Fintan O’Toole, ‘Bringing a Ghostly Past into Modern Theatre’, [in his “Culture Shock” column], The Irish Times (October 17 2009), Weekend, p.9.


Attempting to balance the neo-Gothic with the contemporary is the crux of Sebastian Barry’s fascinating play Tales of Ballycumber.

Contemporary Irish theatre is a haunted place. There has been a large-scale Gothic revival, with ghosts, the supernatural and the uncanny being constant elements in the work of Sebastian Barry, Conor McPherson, Marina Carr and Mark O’Rowe. It is almost as if the banishment of religion from so much of daily life has left a lingering but uneasy sense of absence that hovers over the contemporary imagination.

This is not as strange as it may seem: religion, even for those who were against it, provided the necessary myths and metaphors through which a playwright could engage with an audience. In a dramatic tradition that is still essentially poetic, there is a need for a layer of imagery that can bear a weight of non-realist meanings. The rush of Irish versions of Greek plays is one way to fill this hole. The Gothic revival is another.

There are, though, two difficulties that arise in the neo-Gothic mode of Irish theatre. One is dealing with the contemporary world, and in particular with contemporary Ireland. The Gothic is concerned above all with the continuance of the past, with the refusal of what has gone before to become ancient history. It proposes a universe in which nothing ever actually goes away. This is a more than useful corrective to the amnesia and consumerist oblivion of Celtic Tiger Ireland. But it also poses the problem of a dramatic form in which everything has already happened. How do you drive forward a play when the end is already contained in the beginning?

The other difficulty is that ghosts, notoriously, appear to some people and not to others. The religious language and imagery that were so central to Irish theatre had the benefit of being, in an overwhelmingly Christian society, common currency.

A communist like Seán O’Casey could use religious language to shattering effect; “Sacred heart of Jesus, take away our hearts of stone ...”. The anti-clerical Tom Murphy play The Sanctuary Lamp could make brilliant use of sacred objects like the eponymous lamp and confession boxes. But haunting, as Shakespeare shows in the great scene of Banquo’s ghost, tends to be less solid and more obscure. It is an inner vision that may not be shared by others. The playwright’s task is to make it public.

Both of these issues – dealing with the contemporary and searching for a public myth – hang over Sebastian Barry’s fascinating play at the Abbey, Tales of Ballycumber. It is fascinating in part because there is so much right with it. Its language has the mesmeric beauty that makes Barry arguably our finest theatrical poet since Yeats. Barry’s speech, highly wrought yet never opaque, harks back to the Abbey’s classic era. It reminds us, in its use of a heightened rural Wicklow dialect, that Synge was as heavily influenced by Wicklow as by the West of Ireland, and that his language is as heavily marked by the King James Bible as by either of those places.

The play is also a superb demonstration of Barry’s ability to write for actors. It is not accidental that in spite of having little to work with in the way of conventional psychology or motivation, David Leveaux’s production is blessed with a series of memorable performances, especially from Stephen Rea, Aaron Monaghan and Derbhle Crotty. For all the lyricism and artifice of the language, Barry has the knack of shaping it so that it can be fully inhabited by actors.

With such splendours of writing and performance and with highly accomplished direction and design, Tales of Ballycumber ought to feel like a masterpiece. What’s fascinating is that it doesn’t. It feels like a piece that anyone with any interest in theatre would want to see. But it also feels somehow incomplete. And since none of the usual suspects can be used to explain this sense of dissatisfaction, it forces you to think quite hard about why that should be.

The easy explanation is that the piece is so static. It has one almost unchanging set, a sequence of long speeches (some monologues, others as near as makes no difference) and very little onstage action. But the same can be said of, for example, Boss Grady’s Boys or The Steward of Christendom, and those are wonderful plays. Static in both senses – quiet and electric – is what Barry does.

The difficulty, rather, lies with those two questions: the use of the contemporary and the struggle to find a public myth. And these two issues are, in fact, related. Fixing the play in time is the crux of both.

It is pretty clear that the action is set in or around the present, but it is a present that never really coheres. The markers seem confused. The middle-aged farmer Nicholas is interested mainly in the Kennedys (JFK’s picture hangs over the fireplace) and Elvis – somewhat elderly tastes for a man in his late 40s. His neighbour Andrew claims to have served in the Congo “in the fifties”, a puzzling reference, since he would have been a child then and, in any case, Irish troops didn’t go to the Congo in the 1950s. There’s a reference to Eminem and there are Asian nurses working in Ireland but a badly wounded boy lies in his bed at home rather than in hospital, as if this a 19th century novel. It is hard to avoid the feeling that Barry has not quite made up his mind about when all of this is happening.

This is not a mere quibble about incidental details. A sense of “now” is crucial to the sense of the past that is haunting the present. We need to have a foothold in time for the play’s architecture to hold together. And this confusion of time also impedes the search for a common myth. In other plays, Barry has found that myth, to powerful effect, in history. He has used known historical events (the War of Independence in Boss Grady’s Boys, for example, or the first World War in The Steward of Christendom ) to provide the points at which the audience enters the past that is haunting the characters. It is this common point of reference that connects the author’s private myth with our public ones.

This never quite happens in Tales of Ballycumber. There are moments of great beauty and poignancy in the way the play’s ghostly world overlaps with its real one. But the two currents never connect sufficiently to generate the charge that drama needs.

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