I was very sad to learn yesterday of the death of Christina Reid, the announcement of which appears on the Lyric Theatre website. I’ve long appreciated and enjoyed Reid’s plays, and on the two occasions when I met her she struck me as a lovely person: modest but passionate about her work, good humoured but serious about the capacity of theatre to change lives and to correct injustices.
Her work has sometimes been included in academic studies of recent Irish drama, mostly in discussions of theatre from Northern Ireland. That’s appropriate of course: most of her plays are set in the north, and many deal directly with the Troubles and its consequences. Reid was from a working class protestant background, and showed a rare ability to both value and criticise her community: she created characters who could be nostalgic about twelfth of July parades in the 1940s and ‘50s – and she could understand and express the importance of the First and Second World Wars to her community. But she was also able to analyse those things too, to incisively identify the roots of anti-Catholic prejudice, and to place the Civil Rights movement in the north in the context of international developments: not just civil rights in the United States but also the emergence of Second Wave feminism.
Indeed, Reid gave us one of the clearest feminist critiques of the Troubles, suggesting that sectarianism had the impact of obscuring many other forms of injustice, including the marginalisation and oppression of women on both sides of the conflict. She was also a working class playwright in the sense that Sean O’Casey (a clear influence) was a working class playwright: her theatre displays a fascination with and love of working class culture (music hall particularly), and a keen sense of social injustice. Reid’s plays give us many different characters and situations, but all of them share one important trait: they all dramatise the stories of people who attempt to realise themselves fully, refusing to be defined by roles imposed upon them by their families and communities.
I think her work can also be seen in the context of the politicised theatre that emerged in Britain from the late 1960s onwards. It’s always made sense to me to think of Reid’s drama in relation to plays from the 1970s and 1980s by Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and David Hare – work that combined an intense political engagement with a desire to do new things with popular forms. Reid’s work could also be compared with that of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy – two writers who worked within (and across) the Irish and the British traditions and whose theatre has been neglected within Irish criticism (as Reid’s has). I think it could be helpful to think of Reid as occupying a place in the development of a Brechtian theatre in Ireland: work, that is, that displays Brechtian forms and ideas (even if the writers/directors were not directly inspired by Brecht himself) – a pattern that might also include work by Tomas MacAnna, Mairead Ni Ghrada , Tom Murphy, Garry Hynes, Jimmy Fay, and others (including of course Arden and D’Arcy).
Reid also wrote plays that were popular: people enjoyed going to them and I think actors enjoy appearing in them too. Perhaps the most accessible was her first produced play, Tea in a China Cup, which premiered at the Lyric in 1983, where it told us the story of three generations of Belfast women (a set-up that would later become familiar, of course). As often happens in theatre about Northern Ireland, the play presents history not in terms of linear progress but as a series of cycles: we repeat ourselves over and again. We thus see the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s and early 1970s being set against earlier military conflicts, notably the two world wars. Reid keeps faith with her community’s need to see the first and second world wars as defining moments for them, but she also explores those wars from the perspectives of the women left behind rather than the men who went off to fight. Again like O’Casey, she uses that gendered perspective to think about heroism, military sacrifice, cycles of violence, and the legacies of the past.
So the china cup in the play’s title becomes a metaphor for identity. As a family heirloom it is passed down from one generation to the next, and it thus takes on value not just because of what it is but also because of what it meant to those who came before. Reid uses this simple object to ask how our communities should manage other forms of inheritance: she was showing that Northern Ireland would not find peace until people were wiling to let go of the past – but she also showed that many of our ties to the past are rooted in real feelings of love for family-members (and grief for their loss). She understood that the letting go of a community’s ideals can feel like an intimate betrayal of a loved one. And she sets out to show how such feelings can be acknowledged, accommodated, and overcome.
Another important play is Did You Hear the One About the Irishman? which was written in 1980 but premiered in 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company on tour in the US. It (like China Cup) gives us a set-up that has since become too familiar, focusing on a doomed relationship between a middle class Protestant woman and a working class Catholic male – the Troubles via Romeo and Juliet, in other words. Matters reach a suitably tragic ending for the pair, whose communities refuse to believe that their love for each other can be a good thing. But where the play becomes quite interesting is in its use of a framing device. Reid allows the action to be interrupted occasionally by a stand-up British comedian, who tells a series of offensive Irish jokes in the manner that was still very common on British TV at that time. By juxtaposing a tragic love story with stand-up comedy Reid was doing the things that made her work distinctive – blending high art with popular culture, using tragedy to critique comedy (and vice versa), and disrupting notions of “us” and “them”. She also challenges her English audiences to re-think their awareness of, and engagement with, Ireland generally, which she shows is more than a mere joke.
Also worth noting about this play is its use of role doubling, which cut across the different communities on either side of the Troubles. It’s a simple technique, but by using one body to play people on different sides of the conflict, Reid shows that the antagonisms between the communities may not be quite as insurmountable as might have been imagined. When Thomas Kilroy did something like this for Field Day with Double Cross at roughly the same time he was rightly praised for using the actor’s body to challenge political pieties – to show that certain forms of identity should be seen not as inherent but as performed. As is the way with these things, no-one has wanted to “go there” with Reid, but Kilroy and Field Day have been widely celebrated for this.
