Nicholas Grene, ‘Reality Check: Authenticity from Synge to McDonagh’, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil [Pesquisa e Crítica, 1] (Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005), pp.69-88.

In October 1997 I went along to the Olympia Theatre in Dublin to see Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The Leenane Trilogy had been premiered in Galway earlier that year, coproduced by Druid Theatre Company with the Royal Court, and it had gone on to a massive success in London. I had heard mixed reports from friends, and decided to book for just one of the plays instead of signing on for the whole three. I sat through The Beauty Queen stony-faced, in indignation and outrage, made worse by the fact that all around me the audience were clearly loving it - cracking up with laughter, on the edge of their seats with suspense in the suspenseful moments. How could they fall for these ancient melodramatic tricks, I thought, how could they laugh at these slick sitcom one-liners? A part of my anger had to do with what I felt was the factitious unreality of what purported to be an Irish play: the unreality of the language, of the situation, of the way the characters behaved. This is not Ireland, I said to myself, this is not Leenane in the 1990s. [69]

Suddenly this sounded familiar.’ (pp.69-70.) [...]

‘McDonagh’s plays have everywhere produced public controversy and at the centre of that controversy has been the issue of authenticity.’ (p.71.) [...]

[On Synge’s Playboy:] ‘If we try to find a source for this preoccupation with reality and authenticity at the time of the literary revival, the colonial context is no doubt important. A colonised people is forced to accept forms [75] of identity from elsewhere. They are the mimic men, to use the title of an early novel by V. S. Naipaul: their culture, their behaviour, their very being is derived from the colonising centre. Always cited to illustrate this idea in an Irish context is the famous passage in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen Dedalus reflects on his knowledge of English as against that of the English Dean of Studies: "The language which in which we are speaking [., &c.] acquired speech." Given the insecurity of a long colonised country, the lack of self-belief that we are our own people, it may be understandable that reality should be so important to us. Somewhere, at some time in Ireland, there must be or must have been a reality that is not merely mimic culture shipped in off the mailboat. Synge in writing his plays believed he was in touch with such a reality; his opponents vehemently insisted they knew better. But both claimed privileged knowledge of the "real spirit of the island". And this reality was something other than the actuality of what went on day by day in the accidental life of the here and now.’ (pp.75-76.)

[...] Even when The Plough was produced, its first night was applauded, the reviews were on the whole very favourable. [...] The row over the Plough did not ignite until the fourth night of its run, and when it did it was in some sort a continuation of the Civil War by other means. [...] Of course it was significant that in 1925 the Abbey had been given a [77] subsidy by the Free State government, that Yeats, one of the founder-Directors of the Abbey - he of the thundering denunciation of the audience - was a Free State Senator who had supported the government in their draconian anti-Republican legislation. This gave the protesters a thick stick to beat the play and the theatre. "The Free State government is subsidising the Abbey to malign Pearse and Connolly", declared Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, leading spokeswoman on the Republican side. [...] Once again, the row produced ludicrous-seeming arguments over authenticity, turning particularly on the second act, with the notorious appearance of Rosie Redmond the prostitute. [...] Great offence was taken at the appearance of a prostitute in such a situation [i.e., when Pearse’s oratory is heard off-stage]. Prostitutes: there were no such people in the holy city of Dublin. (This was not the experience of Ria Mooney, the young actress who played the scandalous part of Rosie against the advice of many older colleagues. In the old Abbey there was no way actors could cross from one side of the stage to the other behind the scenes [other than going] down a lane at the back of the theatre. [...] This Ria Mooney had to do every night in her whore’s costume; and every night she was attacked by the real street-walkers who imagined she was invading their pitch. [Ftn., I was told this story by Ann Saddlemyer, who had it from Ria Mooney herself.]

[...] Whatever the absurdity of such claims, what was at issue was a felt need for a complete identity between the sacred and the real. Easter 1916, the foundational act in the creation of the new Ireland, was a sacred drama, played out as such by its leaders with a full sense of the symbolic and the theatrical: in the choice of Easter as a date, in the occupation of the GPO right across from Nelson’s Pillar, centre of Ireland’s capital city, in the reading out of the Proclamation before those imposing neo-classical pillars. But it was a sacred drama acted out by real men in a real theatre of war, bringing with it a transformation of ordinary, everyday reality that on-one ever expressed better than Yeats in his poem "Easter 1916". (p.79.)

