THE FIRST THING that happens when we enter a theatre is that we are confronted by other human beings - the audience. Just as we can enjoy a solitary cup of coffee in a shopping centre and watch the world go by, or sit in a hotel lobby and partake of some people-watching, so we get pleasure looking at the faces of strangers as they arrive at the theatre. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we appreciate that these are our fellow travellers for the evening. This is our group. We belong to this audience. We feel it. It’s public, but we are about to share something intensely personal. This is stimulating in itself.
Then there is that delicious moment when the lights go down. (Perhaps this moment is at its most enjoyable at a rock concert when the crowd go berserk before the band start playing.) It’s fairly enjoyable but not quite as intense in the cinema, because we know we are about to watch a lot of ads, but in the theatre we know that what is about to unfold is a live ritual. We should never underestimate how available we are in that moment. We are willing to go to another world. We concentrate hard to see the actors’ faces. We strain to hear what they are saying. We achieve a childish sense of wonder again. We know we can’t climb up on the stage and go into their world, but we believe we can, or, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, we suspend our disbelief. And if the show is good, it can affect us in a way which no other art form can, because this primal experience of watching something as part of an audience serves a deep human function beyond mere entertainment. It enhances and intensifies the entertainment itself, but theatre also allows for something that cinema, TV and books never can: the audience can talk back to the actors. They can let the performers know how they are feeling. They do this with laughter, and there are many kinds of laughter in the theatre.
There is the general laughter of enjoyment (and without this, the performers may perish), but there is also the laughter of recognition and encouragement.
Laughter of recognition is how the audience talks to itself, bonding together. I was always struck by the laughter that followed a line in my play, Shining City. The line was: God, the parking around here is horrendous, isn’t it? Audiences in London, Dublin, New York and Washington DC all laughed at this line. It’s not a funny line, nor was it intended to be. But they laughed as if to say, I understand this. The traffic around here is horrendous! What else do we have in common?. Plays are full of unintentional laughs and the playwright cannot control the collective beast that is the audience. The best we can do is to always try to stay one step ahead of them. This is harder than it sounds because the audience is a wily, many-brained organism that is bound by telepathy in the darkness.
Yet while the audience is hungry, it’s also generous. You have a certain period of grace in a play - maybe 10 minutes, maybe more - when the audience is charitable, but after that something better be happening or else the beast gets restless and angry, because watching a bad play is excruciating. But if the play is working, the generous audience/beast laughs in order to encourage the performers. Sometimes a big laugh will come purely from appreciation of a nice moment, not necessarily a funny moment, simply something the audience likes. They laugh as if to say continue. In this way the audience comments on the action like the chorus in the plays of ancient Greece.
Whenever I’m directing a play I’m always tuning in to this dialogue of laughter between the play and the audience and I always encourage actors to ride the laughter like a roller coaster. The play needs to be pushing against the audience at all times, yet constantly pulling away into the unexpected. It’s a bit like a chase. When the performers are in control of the laughter they can suddenly turn on the cold tap and freeze the audience, or draw them to their bosom with a frightening concept. When we have both taps running at the right temperature and rhythm we are giving the audience value for money, because we are getting them at an emotional level.
Surely it’s no coincidence that religious ceremonies have the same shape as plays. The audience come in and a story unfolds. For instance, in the ritual of Christian Mass the story is this: God loved humans so much that He became mortal to share their fear and pain. He suffered terribly and died on the cross. God died! Whether one believes it or not, it works because it’s a powerful story and a very theatrical one.
Theatre can still raise the hairs on our heads because it taps into the communal religious experience of gathering together to witness a story. The audience are taken inside themselves while being part of the social group. It’s the best of both worlds in a bizarre way - the group goes on a kind of communal dream. And it works. That’s why it’s survived thousands of years and countless civilisations. It does something no other art form can quite do. It scratches a tricky itch.
FOR A FEW years I drifted into writing monologues. This wasn’t a conscious thing; I just found that monologues could take the inner/outer, public/private vibration to a place where I could achieve an intimacy that seemed very satisfying. Brian Friel wrote the rulebook for the modern Irish monologue with Faith Healer (1979).
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that a younger vanguard of Irish playwrights suddenly embraced this form: Enda Walsh in Disco Pigs and Bedbound; Eugene O’Brien in Eden; Mark O’Rowe in Howie the Rookie; Marie Jones in A Night in November; the list goes on - we were all at it. I’ve returned to (or drifted back to) a more traditional form of playwriting in recent years, but when I look back now it seems that the era of these monologue plays coincided with the momentous changes Ireland underwent during the Celtic Tiger years. And I wonder if this proliferation of monologues had to happen somehow? It may be argued that Irish plays became intensely personal in a radical attempt to preserve and explore our sense of identity during such an unprecedented transformation of our society.
Even senior playwrights such as Tom Murphy (The Alice Trilogy) and Sebastian Barry (The Pride of Parnell Street) came to explore the monologue form in their own unique ways. Irish drama went inside because our stories were fragile, because everything was changing. Religious custodians lost respect due to a sense of betrayal over sexual scandals and cover-ups. Our political leaders became mired in the now ubiquitous tribunals into corruption. The old war with the traditional enemy was over. We were no longer victims. So who were we?
AMID THE FRIGHTENING tumult of Ireland’s traumatic (and sometimes embarrassing) coming of age, state-of-the-nation plays with massive casts didn’t seem possible, or appropriate, somehow. No one seemed to have the distance to dramatise the big picture adequately. But perhaps something more courageous was happening: Irish playwrights searched inside themselves and resurrected a more ancient form of storytelling.
Audiences didn’t want bombast, satire, or another lecture, so Irish theatre became quiet and reflective - but no less powerful, I would contend. Thanks to some extraordinary acting, it was almost impossibly intimate and direct. The subsequent international success of many of these plays attests to this.
But now we are told that the Celtic Tiger binge is over. We have woken up to the silent, ominous, morning after. So I wonder if the monologue years have ended? While working abroad, I’m always struck by the fact that Ireland is acknowledged as one of the greatest playwriting nations in the world. We take it for granted here, but few other countries can match us for our influence in the form. I believe this is because we are still, at root, a superstitious people. We were intensely spiritual and pagan for thousands of years before we were Christian. In my eyes, somewhere such as Newgrange has more mystery and primal power than any chapel I’ve ever known. This is our pagan heritage and our theatre may be our pagan church, one where we can laugh and cry, and even search for God, in original, diverse ways.
All I know is that when a great actor catches fire and the audience is swept away on that emotional wave, the theatre can be a special place with an almost holy feeling.