Sacred Heart’ Jesus
comes to life to make love to a woman in her bed as they both recite
the ‘Hail Holy Queen’ prayer (133–135). The final scene features an
inversion of the marriage rites, including dance and music with funereal overtones and macabre silent screams to the audience, culminating
in a frantic waltz in which the audience is invited to join. Influenced by
Brechtian aesthetics, Hartigan’s play is political. Beds stages the female
body as a site of oppression and trauma but men’s bodies are also implicated in the damage and restrictions imposed by the hierarchies of
power. A courageous demand for dialogue and mutual understanding
between the sexes resides at the heart of Hartigan’s play but she writes
with anger and a profound sense of injustice at contemporary society.
Opening Conclusions
These four plays (Walshe’s The Stranded Hours Between; Burke-Brogan’s
Eclipsed; Burke-Kennedy’s Women in Arms; and Hartigan’s Beds) dialectically engage with a consciousness raised by the second wave of feminism and are representative examples of feminist writing. Apart from
Walshe’s play, they do not conform to an hegemonic naturalistic and
narrative model of the traditional Irish play. They all focus on female
284 P. O’Beirne
concerns: relationship dynamics are central to their texts; they address
how women’s lives are impacted and in some cases destroyed by the
patriarchal institutions of marriage, Church and State; and they imagine alternative realities through storytelling and myth. Does the female-­
centredness of these plays invite their writing to be dismissed as of limited
interest, male-centric theatre having always assumed the male gaze as the
national one and all others as peripheral niche? Very few plays written by
women in the 1980s have been critiqued in any meaningful fashion or
formed part of academic discourse on theatre studies: the exceptions are
plays written by women from Northern Ireland that address the Troubles
and its manifestations. Three of the four plays analysed here have been
published, but twenty to thirty years after they were penned, in anthologies dedicated to giving voice and recognition to women dramatists, and
to challenging the ‘“master-narrative” of Irish theatre’ (Leeney, Seen and
Heard vii). Hartigan’s play remains unpublished, Walshe’s play unproduced. Do the same omissions apply to the representation of work by
women in the more recent period? That question needs to be fully investigated, but one perceives initial differences between the two periods.
Case, writing in 1988, notes the global and temporal extent of the
absence of women playwrights and argues that, in addition to ‘traditional
categories of production […] consideration must be given to modes of
performance located in the domestic and personal spheres which were
assigned to women by the patriarchy’ (Feminism and Theatre 29). A
chapter in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing specifically addresses
the same concerns: ‘We need to develop modes of evaluation and critique
which take account of models of practice derived from a body of femaleauthored theatre’ (McMullan and Williams 1236). Are female playwrights
who embrace theatre languages traditionally shunned by canonical
authors still neglected today? While a thorough study of plays by women
playwrights is required to engage with these assertions, one may briefly
point to recent evolutions. Charlotte McIvor and Siobhan O’Gorman
have identified the historical neglect of ‘devised’ plays and addressed
changing approaches in practice and theory in Devised Performance in
Irish Theatre: Histories and Contemporary Practice. Illustrative of this
shift in playwriting, rather than referring to playwrights, recent practices have embraced a more inclusive approach, articulated by the term
­‘theatre-makers’. In Radical Contemporary Theatre Practices by Women in
Ireland, Miriam Haughton and Maria Kurdi note how, ‘by choosing a
path away from the patriarchal heritage of realism’, women are attracted
in their theatre practice to ‘alternative forms of making work and a diversity of themes relating to female experience’ (2). They further discuss
how the relationship of women playwrights and theatre-makers to feminism has shifted since the 1980s, so that ‘radical’ is not associated with
the second-wave radical feminist scholarship regarding theatre-practice
(2). Their analyses of the performances (and these are not generally textual analyses) posit engagement with—or resistance to—a third-wave or
post-feminist agenda as influencing the form and content of the works
Two recent productions that staged the Magdalen Laundries and
demand their remembrance, ANU Productions’ Laundry (2011) and
Aine Phillips’s Emotional Labour (2012), permit an initial comparison
with Burke-Brogan’s Eclipsed to illustrate this shift. While Eclipsed features
a narrative realism shot through with music and dance scenes that serve
to accentuate the youth and vulnerability of the ‘Maggies’, ANU’s Louise
Lowe and author-performer Phillips adopt post-dramatic techniques to
interrogate the reality of the Magdalenes’ situation in new rapports with
the audience. Haughton describes her experience of Laundry as ‘visual,
visceral and embodied’ (‘From Laundries’ 59): the smell of carbolic soap
pervades the site of the former laundry where the performance took place
and the audience members were invited to engage with the Magdalenes
rather than observe in traditional theatrical mode. Phillips’s performance
is also physical and embodied as she performs her own work over eight
hours. Dressed in a pinafore that evokes institutional uniform, Phillips
wears a small speaker, which barely audibly relates recordings of the
Magdalene women’s histories. She instigates intimate connections with
the audience by approaching them and touching an item of their clothing;
this proximity ‘forced the spectator to lean towards Phillips’ and allowed
the recordings to be heard (Reilly 84). The semiotics of her performance
replace text as a means to interrogate and undermine attitudes to Irish
womanhood (85), in a marked departure from practices in the 1980s.
