Denis Johnston: Commentary & Quotations


Commentary

Commentary

Denis Ireland
Bonamy Dobrée
E. Martin Browne
J. P. Cohane
Fergus Linehan
Patricia Craig
Paddy Smyth

See also remarks under Jennifer Johnston, novelist, q.v.

Denis Ireland, From Irish Shore (1939), calls The Moon in the Yellow River ‘the usual Anglo-Irish half truths about Ireland.’ Further: ‘It fulfills the first law of Anglo-Irish literature; it makes the native Irish appear a race of congenital idiots […] Anglo-Irish clarity has gone now, and there are no caricatures, instead there is something much more dangerous to knowledge - the technically efficient, a fact, the flitteringly effective, reproduction of surface truth - consequently the picture lacks depth’ compares the play adversely with the Cherry Orchard; ‘in the main nothing is right and just; everything is just plumb crazy, crazy with a craziness that is much more depressing than the craziness of everyday life.’ (pp.209ff.) Also in Bernard Adams, Denis Johnston: A Life (Lilliput 2002), citing letter to New English Weekly (11 July 1935), and further quoting: ‘[…] fake Tchekov that would not deceive a child […] for the most part muddy nonsense … a poor service for any Irish, or even Anglo-Irish, writer to render to his day and generation.’ (Adams, p.152.) Johnston replied that no one who examined the work in depth would ‘think any the worse of my country because of my play. If here in Ireland we have developed a habit of selfcriticism that cuts more deeply than would be wished by outsiders, it is something to be proud of rather than deprecated.’ (ibid., 25 July; here p.152.)

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Bonamy Dobrée, ‘Sean O’Casey and the Irish Drama’, Malvern Festival Lecture, given before performance of Johnston’s The Moon in the Yellow River in 1934; first published in Ronald Ayling, Sean O’Casey: Modern Judgements, 1969, pp.92-105: Dobrée writes, ‘[… O’Casey] and Denis Johnston obviously belong to the same school, born into the same conditions, nurtured by the same tradition. In both there is this continual mingling of the most absurd comedy with the bitterest tragedy: their comedy partakes of great comedy in this respect at least, that they force themselves to laugh lest they should weep. Not that the laughter is hysterical … .’ (Ayling, p.95). Further, ‘[…] The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ […] begins as amateur theatrical, in which the man representing Robert Emmet is hit too hard on the head in the first Act […] he meets Kathleen ní Houlihan, who turns out to be a bothersome old woman with a character that does not bear looking into. The whole play, with odd figures cropping up here and there, the people the actor knows in everyday life, the statue of Robert Grattan [sic], the minister, the general, and others, is reminiscent of the night scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was written for an Irish audience who would catch all the allusions […]. The whole play is a deliberate debunking of the old romantic Ireland, and in its form, as well as in what it conveys, we see that Mr. Johnston and Mr. O’Casey belong to the same school. They are both in deadly earnest, yet maintaining the power of comedy; they can both be realistic or symbolic at will. There is no story in these two plays, just the most meagre thread to string them together, and there is no conflict. It is, in fact, a new technique which is being evolved, by the two writers who stand foremost in the Irish theatre of today.’ (p.104; note that Dobrée goes on to make approving comments on Island of Destiny, an unacted play by Howard Peacey about the Irish Civil War.)

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E. Martin Browne, ed., Three Irish Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1959), Introduction: ‘[...] the Abbey Theatre, supported by the Irish government as the national theatre, has not maintained that imaginative understanding of the Irish genius which characterised its early years: much of its production has been of a parochially realistic kind. But in Johnston it found for a time an author who was able to do for the modern Ireland, faced with the impact of science and invention upon its ancient way of life, what Yeats and Synge had done for the older Ireland. He wrote about Dublin herself in the Old Lady Says ‘No!’, and about the coming of technology to the countryside in this play. Each is the product of a brilliant, subtle, and essentially Irish mind; each of his characters has its own rich eccentricity, and no facile conclusion is sought for the complex conflicts both of personality and of ideas.’

