The first thing I wanted to ask you was about the sense of place in your work and the fact that so many of your characters seem to lack a sense of place, to be dislocated. Does that have any parallel in your own life?
Thats a real academics question, isnt it? Ill try to answer it. Seamus Deane has written a number of essays on me, and thats one of his persistent points, that Im some sort of displaced person, you know? If there are parallels in my own life I dont know. There is certainly a sense of rootlessness and impermanence. It may well be the inheritance of being a member of the Northern minority. That could be one of the reasons, where you are certainly at home but in some sense exile is imposed on you. That may be a reason. I mean, Im groping at answers to this. In some kind of a way I think Field Day has grown out of that sense of impermanence, of people who feel themselves native to a province, or certainly to an island, but in some way feel that a disinheritance is offered to them.
Is Field Day then an attempt to reclaim that inheritance?
Yes, but the difficulty is what to reclaim. You cant deposit fealty to a situation, like the Northern situation, that you dont believe in. Then you look south of the Border and that enterprise is in so many ways distasteful. And yet both places are your home, so you are an exile in your home in some kind of sense. It may be an inheritance from a political situation. I think it may very well be, and I think the people that are gathered around Field Day - there are six of them ... I dont want to speak for the other five, but I think this could be a common sense to all of them. Someone has suggested, maybe it was [Tom] Paulin, that its an attempt to create a fifth province to which artistic and cultural loyalty can be offered.
Theres also a close sense of family in your plays and of the kind of bonds that the family imposes on the individual.
Maybe its part of the same thing again, that theres some kind of instinctive sense of home being central to the life and yet at the same time home being a place of great stress and great alienation. Im not really very good at this kind of question, Fintan, because the questions a kind of abstract based on a body of work, isnt it, and I sort of look from enterprise to enterprise, from job to job, you know what I mean? So its really a kind of an academics question, isnt it?
So do you never look back on your work and attempt to pick things out?
No, not at all. Only when you find, for example, that categories are being imposed on you, for example after three plays in particular - after Faith Healer, which was kind of an austere enterprise, Translations, which was offered pieties that I didnt intend for it, and then [his version of Chekhovs] Three Sisters - in some way I felt Im being corralled into something here. By other people. And this was one of the reasons I wanted to attempt a farce.
Were you consciously attempting an antidote to Translations when you were writing The Communication Cord?
Oh yes. Well, consciously at two levels. Firstly for Field Day, because I felt it would be appropriate for Field Day to have something like that at this point, but also from my own point of view, because I was being categorised in some sort of a way that I didnt feel easy about, and it seemed to me that a farce would disrupt that kind of categorising. Theres risks involved in doing that sort of thing. I think its a risky enterprise doing a farce. But I think its worth it.
When you started off with The Communication Cord were you aware of trying to use the mechanisms of classical farce? Yes. Its something like a Meccano set: you get on with various pieces of it, and you put them all together. Maybe its different from the usual farce, in that the play itself was to some extent an attempt to illustrate a linguistic thesis. But apart from that its just a regular farce, isnt it?
Yes, but it does also carry on a concern with language that has been evident in your work for the past five or six years. So its a farce that is also, in one sense, to be taken very seriously.
Its a form to which very little respect is offered, and it was important to do it for that reason, not to make it respectable but to release me into what I bloody well wanted, to attempt it, to have a go at it.
Were you aware of almost being canonised after Translations?
Ach, not at all. Ah, no, thats very strong. But it was treated much too respectfully. You know, when you get notices, especially from outside the island, saying, If you want to know what happened in Cuba, if you want to know what happened in Chile, if you want to know what happened in Vietnam, read Translations, thats nonsense. And I just cant accept that sort of pious rubbish.
I was wondering whether your concern with language, indeed with your profession as a playwright, stemmed from a re-examination of that profession. You said in 1972 that you were thinking of going back to writing short stories instead of plays.
Ah, I dont know. The whole language one is a very tricky one. The whole issue of language is a very problematic one for us all on this island. I had grandparents who were native Irish speakers and also two of the four grandparents were illiterate. Its very close, you know. I actually remember two of them. And to be so close to illiteracy and to a different language is a curious experience. And in some way I dont think weve resolved it. We havent resolved it on this island for ourselves. We flirt with the English language, but we havent absorbed it and we havent regurgitated it in some kind of way. Its accepted outside the island, you see, as our great facility with the English language - [Kenneth] Tynan said we used it like drunken sailors, you know that kind of image. Thats all old rubbish. A language is much more profound than that. Its not something we produce for the entertainment of outsiders. And thats how Irish theatre is viewed, indeed, isnt it?