Recent anthologies of Irish plays have displayed a welcome gender
balance and feature plays that additionally translate the development
of non-narrative playwriting and devised performance. In The Oberon
Anthology of Contemporary Irish Plays, Amy Conroy’s I ♡ Alice ♡ I,
Grace Dyas’s Heroin, Lynda Radley’s The Art of Swimming, and Una
McKevitt’s The Big Deal—which could all be tagged social documentary theatre—share the fact that they ‘ride in no slipstream of the identifiably Irish play or even the play per se’ (Conway 7). In his editorial
286 P. O’Beirne
introduction to Contemporary Irish Plays, Patrick Lonergan also points
to the emergence of a new collaborative theatre-making, ‘which blurs
distinctions between writers, actors, directors and audiences’ (xi).
Traditionally authored plays nonetheless feature in the anthology and
one, Desolate Heaven by Ailís Ní Ríain (2013), bears comparison with
Burke-Kennedy’s Women in Arms. Both plays are threaded through with
a storytelling trope, the narrative of the two pig-keepers in Women in
Arms and the story of Ciara and her marriage to the Prince in Desolate
Heaven. Ní Ríain’s protagonists are two young teenage girls, Sive and
Orlaith. To escape the quotidian hardships of caring for a sole, sick parent, the girls run away together. On their odyssey, they meet with a
woman who shape-shifts into three distinct traditionally male roles:
Freda the Farmer, Laoise the Lorry Lady and Bridie the Butcher evoke
a feminist agenda in challenging stereotypes and prompting innocent
Sive’s comment that ‘Girls can do anything so’ (311). Both plays end
with evidence of female participation in acts of violence: Maeve’s war
against the Ulstermen results in many deaths, while in a combination of
jealousy, fear of abandonment, and protection of her loved one, Orlaith
drowns Sive in the sea. Both plays engage with feminism but it could be
argued that, as with many plays of the recent period, the author’s concern is elsewhere. In Desolate Heaven, Ní Ríain shows how adult responsibilities placed on children can distort and damage them.
Whether ‘radical’ in form, disengaging from established canonical tradition, challenging and interrogating third-wave or post-feminist representations of women, or staging social and political issues relevant to women,
many plays of the recent twenty-first century seem to have retained a feminist spirit—one that promptly materialised in November 2015. Aston,
Harris, and Heddon, contemplating feminist futures, describe how feminism
in the past united women and provided ‘a forum for “raising” the personal
“I” into a political, collective “we”’ (Feminist Futures? 4). They question
whether this ‘feminist “we”’ is still ‘politically necessary, useful, meaningful
or desirable’ (12). The development of #WTF answers their question with
a resounding yes. Though one cannot predict how this will affect the future
canon, there is a renewed energy at play in Irish theatre, reflective of feminist
pasts but with a contemporary sensibility of its own. Glasshouse Productions
stepped outside the established theatrical sphere to stage their intervention
while #WTF took ownership of the Abbey Theatre to make their protest.
These women, playwrights and/or theatre practitioners, are not negotiating
or leaving; they are demanding their equal place on the stage.
1. In the statistical analysis, I have endeavoured to compare like with like.
Regarding the data on the Abbey, Gate, and Druid I have not excluded
plays on the basis of length of run, or play type, but I have excluded public readings of plays.
2., Quoted in Gráinne
Pollack, Staying Awake: An Analysis of Gender Inequality in Irish theatre.
Pollack has detailed the background and aims of the #WTF movement,
and has also compiled qualitative studies in the form of interviews with a
number of theatre practitioners.
3. For further details, see
4. The statistics presented here are the provisional findings released by the
#WTF group on 14 Nov. 2016. Further statistics were published in 2017,
that do not affect the conclusions presented here.
5. #WTF state on their website that: ‘To accommodate all types of authorship, we include performances that are devised, created by a group or
ensemble, or where any kind of text is produced.’
6. If one removes the Abbey, the Gate, and Druid from the new plays numbers there is an increase of approximately two thirds compared to the
7. Plays written by women from Northern Ireland during the 1980s tended
to have political themes integrated into family dramas.
8. Heddon notes the continued use of the personal in performance although
she qualifies any use of the slogan ‘the personal is political’ with the poststructuralist questioning ‘Which personal?’ and ‘Whose politics?’(130)
that invites interesting access to such plays as those of Amy Conroy,
Sonya Kelly and Grace Dyas.
