Paul Vincent Carroll, a playwright devoutly critical of the Catholic Church

First feted then rejected by the Abbey, Carroll went on to enjoy success on Broadway

 

Paul Vincent Carroll was one of the first Catholics to write for the Irish National Theatre in post-independence Ireland and the first to extensively examine the role of State-supported religion in rural Irish culture. In his early plays, Carroll scathingly rebukes the Catholic Church’s cultural influence on the newly minted Irish Free State. At the same time, though, he expresses a profound respect for spiritual life and those who pursue it, a respect manifested through some of the most complex and compelling clergymen ever to walk the Irish stage.

Plays such as Things That Are Caesar’s and Shadow and Substance depict priests who struggle mightily with their responsibilities as representatives of the church and leaders of their communities. Through these characters, Carroll reveals a deep reverence for the ideals of Catholicism, even as he decries the Irish clergy’s failure to live up to these ideals.

Carroll was born in Blackrock, Co Louth on July 10th, 1900 to Michael and Kitty Sandys Carroll. Michael, the local schoolmaster, administered his son’s early education. From 1914 to 1920 Carroll lived in Dublin, where he completed his scholastic education at St Patrick’s Training College and his artistic education at the Abbey Theatre. He remained in Dublin until 1920, when he returned to Louth and emulated his father by taking a job as a schoolmaster in Dundalk.

Before long, though, he became disheartened by the limitations of the Church-led educational system. Believing himself unable to function as an educator while the parish priest controlled his curriculum, Carroll emigrated to Glasgow in 1921, where he worked as a schoolteacher for the next 16 years. He also met and married Helena Reilly, a dress designer. The two remained together until Helena’s death in 1957 and had four children: Brian, Helena, Kathleen and Theresa. Carroll died on October 20th, 1968 at his home in the London suburb of Bromley.

Carroll’s dramatic career began in 1930, when he successfully submitted his one-act play The Watched Pot to the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre. A year later, he won the Abbey Theatre prize for The Bed of Procrustes, an indictment of provincial materialism set in his home town of Dundalk. In 1936, Carroll received the Casement Award from the Irish Academy of Letters for Shadow and Substance. The Abbey staged Shadow and Substance in 1937, along with Carroll’s one-act play Coggerers (later renamed Conspirators). Both plays were popular and critical successes, especially Shadow and Substance, which played to sold-out houses, prompting the Abbey to tout Carroll as a major new talent in Irish drama. The play also enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, where it won a New York Drama Critics Award in 1938.

Carroll’s relationship with the Abbey soured in 1939, when the Board of Directors rejected his play The White Steed, proclaiming it too anti-clerical for the Irish stage. In response, Carroll published a scathing critique of the Abbey management in The Irish Times (May 10th, 1939, p5), dismissing the board as “self-appointed magistrates of the arts … some of whom hate the living theatre and fear its full and true interpretive expression” . The White Steed went on to enjoy a successful run on Broadway, where it won Carroll a second New York Drama Critics Award.

It’s easy to see why the Abbey board of 1939 might be nervous about a play like The White Steed, which focuses on a parish priest and his increasingly repressive attempts to control all aspects of his parishioners’ lives. Almost a century later, though, it’s easier to see the respect for the Catholic Church that underlies the social criticism in The White Steed and all of Carroll’s early plays.

Despite his strident criticism of the church’s influence on Irish society, Carroll remained a devout Catholic throughout his life. Consequently, Carroll never attacks the church or the priesthood as institutions; rather, he uses his priest characters to explore the relationship between the clergy and the communities they serve and to show how the church can use its influence for good or for ill.

Carroll condemns the likes of Fr Shaughnessy in The White Steed, who uses his authority as a platform for demagoguery and spiritual repression, but he lauds priests who use their office to nurture compassion and open-mindedness in their parishioners, like the benevolent Canon Lavelle does at the end of that play.

At his most insightful, Carroll reveals the inner turmoil of priests caught between these two extremes, like Canon Skerritt in Shadow and Substance, whose genuine humility in service to the divine fights a losing battle with his pride and arrogance throughout the play. Though Carroll consistently emphasises the power of the church to shape the spiritual and cultural life of a community, he never suggests that this power is an inherently malevolent force. Instead, he places responsibility for using or misusing the church’s authority squarely in the hands of the individual clergymen upon whom that authority rests.

Carroll served as a rescue worker during the Blitz, where he saw many of the neighbourhoods in which he was living and working devastated by air raids. This experience sparked significant changes in Carroll’s artistic sensibilities that lasted for the remainder of his career. In his postwar writing, Carroll abandoned both his critical assaults on the Irish Church and the shrill desire for social reform that fuelled them. In keeping with this new philosophy, Carroll’s later plays employ a more diverse and less bitter emotional palate. Plays that reflect this change in perspective include the 1947 drama Weep for Tomorrow (later revised as Goodbye to the Summer), and his 1950 farce, The Devil Came from Dublin.

Taken as a whole, Carroll’s work provides a profound insight into the foundational years of the Irish Republic as they were lived by the majority of Irish people. As both a chronicler and a crafter of Irish culture, Carroll followed admirably in the footsteps of Yeats, Synge, and O’Casey, and he paved the way for later playwrights like Brendan Behan, Tom Murphy, and Brian Friel. Selected Plays of Paul Vincent Carroll, with a foreword by George Cusack, is published by Colin Smythe

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