Fintan O’Toole, ‘Play for Ireland’ [...] the 10 favourite Irish plays’ (The Irish Times, 12 Feb. 2000)

[ Details: Fintan O’Toole, ‘Play for Ireland’ [...] poll to establish the 10 favourite Irish plays’ (The Irish Times, 12 Feb. 2000) - available at Irish Times Online - [defunct Oct. 2023. ]

Sub-heading: ‘The fractured playground of Irish identity has proved a fertile pitch for generations of our playwrights, reflects Fintan O’Toole, as publishes a poll to establish the 10 favourite Irish play.’]

The Top Ten

1. Juno and the Paycock (Sean O’Casey); 2. The Playboy of the Western World (John Millington Synge); 3. Dancing at Lughnasa (Brian Friel); 4. Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett); 5. The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde); 6. The Plough and the Stars (Sean O’Casey); 7 Philadephia Here I Come (Brian Friel); 8.Translations (Brian Friel); 9. The Weir (Conor McPherson); 10. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (Frank McGuinness).

Is there such a thing as an Irish play? It is never easy, without lapsing into clichés and caricatures, to talk at all of either the nation or its moods in the singular. But it is even more difficult to talk of the reflections of those moods in a form as ephemeral and shifting as the theatre. Plays change from production to production. Productions change from night to night. What remains as a continuum - the text - is not the building itself, merely the architect’s drawings. And even that tends to be much less stable than it seems. To take an admittedly extreme example from the Irish Times Internet poll, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is not the same play in French (its original language) as in English “and even the English text exists in versions with important variations.”

The playwright Denis Johnston, writing in the 1950s, compared the Abbey Theatre to a “knife that, having had four new blades and five new handles, still insisted it was the same implement”. The same description could apply to the notion of the Irish play. Playwrights give shape to and are shaped by their own times, and places. and the times and places of Ireland changed dramatically in the course of the century. Are John Synge and Conor McPherson Irish in the same sense of the word? Does Beckett, writing a play in French and giving it originally to a Paris theatre, belong in the same artistic frame as Brian Friel, a writer who has seldom lived outside Derry and Donegal? And why do readers regard The Importance of Being Earnest which premiered in 1895, as a 20th-century play?

Yet the odd thing is that anyone looking at the theatre in Ireland in the 1990s would have found strong similarities with the theatre of John Synge and Sean O’Casey. Neither the language nor the social world of the early Abbey plays remained. But like Synge and O’Casey, the work of living Irish playwrights is strongly marked by a concern with language for its own sake. It is primarily poetic rather than naturalistic It has an angular rather than a direct relationship to Irish society. It works, as the Synge of The Well of the Saints or the O’Casey of The Silver Tassie works, through evocation rather than dramatisation. To grasp why this should be so is to get a sense of what is happening, not just in Irish theatre now, but in the broad culture from which it springs.

If we want to trace broad patterns, we can say we had in 20th-century Irish theatre three quite distinct movements. The first was the theatrical revival centring on Synge, W.B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory and O’Casey. That revival effectively collapsed at the end of the 1920s, its closure marked by the Abbey’s refusal to produce either Johnston’s The Old Lady Says No! or O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie. It was followed by a long period of decline and decadence, whose failure to create enduring plays is reflected in the fact that the only play from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to feature in the poll is Waiting for Godot, a work for which Irish theatre can claim no credit at all.

A second revival, in my own view no less powerful, began in the late 1950s.and continued well into the 1980s. It is marked by the work of Tom Murphy, Brian Friel, John B. Keane, Thomas Kilroy and Hugh Leonard. Though Friel’s very strong presence in the poll reflects the reality of his extraordinary achievement, it seems likely that a larger perspective on 20th-century Irish theatre will have to find to find room at the very least for plays like Murphy’s The Gigli Concert and Bailegangaire.

The psychic and social upheavals that accompanied the modernisation of Irish society from the end of the 1950s onwards produced a theatre of conflict, a theatre of doubleness in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Irish theatre was blessed with a series of great highly wrought, intensely dramatic, and in a real sense classical works.

And we have now entered into some kind of third phase, a. phase that is too new to be fully defined, but whose outlines can be at least tentatively suggested. In some important respects, this third phase has more in common with the first revival than with the second, yet it is important to stress that it includes the later work of two of the most important writers of the second revivial [sic], Murphy and Friel.

One of the striking things about the Irish world of Synge or O’Casey is precisely that it is a world - a unified nexus of time and place. In the theatre of the first revival, there is a substratum of nationalism: Irishness is what defines the cast of characters. “Ireland”, a single thing which does not need to be spelt out, is the oil that makes the plot run. The societies of the great early Irish plays are patently bounded, close, sharing a common ground so clear that it hardly needs to be marked at all. The Playboy, for instance, works by setting the closeness of the tribe, manifested in the forthcoming wedding of Pegeen to her cousin Shawn Keogh, against the irruption of the outsider Christy Mahon.