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John Philip Cohane, The Indestructible Irish (NY: Hawthorn Books 1969), speaking of the twelve centuries of Irish culture - 400 b.c. to 795 a.d. - as ‘one uninterrupted national flow of life’ up to the Viking invasions: ‘A deep, partly unconscious yearning for such an age is one of the reasons so many of the modern Irish shy away from material progress, why so many speeches and sermons are hurled at the gods of Mammon. It is the theme of Denis Johnston's superb play of the 1920's, Moon in the Yellow River, which found such an immense response among the nuclear-age Americans in New York a few seasons ago.’ (p.166.)

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Fergus Linehan, review of Rory Johnston, ed., Orders and Desecrations: The Life of the Playwright Denis Johnston (1992), in Irish Times ( 21 Nov. 1992): Reviewer notes that it contains accounts of Johnston’s life taken from various articles, together with some prefaces; remarks that the result contains too many gaps to constitute a biography; son of William Johnston, a supreme court judge (nick-named ‘Civil Bill’); ed. Cambridge and at Harvard Law School; joined Irish bar; issued The Old Lady Says “No! ”, revived in the seventies (when it looked dated acc. Linehan); reviewer calls The Moon and the Yellow River, his best play; Johnston divorced Shelah Richards and married Betty Chancellor; back at the BBC, he gave up ‘the most promising job I ever had’; went to the States and ended up teaching at Smith College in Mass.; finally returned to Ireland; issued biographies of Swift, &c., and a Croke-Park pageant about Cúchulainn [1956]; his grave in the close of St. Patrick’s, near Betty Chancellor, bears the epitaph from The Old Lady [as infra]. (See review by remarking, ‘The book is full of good things’. Note that Hugh Leonard pronounces it a remarkably unified autobiography, though compiled of articles and talks written between 1929 and 1980.)

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Patricia Craig, reviewing Bernard Adams, Denis Johnston: A Life, in Times Literary Supplement (4 Oct. 2002), notes that, subsequent to his marriage to Shelah Richards - prefaced by an argumentative courtship - Johnston had affairs with Betty Chancellor whom he later married, with Nancy Horsburgh-Porter, and with his exuberant cousin Micheline Patton of Belfast and Amhersham. (TLS, p.27.)

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Paddy Smyth, ‘Riveting truth in a “non-memoir”’, in The Irish Times (31 Oct. 2009), Weekend, p.10, remarks on Truth or Fiction by his mother Jennifer Johnston: ‘Like Denis Johnston in the late 1970s, Desmond Fitzmaurice, in Truth or Fiction, is an ageing “writer of plays, war correspondent, literary giant of the thirties” and now “no-one reads his books any more, no one puts on his plays”. Both lived for a time in a splendid house on the end of Sorrento Terrace in Dalkey, in south Co Dublin, looking out over Killiney to Bray Head. I can still see in my mind the distinguished old man, stooped but still agile, leading me through the wide hall into “a high room with two long windows giving out over the bay. The walls were covered with books, floor to ceiling, and the mantelpiece was weighed down with photographs”. / Denis, like Desmond, led a complicated personal life that he obsessively recorded at length, and with candour, in closely guarded diaries and tapes, edited and annotated, even indexed, for posterity, whose verdict is clearly of huge importance. He described himself self-deprecatingly at a Dublin awards ceremony in 1977 as the “unknown gurrier of Irish letters”, but what he saw as the neglect clearly hurt.’ [Cont.]