9. Burke-Brogan worked in one of these laundries as a novice in a religious
order and left the order as a result of her experiences there.
10. I would like to thank Anne Le Marquand Hartigan for giving me a copy
of her unpublished play.
11. See Leeney, ‘Second Skin’ (46–47) for further discussion of third-wave
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288 P. O’Beirne
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290 P. O’Beirne
Author Biography
Patricia O’Beirne is completing her thesis on Meanwhile South of the Border:
A Study of Theatre in 1980s Ireland in the School of Drama and Theatre, NUI
Galway. The focus of her research is Irish Theatre in the 1980s, the analysis of
dramatic work influenced by political, social and feminist agendas, and the rise
of collaborative community-based theatre. As an Abbey Theatre Digital Archive
Researcher, her research engages with primary sources held in the archival deposits in NUI Galway.
Abbey Theatre, 2, 4, 9–11n, 17, 18,
21, 22, 29–33, 39, 40, 43, 45,
48, 91, 93, 94, 99, 115–117,
142, 143, 145, 154, 155, 162,
169, 170, 208n, 214, 220–221,
225, 250, 269, 273–276, 286,
Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, 275,
Ahern, Bertie, 219, 221
Aisling Ghéar Theatre Company, 143,
144, 147
Amharclann de hÍde, 142, 143
ANU Productions, 2, 8, 10, 209n, 285
Laundry, 285
Vardo, 8
Aron, Geraldine, 276
Same Old Moon, 276
Artaud, Antonin, vi, 32n, 68, 71n
Arts Council, 116, 118, 119, 146,
162, 273, 274
Barabbas... the Company, 92, 116
Barbican, 185
Barnes, Ben, 22
Bataille, George, 26, 27
Baudrillard, Jean, 81
Bausch, Pina, 33n
Béal Bocht, (An), / The Poor Mouth,
Beauty and the Beast, 239
Beckett, Samuel, vii, 19, 32n, 77, 93,
95, 107, 117, 118, 121, 147, 167
Bell, Fiona, 27
Bell, Lian, 269
Belton, Cathy, 27
Bennett, Andrew, 93
Berkoff, Steven, 123, 176, 177
Greek, 123, 177
Betzien, Angela, 124, 126
Hoods, 126
Where in the World Is Frank
Sparrow?, 126
Bickerstaffe Theatre Company, 92
Bigsby, Christopher, 78, 80, 87n
Binnie, Jean, 275, 276
Colours–Jane Barry Esq, 275
Bird, Dick, 27
Black, Niall, 115
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017
A. Etienne and T. Dubost (eds.), Perspectives on Contemporary
Irish Theatre, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59710-2
292 Index
Blood in the Alley Productions, 116,
117, 120
Blue Raincoat Theatre Company,
Blue Teapot Theatre Company, 9,
Bodies, 3, 5, 9, 17, 19, 20, 29, 48,
59–71, 97, 106–109, 130, 154,
156, 183, 197, 227, 232, 233,
236, 237, 253, 255, 257–260,
262, 266n, 278, 282, 283
Bourdieu, Pierre, 237, 245n
Bradshaw, Barbara, 28, 29
Brecht, Bertolt, vi, 55n, 255, 280,
Brennan, Barbara, 155, 156
Brennan, Paul, 34n
Brennan, Stephen, 95
Brith Gof, 199
BrokenCrow Theatre Company, 7,
BrokenTalkers, 259
Silver Stars, 259, 260
Brook, Peter, v, vi, 33n
Brown, Noelle, 119
Postscript, 119
Büchner, Georg, 41
Woyzeck, 41
Buggy, Niall, 155, 156
Burgess, Anthony, 176, 199
Clockwork Orange, (A), 176, 199,
Burke-Brogan, Patricia, 278, 280,
283, 285, 287n
Eclipsed, 278, 280, 283, 285
Burke-Kennedy, Mary Elizabeth, 278,
281–283, 286
Women in Arms, 278, 281–282,
283, 286
Byrne, Gabriel, 225
Byrne, Shane, 259
Hungry/Tender, 259
Cameron, David, 148
Cannon, Feidilm, 259
Carr, Marina, 5, 22, 29, 32, 34n,
