Eight Irish Dramatists Discuss Irish Playwriting Today

I’m just back from the Synge Summer School in Rathdrum in Wicklow. I’ve been directing that event since 2008 and because this was my last year in charge I decided to invite eight Irish dramatists to come and speak about Irish playwriting today. So we heard from Stuart Carolan, Deirdre Kinahan, Mark O’Rowe, Owen McCafferty, Marina Carr, Dermot Bolger, Declan Hughes and Enda Walsh. Rita Ann Higgins also attended and while she is better known as a poet, she has also written plays. And we went to see Colin Murphy’s Guaranteed! and heard him and Gavin Kostick speaking about it afterwards.

This is something we’ve always done at the Synge School: although most of the talks are by academics, during my time as director we’ve also had occasional interviews/readings with Sebastian Barry, Una McKevitt, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor, Bernard Farrell, Louise Lowe, Pat McCabe, Christina Reid, Billy Roche and Conor McPherson.

But this year I thought there would be some value in dispensing with the academic perspective altogether and hearing only from the writers.

In programming the event I was motivated by some of the thoughts expressed elsewhere in this blog: a feeling that if Irish playwriting is not exactly in crisis, nor is it as healthy as it used to be. I wanted to find out how Irish dramatists see matters – and I wanted to give people an opportunity to focus on the excellence of contemporary Irish drama: something we don’t really give enough attention to these days.

We heard a huge amount about each writer’s career, and Irish theatre generally, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here. But there were some general patterns that I found interesting.

I should make clear from the outset that all opinions below are my own and unless explicitly stated otherwise are not those of the writers or participants. I also should state that the comments below are based on my memory of events over the last few days, and may therefore be subject to correction. But leaving those health warnings aside, I hope the observations below might be of interest.

On Getting Started

We heard a lot from the writers about how they got started as playwrights.

I was struck by the fact that for some, the ‘lucky break’ arose because of fortuitous personal contacts: Stuart Carolan was able to give his first play Defender of the Faith to Noel Pearson, for example – while Owen McCafferty gave his first play to Martin Lynch, who was running a workshop that one of Owen’s relatives was attending.

Mark O’Rowe spoke about how he went around from one theatre company to another, pushing copies of his script into letter boxes. “I didn’t even get rejection letters from most of them,” he said – but Fishamble replied and told him they wanted to do his play.

Deirdre Kinahan, Enda Walsh and Declan Hughes had to do things for themselves: Kinahan and Hughes had set up companies and gradually began to write their own work; Walsh likewise was working with Corcadorca and gravitated towards writing. And Dermot Bolger has done an enormous amount to foster new writing of all kinds in Ireland, as a publisher and commentator.

I was also very interested in what writers had to say about learning how to write. Hughes, for instance, spoke about how he had spent a number of years directing and performing – first in Players at Trinity and then with his own company Rough Magic. A conversation with Declan Donellan at the Dublin Theatre Festival inspired him to write an adaptation of Woman in White and that in turn gave him the confidence to write I Can’t Get Started.

Hughes’s talk underlined  for me the value of having great international plays in the Irish repertoire: he spoke about how his work on the “Howards and Davids” (Brenton, Barker, Hare and Edgar) in the early 1980s fed into his own development as a playwright.

In contrast, Enda Walsh spoke about how in his early years he would produce short bursts of writing for Corcadorca – sometimes as much as one piece a week, each lasting maybe five or ten minutes. The company would stage these short plays and would then come back out on stage and talk to their audience about what they had done and how they could improve. Walsh said that he found people stopping him on the streets in Cork to give him notes. So what was crucial here was the freedom to experiment. I asked Walsh how he found an audience for such work. “We gave away tickets,” he explained – pushing them through letter-boxes, giving them out in nightclubs, and so on.

The overall point here is that no-one will ever succeed by sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. This will be obvious to everyone who works in the theatre but is perhaps not sufficiently well appreciated outside the sector. I was constantly struck by how many of these writers had to go out and carve out opportunities for themselves before the Irish theatre ‘took them in’, so to speak.

