Talking About Thomas Kilroy

I was delighted to recently receive a copy of one of the latest publications from Carysfort Press: Guy Woodward’s edited collection Talking about Thomas Kilroy.

This book collects a series of talks that were given at a Trinity College symposium about Kilroy in 2011 – and although  it is short, it succeeds in capturing well the complexity, depth and importance of the work of one of our most important writers. It’s also a surprisingly enjoyable read: as the title implies, the authors of the papers write in a conversational tone, often moving from incisive critical analysis to revealing anecdote.

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For example, Antony Roche recalls attending the premiere of The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, the 1968 play that was probably the first Irish drama to feature an explicitly gay character. He’d been brought by his parents, who were, he said “probably drawn … by the curiosity of seeing our name in the title”. The titular Mr Roche is described in the play as ‘the queer of Dunleary’, where the Roches themselves lived at that time. This prompted an acquaintance to approach Tony’s father at the interval: “You kept it well hid boy, wha?” he said.

 

This is a funny story but as Roche points out, it also reveals how Dublin audiences were willing to accept plays about gay characters (albeit with some reservations).

 

There’s a similarly revealing anecdote in Nicholas Grene’s essay (which opens the collection), about Kilroy and modernism, in which Grene recalls playing a role in an amateur production of a play about the flight of the earls. “I played the O’Donnell” writes Grene: “my main function was to die of a fever in Rome in the second act, feverishly declaring nostalgic memories of my native Donegal”. Grene remembered little of that play: “’tons of buttermilk’ is the only phrase I can recall of my lines,’ he confesses.

 

Again this is funny, but Grene uses the anecdote as a jumping off point for a fascinating discussion of Kilroy’s The O’Neill (premiered at the Abbey in 1969), noting its links to Friel’s Making History. He goes on then to survey Kilroy’s work in the context of modernism and Irish modernity, bringing us right up to Kilroy’s wonderful adaptation of Spring Awakening, the 2009 Christ Deliver Us!

 

The collection also features an essay by Peter Fallon, who has published all of Kilroy’s plays. In addition to offering an interesting account of Fallon’s Gallery Press, he also provides some revealing discussion of Kilroy’s work – which he, like everyone in the book, acknowledges is difficult to categorise. Nevertheless, Fallon suggests that the plays can be seen as representing a “collision between self and social pressure” and, as such, represent “portraits of the artist”. This is a useful way to think about Kilroy’s plays and other writings.

 

We also have transcripts of two talks, one about reading Kilroy (chaired by Christina Hunt Mahony and given mostly by academics) and the other about directing him (chaired by Emer O’Kelly, and given mostly by practitioners). While I tend to balk at the separation of these two groups from each other, here it works effectively, simply because it demonstrates their shared approach and attitude to Kilroy’s work. There is a clear understanding throughout the book of how his plays demand and reward close reading and are steeped in literary allusion. There’s also a strong awareness throughout of what is often referred to as his theatricality – by which I think the speakers mean his astonishing awareness of theatrical space (in terms of both movement and design), not to mention his ongoing creative conversations with figures such as Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde and Pirandello.

 

And, appropriately enough, the collection also features Kilroy himself. There is an essay from him  entitled “the Intellectual on Stage” which I think might also be seen as a “portrait of the artist” even though it explores works by Beckett, Yeats and Shaw. And there is an excerpt from Blake, Kilroy’s as yet unproduced play about the poet of the same name. The collection is rounded out with a transcription of a public interview between Adrian Frazier and Kilroy which (by the way) features a question from our now President Michael D Higgins.

 

The book can be read and enjoyed in a single sitting; as I hope to have suggested above, it is as entertaining as it is informative. But it also left me wanting more (often the sign of a good academic study). There has been a special edition of Irish University Review dedicated to Kilroy’s work, and Jose Lanters is working on a book about his plays (having heard some of her conference papers on this subject, I think that this is going to have a major impact on the study of Kilroy). There’s also a very good study by Thierry Dubost from 2007 (originally published in French): it deserves to be better known.