It is very often. And isnt it the dilemma of the modern Irish playwright that to actually make a decent living out of writing plays you have to find an audience in Britain and the United States, while the enterprise youre involved in is more about trying to write primarily for an Irish audience?
Are you confusing an economic dilemma with an artistic dilemma? Is that what youre saying?
Well, doesnt the fact of having to make a living force certain conditions on you?
It doesnt, no. Not in the slightest. Because in the case of Translations I was really sure that this was the first enterprise that Field Day was going to do, and I was sure we were in deep trouble with that play. We thought, Field Day will never even get a lift-off because of this play, because here is a play set in 1833, set in a hedge school. You have to explain the terminology to people outside the island, indeed to people inside the island too, so I thought we were on a real financial loss here. But that is part of the enterprise, and this is one of the reasons why I attempted the translation of Chekhov. Its back to the political problem: its our proximity to England; its how we have been pigmented in our theatre with the English experience, with the English language, the use of the English language, the understanding of words; the whole cultural burden that every word in the English language carries is slightly different to our burden. Joyce talks in the Portrait of his resentment of the [English] Jesuit priest because his language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech, and so on.
Did theatre come before short stories?
No. I wrote stories first. I know now why I stopped writing short stories. It was at the point when I recognised how difficult they were. It would have meant a whole reappraisal. I mean, I was very much under the influence, as everyone at the time was, of [Sean] OFaolain and [Frank] OConnor, particularly. OConnor dominated our lives. I suppose they [Friels short stories] really were some kind of imitation of OConnors work. Im just guessing at it, but I think at some point round about that period, the recognition of the difficulty of the thing, you know, that maybe there was the need for the discovery of a voice and that I was just echoing somebody else.
What was the effect for you of suddenly, with your fourth play, having a great success and productions in the United States and becoming, at least for a time, a famous playwright?
Wed need to be very careful about language. [Philadelphia, Here I Come!] was a very successful play, and its a play that in some kind of way haunts you too. People say, Oh, yes, youre the man that wrote the play called Philadelphia Story, arent you? So, famous and successful? I dont know.
Did you see it again when it was revived in the Abbey recently?
I did, yes.
What was it like, seeing it again?
Ive really no interest in it at all. None whatsoever. I would go to a thing like that out of duty to the actors and to the theatre, but Ive really no interest in the enterprise itself. I would feel minor irritations at the way things are written or expressed but no interest at all. Even things like The Communication Cord, which are still running, I have no interest in it really. Its finished, and it is as it is, and Im drawn on to the next enterprise.
You wrote in the 1960s, I suppose, four plays which concentrated on different aspects of love - Philadelphia, The Loves of Cass McGuire, Lovers, and Crystal and Fox. You then stopped writing about love. Was it just that you had said all you wanted to say?
I just dont know the answer to that. I dont think theres a point when you say, Ive nothing more to say about that, because I dont think you start from that premise and say Ive got this to say about anything. You dont have anything to say about anything. You delve into a particular corner of yourself thats dark and uneasy, and you articulate the confusions and the unease of that particular period. When you do that, thats finished and you acquire other corners of unease and discontent. There are continuing obsessions, like the political thing is a continuing obsession, and Ive written two or three demonstrably political plays. And I keep saying to myself Im never going to write another political play, because its too transient and because Im confused about it myself, but I know damn well and Im sure Ill have another shot at it again sometime.
With The Freedom of the City, which was obviously a very complex play, are you afraid that in certain circumstances an audience might take a very crude and a very blunt political message from it? That wouldnt worry me anyway. Did that play of mine send out / Certain men [the English shot]? - that sort of thing wouldnt worry me at all. I think one of the problems with that play was that the experience of Bloody Sunday wasnt adequately distilled in me. I wrote it out of some kind of heat and some kind of immediate passion that I would want to have quieted a bit before I did it. It was really - do you remember that time? - it was a very emotive time. It was really a shattering experience that the British army, this disciplined instrument, would go in as they did that time and shoot 13 people. To be there on that occasion and - I didnt actually see people get shot - but, I mean, to have to throw yourself on the ground because people are firing at you is a very terrifying experience. Then the whole cover-up afterwards was shattering too. We still have some kind of belief that the law is above reproach. We still believe that the academy is above reproach in some way, dont we?