On Transitioning

We had quite a bit of discussion about how playwrights’ careers develop over time.

Declan Hughes and Dermot Bolger both spoke about times in their lives when, for various reasons, they felt that they’d had enough of writing plays; both went off to do other things but have since resumed writing drama.

Enda Walsh spoke about how his own career had distinct phases. Bedbound in 2000 marked a new development, as did Walworth Farce in 2006. He’s working on a new play at the moment, he says – and that too represents a new direction.

Likewise, Mark O’Rowe told us about his forthcoming work, saying that although he is very proud of his last play Terminus, his new play is a significant step forward.

We found ourselves spending a surprising amount of time discussing the business of how playwrights transition into new periods in their writing life. An example given by one of the participants is Conor McPherson’s play The Veil, which was greeted with disappointment and some bafflement when it appeared at the National in London in 2011. The comment was that the play was actually very good – it just didn’t seem like a typical Conor McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps critics and PR people) didn’t seem to know what to make of it.

The problem here is that many Irish writers became well known for a particular kind of play – and have since found themselves encountering negative or indifferent reactions when they’ve tried to move into new areas, as McPherson did with The Veil. We’re in a bizarre situation where we criticise playwrights who keep doing the same things, but then ignore their work when they try new things.

Marina Carr was especially interesting on this subject. She became famous for her five midlands plays The Mai, Portia Coughlan, By the Bog of Cats, On Raftery’s Hill and Ariel. Yet she decided after Ariel appeared in 2002 that she didn’t want to write any more plays set in the midlands: she needed to do things differently. Her subsequent plays have not always been well received, partly because (I think) of audience expectation and partly because of other problems such as direction (and this is my opinion, not hers).

Listening to Carr reading from On Raftery’s Hill and then Marble, I was very struck by the continuities in her career rather than the disjunctions: the humour, her focus on power, the way she treats familial relationships, the way she creates brilliant scenes that display women in conflict with each other… and so on. If we look beneath the surface of Carr’s plays – beyond the midlands accent, for instance – there is a very clear trajectory in which important themes are being developed. We just haven’t been paying attention to those themes up to now.

Owen McCafferty was also very interesting on career development. He pointed out that, especially in the north, there is great support for the discovery of new plays. But he also called for more support for playwrights across their career.

This proved a recurrent theme: it’s often said that it’s easier to have a first play staged in Ireland than a second play. But hardest of all, perhaps, is getting a tenth or eleventh play staged. Carr spoke about the difficulty of having new work produced in Ireland – and we also considered the case of Frank McGuinness, whose last five original plays have all premiered abroad.

The overall suggestion was that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a career as a playwright in Ireland.

On Directing and Being In Control

Another recurrent strand was the desirability of having control over one’s work. Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh have both been directing their own work, and both spoke about the value of directing the first production of their own plays (something that Conor McPherson does as well).

Marina Carr also said that she’d love to direct her own plays – and indeed other people’s plays (she’d love to direct Tennessee Williams and some of the Greek tragedies, she said).

Other writers discussed their relationships with directors: Deirdre Kinahan spoke warmly about David Horan, for instance, as Dermot Bolger did about Ray Yeates. And Owen McCafferty said that although he has directed his own plays, he values the objectivity brought to the process by a director.

Stuart Carolan was very interesting here too. He acts as Executive Producer of Love/Hate, and it was very clear from listening to him that that show is good precisely because he’s given the freedom to do things his own way.

But we also heard other stories during the School about the frustrations of having one’s work interfered with or dismissed, often by people who are not themselves working from an artistic perspective  – such as TV and film executives,  critics, and others.

One good example of this issue was the use of music. Stuart Carolan and Declan Hughes both spoke about how important music is for their work – how the choice of a particular song is essential for the communication of a particular set of sensations or emotions. Other writers spoke about how their choice of music is often treated as a kind of ‘optional extra’ which directors are sometimes inclined to ignore or overlook.