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Paddy Smyth (‘Riveting Truth in a “Non-memoir”’, in The Irish Times, Oct. 2009): ‘As luck would have it – well, luck had little to do with it – both women became pregnant almost simultaneously, giving birth only two weeks apart. But Denis had made his choice already in leaving Shelah for Betty, while Nancy, clear that Denis would not marry her, had agreed to marry another man. In a tape, Equinox, recorded at the age of 61 and found by the family after his death, Denis fondly recalls and explicitly describes the affair with Nancy, specifically two passionate encounters, one ahead of her marriage, the other only days after her honeymoon. No doubt about it, he could have been the father. “I had wanted another child, and now, by God, it looked as if I might be having two at the same time by two adorable girls, neither of whom was my wife.” [...] Denis admits ruefully in Equinox that “I really am a bit of a shit.” A cad, at least.’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

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Quotations

Quotations

‘Progress of Joyceanity’
The Scythe and the Sunset
‘Clarify Begin At’ (on Joyce)
The Easter Rising
Catholic children?
Johnston’s Ireland

The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (1929) - The Minister of Arts: ‘A young fellow comes along to me and says, “No look, Liam, here’s some art I’m after doing” […] it might be a book, you see, or a drawing, or even a poem […] and can you do anything for me, he says? Well, with that, I do … if he deserves it, mind you, only if he deserves it, under Section 15 of the Deserving Artists (Support) Act, number 65 of 1926. And there’s no favouritism at all.’ Chorus: ‘The State supports the Artist. And the Artist supports the State. Very satisfactory for everybody and no favouritism at all.’ Minister: ‘And of course then, you see, it helps us to keep an eye on the sort of stuff that’s turned out, you understand.’ [Press source.]

The Old Lady Says ‘No!’ (1929): ‘Strumpet City in the sunset / Suckling the bastard brats of Scot, of Englishry, of Huguenot / Brave sons breaking from the womb, wild sons fleeing from their Mother / Wilful city of savage dreamers / So old, so sick with memories, / Old Mother. / Some they say are damned / But you, I know, will walk the streets of Paradise / Head high and unashamed. [His eyes close. He speaks very softly.] There now. Let my epitaph be written.’ (Quoted in Bernard Adams, Denis Johnston: A Life, 2002, p.98.) [For note on error, see infra.]

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Progress of Joyceanity’ (Envoy, April 1951): ‘The intensity with which Joyce’s work is being studied in these United States always arouses in me the same mild sense of surprise that must have been experienced by First Century Galileans as they observed the growing excitement of the Gentiles over local matters. Not that Joyce’s work is unimportant to myself. Indeed, Ulysses was the one book that I used to carry around with me during a somewhat fluid period of my career, when more than one volume in my baggage would have been frowned upon. But this was largely for nostalgic reasons. In my imagination 1 liked to walk again on Sandymount Strand-even in the company of a prize Wet, and to turn my attention to the topics under discussion on the North Quays. / To a Dubliner of my generation, the book must always be rather like an old box room or glory hole in which one can spend a delightful hour taking objects of no great significance out of trunks, and putting them back again. A re-reading of it, enlarges the present by recreating the [14] a past that is very clear to more Poldys than one. But what if this city and these sins for which I experience to comforting a fellow-feeling, were not mine also? If the contents of those trunks had no personal associations, would the book interest me then - after the first start of surprise at finding words in it that I have not heard in general conversation since I was a member of Leeson Park Church Boy Scouts (where they were all in current use)? Maybe as an exercise in virtuosity, I would continue to study it; or perhaps I would read it because of the fact that it is extremely amusing. / On the whole, however, these are not the baits that are being offered to the Sophomores as reasons for enjoying Joyce. […T]hey are being set to mull over the nine months of pregnancy, and to consider the significance of each [in “Oxen of the Sun”]. They are being told that Mr. Bloom is a Scapegoat, bearing on his shoulders the sins of the human race, and they are well out now on a limb of the Golden Bough, looking for anything else that can be found with whiskers and horns. They are busy writing papers on Bruno’s idea that all created things are the offspring of a Demiurge of Intellect and a Matrix of Necessity. And they shaking their heads over Vico’s picture of History as a sort of organ-grinder with only a limited number of tunes.’ (pp.14-15; see further under James Joyce, infra; and see also ‘Clarify Begin At: The Non-information of Finnegans Wake’, in Irish Renaissance, ed. Skelton & Clark, Dolmen 1965, infra.)

