It is now more than two years since playwright Tom Kilroy, speaking at the annual Synge Summer School at Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, read extracts from a new play, then only at the work-in-progress stage. At that time it was called Wife For Mr Wilde. The Oscar Wilde emerging from Kilroy's text was a cold creature, somewhat at variance with the more popularly held image of Wilde the tragic, gifted, victim figure, so hopelessly out of place even in the Age of Decadence. While focusing on Wilde's cool, anarchic intelligence, Kilroy appeared to be balancing Wilde's intolerant self-delusion and quest for perfection against the realism of his unfortunate wife, Constance.
"For Wilde," argued Kilroy, "style was a mode of freedom in the widest possible sense of the word. . . for Wilde, life was a contradiction, a condition of being human which can only be met by an enlarged performance of mockery and camp, a bid to outdo the ordinary, the mundane." As ever, Wilde was the central figure, his wife a passive onlooker, the good wife who said nothing. But during the writing process, something in Kilroy's imagination shifted.
When his finished work opens at the Abbey Theatre next week sponsored by Harvey's Bristol Cream as part of this year's Dublin Theatre Festival, it will soon be clear that far more than the title has changed. In The Secret Fall Of Constance Wilde, Constance Holland Lloyd, betrayed wife and disillusioned romantic, asserts herself and confronts her husband, forcing him to acknowledge the squalor behind the epigrams. "You never face the situation as it really is," she says, "Never! Nothing exists for you unless it can be turned into a phrase." Throughout the play Constance struggles with her own self-disgust for being complicit in the charade of their public life as well as the rage directed at Oscar's folly and duplicity. For Kilroy this is not, despite its historical context, a historical play. It is more concerned with two individuals and their contrasting views of the truth as well as "trying to present two very different views of normality. There is conflict between them in their understanding of what the world is about. I set out to place the Wildean wit in a context where laughter would be very difficult. It is important for me," he stresses, "that I don't take sides. I don't think you can take sides." Above all, it is about a man and a woman faced with their differences and the resulting collision.
Images of entrapment dominate the work, reinforced by the use of marionette puppets, and the respective trauma suffered by Wilde, Constance and Lord Alfred Douglas at the hands of their fathers is a powerful theme. It is also quite Japanese in staging. Interested in classical Japanese theatre, particularly Bunraku puppet theatre, Kilroy who has visited Japan a few times, spent several months there some years ago. "We are using these huge figures; they're about 15 feet high," he enthuses, explaining the idea is to juxtapose the human figures of the actors with the inhuman shapes of these menacing giant puppets. Kilroy sees Constance as "a radical young woman - she was disappointed but she was not prepared to go along with the lies. She even changed her sons' names. That was a pretty dramatic thing to do in the 19th century." She was determined to protect her sons from the influence of Douglas "Bosie" whom she viewed as a greater threat than Oscar. It has become a very modern story and as Kilroy says of the final work, "writing history plays is of little use unless they are written from the perspective of the present day. I see this play as very much a play of the 1990s and it came out of my perception that the three principal characters had all been abused by their fathers." Of the play's gradual evolution, to its present form he says: "It took me quite a while to see what I was writing about."
There is no artistic aura about calm, competent, practical Tom Kilroy. A cosmopolitan who favours a tweed cap, he is a compact, bony man with a gaunt, skull-like face and vulnerable, freckled skin. Nevertheless he gives an impression of physical strength. For all the technical complexity of works such as Talbot's Box (1977) and Double Cross (1986) as well as the success of his fine version of Chekhov's classic The Seagull (1981) - "the transferal of cultural connections worked very well" - and his daring notions of stagecraft, he has always retained his robust matter of factness. Never the anxious, hovering playwright at rehearsal, he instead sees the rehearsal process as a learning one. "I've always learnt a great deal out of it. It's like having a light thrown on something you thought you knew." Directors have served him well: "I can not complain." His academic career, divided between Ireland and various visiting lectureships in the US, culminating in the chair of English at University College Galway, left him with an ability to speak with young people. Kilroy belongs to that generation of Irish academics dominating University College Dublin during the mid 1960s and into the 1970s which includes Seamus Deane and Denis Donoghue, as well as John Jordan and Gus Martin both of whom are now dead.