 

For my part, a publication I’d love to see is a collected edition of Kilroy’s critical essays. His “Groundwork for an Irish Theatre” from 1959 is the closest thing we have to a manifesto for the work that would emerge in the 1960s (it also offers several as yet unfulfilled prompts to other practitioners). Some 40 years later, he wrote another essay in Eamonn Jordan’s Theatre Stuff called “A Generation of Playwrights” (originally published in 1992, I think): an essay that looks back on the work of Kilroy and his contemporaries. To read those two essays side-by-side is to form a clearer appreciation of how Irish drama has been shaped in the second half of the twentieth century – and to understand how central Kilroy has been to its shaping. He also has many excellent essays on Synge and Friel, among others.

These essays illustrate one of the things that I most value about Tom Kilroy and his art: he shows that the distinction between the playwright and the intellectual need not be absolute: the roles can be complementary and overlapping.

 

We’re fortunate in having here at NUI Galway the archive of Kilroy’s works. As the catalogue shows here  it is extraordinarily rich, presenting unpublished plays, drafts of existing work, and much more. The book includes some images from that collection, which give a nice taste of the kind of scholarship (and practice) that might be possible from this archive.

The book is available from Carysfort Press for the relatively modest price of €15; I note that Amazon are also selling it on Kindle for less than £7.

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Ireland Playing in Brazil: an Irish theatre company in São Paulo

Like many people, I have been thoroughly enjoying this year’s World Cup in Brazil. So far, it has been the tournament that we always wish for but never get: there have been surprises (Spain – twice) and lots of great goals. Most of the good players are living up to the pre-tournament hype, and, strangest of all, the English media is displaying a realistic sense of their team’s potential (for now anyway). Let’s hope it continues for the next few weeks – even if the 11.00 matches are slightly exhausting.

I’ve heard a few people say that it’s a pity Ireland aren’t at the World Cup, and of course that is true in some ways. Having said that, the style of play evident over the last week has displayed all of the virtues that the Irish team currently lacks: speed of thought, technical ability, imagination, confidence. The team would not have fared well at this tournament, I think.

In thinking about Ireland’s absence from the World Cup, I found myself being reminded that there is one area in which Ireland retains some sort of international prominence – I’m talking, of course, about our theatre – or literature from this country more generally.

There is one great example of that prominence in Brazil, which is the existence of the company Cia Ludens. Based in São Paulo, this professional company was established in 2003 with the remit of translating and staging Irish plays, starting with a well regarded version of Dancing at Lughnasa in 2003 which was recently revived.

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I’ve heard a lot about this company from Beatriz Bastos, the company’s producer and a scholar at Federal University of Santa Catarina. There is also a very useful article about it by Domingos Nunez, who has written about how the company was established, explaining that its name is derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens –  a book that emphasizes the importance of play as a category for understanding all of human life. “I had come across Huizinga’s study while writing my Master’s dissertation,” writes Nunez:

 

but it was only in 2003, while in Ireland researching for my PhD thesis, that, through the critical works of Stewart Parker, I approached Huizinga’s idea of ludo ergo sum in a more revealing way. Parker, interpreting Huizinga, affirms that “play is how we test the world and register its realities. Play is how we experiment, imagine, invent and move forward” (6). This movement accurately reflected the innermost feelings of the people who happened to be part of the company at that time, and Ludens seemed the precise term to signal our deepest intentions in dealing with Irish and Brazilian contexts through the perspective of drama. The Latin term led us to make associations with other rich words that could be used as fruitful possibilities on the stage, such as the Latin ludo, inlusio and illudere; the Portuguese lúdico and ludibriar, and the English ludicrous and illusion.

 

Nunez has a very stimulating account of how the company’s approach draws on ideas not only from Huizinga but also from Boal, Stanislavski, Brecht and Lehmann. It is rooted in Irish drama, but it draws freely on an amazing range of international contexts.

So far the company has produced or staged readings of Dancing at Lughnasa, Stones in His Pockets,  Faith Healer, Vincent Woods’ Cry from Heaven and many others including Come and Go, Shadow of the Glen, Murphy’s Alice Trilogy, Friel’s Performances, Carr’s Ariel and Sebastian Barry’s Whistling Psyche. The Friel plays are in print, and I am very proud to own a beautiful edition of the complete set…

Of particular interest is a production that the company staged of Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and A Thief of A Christmas. Both plays were originally performed in 1985, the former by Druid and the latter at the Abbey – and both tell the same story from different perspectives. In Bailegangare, Mommo tells the story of how a town called Bochtan was re-named Bailegangaire (the town without laughter) as a result of a laughing competition that her husband participated in. Thief of a Christmas actually stages the laughing contest, and makes explicit Mommo’s culpability for what happens in it.