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The Scythe and the Sunset (1957), Introduction, first published in Collected Plays, rep. with two alterations by Johnston in Dublin Magazine (Spring 1966), pp.69-77. Johnston was a ‘juvenile civilian internee’ in 1916, viz., the home of his father - a judge - was occupied by the Volunteers. Johnston refers expressly to O’Casey’s Plough and the Stars, ‘the play of which the title of mine is an obvious parody…./ Neither in verbiage, plot nor sentiments does this play of mine presume to bear any relation to its magnificent predecessor. The only point in so titling it lies in the fact that The Ploughis essentially a pacifist play … As a quiet man who, nevertheless, is not a pacifist, I cannot accept the fact that, theatrically, Easter Week should remain indefinitely with only an anti-war comment, however fine.’ (p.70.) … in actual fact the women of Ireland, ever since the Maud Gonne era, have been the most vocal part of its militancy. If I can claim nothing else, I can at least point with some complacency to the fact that - when it comes to the point - both my women are killers.’ (Idem.) [Cont.]

The Scythe and the Sunset (1957), Introduction - cont. Johnston reports the amiable occupation of his house by Volunteers. Johnston’s notes include amusing remarks on Sir John Maxwell, ‘a soldier who had previously distinguished himself by placing the defences of the Suez Canal on the western bank, I suppose under the mistaken idea that Turkey lay in that direction, and who is generally credited with having suppressed the Rising - did not arrive from England until little more than twenty-four hours before the cease-fire, and barely in time to preside over the least intelligent part of the proceedings - the executions.’ (p.72.) Refers to six or seven valiant Cuchulains on Mount St Bridge. On Pearse’s role as President of the Provisional government’, ‘how he ever got this lethal office, and who, exactly, appointed him (apart from himself) are matters that have never been disclosed.’ (p.73.) Johnston goes on to enquire into Pearse’s rank and the response of officers such as de Valera to orders of surrender subscribed by him. He remarks the similarities between Pearse’s idealism and that of his character Tetley. (p.75.) ‘It is probable that this contempt [for non-combatant, stay-at-home Volunteers] was more instrumental in driving the Volunteers into action at that time than any political or economic motives.’ (p.75.) ‘Whether or not we hold that the actual fighting was widespread or of first-rate quality, we must agree that the affair, on the whole, was a humane (p.75) and well-intentioned piece of gallantry.’ He concludes - and generalises - that outside the theatre men act for reasons of ‘face’ rather than logical motives, generally expend more energy playing the other man’s game than his own.

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The Brazen Horn: A Non-Book for Those Who, in Revolt Today, Could be in Command Tomorrow (Dublin: Dolmen 1976) - see publisher’s notice: ‘We are faced today with a number of seemingly insoluble quandaries in the fields of both Religion and Science, amongst which may be included the problem of a God that seems to all appearances to be either demonic or incompetent, of a University that is apparently expanding in relation to nothing but itself, of the structure of Space-Time, of the significance if any of Death, and of the everlasting conflict between the ways of thought known as realism and Idealism. /In collating various pronouncements in all of these areas that have been besetting us during the present significant century, the writer has come to a surprising conclusion that modern Science may be providing an answer to some of the quandaries of religious belief, and on the other hand, that theology in many ways is capable of coming to the rescue of the Physicists, enmeshed as they are in a tangle of contradictory facts. / A solution is probably found in the abandonment of our traditional conception of an inanimate Universe which nevertheless is explosive and kinematic, in favour of a new view of its dimensional character. Dolmen Edition XXII is limited to 1050 copies signed by the author.’ (Available online; accessed 13 July 2012.)