In one sense, there is no doubt that Deane and Kiberd are fight: O’Casey does upstage the Rising, reduce it to a series of noises and, while he foregrounds its impact on non-participant Dubliners. It is equally clear that his selection of extracts from Pearse’s speeches and writings, placed in the Voice of the unnamed Man at the window m the back of the pub in Act II, is a malicious medley of the most bloodthirsty, the purplest of purple patches from the orator’s greatest bits. This is politically unbalanced reporting. But of course O’Casey is not a reporter, he is a playwright, a creator of dramatic fictions. Why should he be expected to tell the historical truth, and what sort of historical truth is it that Deane and Kiberd want him to tell? What they want, it seems to me is a certain story of 1916 that places it at the origin of modern Ireland. Roy Foster’s book The Irish Story has as its subtitle "telling tales and making it up in Ireland ". That is not intended to suggest that the Irish story, the construction of a historical narrative for Ireland, is just made up, just a fictional tale. The leaders of 1916 did fight bravely in what they knew was a doomed cause. Their deaths did transform what had been a thoroughly unpopular rebellion into a politically unstoppable movement: witness the 1918 General Election two and a half years later in which Sinn Féin carried all before them. The complaint about O’Casey is not just that he leaves out these facts as facts, but that he excludes the heroic narrative built upon those facts that for post-1916 Irish nationalists was to become the primary reality of their nation. The Plough and the Stars, from that point of view either in the original protest of 1926 or in the latter-day critiques of Deane and Kiberd, misrepresents the reality of the Rising. (p.81.)

[On Friel’s Translations:] ‘The famous theatrical device at the centre of the [82] play is the convention that the Ballybegers are supposed to be speaking Irish, the English soldiers English, and that they are mutually incomprehensible to one another - even though all the lines are actually in English. But, objected the historians, English was in fact a principal subject taught in the hedge schools. Friel’s image of a school community moving between their own native Irish and the classical languages of Latin and Greek, overtaken by a modernising colonial system bent on imposing English on them, is a romantic fiction. Parents who paid to send their children to the hedge schools wanted them to learn English because it was their passport to success in a wider world. Further objections came from John Andrews about the representation of the map-making. The Ordnance Survey did not, as in the play, make up English place names, obliterating the Irish originals. Although Anglicised transliterations of the place-names were introduced, great care was taken to consult local sources to try to render the names as accurately as possible. What is more, John O’Donovan, the real-life equivalent of Owen in the play, was one of the great Irish scholars of his day, whose work for the Ordnance Survey was of crucial importance in recording the oral folklore associated with particular places and placenames. Finally, the draconian scorched earth act of reprisal threatened by the English army commander when one of his fellow officers is missing presumed dead, would have been quite impossible, according to John Andrews. Such a commander would have had no authority to make or carry out such a threat, and the soldiers involved in the Ordnance Survey were unarmed.

A debate was organised in the wake of the play’s production in which FM met face to face with Andrews so they could argue the case. Although the playwright admitted to having unfairly misrepresented O’Donovan, on the whole he stood his ground, acknowledging only "tiny bruises inflicted on history in my play" [...] (pp.82-83; cites Brian Friel, John Andrews & Kevin Barry, ‘Translations and a Paper Landscape’, in Crane Bag, 7, 2, 1983, pp.118-24;123-24.)

Beauty Queen of Leenane: This is the standard old Irish country cottage kitchen in a desolate and isolated landscape of social stagnation. From Synge on this has been brandmarked as the reality of Ireland. It remained so even down to the 1990s when emigrants from the Galway small town of Leenane were much more likely to be going off to highly paid jobs in banking or information technology than to the building sites in England or the US which is all that is on offer to Pato in the Beauty Queen. I may seem only now to be echoing the protesters of 1907 - “That is not the West” - “this is not 1990s Leenane”. The difference is that Synge’s play was a highly original one, a new imaginative vision of Ireland, with its reality hotly contested. McDonagh’s play is ostensibly a self-conscious parody of its predecessors, but its actual claim to authentic reality is paradoxically sponsored by those predecessors. Audiences at Beauty Queen are disposed to accept the genuineness of this Leenane because it is like Synge only more so, in its extremity destroying any lingering vestiges of an idealised, romanticised Ireland, and revealing the raw reality beneath. But, from the point of view of those of us who react against McDonagh, it is not raw reality, it is pre-cooked, stage-reality rechauffé. (p.86.)

[Full notes from Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil (Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005), included elsewhere in this archive [infra].

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