In general, the old view that writers shouldn’t direct their own plays was fairly thoroughly dismissed during the School. As someone put it, just because Brian Friel got a hard time when he did it in 1997 doesn’t mean it should never be done. Someone else made the great point that Conor McPherson had been directing his own plays with success for years – but when The Veil appeared, critics immediately said that the production showed why playwrights shouldn’t direct their own work. The general feeling was that there are benefits to having writers direct their own work.

On Devising

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, there is a view around at present that there is a clash between devising and playwriting. Over the course of the four days, we saw evidence of a much more nuanced approach to that subject. Both Kinahan and Walsh spoke about how they began their careers by doing work that would now be seen as devising, for instance. And in general at the School there was respect for devising as a process of making theatre (though of course there was some dissent too).

On this subject, the overall point I took away is that devising is like any other kind of theatre – some of it is good, and some of it is bad. The writers all spoke about the need to be rigorous in their own work: it takes up to two years to write a play because there’s a need to be very precise and detailed with language, and so on. We’re all aware of devised work that meets those kinds of rigorous standards (and, as you’d expect, Louise Lowe’s name was cited a few times in that context).

So just as there are some conventional plays that need more work, that aren’t ready when they go on, and that could have been more rigorous, the same is also true about some devised work. We just need to have more good work in Ireland, I think (and again this is not a criticism of anything currently being done and is my own opinion).

Kinahan put it well when she said that there doesn’t have to be a clash between playwriting and devising, but there could be more mutual respect.

A Playwright’s Theatre and the Audience

Many of the writers spoke about the need for a theatre in Ireland that would be dedicated exclusively to the regular production of new work, and not just by new playwrights. Of course people admire the work being done by Theatre Upstairs – and I kept hearing people talk about how important Fishamble have been for them at various times in their career. And there was also some appreciative discussion of the new writing that has been emerging from the Abbey/Peacock in recent years.

But we don’t quite have anything like the Royal Court  or the Traverse – a high-profile and well resourced theatre (or theatre company) that would produce 10-12 new plays in Ireland every year, by a mix of established and emerging voices. So it’s important to say that no-one was criticising the existing provision in this area, but we were all just expressing the wish that we had something a bit more intensive.

Many people present at the School (not necessarily the writers) expressed their doubts about whether such a theatre might be viable – the fear seems to exist that there isn’t a big enough audience for new plays out there.

I wonder if that’s true. I am of course aware that new plays represent a risk for theatres and that this is in many ways not a great time for theatres to be taking risks. And I’m aware of examples of new plays that have not done well either critically or commercially. But if an audience trusts a theatre – as they do the Royal Court and the Traverse – they are more prepared to take the risk, I think. It’s easy for me to say that, I know, but perhaps more can be done here.

As I write above, no-one was being critical of existing provision, but there was a wish that we could find a way to do more for new playwriting in Ireland, so that established playwrights can actually make a living out of their writing over a longer period of time.

On Adaptations

Also notable is that so many theatres are now mitigating risk by commissioning adaptations. Many of the writers spoke about how they’re being commissioned to adapt novels – or to change existing works of art into something else (quite a lot of musicals seem to be in the works).

Other Issues…

We spoke a lot about the status of women dramatists in Ireland (improving but still much more to be done), of the importance of London as an outlet for the production of Irish plays, of the impact of Hollywood cinema and new American TV, about the importance of good storytelling, and much more. I might try to write more about some of these during the weeks ahead. And my hope is that others present might also do some blogging… Ciara O’Dowd has already posted a great entry here which has some thoughts on Dermot Bolger and Stuart Carolan’s contributions.

What Next?

All of the people we heard from were honest about the difficulties writers encounter, from financial to artistic to practical challenges. But all of them spoke about their work in progress with a lot of optimism and positivity.

Stuart Carolan, for instance, was very exciting on the future of Love/Hate (but when pressed to tell us what has happened to Darren he wouldn’t say anything!). Deirdre Kinahan told us about a play that she’s writing which is trying to do something I’ve seen in the cinema before but never on stage. And every other playwright had interesting things to say about their forthcoming work.

