Culture Shock: Knowing better than trying to out-buffoon the buffoon
Rory Nolan, Tom Murphy, Garry Hynes, Aaron Monaghan and Rory Nolan after the opening of Druid Theatre’s The Colleen Bawn in the Black Box Theatre, Galway
You mess with Dion Boucicault at your peril. Underneath all the blather and blarney, he hides a shillelagh that, for more than a century now, has been thumping anyone foolish enough to patronise him.
In a sense, modern Irish theatre emerged as a war on the man who dominated so much of English-speaking theatre in the Victorian age. The first manifesto of the Irish Literary Theatre, the Abbey in embryo, declared: “We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment . . . ”
No one can have had any doubts about who the sentimental buffoon in question might be. And did they banish him? Divil a bit. Boucicault proved to be as blithely irrepressible as one of his own broth-of-a- boy goodhearted Oirish rogues.
Consider, for example, the Abbey’s greatest tragedy, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. It is, surely, in its heart- wrenching agony, a million miles from Boucicault’s slathers of sentiment and sensation in The Colleen Bawn, which is now thrillingly revived by Garry Hynes for Druid. Except that O’Casey owes his disreputable predecessor almost as much as the overmortgaged Cregan family in The Colleen Bawn owe the despicable lawyer Corrigan.
Family on its uppers? Check. Marriage as a way out? Check. Problem with marriage? Check. Young man with physi- cal deformity and a dark secret who gets shot: for Johnny Boyle read Danny Mann. Not for nothing does Joxer ask Boyle: “D’jever rade Willie Reilly and his Colleen Bawn? It’s a darlin’ story, a daarlin’ story.”
But if you can’t keep him out, you can’t put him down either. Most of the Boucicault productions I’ve seen – including a problematic one of The Shaughran by Hynes – have tried in some way to send up or burlesque the plays.
There’s a kind of each-way bet: Boucicault is too damned lively to ignore but too silly to take on his own terms. Hence, directors grasp him in one hand while holding their noses with the other.
Hamming it up, parodying the stage Irishness or surrounding the action with some kind of meta-theatrical prophylactic – these are all ways of signalling to the audience that we’re all superior to this kind of hokum. Boucicault is the ironic 1970s school disco of the Irish theatre.
But he has his revenge here too. The plays just won’t co-operate with being burlesqued. The more fun you try to have at Boucicault’s expense, the less fun the plays become. If you mock them, they retreat to a corner and kill themselves. And there’s a reason for this: Boucicault is much more knowing than anyone who thinks they can patronise him.
He is not some naive hick from the dark ages. On the contrary, he is arguably the one Irish figure who has a good claim to be a genuine creator of industrial mass culture. He was plugged in to huge cities, to globalisation, to technology, to the commodification of cultural difference.