The Butcher Boy, Frank Pig Says Hello and my reader’s imagination
Adrian Duncan compares experiencing Pat McCabe’s classic on page, stage and screen
The paperback I bought has the same illustration that adorned the front of the hardback – a small, jut-jawed Francie Brady peering out at us forever from the shadows, his eyes tinted a malevolent red.
The other day, while walking through a park near my apartment in Berlin, it occurred to me that if I were to come back in a second life as another creature I’d like to return as a red squirrel; and that I’d like to be cast into a quiet corner of a large forest in Brandenburg. There, for the duration of my short life, I could spring from branch to branch trapped between a state of great joy and some unshakeable feeling of anxiety.
I’m fascinated by the German word for squirrel: das Eichhörnchen. It contains the words die Eiche (the oak tree) and das Hörnchen (the small horned creature). Reconstituting these parts, then, das Eichhörnchen becomes a sort of small magic-realist being whose outline haunts what I usually picture when I think of a squirrel. It is as if I am looking at the idea of a squirrel from a new direction.
I’ve tried more recently to think of other instances when I’ve had these kinds of bifurcating thoughts. I reckoned, that such a thing probably happened when I was quite young and when I learned that 1+3 = 4, but also that 2+2 = 4 . . . I would somehow have understood that every number, then, contains many routes into them, all of which I realise now are more like tautologies that don’t really permit the type of ghosting that goes on in language.
About this time last year, I was interviewed by Seán Rocks for RTÉ Radio’s culture show Arena. Next day I rang home and my father reminded me that Seán had acted in a play I’d seen, in the early 1990s, in the local theatre in Ballymahon, the Bog Lane Theatre. The play my father was referring to was Frank Pig Says Hello by Patrick McCabe, an adaptation of McCabe’s acclaimed novel The Butcher Boy. I would have been about 14 years old when I read the book and probably about 15 when I saw the play.
We had the Picador hardback version of The Butcher Boy in our house and I remember reading it once, then once more, then once more soon after that. I don’t know what I was looking for in it, and I am pretty sure I did not find it. I do know, though, that at some stage between reading the novel for the first and third time that I saw the play in this local theatre – a production by Co-Motion Theatre Company. I can still see pretty clearly David Gorry, who played Frank Pig, standing shiftily in the middle of the stage, his face contorting expertly under the glow of a spotlight, all the while emitting gentle pig-like grunts.
I remember Seán Rocks played all of the other characters in the play, and this amazed me. I recall one innovation in the play where Seán played at once both Mrs Nugent and her son, Philip. Seán stalked comedically across the stage as Mrs Nugent snootishly avoided Frank Pig and his pig-toll tax, all the while on Rocks’s upturned fist, held at shoulder height beside him, sat bobbing Phillip Nugent’s public-schoolboy cap. “Come along, Phillip!” said Mrs Nugent to the cap.
The theatre in Ballymahon is in an old building on the Edgeworthstown Road that had been refurbished in the late 1980s, with the aid of lottery money, by the local amateur dramatic society, of which my father was and still is a member. The theatre holds seven curved rows of 15 seats or so. On packed nights, a patron coming late could get a cushion from the ticket office and take a seat on one of the steps at either side of the auditorium. The seats run from a small sound-and-lighting desk perched up to the rear, down to the broad front row that shares the stage level.
It is an intimate space, and the only thing stopping one from walking straight from the front row onto the stage is the understanding that once the play commences two separate worlds have formed, ones that can only truly be interpenetrated by memory.
Tears on face
I sat on this front row during one performance of Frank Pig Says Hello. You could not be closer to the action and I remember the moment late in the play when Frank Pig realises, with flies buzzing around his father sitting inert on a chair to the rear of the stage, that his father is dead. The pain of this moment I can still feel, because what we were looking at for the minutes preceding was a troubled young boy inching towards a realisation that we in the audience had already made.
I also remember looking over at my father, who was standing on one of the steps to the side of the auditorium, his face lit by a throw of light from the stage, with tears streaming down his face. He was not the only one who cried that night – everyone shed a tear or two in the theatre, including me.
A few years later I saw the film version of The Butcher Boy. But even though I went to see it on the big screen in the Odeon Cinema in Longford town, and even though I remember loving the performance of Eamonn Owens as the young Francie Brady, I remember little of the film itself. Perhaps I was unwilling to permit the film version into my memories of the world of this work, memories that I must then have held dear.
It’s not that I haven’t admiration and fascination for cinema or film-making, but I think the distinction I’m trying to make here is that because I read the book first, that a set of images had already been established from it in my mind, and when I first saw the play I was struck by how the things I saw on stage were not quite as I had seen them. But because the actors were living things moving around a three-dimensional space, and because there was no music or sound design leading me towards certain feelings, the play left gaps and fissures in itself for my version of the book to remain more or less untouched. Or perhaps what I remember of the play has merely added, in a sympathetic way, to what I saw in the book.
Bombast of film
In comparison to this then, the relative bombast of the film version seemed hell-bent on crushing my view of the book under the inarguable vision of the director, and I think even though I might not have thought about it in such terms then, I was affronted by this.
I’ve tried this experiment a few times of late. I watch a film, then read the novel from which it was adapted and see if I can establish a grip on the book. And the same the other way around; I read a novel and then watch the adapted film. In this sense, I realise that books and films are incompatible things – the images produced by both don’t settle well together. There is a sort of struggle going on between them.
One thing I found while doing this was that going from film to book is far more difficult than moving from book to film, which suggests that the images one generates while reading a book are delicate, private, fleeting but rich things. My insignificant conclusion is that the theatre is more congenial to these images produced in books.
Last week I bought a paperback of The Butcher Boy. The hardback version is in my parents’ house in Ballymahon and I don’t want to risk them posting it to me because it is a signed copy. The paperback I bought has the same illustration that adorned the front of the hardback – a small, jut-jawed Francie Brady peering out at us forever from the shadows, his eyes tinted a malevolent red.
On this 1993 paperback version, Pan Books/Picador decided to squeeze Rob McCaig’s wonderful illustration over to the left of the cover so as to give all of the (rightly enthusiastic) press quotations more room. This has the effect of warping the image, but one can still get the sense.
Even though this image was front and centre on the hardback book I first owned, it never entered into my consciousness as I read the book itself. I never saw Francie in this way, and I realise that this is because I never really saw Francie at all. The novel is told through his eyes and his eyes did not envisage himself and perhaps this is why the image of David Gorry standing in the middle of the stage of the Bog Lane Theatre that evening back in 1993 has lasted so long in my memory.
It was the first time I saw Francie Brady; and I’d like to think that while I was looking on at this Francie Brady snuffling and rustling to life on the stage that night that some entity called David Gorry slowly receded from his own body as he allowed Francie Brady take form before us.
And I wonder while David Gorry was doing this, might he have caught glimpse of me in among those in the rapt audience beyond the jerking figure of Francie. And if he did, I wonder could he tell me if I looked as surprised as I remember myself to be.
Adrian Duncan’s third book, Midfield Dynamo, is out now from Lilliput Press. He won the inaugural John McGahern Book Prize for his debut novel, Love Notes from a German Building Site