While a member of staff at UCD, Kilroy's debut novel, The Big Chapel, was shortlisted for the 1971 Booker Prize. He never acquired the gravitas of a professor. Nothing remote or detached about Kilroy, doubtless he hates interviews and the only date he appears to have stored in his memory is that of his birthday. Too much of a reader to need to talk about anything except books, Kilroy does not discuss his life.
Even his small-town childhood is economically contained in the barest details, such as birth in Callan, Co Kilkenny, in 1934. "There were 10 kids, I came halfway, and we all had to get scholarships." He laughs before adding, "like so many others, my father was a Garda sergeant". Both his parents were from Co Galway and he believes this explains his affinity with the west of Ireland. Kilroy the boy enjoyed reading - "particularly the writers from the American south" - and coming from a strong hurling county, he also played wingback and captained the senior team at St Kieran's College.
From there he moved on to UCD where he studied English and later completed an MA on the 16th-century poet Thomas Nashe. Dublin in the 1950s was very different. "Grafton Street was like a village street. But then the Ireland I grew up in looks prehistoric. Not just in history but in attitude. It is very difficult to compare it. Ireland was dominated by the Catholic Church. It was largely a rural country. Dublin was small, intimate." He says he no longer has any sense of the city. "I'm just a visitor here." Does he regret the passing of the old Ireland? With some surprise at the question, he replies: "No, not at all."
At college he joined the English Society and remembers reading a paper on Southern American writers, such as Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers and Katherine Anne Porter. "Most of them were banned," he says and recalls the hostile reception the then Professor of English, Jeremiah J. Hogan, chairman of the Censorship Board, gave the paper. Nor was Michael Tierney, then president of the college, impressed.
Kilroy soon became interested in theatre. "I liked the idea of theatre. I never acted but I was very involved. I was particularly interested in Jacobean drama. I got a very good grounding in classical English theatre at UCD." During the 1950s, he became a regular theatregoer in Dublin and London. "I saw early productions of Jim Fitzgerald's Globe Theatre; wonderful productions of contemporary American and European theatre."
Another strong memory is of his first teaching job which was secured by some audacity. "I applied for the position of headmaster at Stratford College; it's a Jewish school in Rathgar. It was an interesting place. All of the teachers were Catholic but there was this very strong sense of Jewishness there. All the horrors of the Holocaust were still so recent."
On first leaving Dublin in the early 1960s, Kilroy began a long association with the US. He spent the academic year of 1962 at the University of Notre Dame as visiting professor, teaching Anglo-Irish literature. "I've always been very interested in America, in its writers." While there he married fellow academic Patricia Colby, a New Yorker. The marriage produced three sons, the couple separated during the 1970s, finally divorcing in 1986. In 1964, Kilroy arrived at Vanderbilt, Nashville, Tennessee. It was during the last days of the reign of the Fugitives, the Southern literary movement dominated by figures such as Allen Tate - "whom I never met" - and John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and the critic Cleanth Brooks all of whom he did. "Those people had left the staff by then but they returned that year." The South fascinated - and continues to fascinate - him. He remembers meeting writer Flannery O'Connor, by then an invalid, ravaged by lupus. "She was sitting in a chair, bloated and distorted by the disease. But she was full of vitality and humour and storytelling which contrasted with her bloated body." Her mother was present "and she was still quite the Southern belle", he recalls. Another of Kilroy's memories of those years was the pilgrimage he made to Asheville, North Carolina, birthplace and home of the writer Thomas Wolfe who had died at 38, in 1938. A less romantic experience however was attending a dinner party in Nashville. Present at it were the members of the local Shakespeare Society. "These elderly gentlemen used to meet each month and read a Shakespeare play." The contrast between these extremely refined, educated gentlemen's enjoyment of reading Shakespeare and their treatment of their black servants "horrified" Kilroy. "I saw the pre-Civil Rights South with the old world intact," he says and speaks about the disillusioning experience of learning about a place through its fiction and then discovering the reality "which is always rather different"; the contrasts between "high culture and low behaviour, between the beauty of writing and the despicable behaviour of the writer."