But there is a great gulf that separates the Irish playwrights who began to write before the late 1950s from those to who began to write in that period The single, simple universe of Beckett’s plays is closer to the Synge of A Playboy than to the mental world of a Brian Friel, a Tom Murphy, or a Thomas Kilroy.

The mindset of Beckett and Synge and O’Casey is that of a single world: Beckett’s endless days and continual present tense, Synge’s and O’Casey’s close-knot, well-defined societies. For the playwrights of the second revival, on the other hand, all vision must be double vision.

From the late 1950s onwards, “Ireland” as a single, simple notion which might underlie and give formal coherence to a work of theatre began to seep away. The society became far more complex and was no longer definable as a single reality. The theatre of naturalism, in which every effect has a cause, in which every action has a motive and in which every character has a fundamental coherence, became virtually impossible. The very notion of character as something given, something singular, as a vessel within which words, ideas and emotions could be contained, became highly problematic.

Old worlds don’t just become new worlds, and Ireland didn’t just become another state of the union. It became a double world, a slippery state in which the traditional and the modern jostled for the status of reality, in which every truth was equally untrue; in which past, present and future seemed to melt into each other, in which the borders of reality and of personality became permeable. Such a place is both a good ground in which to be playwright, since the clash of cultures is inherently dramatic, and also a difficult one, since the sense of unity which underlies the work of a Synge or an O’Casey is no longer available.

Playwrights such as Friel and Murphy started to place their characters in two different Irelands at the same time, creating two opposed moral and psychological worlds - a traditional one and a modern one - in which their characters have to live. Doomed to live by old values in a new world, they can literally do nothing right, for what they perceive to be right is no longer, by the lights of the new world, so.

The split personality takes over. Gar Donell in Philadelphia, Here I Come! divides between a public and a private self. Hugh Leonard’s Charlie in Da, and the entire cast of characters in A Life split into past and present selves. In a slightly different configuration, Tom Murphy in almost all of his plays, divides the self between two characters, often brothers, sometimes friends or mortal enemies, who appear to be separate but who emerge as two halves of the one whole.

What was happening is that the doubleness of the society, the co-presence of contradictory world-views, made it necessary for the theatre to evolve forms in which the collapse of personality, the instability of character, the failure of the naturalistic laws, of cause and effect, were not just avant garde experiments but, also necessary forms of social realism. In essence, realistic theatre in Ireland was, for 30 years, avant garde theatre. The society simply could not be encompassed within the singular vision of naturalistic theatre.

But gradually, from the 1980s onwards, there ceased to be a dramatic conflict between tradition and modernity in Ireland. Insofar as it existed traditional Ireland was becoming alienated, angular and embattled, as strange, with its moving statues and paranoid visions, as any avant garde has ever been. Its image in the theatre was no longer John B. Keane’s proud, confident, dangerous Bull McCabe, but Sebastian Barry’s odd, sad, comic, encircled Boss Grady’s Boys, imaging themselves as footsoldiers in Custer’s Last Stand.

Such a vision of traditional Ireland cannot be the source of great, sweeping dramatic confrontations. What we got instead were fragments, isolated pieces of a whole, story that no one really knows. Instead of one story and many theatrical images of it, we are moving towards a dramatisation of the fragments rather than the whole society. In the plays of the emerging third phase, there are isolated worlds, closed entities. Those entities might be large, powerful sub-cultures, such as Ulster Protestantism, in Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster, or lost pieces of historical jetsam such as the loyalist southern Catholic policeman at the heart of Barry’s The Steward of Christendom, or rural communities on the margins of an increasingly urban Ireland, such as the Leitrim bachelors in The Weir. In Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa it is a single house, a single family, both so single, indeed, that the entry of a new thing - a brother returning from the African missions - can lead only to the collapse of the entire world of the play. In much of the work of Frank McGuinness, the singleness is a matter of gender, men and women existing in different zones whose borders cannot be crossed.

But if drama cannot be created out of a social conflict that has lost its force, then it must be evoked through language, though by no means only through verbal language. The best recent Irish plays are all extraordinarily linguistic creations, concerned to evoke or conjure up a world rather than to create one. They have to do so because the worlds they are concerned with the particular, so angular, that an audience cannot share in them through naturalistic convention.

Because we no longer have one shared place, one Ireland, we can no longer have a naturalistic theatre of recognition in which a world is signalled to us through objects and we tacitly agree to recognise it is as our own, We must instead have a theatre of evocation in which strange worlds, not our own, are in Yeats’s phrase “called to the eye of the mind”. Oddly, intriguingly, Irish playwrights are doing at the beginning of the 21st century something very like what they were doing at the start of the 20th - summoning up in the imagination a place that does not quite exist and calling it Ireland.

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