Culture Shock: A history of Irish drama in 10 foods

Brendan Behan said every time there was a crisis at the Abbey, someone put on a pan of rashers. But are there any rashers in Irish plays?

Photograph: Mike Flippo/Hemera/Getty

Photograph: Mike Flippo/Hemera/Getty

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

This being Irish Times Food Month, I thought of Brendan Behan’s barbed comment on the limits of domestic drama in Ireland. He said the Abbey was the best-fed theatre company in the world because, every time there was a crisis in the kind of plays it put on, someone put on a pan of rashers. But are there any rashers in Irish plays? The search led me to construct a history of Irish drama in 10 foods.

1: Algernon’s cucumber sandwiches (1895)
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the first intimation of Algy’s double life is his hypocrisy over the cucumber sandwiches he has told Lane, his butler, to make for Lady Bracknell. He forbids Jack from eating them: “They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.” But he immediately eats one himself. By the time Lady Bracknell arrives Algy has scoffed the lot. Lane covers up the crime by saying there were no cucumbers to be had in the market, “not even for ready money”.

2: Lady Gregory’s pot of broth (1902)
The Pot of Broth, one of the first peasant plays, attributed to WB Yeats but mostly written by Gregory, centres on the eponymous pot. A wily and very hungry tramp has to persuade some peasants, who are preparing their best food for a priest, that he has a magic stone that will create soup. The play is a low farce, but we can never quite forget that it is about a starving man.

3: Pegeen Mike’s soda bread (1907)
Soda bread features heavily in Synge’s plays as a symbol of domestic warmth and safety. In The Playboy of the Western World Christy Mahon arrives cold and hungry. When Pegeen gives him some of her bread to eat, it is a first token of burgeoning love.

4: Nona’s lobster (1922)
In Yeats’s experimental The Player Queen, one actor, Nona, brings on a boiled lobster and a bottle of wine and leaves them in the middle of the floor. Another, Decima, keeps trying to reach them. She is not allowed to eat the lobster until she has played her part in the drama. The lobster itself is quite a star – its sheer strangeness on stage underlines the play’s oddity.

5: Captain Boyle’s sausage (1924)
In Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock the collapse of the marriage between Juno and Captain Boyle is presaged by a tussle over a sausage. She buys it for him in the belief that he is finally about to do a day’s work. He refuses to eat it: “I want no breakfast, I tell you; it ud choke me after all that’s been said.” After she leaves he blusters to his crony Joxer: “Sassige! Well let her keep her sassige.” After more bluster he, of course, cooks and eats the sausage. His empty verbosity is established and Juno’s earlier accusation that the captain will do more work with a knife and fork than with a shovel is vindicated.

6: Vladimir’s carrot (1952)
In Waiting for Godot Estragon squeals: “I’m hungry.” Vladimir offers him a carrot. Estragon is unimpressed: “Is that all there is?” Vladimir rummages in his pockets and finds only turnips. Estragon is even more unimpressed. When Vladimir finds a carrot at last, Estragon wipes it on his sleeve and eats it. “How’s the carrot?” Vladimir asks. “It’s a carrot,” says Estragon – which just about sums up existentialism. And that’s before we even start on Krapp’s banana.

7: Blackened potatoes (1968)
Perhaps the bleakest scene in Irish theatre is the one in Tom Murphy’s Famine in which John Connor digs up a potato with his bare hands and finds it rotten. In Garry Hynes’s recent Druid production it was a moment of hell.

8: Rose’s frochans (1990)
Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa draws on the rituals associated with that ancient festival. One was the collecting of frochans (bilberries) on the hills. When the mentally disabled Rose returns to the house, having been off with the disreputable Danny Bradley, she “takes a fistful of berries and thrusts the fistful into her mouth. Then she wipes her mouth with her sleeve and the back of her hand. As she chews she looks at her stained fingers.” It is a brilliant image of sexuality and wildness and disturbance.

9: Mag’s Complan (1996)
Martin McDonagh’s plays are laden with mostly cheap food: crisps, biscuits, sweets. In The Lonesome West, Coleman and Valene go to funerals just for the sausage rolls and vol-au-vents. (“You can’t say the Catholic Church doesn’t know how to make a nice vol-au-vent.”) But the key food is the Complan, in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, with which Mag and her trapped daughter, Maureen, torment each other. When Maureen makes Mag drink lumpy Complan, it is a portent of greater violence to come.

10: Ariel’s birthday cake (2002)
In Marina Carr’s Ariel, the girl’s birthday cake becomes the focus for the sexual drama of her parent’s embattled marriage. (“Hate cake,” says the politician husband. “So does the kids.”) Who would have thought cake could become so sinister?

So cucumber sandwiches and lobsters, berries and carrots – but not a rasher.

fotoole@irishtimes.com

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