Reid’s most successful play was Joyriders, which is set in the Divis Flats. It is framed by a production of O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman, setting up an interesting continuity between pre-Independence Dublin and Belfast in the 1980s. Again there’s great use of music in the play. Joyriders had a sequel in the 1990s called Clowns. Both work very well with young actors and of all of Reid’s plays they most merit production today.
The play I’m most interested in by Reid is The Belle of the Belfast City, which opened in Belfast in 1989, and which I was proud to be able to include in an anthology for Methuen Drama back in 2008. Again we have three generations of Belfast women, who gather together on the eve of a protest against the Anglo-Irish agreement. The youngest is Belle, who is a young black woman brought up mostly in London, who is visiting her Northern Irish relatives for the first time. We read much nowadays about plural Irish identities, but Reid was exploring this topic meaningfully 25 years ago – showing how race, gender, and disability function in her society. And in the character of Belle she gave us someone who could be faithful to her many identities (Irish, English, British, American, black, protestant, etc) without being imprisoned by any of them.
There’s also a fabulous send-up in the play of a particular style of firebrand unionist politician, whom Reid displays practising his speeches in a state of what she calls “masturbatory ecstasy”. By showing how politicians rehearse, she was also underlining the extent to which what they do is a performance, is theatrical. And from there it becomes possible to see how politics can be governed by self-interest, manipulation of the weak, masculine insecurity and sexual dysfunction.
As mentioned above, I met Reid twice: first during a visit to NUI Galway in 2008 and then to the Synge Summer School in 2009. She was a very warm presence on both occasions: delighted to talk to our students but also interested in them and their own work and ideas. She was modest about her plays, but had a clear sense of what she was trying to do with them; she also spoke impressively about her determination to say what she felt needed to be said. For example, she mentioned how members of the UVF attended the production of The Belle of the Belfast City – as did the politician upon whom she based the main male character. I think most people would find such encounters intimidating (to say the least) but Reid was able to laugh about both of them.
She was also philosophical about her career. She enjoyed a lot of success in a relatively short period, with China Cup premiering in 1983 and Belle in 1989, with three other plays in between. Clowns followed in 1996. But other than that, she found it difficult to have her work produced from the 1990s onwards. There was an adaptation of Les Miserables in 1992, and she wrote a short play for the National Theatre’s Connections series of plays for young people towards the end of that decade. When asked about this, Reid suggested that she had benefited in the 1980s from the fact that her plays were topical: audiences in Britain and the US wanted to understand the Troubles better, and dramas like Reid’s managed to be both informative and (usually) uplifting. As Northern Ireland disappeared from the world’s headlines, so were there fewer opportunities to produce work about the north (Seamus Heaney has made a similar observation about his own career).
It is only fair to say that she also experienced some negative critical notices from time to time. When reading about her online today I came across the following quotation on the Ricorso website, from a review of a revival of Joyriders from 1995, which is described as “deeply flawed”
‘as with much of Christina Reid’s work, it is incurably sentimental, while the dramatic structure is non-existent … uses methods of narration abandoned in England in 1956…”
I would disagree with this assertion, of course. Her plays certainly have moments of sentimentality but I don’t think that’s the dominant mood in them (and what’s wrong with a bit of sentimentality anyway?). I also think that she did things that would later gain praise when done by other (male) writers. She wrote about the importance of the World Wars within the Irish dramatic tradition two years before McGuinness did so in Observe the Sons of Ulster and long before Sebatian Barry wrote The Steward of Christendom. She was writing about race in an Irish context five years before Donal O’Kelly wrote Asylum! Asylum! (often described as the first Irish play to broach that topic). She blends music hall and dramatic experimentation in ways that are valued when identified in the works of O’Casey, Beckett and Behan, but which were criticised when she did them. And as implied earlier, she was trying in her work to do many of the things that Field Day are now routinely praised for having accomplished.
There has been some good critical work on Reid (though I’d like to see more of it). Maria Delgado’s introduction to her collected plays is an excellent and suggestive overview – and it helps that it’s written by someone who doesn’t come at the plays from the usual Irish perspectives. Reid also features in Imelda Foley’s (underrated) Girls in the Big Picture, an exploration of theatre by women from the north). And there are good articles about her work from Lisa Fitzpatrick, Joanna Luft, Carla McDonough, and Riana O’Dwyer (among a few others). She also features in books by Maria Kurdi and Tony Roche. Most of those articles focus on Tea in a China Cup (though Belle has been getting some attention in the last few years). But as I hope to have suggested above in this very brief outline, there is a lot more to be said about her work.
She is a loss, then, and I deeply sympathise with her family, friends and former colleagues, who I am sure must feel that loss very keenly. And I hope we can take the time in the months and years ahead to remember her contribution to Irish theatre, and to appreciate it fully – for its humour, its accessibility, its idealism, its passion, and its determination to show that people can change.