Admitting to writing very slowly, he is constantly quizzing his own work which is deliberate, worked and re-worked. There have been many periods when the words have not come. In 1989 after 10 years in the chair, he resigned his professorship of English at UCG to concentrate fully on writing. He married his second wife Julie Carlson in 1987. Their daugher Hannah-Mae is now nine years old. They live in Co Mayo and spend part of the year in Julie's native Maine. Still significant, however, is the fact that while he has begun others, Kilroy has yet to follow his outstanding fiction debut. The observation does not worry him. "I've never felt any pressure from the outside. I have very little sense of the careerism of writing. The question of when I produce another novel is not one I think about."
Unlike many writers, the abiding image of Kilroy is not one of being nominated for prizes and of receiving literary or academic honours. A typical Kilroy gesture is the honest statement. Nothing hysterical or petulant or iconoclastic, he is invariably honest, direct and to the point, almost clinical. It was honesty as well as his awareness of being the only Southerner which forced his eventual resignation from Field Day in 1992, "I wanted it to be even more political. I felt that in a way what was needed of Field Day was the necessity to imagine an Ireland that has never existed and I still feel that is still the need of the moment." Politically or culturally? "You can't divide them. We live in a highly politicised culture."
Introducing Edna O'Brien's reading at Cuirt '95 in Galway, Kilroy did not play to the audience and offer trite pleasantries. Instead he actively took on her critics. Another Irish writer he admires is Eugene McCabe: "I'd love to see him write more. King Of The Castle is a great play and a brave play."
When writing of Irish fiction in general, Kilroy the critic has noted its having a specific speaking voice which is "heard over and over again, whatever its accents, a voice with supreme confidence in its own histrionics, one that assumes with its audience a shared ownership of the told tale and all that it implies: a taste for anecdote and unshakeable belief in the value of human actions, a belief that life may be adequately encapsulated into stories that require no reference, no qualifications, beyond their own selves." More interested in the visionary than in the sociological, he says "I like fiction which transcends the mundane. I love Marquez and Saul Bellow." Bellow was one of the Booker judges when Kilroy was short-listed. Some years later when he met Bellow, the American said he had wanted him to win. The Big Chapel enjoyed a critical response comparable to that of Seamus Deane's debut Reading In The Dark. Does he ever think about the success of that first novel? "No. I'm working on a piece of fiction now. My new novel is finished; it's called Quirke. It's a visionary book and draws on the extraordinary developments going on in biotechnology."
Having completed a screen version for television of his version of Chekhov's The Seagull, Talbot's Box will be re-issued next week on the publication of The Secret Fall Of Constance Wilde. The timing pleases him: "In this new play I've certainly gone back to the stylised, fluid theatricality of Talbot's Box." Now working on a screenplay for Channel 4 of The Madam MacAdam Travelling Theatre (1991) with Declan Donnellan of Cheek by Jowl, he is non-committal about the trend of playwrights doing versions of existing plays. "The three I've done, I was asked to do. But the history of drama is one of adaptations" and he refers to the late Peggy Ramsay describing adaptation as "a form of privileged conversation" when he was beginning work on The Seagull. Last year saw his version of Pirandello's Six Characters In Search Of An Author. That project was more technical: "I gave it contemporary speech and tightened up the structure of the play" to the point, he agrees, of editing the text.
Many of Kilroy's plays are about the nature of theatricality. "I like to keep the sense of theatricality side by side with the story that I'm telling." Also central is the quest for the truth. "I think all writing looks for truth," he says and adds: "I hate making claims for profundity. . . I would say my plays are concerned with cutting through illusion. But I'm also aware that it's a kind of fruitless exercise. As we're constantly surrounded by illusion everywhere, in theatre and life."
The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde opens at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin on October 8th.