Your active involvement in politics was in the 1960s in the Nationalist Party?
Yes. I was a member of the Nationalist Party for several years. I dont remember how long. Those were very dreary days, because the Nationalist Party ... its hard to describe what it was. I suppose it held on to some kind of little faith, you know? It wasnt even sure what the faith was, and it was a very despised enterprise by everybody. We used to meet once a month wherever it was, in a grotty wee room, and thered be four or five old men whod sit there and mull over things. It was really hopeless.
Did you ever regret the fact that you moved to Donegal from Derry shortly before the Troubles began?
I regretted it in many ways, yes. I think it was in 1968, and the trouble began in 1969, and we might have been better to be in there. Just to be part of the experience. Instead of driving into a civil-rights march, coming out your front door and joining it might have been more real. It would have been less deliberate and less conscious than doing it from here.
Coming back to what I was asking you earlier about your recent plays, which seem largely concerned with your own craft, Faith Healer was first staged in 1979 in New York. Was that a reflection of a concern with the power of the writer, with what you yourself do?
I suppose it has to be. It was some kind of a metaphor for the art, the craft of writing, or whatever it is. And the great confusion we all have about it, those of us who are involved in it. How honourable and how dishonourable it can be. And its also a pursuit that, of necessity, has to be very introspective, and as a consequence it leads to great selfishness. So that youre constantly, as Im doing at this moment, saying something and listening to yourself saying it, and the third eye is constantly watching you. And its a very dangerous thing, because in some way it perverts whatever natural freedom you might have, and that natural freedom must find its expression in the written word. So theres an exploration of that - I mean the element of the charlatan that there is in all creative work.
And even more so in the theatre, because even at a distance youre acting as a showman?
Yes. Its a very vulgar medium, in the Latin sense, and its also vulgar, I think, too, in the accepted sense. But I think it also has satisfactions that you wouldnt find as a novelist or as a poet. Its a very attractive enterprise to be involved in. You would find that even as a critic, because theyre very attractive people. Its a very essential kind of life, because its giving everything to this one enterprise, and once its over then we go on to something else. Its essentially human in some way.
Of the six members of the Field Day board only yourself and Stephen Rea are actively involved in theatre.
Thats right. I think the important defining thing about them all is that theyre all Northern people.
What is it about the south of Ireland that makes it impossible for you to give your loyalty to it?
Well, of course I have loyalty to it, because in some way its the old parent who is now beginning to ramble. In some way it could be adjusted, and I think it could be made very exciting. But it requires the Northern thing to complete it. Im talking about the whole Northern thing.
Youre saying, then, that there are certain qualities that are peculiar to Northerners and not found in the South?
Yes. I think the qualities are - I dont believe for one minute in Northern hard-headedness or any of that nonsense - but I think that if you have a sense of exile, that brings with it some kind of alertness and some kind of eagerness and some kind of hunger. And if you are in possession you can become, maybe, placid about some things. And I think those are the kind of qualities that, maybe, Field Day can express. Does this make any sense to you?
Yes, it does. Do you think that that sense of exile gives you access as an artist to a more fundamental and widespread sense of alienation?
Yes, but the contradiction in that is that we are trying to make a home. So that we aspire to a home condition in some way. We dont think that exile is practical. We think that exile is miserable in fact. And whats constantly being offered to us, particularly in the North - and this is one of the problems for us - is that we are constantly being offered the English home; we have been educated by the English home, and we have been pigmented by an English home. To a much greater extent than you have been. And the rejection of all that, and the rejection into what, is the big problem.
What is home for you? Is it a sense of a group of people with a common purpose? Is that in itself going to give you some sense of belonging?
I think now at this point it would, but once I would achieve it, and once it would be acquired, then Id be off again.
There is in a way a contradiction for you, isnt there, because it seems necessary for you as a writer to have a sense of being on the outside, and yet youre striving with Field Day to transcend that?