I left Rathdrum feeling very excited about the coming years: if every play that we heard about is produced in Ireland during the next 18 months, we could be in for a really great period of new writing – perhaps one that could push us back towards the spirit of that mini-Golden Age from 1995 to 2003.

But there are challenges too, the biggest of which is that it’s getting harder for playwrights to have a career.

I find myself wondering if perhaps we need to slightly refocus our priorities  in Irish theatre. I know how important it is to find and nurture new voices. But are we doing enough to nurture our established writers – to help them to develop, to move on, to keep writing? This isn’t an either/or – we can do both, of course. And again, I’m not criticising anyone who’s involved in doing this work at present – but perhaps there’s a need for a more systemic (that is, system-wide) consideration of playwriting.

It was an amazing experience to share a space with eight extraordinarily talented writers at the Synge School: they are all doing great things, and can continue to do great things. We just need to find new and better ways of letting them get on with it.

Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, Faust and post-Celtic Tiger literature

I recently finished reading Claire Kilroy’s very enjoyable novel The Devil I Know. It’s a satire about the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, narrated by a man called Tristram and written as a testimony to a tribunal taking place shortly before Easter 2016.

One of the things that makes the book so enjoyable is that there’s a strong Faustian element to the story. Tristram finds himself back in Ireland after many years away, and reluctantly joins forces with a cute hoor property developer, in order to construct luxury apartments and a hotel in Howth – sometime shortly before the bust in 2008. He does so under the instructions of his AA sponsor and boss, the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, who only ever contacts him  by phone. Tristram soon realises that his boss may not have entirely benign motivations (and realises also that he may be mispronouncing the first syllable in his boss’s surname – “deh, not doh”). The crash comes, and – of course – everything goes to hell.

The inclusion of a satanic character – who is mostly off-stage during the novel but who exerts plenty of influence anyway – owes something to Flann O’Brien, I think. But for some time I’ve been very interested in answering a question that this book gives rise to: why is it that so many Irish writers who set out to tackle the Celtic Tiger do so by writing about people who sell their souls to the devil? Two of the best examples of this trend are Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, two plays that were actually written before the boom came to an end (I’ve written an academic journal article about both and it is online here). And internationally I’ve read countless articles that describe the credit-fuelled bubble that burst in 2008 as having occurred because people “sold their souls to the devil” – metaphorically, of course.

It’s interesting that the metaphor has such currency these days. I’m writing a book about this at the moment, so don’t want to go into too much detail (if I start I won’t stop) – but the Faust story has two elements that seem relevant nowadays. The first is that the Faust story conveys the idea of how wrong it is to apply a material value to something that should never be sold: this can be our ‘soul’ or it can also be things that we should value for their intrinsic worth such as love, national character,  loyalty to a cause, family relationships, or something similarly abstract but essential. For example, in Ireland, many people say that we ‘sold our soul’ by losing touch with many of the things that made us distinctively Irish, such as hospitality, humility, and generosity to others (I’m not saying that I agree with this – just noting that this point has often been made).

And the second is the idea that when you strike a deal with the devil, you will always regret it once the reckoning falls due. Much of the writing about the banking crisis focusses on this aspect of the Faust story.

I see a lot of different explorations of both of those ideas in popular culture at the moment – from things like Public Enemy’s brilliant album title How Do you Sell Soul to A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul to the growing number of TV characters who have (in some way) sold their soul, of whom the best example is, I think, Walter White from Breaking Bad.

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Anyway, I’ll have more to say about that in about two years when I get this book I’m writing finished….

But Kilroy’s novel is very good. When I started reading it, it reminded me a lot of John Banville, since it’s a first person narrative, delivered by an erudite and slightly snobbish Irishman who has fallen on hard times. So it seemed slightly influenced by The Book of Evidence (still his best novel, I think), and I wasn’t surprised to realise that Banville has written a blurb for the front cover of the book.