59–71, 83, 107, 117, 120,
On Raftery’s Hill, 62, 64,
By the Bog of Cats, 60–62
Woman and Scarecrow, 59–63,
65–67, 69–70, 117
Marble, 276
Portia Coughlan, 60–62, 64
16 Possible Glimpses, 276
Cartmell, Selina, 23, 27
Case, Sue Ellen, 277, 282, 284
Casey, Anne-Marie, 276
Little Women, 276
Wuthering Heights, 276
Casson, Bronwen, 20, 33n, 91
Chambers, Lilian, 4, 33n, 79, 92, 93,
Chekhov, Anton, 141, 249
Seagull, (The), 141, 169
Three Sisters, 249
Chekhov, Michael, 20, 134
Christian Brothers, 219, 221
Churchill, Caryl, 185
Cixous, Hélène, 67, 68, 71n, 282
Clohessy, Denis, 157
Collins, Michael, 22, 28
Commedia dell’arte, 5, 92, 93, 94,
95, 96
Commission to Inquire into Child
Abuse, 218, 220, 222–224. See
also Ryan Report
Comyn, Annabelle, 169
Conradh na Gaeilge / The Gaelic
League, 142
Conroy, Amy, 250, 260–262, 285,
Alice, 250, 261, 262, 285
Corcadorca Theatre Company, 8, 99,
107, 110, 123, 124, 127, 176,
177, 193–208, 209n
Owl, 199, 209n
Corn Exchange, (The), 5, 92–94, 96,
County Council, 115, 116, 143
Cowen, Brian, 218, 220
Creedon, Cónal, 127, 195
Cure, (The), 195
Cullen, Sylvia, 142
Crows Calling, 142
Cunningham, Davy, 40
Cunningham, Merce, 32n
Darkest Corner, (The), 9, 214, 219,
220, 222, 225–227
Dean, Tanya, 277
Deevy, Teresa, 31, 272
Dennehy, Donnacha, 189
De Valera, Éamon, 213, 219
Devlin, Tony, 144
An Aisling/The Dream, 144
Dickens, Charles, 176, 199
Dineen, Ricky, 204, 209n
Disabilities, 9, 42, 231–244, 245n
Donnelly, Deirdre, 95, 155
Donohue, Brenda, 10, 271, 273
Dowling, Clare, 270
Doyle, Roddy, 176
Druid, 73, 116, 208n, 273, 274, 275,
276, 287n
Dublin Youth Theatre, 175, 176
Dubost, Thierry, 6, 11n
Dyas, Grace, 285, 287n
Heroin, 285
Dyas, Veronica, 260, 261, 264, 265
All That Signified Me, 260
In My Bed, 260
Economics, 2, 6–8, 10, 93, 115–119,
158–160, 162–164, 194–198,
200, 202, 213, 270
Celtic Tiger, 1, 52, 53, 77–79, 83,
84, 170, 194, 198, 203, 205,
235, 273
Edgar, David, 7
Ellroy, James, 166, 167
Equinox Theatre Company, 233, 244n
Ervine, St John, 31
Esslin, Martin, 105, 106
Evers, Sean, 34n
Everyman Theatre, 116, 120, 123,
137, 199
Fellini, Federico, 32n
Festivals, 6–8, 10, 11n, 21, 33n, 39,
92, 99, 115–117, 119, 121, 133,
144, 163, 193–195, 206, 208n,
236, 245n, 251, 261, 272, 273,
Finken, Jessica, 116
Finn, Mike, 119
Pigtown, 119
Firkin Crane, 142
Fishamble, 8, 155, 163
FitzGerald, Garret, 195
FitzGibbon, Emelie, 177
FitzGibbon, Ger, 4, 33n, 92, 93, 95,
175–190, 198, 215
FitzGibbon, Ronan, 6, 7, 133
Enter Juliet, 133
Madame Chavelle, 133
Mantle, 133
Prospect House, 133
Fitzmaurice, George, 32n
Fluvià, Pepa, 5, 74–76, 79
Flynn, Gerard Mannix, 220, 221, 224,
225, 258
294 Index
Flynn, Kate, 156
Flynn, Mannix, 258
Fo, Dario, 147, 149
Accidental Death of an Anarchist,
Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, 147
Foley, Denis, 116
Forbes, Michele, 20
Foucault, Michel, 238, 241, 242, 253,
Fouéré, Olwen, 20, 24, 156, 208n
Frawley, Monica, 24, 28
Friel, Brian, 9, 11n, 31, 93, 102, 117,
120, 121, 167, 214, 215, 226,
227n, 253
Dancing at Lughnasa, 214, 217
Faith Healer, 93, 215, 216
Gentle Island, (The), 253
Philadelphia Here I Come!, 117
Frisch, Max, 147
Gallagher, Gemma, 244n
Gallowglass Theatre Company, 119
Galway, 30, 34n, 73, 143, 235, 236,
244n, 245n
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie,
