Culture Shock: The Irish family – proceed with caution
In ‘The Hanging Gardens’, at the Abbey Theatre, Frank McGuinness attempts the highly unusual feat of creating a convincing nuclear family on an Irish stage. Its failure is not entirely surprising
Babylon, Buncrana: Niall Buggy and Barbara Brennan in The Hanging Gardens. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Mammy, daddy and the kids: the “natural primary and fundamental unit group of society”, according to the Constitution. What could be simpler? Yet if you were to judge from the classic Irish plays of the 20th century, nothing could be more elusive. This is a centre that cannot hold.
It is very rare to see a major play with two parents and their children. Christy Mahon has no mother and “kills” his father. Juno and her Paycock are deeply sundered – Seán O’Casey’s conclusion is that it is better to have two mothers rather than a ma and da. Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche and John B Keane’s Sive are the children of dead single mothers. Hugh Leonard’s autobiographical protagonist in Da is adopted. Mothers are almost always aching absences in Brian Friel’s plays. The mother is only glancingly referred to in Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark; in Bailegangaire the parents are completely removed, and the central relationship is between grandmother and granddaughters. (One could, of course, push this back further into the 18th and 19th centuries, with all those orphans and wards in Sheridan, Shaw and Wilde.)
So Irish theatre has long struggled with the nuclear family that is supposed to be the heart and soul of Irish culture. One might go so far as to suggest that there is just one great Irish play that has a “natural” mother, father and children on stage together. And that’s Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, in which the Tyrones really do make the Simpsons look like the Waltons.
All of which suggests that the failure of Frank McGuinness’s The Hanging Gardens, at the Abbey, is not entirely surprising. McGuinness attempts what is, in Irish theatre, the highly unusual feat of creating a convincing nuclear family on stage. Unlike in Friel’s Aristocrats, which forms a rough template for The Hanging Gardens, the play has both a father and a mother: the novelist Sam Grant, now declining into dementia, and his wife, Jane, an obsessive gardener and author of lucrative how-to-garden books. And we have their three grown-up children: Charlie, who has never left; Maurice, who is gay and troubled; and Rachel, who has returned to have the baby she hopes will give meaning to her life. The play’s primary job is to convince us that these people do indeed form a familial unit. But it never really does that.
In part this is because McGuinness elaborates before he establishes. He creates a highly convoluted metaphorical structure, drawing on the imagery of Babylon in the Book of Revelations and on the myth of the hanging gardens that were one of the wonders of the ancient world. In a brilliantly arresting prologue, Niall Buggy’s Sam sits in the pouring rain in the garden intoning, “Fetch me the moon shining on Babylon.” The house itself is called (somewhat improbably for Buncrana) Babylon. The conjuring of the biblical invocation of the ancient city as “a dwelling place for demons / a haunt for every unclean spirit” establishes a sense of high significance and epic doom.