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However Kilroy’s novel soon takes up territory that is distinctive and fresh. The characterisation of property developers and politicians is well handled: the already overused phrases about the Celtic Tiger (“we all partied”, “the fundamentals are sound going forward”) do appear, but they’re placed in such a grotesque framework that the shots don’t feel cheap. Kilroy’s greatest achievement here is to write a book that features ghosts, the devil, resurrections from death, and similarly fantastical events – yet it is the real occurrences from the last days of the Celtic Tiger that seem unbelievable. So the most exciting thing about this novel is that the moments that place most strain on your suspension of disbelief are the ones that Kilroy isn’t actually making up. I can’t think of a better way of satirising the Celtic Tiger period than by showing how  it reads like a rather predictable horror story.

I do have to confess to having a slightly negative predisposition towards the many books, tv programmes, comedy routines, newspaper columns, and plays that are now satirising the Celtic Tiger. Many of them are in their own way very good – but I think the effect of such work can often be to confirm what we already know while creating the impression that the author is bravely attacking the status quo.

In fact though, in Ireland, the new status quo is that the old status quo was very bad. It’s not true that “we all partied”, but from watching or reading a lot of that work, I think that we in Ireland are now in danger of perpetuating the myth that the entire Celtic Tiger bubble was caused by Someone Else: property developers, bankers, politicians, public servants, Angela Merkel – take your pick: but It Wasn’t Me.

That’s not to say that the post-Celtic Tiger material that’s being written is bad – far from it. Some of it’s very good: I really loved Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, for example (and don’t consider it guilty of any of the criticism I mention above). And even during the boom, there were excellent novels that sought to come to terms with the consequences of the Celtic Tiger: Keith Ridgeway’s The Parts and Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies stand out, but there were others – and there were also films like The Tiger’s Tail and plays like Declan Hughes’s Shiver. All of those works set out to the challenge the orthodoxies of the boom when it was underway, and thus attempted the difficult job of confronting audiences, demanding that we ask questions about our lives and our society… But I think there’s a risk that some of the work now being produced to attack the Celtic Tiger is just confirming the dominant narrative that’s been built since 2008 – and the lack of dissent from dominant narratives was one of the problems that caused the excesses of the Celtic Tiger in the first place.

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All of this is just to say that there may be people who will dismiss The Devil I Know because they may worry that it is another one of those ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’ critiques of the Celtic Tiger. I have to admit, I wavered before buying it myself for that reason. But it’s not that kind of work at all. Its central character is a recovering alcoholic – and if the addiction to alcohol is used as a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger’s addiction to the accumulation of wealth and status symbols, the reverse is also true. I mean, that is, that this is a novel about addiction first and foremost. The Celtic Tiger is the setting and context for the story, but the novel transcends the local or, more specifically, the parochial setting to create a story that could travel widely and survive into the future.

I think this is important. One of the best books I’ve ever read about what debt does to people is Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit – while Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock can be seen as having in some ways predicted what would happen to Ireland if the country ever became rich. In other words, the most relevant works of literature are those that tell us something about human nature – rather than recreating the events of one particular epoch in one particular country.

This is not to say that The Devil I Know is in every respect perfect.  There is a very under-developed female character, whose purpose in the novel seems uncertain (another link with some of Banville’s work, perhaps). But what I most admired were the varieties of style and sensations employed. The book is very funny, for example – but it’s also quite creepy. There’s one scene in which Tristram and the property developer drive in the middle of the night to an isolated rural farm – and the novel at that point is actually quite scary: not the kind of thing you’d want to read in a dark house alone on a windy night… So it is (to use one of its own repeated words) often uncanny and unsettling.

One last thing to say about it… It runs to about 360 pages, but because the novel is written in the form of a cross-examination by a barrister, there are quite a lot of ‘chapters’ that are no longer than a single sentence. In other words, it’s much shorter than it looks – it could easily be read in a single sitting (I read it over three days) and actually merits re-reading too.

So – worth a look.

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