236–238, 243
Gate Theatre, 92, 154, 273–276,
Gatti, Armand, 40, 54n
Geraghty, Clive, 154
Ghosts, 22, 23, 27, 28, 34n, 41, 60,
61, 216, 280
Gilsenan, Alan, 23
GITIS State Theatre Institute, 141
Glasshouse Productions, 9, 10,
Gleeson, Brendan, 176
Graffiti Theatre Company, 124, 126,
137, 176, 177, 194
Graham, Martha, 33n
Gregg, Roger, 176, 177
Dogs of Chulainn, (The), 177
Gregg, Stacey, 276
Gregory, Lady, 31, 35n, 50, 272
Cathleen Ni Houlihan, 50
Grene, Nicholas, 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11n,
76, 79, 194, 203
Grotowski, Jerzy, 32n
Guthrie, Tyrone, 227n
Hadley, Bree, 232, 237
Halpin, Mary, 276
Semi-private, 276
Hamilton, Malcolm, 91
Hand, Frieda, 244n
Hanrahan, Johnny, 119, 194
Craving, 119
Reading Turgenev, 119
Volpone, 119
Harding, Michael, 23, 32, 116
Harris, Nancy, 276
Haughey, Charles J., 27
Haughton, Miriam, 3, 284, 285
Hayes, Katy, 270
Healy, Dermot, 18
Healy, Jack, 135
Heaney, Seamus, 214
Heddon, Dee, 278, 286, 287n
Heffernan, Liam, 195
Henry, Niall, 91
Hertzog, Werner, 32n
Heylin, Liam, 121, 203
Slates, 121
Girl From Gdansk, 121
Love, Peace and Robbery, 121
Hickey, Tom, 20–24, 30, 32, 34n, 91,
HIV, 254, 255, 259, 265
Horniman, Annie, 93
Hughes, Declan, 102, 103, 106
Hughes, Kelly
Death at Intervals, 208n
Hyde, Douglas, 142
Hynes, Garry, 276
Island Protected by a Bridge of Glass,
Ibsen, Henrik, 40, 41, 169, 170
Hedda Gabler, 169, 170
Doll’s House, (A), 170
Identities, 6, 18, 28, 29, 50, 51, 53,
78, 79, 84, 106, 135, 146, 154,
203, 213, 216, 227, 232, 245n,
251–254, 257–259
Inglis, Tom, 83–85
International scope, 2, 3, 11n, 20,
34n, 86, 117, 177, 185, 193,
203, 278
Ionesco, Eugène, 147
Amédée, 147
IRA, 19, 144, 146, 177
Irigaray, Luce, 5, 59, 62–65, 67–69,
Irishness, 4, 5, 11n, 77, 79, 81, 82,
85, 101, 102, 154, 167, 184,
226, 254, 255, 260, 265
Irish Literary Revival, 74, 82, 214
Irish Theatre Magazine, 30, 209,
ISIS, 180
Island Theatre Company, 119
Jajte-Lewkowicz, Irena, 232, 237
Jameson, Fredric, 79
James X, 220, 221, 224–226, 258
Johnson, Judge Richard, 220, 222,
224, 225
Evidence I Shall Give, (The),
Jones, Marie, 29, 148
Stones in His Pockets, 148
Jordan, Eamonn, 1, 4, 5, 29, 31, 79,
Jordan, Wayne, 208n
Joyce, James, 94
Kane, Sarah, 185, 188
Kantor, Tadeusz, 33n
Kavanagh, Patrick, 17, 19, 20, 91
Kearney, Conal, 20
Keating, Sara, 209n, 272
Keegan, Gary, 259
Kelleher, Julie, 194, 195, 202
Kelly, Sonya, 119, 287n
Wheelchair on My Face, 119
Kiberd, Declan, 24, 34n
Kiernan, Pat, 8, 123, 176, 193–195,
198–203, 207
Kilroy, Thomas, v–vii, 2, 9, 11n,
31, 106–108, 117, 165, 169,
214–217, 226, 253
Talbot’s Box, 216
Big Chapel, (The), 216
Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche,
(The), 253
Christ Deliver Us!, 214, 215, 217
Seagull, (The), 141, 169
Kinevane, Pat, 7, 24, 116, 119, 153
Forgotten, 116, 162
Silent, 116, 119, 156
Underneath, 116, 157, 163
Kosofsky-Sedgwick, Eve, 250, 253
Kostick, Gavin, 8
At The Ford, 8
Games People Play, (The), 8
Kristeva, Julia, 220, 227n, 233, 244n
Kurdi, Mária, 3, 5, 11n, 82, 284
296 Index
Irish language, 7, 22, 142–150
politics and culture, 18, 62, 66, 67,
69, 80, 129, 214, 252, 256
theatre language, 3, 5, 23, 29, 91,
92, 184, 278, 284
as artistic material, 23, 29, 44, 45,
91, 95, 97, 139, 166, 167,
171, 172, 177, 225
Leeney, Cathy, 271, 284, 287n