I think there is some kind of, there is the possibility of a cultural whole available to us - w-h-o-l-e, were living in the other one [i.e., the hole]. How to achieve that and how to contribute to that is one of the big problems, and the problem is confused and compounded by the division of the island. Its also confused by our proximity to England. You cant possibly - and dont even want to - jettison the whole English experience, but how to pick and choose what is valuable for us and what is health-giving for us, how to keep us from being a GAA republic, its a very delicate tiptoeing enterprise. I think the possibilities for your generation are better in some kind of way.
Doesnt the whole Field Day project then depend on political nationalism and on the achievement of a united Ireland?
I dont think it should be read in those terms. I think it should lead to a cultural state, not a political state. And I think out of that cultural state, a possibility of a political state follows. That is always the sequence. Its very grandiose, this, and I want to make notice of abdication quickly, but I think they are serious issues and big issues, and they are issues that exercise us all, the six of us [directors], very much. But youve also got to be very careful to retain some strong element of cynicism about the whole thing.
That presumably is very much part of The Communication Cord.
Oh, thats part of it. I want it to he seen in tandem with Translations.
Doesnt the whole enterprise of Field Day, though, beg the question of the power of art to affect society? I mean, theatre is by and large peripheral.Its just treated as another social event.
But its got to succeed on that level. Its got to succeed on that level first. You cant suddenly say, To hell with all those middle- class fur-coat people - f**k them out; we want the great unwashed. Youve got to take the material you have. There are other theatre groups who are into something else. If youre into agitprop, or if youre into political theatre, or if youre into street theatre, thats your enterprise. Were not into that kind of enterprise. I think what were saying is: well go to the people who are there, but well talk to them in a certain kind of way. You know, were living with what we have. Were trying to talk to them in a different voice, and were trying to adjust them to our way of thinking.
Doesnt the health of the whole thing, though, need an audience that is capable of change? Do you believe that the current theatre audience, which tends to be middle class and to have certain expectations, is capable of being adjusted in this way?
Thats truer in Dublin than it is elsewhere, because there is a theatrical experience and a theatrical tradition in Dublin. There is no theatrical tradition in Belfast. Theres very little anywhere else around the country. And this is, in some kind of a way, why its nice and cosy to say, you know, we get such a great response when were doing the one-night stands. Thats nice and easy. But in some way its true on a different kind of level, that these people watch you very carefully. They watch you almost as if we were cattle being paraded around on a fair day. They watch us with that kind of cool assessment. And theyre listening. I think they hear things in theatre because they havent been indoctrinated in the way a metropolitan audience is. They hear different sounds in a play. They are great audiences in a different kind of way to a Dublin theatre audience. Going back to your question - you say, youre speaking to the same people. Were not in fact speaking to the same people apart from Dublin. This is one of the reasons why were happy to go to Dublin and play for a week, and the only reason we would go and play for four weeks would be to make money which would fund us the next time around. Its not a question at all of turning your back on the capital city, but were into something else, I think.
The Communication Cord is probably the most formally conservative play youve done for a long time. How important is a sense of form to you?There are people who would say that for a writer to be focusing so strongly, as you are, on the tools of his own trade, on language, is in some way incestuous, considering the urgency of so many things that need to be said.
Do you think its a valid criticism?
I dont think so personally, because I think the problem of language is a profoundly political one in itself.
Particularly politics on this island, where you listen to a cabinet minister from Dublin and hes speaking such a debased language that you wonder how in Gods name can this man have anything to do with your life at all. I think that is how the political problem of this island is going to be solved. Its going to be solved by language in some kind of way. Not only the language of negotiations across the table. Its going to be solved by the recognition of what language means for us on this island. Whether were speaking the kind of English that I would use, or whether were using the kind of English that Enoch Powell would use. Because we are in fact talking about accommodation, or marrying, of two cultures here, which are ostensibly speaking the same language but which in fact arent.
Your own work as a writer is very much bound up with that clash of cultures, and theres the old cliche about times of trouble leading to a flowering of literature. Do you ever feel that youre feeding off the suffering here?
Were looting the shop when its burning, you mean? I mean, this is often said, and its said of all the Northern poets particularly. I dont know. The experience is there, its available. We didnt create it, and it has coloured all our lives and adjusted all our stances in some way. What the hell can we do but look at it?