Fascinatingly, Cia Ludens staged both plays together in a single production. Here is what Shaun Richards has to say about it:

Seeing Cia Ludens’s rehearsal of the play I realised how profoundly the director, Domingos Nunez, had penetrated Murphy’s dramatic vision. For in his ‘transposition’ of the play to Brazil, and merging of Mommo’s memories in “Bailegangaire” with her lived experiences from “A Thief of a Christmas”, Mommo does more than tell the story. In this production she inhabits it – or rather it inhabits her, and she lives more fully in that world of the past than she does in the present where she only fitfully recognises her granddaughters. In staging the play as Mommo’s ever-present nightmare we see her slow progress to Bochtan and inability to leave, for to continue her journey home would be to acknowledge the events which faced her there, events for which she feels responsible. As her granddaughter, Dolly, says, ‘She’s guilty.’ This is the fact which must be faced.

 

What is notable about these works is that Nunez and his company are not staging productions that are in any way derivative of the original Irish versions. The Irish works are transposed to Brazil, re-imagined, and thoroughly re-inhabited. The kinds of choices made about staging and performance draw on many of the approaches used in Ireland, from naturalism to post-dramatic theatre – yet they are also distinctive.

There are some clips from on Youtube from Balangangueri (the company’s name for the merged plays), and they are well worth checking out:

 

 

I would love to see Cia Ludens performing in Ireland (ideally in Galway, where there remains a strong Brazilian community). I feel that we could learn a huge amount from these kinds of exchanges.

In the broader context in south America, there are lots of other interesting projects underway. Only recently, I heard from Charlotte Headrick (an American scholar who works on Patricia Burke Brogan’s plays) that Brogan’s Eclipsed was recently staged in Peru. That play is one of the first attempts in Ireland to come to terms with the tragedy of the Magdelene Laundries – and it was given a terrific production by Mephisto theatre company here in Galway last year (I blogged about it at the time). Ireland and Peru are of course very different from each other. But it is sickeningly unsurprising that Brogan’s story has proven resonant with the experiences of people in another “Catholic” country.

About fifteen years ago, there was a definite shift in the academic study of Irish theatre: scholars moved  from writing about plays they had read (focusing on themes, characterization and other broadly literary elements of the script) to instead analysing performances that they had seen. As a result, an Irish theatre conference is now just as likely to host papers about theatre-makers – from Garry Hynes to Joe Vanek to Louise Lowe and beyond – as it is to include papers about Irish dramatists.

This is certainly a positive development, but it is notable that we have tended mainly to explore Irish theatre as it is staged in Ireland. We tend to have some awareness of the Irish theatre companies that stage work in America  (groups like PICT or the Irish Rep among many others), or in the UK (the Tricycle, for example). But I think there’s a very poor awareness of how, when and why Irish theatre is staged outside of the Anglophone contexts – especially outside of Europe. A group I’m involved in called the Irish Theatrical Diaspora project was set up 10 years ago to try to track some of this work – and I think that in our second decade we need to do much more to engage with work in places like Brazil.

We hear much about the importance of the work that Culture Ireland has done in bringing theatre from Ireland to other countries. Yet groups such as Cia Ludens are also doing this work, and perhaps do more to facilitate a genuine intercultural dialogue between Irish culture and other forms of culture. The translation of Irish plays from English into other languages is important – and is brilliantly supported by ILE. But the subsequent staging of those plays is another form of “translation” that has a lot to teach us about our theatre and our country.

Of course, for a dialogue to happen, both parties need to listen to each other. I’d hope that in the years ahead, we can find more opportunities to bring companies like Cia Ludens to Ireland, so that we can – perhaps – start to re-conceive Irish theatre in a more international context. Just as football was an English game that the rest of the world imported and then made its own, perhaps “Irish theatre” can similarly be seen as something that is staged in Ireland – but staged everywhere else too, often in ways that are very exciting. And those stagings can in turn be brought back here, re-invigorating, renewing and challenging our theatre practice.

Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?