Lehmann, Hans-Thies, 200, 208, 233,
Le Marquand Hartigan, Anne, 278,
282, 287n
Beds, 278, 281–283
Leonard, Hugh, 31
Letts, Tracey
Bug, 133
LGBT, 9, 56n, 249–266
Lir Academy, 154
Lojek, Helen, 8, 44, 55n, 56n
Lonergan, Patrick, 1, 3, 11n, 28, 30,
73, 85, 101, 102, 216, 272, 286
Lovett, Conor, 193
Lovett, Micheál, 121
This Ebony Bird, 121
Tricky, 121
Jumping The Sharks, 121
Macbeth at the Gates, 121
Lowe, Louise, 10, 11n, 285
Lynch, Martin, 253
Crack Up, 253
Mac Anna, Fiona, 20
Mac Conghail, Fiach, 32
Mac Intyre, Tom, 4, 17–34, 91, 117,
Bearded Lady, (The), 18, 19
Chickadee, 34n
Chirpaun, (The), 22, 28, 34n
Dance for Your Daddy, 18, 19, 97n
Foggy Hair and Green Eyes, 34n
Gallant John Joe, (The), 34n
Good Evening, Mr. Collins, 22, 28,
Great Hunger, (The), 17–21, 32,
33n, 34n, 91
Kitty O’Shea, 22, 23
Lament of Art O’Leary, (The) /
Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire,
22, 33n
Only an Apple, 23, 27, 29, 34n
Rise Up Lovely Sweeney, 18, 19, 32,
Sheep’s Milk on the Boil, 22–26, 28,
Snow White, 18, 20, 97n
What Happened Bridgie Cleary, 23,
26, 29, 34n
You Must Tell the Bees, 34n
Mamet, David, 103, 167
Marceau, Marcel, 20
Masculinity, 3, 10, 19, 81, 177, 254,
255, 257, 258, 260, 265, 279
Mason, Patrick, 4, 10, 11n, 17, 20,
21, 30–34, 39, 56n, 91, 117,
142, 159
McAleese, Mary, 252
McArdle, Kathy, 22
McBurney, Simon, 186
McCabe, Patrick, 207
McCarthy, Cormac, 167
McDonagh, Martin, 5, 29, 73–86
Lonesome West, 5, 73–89
Beauty Queen of Leenane, (The), 73,
75, 76
Cripple of Inishmaan, (The), 79, 82
Leenane Trilogy, (The), 73, 75, 76,
82, 86
Lieutenant of Inishmore, (The), 75
Skull in Connemara, (A), 73, 76
McGuinness, Frank, 4, 10, 11n, 29,
31, 32, 39–57, 117, 120, 159,
254, 255
Bird Sanctuary, (The), 39, 54n
Carthaginians, 39, 48, 55n, 254
Dolly West’s Kitchen, 39, 54, 56n,
Factory Girls, (The), 39
Gates of Gold, 54n
Greta Garbo Came to Donegal, 54n
Innocence, 39
Mary and Lizzie, 53
Mutabilitie, 39, 53
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching
Towards the Somme, 39, 55n,
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, 39
There Came a Gypsy Riding, 39, 54n
Hanging Gardens, (The), 4, 39–54
Sea Sounds, (The), 54
McKenna, Oisin, 259
McKevitt, Una, 285
Big Deal, (The), 285
McLaren, Graham, 11n
McLucas, Clifford, 204
McMahon, Phillip, 208n
Alice in Funderland, 208n
McNamara, Brinsley, 31
McPherson, Conor, 117, 120, 262
Lime Tree Bower, 262
Mercier, Paul, 176
Meridian Theatre Company, 119, 194
Merriman, Brian, 23
Midnight Court, (The )/ Cúirt an
Mheán Oíche, 23, 33n
Merriman, Vic, 5, 77, 83
Meyerhold, Vsevolod, vi, 32, 141
Midas Theatre-in-Education
Company, 34n
Millar, Sean, 259
Mitchell, Gary, 145
In a Little World of Our Own, 145
Love Matters, 145
Molière, 92
Dom Juan, 92
Tartuffe, 92
Molloy, Deirdre, 24
Molloy, M. J., 32n
Monk, Meredith, 33n
Monologue, 93, 106–108, 128, 166,
171, 172, 224, 251, 258, 259, 262
Moore, Dermod, 20, 21
Morrissey, Eamon
Maeve’s House, 116
Morse, Daniel, 2, 5
Moynihan, Elizabeth, 276
Mulhall, Anne, 264, 265n
Mullen, Marie, 155
Munt, Sally, 253, 258
Murfi, Mikel, 91, 172, 182, 183
Man in the Woman’s Shoes, (The),
Murphy, Cillian, 129, 183
Murphy, Colin, 8
Bailed Out!, 8
Guaranteed!, 8
Murphy, Jimmy (author), 119
Kings of the Kilburn High Road,
(The), 119
Murphy, Tom, 31, 117, 120, 155