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Clarify Begin At: Non-information of Finnegans Wake’, in Irish Renaissance: A Gathering of Essays, Memoirs, and Letters from the Massachusetts Review, ed. Robin Skelton & David R. Clark (Dublin: Dolmen Press 1965), pp.120-27 - traces the place and date of central event of Finnegans Wake . The articles ends: ‘[…] Joyce’s return to religion in this, his final work. While the first half of his life is devoted to denial and doubt, there is every indication in the Wake that the Joyce of later middle age was not only a Gracehoper but was profoundly concerned, maybe not with a heavenly life-hereafter, but with the eternity of this life. Hence the significance to him of the river as an image or model of a working Viconian cycle - a phenomenon that is born in the hills, that flows and grows, and is finally lost in the sea, from whence it returns once more to the hills. And here’s the point - there is no mutual exclusiveness in all of these phases. They are all happening “Now”. Finn again and again and again. What a hell for the damned, as Sartre has since pointed out. But Joyce is not damned, for all his Non Serviams. He has got the mysterious gift of Grace, as even Clongowes will agree nowadays. (…; p.126.) Yet, in spite of the fact that it is one of the dirtiest books in public circulation, Joyce shows a far greater sense of religious purpose in the Wake than in anything else that he has written. Why he was to be so secretive about this fact is one the charms and peculiarities of the man. Why he feels bound to conceal the message of his newly-born Penelope in the pidgin English of page 611 is perhaps an expression of his arrogance, or maybe it is a feature of his Irish love of a secret, or indeed of his Irish fear of a nasty laugh wafting out of Davy Byrne’s. / He need not have worried. His Tunc page did not get much in the way of notices to begin with. But it has survived his understandably embittered friend, Malachi Mulligan.’ (p.127.) (See also Johnston's contribution to The Envoy [Joyce Issue] (April 1951) - under Joyce, Commentary, infra.)

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1916 Rising: ‘During the 1916 Rising our house in Lansdowne Rd. was occupied by rebels who held it for three days. We were on good terms with them, despite the fact that they would not let us go. They were nice fellows and I was deeply moved by 1916. In fact, I tried to join the IRA and couldn’t get in. You just couldn’t turn up at Harcourt Street and ask to join them; they would tell you to go to hell. Since the Civil War I haven’t been stirred by nationalistic feelings […] I consider myself a Dubliner more than an Irishman. I don’t feel a stranger in America; I don't feel a stranger for one moment in England. When I talk to an Englishman it never occurs to me that I am an Irishman; but I talk in a different way to a Dubliner because we have a common background which means an awful lot to me. / I went away from Ireland because I wanted to get into television, but I don’t think I have ever left Ireland. To tell the truth, I keep coming back every year. What draws one back to Dublin is what draws one to the bedroom. It’s the place where you are born, where you make love and where you die. It’s not the place to work in. People who spend their lives trying to work in Dublin become frustrated in a great many ways.’ (‘Did you know Yeats? And Did You Lunch with Shaw?’, in Des Hickey & Gus Smith, eds., A Paler Shade of Green (London: Leslie Frewin 1972), pp.60-72; p.71.)

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Catholics? ‘To make Catholics - and Irish Catholics at that - of my children, if that is her intention - to hand them over to the Priests and Nuns to have their clean little minds twisted and tormented by superstitions - to go back on everything we both ever believed - to give my children away to my greatest, my only enemy, and Ireland’s only enemy (if Ireland could only see it), the Church - this is more than I can bear.’ (Journal; reacting to rumour that Shelah Richards intended to convert to Catholicism; quoted in Bernard Adams, Denis Johnston: A Life, 2002, p.200.)

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Ireland: ‘Ireland is both too small and too big for me. I have a city - a birthplace - that I know and love. Not because I admire its inhabitants particularly, but because I feel at home there … The Irish Protestants are lost sheep - a race without a national background. So much the better. Dublin has given me all the peculiarities, all the national differentiation I need…. [S]he is something to be prouder of than Miss Ni Houlihan, and she will - I hope - survive both the Catholic Truth Society and the Gaelic League.’ (Journals; quoted Adams, op. cit., 2002, p.242.)

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