Jonathan Swift’s satire works as key to modern-day ills

Conall Morrison’s new play blends 18th-century wit’s biography with his bibliography

 Jonathan Swift: “He has all these fictive enterprises that sort of masked his own identity.” Painting: Charles Jervas

Jonathan Swift: “He has all these fictive enterprises that sort of masked his own identity.” Painting: Charles Jervas

 

Not long after his death, Jonathan Swift became the subject of a scurrilous rumour. As the story had it, not only did Swift, the renowned satirist and compassionate clergyman, donate the bulk of his fortune to the founding of St Patrick’s Hospital “for Imbeciles”, but his later years of isolation, bitterness and apparent insanity also made him its first patient.

This was easy to disprove: St Patrick’s University Hospital, as the mental health facility is known now, was established a full year after Swift’s death in 1745. Yet the myth persists, repeated in conspiratorial anecdotes and, as the writer and theatre director Conall Morrison recalls, one recent academic conference. Still, it’s hard to say whether Swift would have taken much offence from the rumour. After all, he started it.

“He gave the little wealth he had/To build a House for Fools and Mad,/And shew’d by one satiric touch/No nation wanted it so much,” goes Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, the obituary he penned for himself a good 14 years before it was needed.

Like many of his fantastic imaginings – be they lands of tiny squabbling people, politically evolved giants or impractical intellectuals on floating islands – the idea of Swift, the isolated madman, acquired a life of its own, seeming to absorb him wholly into his own fiction. For Morrison, whose new play for Blue Raincoat Theatre Company, The Travels of Jonathan Swift, folds the writer’s complicated biography into the satiric fantasies of his bibliography, that seemed like a good place to start.

In a gesture that recalls Peter Brooks’s Marat/Sade, Swift is revealed in this “Home for the Unhappy”, a dishevelled, tormented figure, assisted by a group of inmates who summon up his life and works. “I’m taking that idea as a portal,” Morrison says of the persistent rumour at the end of a day’s rehearsals. “The myth developed very quickly around him, which has a certain analogue with all the myths and fabulations he spun in life.”

Those are not limited to creations such as Gulliver’s Travels, which inevitably becomes the spine of the play’s journey, shrinking the inmates to Lilliputian dimensions or blowing them up to Brobdingnagian proportions through physical and stage effects.

Self-creation and disguises

Morrison, who has adapted Gulliver’s Travels twice before, for the National Youth Theatre and Derry’s Stage Beyond, was also interested in Swift’s self-creation and disguises, drawing from various works, including A Tale of a Tub, A Digression Concerning Madness, and Swift’s private letters.

“Within his life there were so many secrets,” Morrison says. “We don’t really know the truth about his relationship with Stella, for instance.” “Stella” was the nickname Swift gave to Esther Johnson, to whom it is rumoured he was secretly married. That relationship soured, though, over his attachment to “Vanessa”, the nickname he bestowed on Esther Vanhomrigh, with whom he had an equally – and perhaps cruelly – ambiguous relationship that ended with her death from tuberculosis.

Conall Morrison: “Swift is the perfect writer for our time, in that the savagery of the satire and his imaginative capabilities are now wholly adequate to respond to the lunacy we find ourselves experiencing.” Photograph: Steve Rogers
Conall Morrison: “Swift is the perfect writer for our time, in that the savagery of the satire and his imaginative capabilities are now wholly adequate to respond to the lunacy we find ourselves experiencing.” Photograph: Steve Rogers

A sense of mystery also inhabits his writings, often published under various pseudonyms: the clairvoyant Isaac Bickerstaff, the urbane Cadenus, the playful Presto, MB Drapier or Lemuel Gulliver. “He put his own personality through this kaleidoscope and sent out all these different beams,” reasons Morrison. “He has all these fictive enterprises that sort of masked his own identity. So getting at the man himself and disentangling the truth from the myths is part of the enterprise of the play.”

Still, Morrison is not inclined to solve Jonathan Swift. Part of the appeal of Swift is that he is “a moving target”. If the spirit of his satire is something similar, upending conventional thinking, spinning the mores of politics, religion and authority until they fall down dizzy, it asks for a corresponding playfulness in a theatre adaptation. You can’t imagine Swift without his outsized imaginings anymore than you can visit Lilliput without encountering a good fart gag. 

In this instance, it’s easy to imagine Morrison as a voyager to less explored shores. Blue Raincoat, Sligo’s physical theatre ensemble, rarely collaborate with outside directors, but the company’s artistic director, Niall Henry, sought a change of routine inviting Morrison to direct a show, with the encouragement, “It can be as far out as you want.”