Patriot Game, (The), 155
Murphy report, 214
Murray, Christopher, 213, 222, 276
Murray, Neil, 11n
Murray, Thomas Cornelius, 31
Music, 43, 44, 51, 55n, 65, 70, 92,
97, 100, 123–129, 131, 148,
167, 177, 178, 184, 188, 189,
194, 196, 202, 206, 208n, 280,
283, 285
Myth, 8, 25, 45, 50, 52, 53, 56,
60–63, 66, 67, 73, 74, 76–78,
80, 87, 103, 147, 209n, 213,
250, 254, 278, 284
298 Index
Na gCopaleen, Myles, 148
National Theatre of Scotland, 11n,
115, 116
Neeson, Liam, 225
Ní Ghráinne, Máire, 154
Ní Neachtain, Bríd, 20
Ní Néill, Nuala, 144
An Aisling/The Dream, 144
Ní Ríain, Aílis, 4, 6, 99–111, 121,
207, 286
Beaten / Tilt, 100, 101, 105, 111n,
Desolate Heaven, 100, 111n, 121,
Tallest Man in the World, (The), 4,
6, 99–111, 121
Noble Call, 250, 251
Nolan, Jim, 119
Salvage Shop, (The), 119
Moonshine, 119
Northern Ireland, 7, 18, 28, 33n, 51,
142–150, 215, 284, 287n
O’Brien, Eugene, 262
Eden, 262
O’Kane, Emma, 163
Ouroboros Theatre Company, 119
Ovid, 52, 53
Metamorphoses, 52, 53
Ó Cairealláin, Gearóid, 144, 147
An Aisling/The Dream, 144
O’Carroll, Harriet, 119
Bottle of Smoke, 119
O’Casey, Sean, 117, 118
Juno and The Paycock, 117
Plough and the Stars, (The), 118
O’Donnell, Damien, 234
Ó Gallchoir, Bríd, 144
An Aisling/The Dream, 144
Search for Robert McAdam, (The),
O’Halloran, Mark, 256
Trade, 256–258
O’Hara, Joan, 20, 154
O’Kelly, Donal, 115, 163, 172
Catalpa, 115, 172
O’Neill, Eugene, 199
Hairy Ape, (The), 199
O’Neill, Maire, 155
O’Neill, Vincent (actor), 20
O’Reilly, Christian, 9, 231–245
Inside I’m Dancing, 234
Sanctuary, 9, 233–246
O’Rowe, Mark, 7, 29, 117, 120,
Crestfall, 169
Hedda Gabler, 169, 170
Howie the Rookie, 171
O’Toole, Fintan, 2, 23, 28, 29, 31, 79
Orwell, George
Animal Farm, 199
Panti Bliss, 250
All Dolled Up, 259
Woman in Progress, (A), 259
Restitched, 259
In These Shoes, 259
Passion Machine, 154, 176
Patriot Game, (The), 155
Pavelka, Michael, 40
Pavis, Patrice, 199
Peacock Theatre, 4, 17–36, 94, 117,
122n, 155, 216, 275, 276
Pearson, Mike, 194, 204
Phillips, Aine, 285
Emotional Labour, 285
Pilkington, Lionel, 102
Pilley, Petal, 233, 234, 240, 244
Pine, Emilie, 53, 219, 221–223, 226
Pinter, Harold, 147, 167
Playography Ireland, 119, 273
Plunkett, James, 250
Risen People, (The), 250
Pollack, Gráinne, 271, 287n
Postmodern, 18, 19, 32, 76, 77, 79,
Postmodern, 18, 19, 32, 76, 77, 79,
Project Arts Centre, 30, 34n, 250,
272, 274
Punchbag Theatre Company, 30, 34n
Priests, vi, 9, 19, 20, 46, 213–229,
259, 283
Robinson, Lennox, 155
Drama at Inish, 155
Roche, Anthony, 5, 276
Roe, Owen, 24
Rough Magic Theatre Company, 116,
208n, 274
Royal Court Theatre, 73
Ryan, Annie, 92, 93, 95, 96
Ryan Report, 9, 96, 214, 215,
218–224, 226, 227n, 276
Quill, Sian, 270
Quinn, Conall, 119
Death of Harry Leon, (The), 119
Scannell, Ray, 8, 193–210
Alice in Funderland, 208n
Breathing Water, 194
Striking Distance, 194
Mix It Up, 194, 195
Beats’n’Pieces, 194
Losing Steam, 8, 193–208
Sexuality, 9, 17, 18, 20, 34n, 47, 55n,
64, 67, 75, 78, 105, 107, 109, 150,
170–171, 198, 215–217, 219–221,
225, 226, 234, 235, 237–240,
243–245n, 249–268, 283
Shadowbox Theatre Company, 233,
Outside, 244n
Cloud House, 244n
Maze, 244n
Shakespeare, William, vi, 41, 42, 61,
67, 199, 208n, 213, 233
King Lear, 41, 42
Merchant of Venice, (The), 203,
Hamlet, v, vi, 213
Midsummer Night’s Dream, (A), 233
Shame, 50, 150, 218, 250–254,
257–262, 265
Shaw, George Bernard, 117, 118
Radley, Lynda, 285
Art of Swimming, (The), 285
Raftery, Mary, 219–221, 276
No Escape, 220–224, 226, 276
Suffer the Little Children, 219
Rea, Stephen, 181, 183
Reardon, Daniel, 110
Red Kettle Theatre Company, 30,
34n, 116, 119
Reid, Paul, 97
Catholicism/ Catholic Church, 8,
18, 26, 46, 64, 67, 74, 78,
81, 83, 84, 87n, 93, 96, 146,
209n, 213, 215, 217, 235,
241, 263
Church & State, 9, 17, 19, 79, 214,
218, 222, 225, 228, 277, 280,
283, 284
Protestantism, 93, 94, 96, 145, 146,
300 Index
Sheehy, Joan, 20, 116
Shepard, Sam, 5, 73–81, 86, 87n
True West, 5, 73–76, 80
Shiels, George, 31
Sihra, Melissa, 276
Singleton, Brian, 3, 10, 25, 26, 209n,
Sir Henry’s, 176, 199
Sontag, Susan, 243, 255
South Africa, 278–279
Stanislavski, Konstantin, vi, 20, 141
Stanley, Martina (actor), 20
Steiner, George, 41, 55n
Stembridge, Gerard, 254, 255
Stereotypes, 5, 66, 74, 75, 86, 94,
102, 216, 243, 250, 286
Stoppard, Tom, 231, 232
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are
Dead, 231
Strindberg, August, 95
Sutton, Patrick, 153
Synge, John Millington, 19, 22–25,
28, 31, 32n, 34n, 77, 86, 118,
Playboy of the Western World, (The),
23–25, 28, 118
Tragedy, 4, 5, 39–57, 67, 95, 145,
Trinity College, 33n, 92, 104, 141,
142, 154, 251, 261
Triskel Arts Centre, 194
Ubersfeld, Anne, 45, 55n
Varadker, Leo, 251
Vaughan-Lawler, Tom, 171
Violence, 18, 60, 68, 73, 74, 76–80,
82, 167, 224, 237, 245n, 251,
270, 277, 280, 286
Walker, Paul, 119
Stoker, 119
Waking The Feminists, 8, 10, 269–
271, 287n
Walsh, Eileen, 129
Walsh, Enda, 3, 7, 8, 11n, 117, 120,
123, 124, 129, 175–190, 199,
202, 203, 207, 208n
Lazarus, 178, 189
Ballyturk, 178, 180, 182–184, 187,
Bedbound, 179
Christmas Carol, (A), 123, 176,
Disco Pigs, 7, 129, 176, 177, 182,
199, 203
Fishy Tales, 176
Gentrification, 199, 203
Ginger Ale Boy, (The), 129, 176,
177, 203
Hunger, 175
Insipid, 175
Last Hotel, (The), 175, 188
Misterman, 182, 183, 187, 189,
My Friend Duplicity, 180
New Electric Ballroom, 184, 189
Once, 177, 188, 189
Penelope, 187, 189
Shades of Havilla, 175
Small Things, (The), 179, 188
Twits, (The), 175, 189
Walworth Farce, (The), 184, 186,
189, 208n
Walsh, Fintan, 2, 11n, 263, 265
Walshe, Dolores, 278–281, 283, 284
In the Talking Dark, 278
Stranded Hours Between, (The),
278–280, 283
Ward, Shane, 116
Waterford, 30, 33n, 34n, 119, 139n
Watkins, Neil, 259, 264, 265
Cure for Homosexuality, (The), 259
Year of Magical Wanking, (The),
259, 264–265
Wedekind, Frank, 215
Spring Awakening, 215
Wesker, Arnold, 172
West, Michael, 4–6, 91–98, 195
Freefall, 96, 97, 195
Conservatory, 94–96
Foley, 92–94, 96
Play on Two Chairs, (A), 92, 93, 95
Everyday, 93, 94, 97
Man of Valour, 97
Dublin by Lamplight, 93, 94
Snow, 92, 93, 97n
Wild Geese, (The), 142
Williams, Caroline, 270, 272, 284
Willis, Bruce, 239
Winters, Carmel, 117, 121, 172,
Best Man, 121
B For Baby, 121, 122n
Witness, 117, 121, 172
Woods, Vincent (author), 32
Wycherley, Don (actor), 27, 116
Wyeth, Adam, 131
Hang Up, 133
Lifedeath, 133
Yeats, William Butler, 2, 19, 29, 32n,
50, 93, 118, 121, 214
At the Hawk’s Well, 2
Cathleen Ni Houlihan, 50
Yes Equality, 249–252, 256, 258, 259,
263, 264, 265n
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