Excited by the capacities of the company – “They’re incredibly disciplined and invariably fast” – to which he has added the protean Druid actor Aaron Monaghan as Swift, Morrison felt it an appropriate moment for satire.

Lies and lunacy

“I actually feel that Swift is the perfect writer for our time, in that the savagery of the satire and his imaginative capabilities are now wholly adequate to respond to the lunacy we find ourselves experiencing in the world at large. Even his obsession with lying. Whether it’s Boris Johnson, Trump or Bolsonaro, people just lying blind, nakedly, I feel that Swift is the man for that.”

Whether it’s Boris Johnson, Trump or Bolsonaro, people just lying blind, nakedly, I feel that Swift is the man for that

Indeed, reading Morrison’s adaptation it can be distracting just how relevant Swift’s words on a given subject can be. Riffling through a book of “future annals”, Swift observes of the audience’s, “opposite parties who can agree on nothing, yet are all firmly united in such measures as must certainly bring the country to ruin!”

This, like the petty schism of Lilliput’s Big-Endians (whose holy war is based on a long-forgotten disagreement about how to eat an egg), or Gulliver’s indignation that Britain’s proudest political achievements are considered dressed-up vulgarities among more enlightened lands (ouch!), is testament either to Swift’s astonishing prescience or the reliable endurance of human stupidity.

If Swift’s apocalyptic concerns for the environment, from almost 300 years ago, are more sobering to hear, though – “And I feel the terrible convulsions of Nature approaching her final Dissolution, as if Beelzebub with all his legions is come in revenge upon the globe!” – it is because Morrison has tipped the scales: those convulsions were originally felt by a spider, fearful as a bee shook his web, in Swift’s parody of a more cataclysmic theologian.

Writer and director Conall Morrison: “Swift would recognise this world, but he would despair that in the intervening 300 years since his death, we have not elevated ourselves in any way.” Photograph: Steve Rogers
Writer and director Conall Morrison: “Swift would recognise this world, but he would despair that in the intervening 300 years since his death, we have not elevated ourselves in any way.” Photograph: Steve Rogers

Still, Morrison’s research into Swift’s voluminous output is beyond thorough, deploying adept skill in drawing it all together, even if he admits that it is hard to decide what to leave out.

If idolatry would be a cul-de-sac for an adapter, the play is also inclined to hold Swift to account for his treatment of Stella and Vanessa, both seduced and abandoned, who here become troubling revenants. That Swift had a complicated relationship with desire hardly seems in doubt. In Gulliver’s Travels, nothing makes the divided impulses of humanity more vivid than the Land of the Houyhnhnms, ruled over by a highly evolved species of horse, but infested by a savage (and distinctly human) race of Yahoos. Gulliver’s greatest humiliation among the Houyhnhnms is to be jumped on by an amorous female Yahoo; disgraced by a rampaging id on this island of superegos. 

Desire and neuroses

“He is possessed by desire but similarly repelled by it,” Morrison says of Swift. “He would love to be a Houyhnhnm, a noble rational creature, but Swift in the play – and I suspect in life – feared that he was a Yahoo, that he was a creature of ungoverned and ungovernable passions. In many respects I think he was crippled by these neuroses and it’s possible that went into the darkness and the savagery of the writings, and went into his behaviour with some of the people near to him.”

In the imagining of the play, it also afflicted his reason. Morrison’s Swift, played by a succession of actors through different stages of his life journey, sees his own faculties collapse because, as Morrison puts it, “he has meditated on the iniquities of human kind for too long”. It’s tempting to see the collaboration between a cerebral playwright and visual director such as Morrison with Blue Raincoat’s renowned physical ensemble, as a kind of reconciliation between those facets of man, the characteristics of mind and body that Swift split apart and scattered across distant lands in his writing.

Morrison doesn’t imagine Swift would find any peace in the world today, though. “He would recognise this world, but he would despair that in the intervening 300 years since his death, we have not elevated ourselves in any way,” says Morrison. “All we’ve done is added electricity and made ourselves more efficient in our murderousness, our ideological clamour, our capacity to shaft and screw each other. Gulliver’s Travels isn’t far off from being a piece of documentary realism for 2019.”

That should be enough to drive anybody mad.

The Travels of Jonathan Swift, runs from Wednesday, October 2nd to Sunday October 12th at the Factory Performance Space, Lower Quay Street, Sligo. blueraincoat.com

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