The Keane edge: raw psychology, unflinching honesty, social criticism


John B Keane epitomised the anti-establishment, writing potent plays along a generational fault line between 1950s repression and the dawning prosperity of the 1960s, writes PETER CRAWLEY

DOES IT MATTER precisely how or precisely where a piece of work was written? It may sound either romantic or banal: what difference does it make to the reader that Anthony Trollope rose before dawn to scribble exactly 250 words every 15 minutes, or to the spectator that Brian Friel favours the pliant softness of a 2B pencil, or that Tom Murphy, who writes in a room in an apartment above his own, must leave home in order to go to work? And yet it seems potent, even political, that John B Keane’s dramatic work was born in a pub.

Keane’s first play, Sive, began as an after-hours pursuit in the winter of 1958 when the 29-year-old Listowel publican took to his kitchen over a pint of Guinness and wrote about a young girl to be married off to a lecherous old coot, a match made by her bitter aunt, and whose narrative is hastened along by two tinkers who intrude with news, gossip and song. His notebook, as it happens, was thick with words in tiny, inscrutable handwriting, as if his vision of a grubby, hypocritical Ireland suffocating its young required encryption. “I suppose you could say I was a cute Kerry hoor even then,” Keane later reflected in Gus Smith and Des Hickey’s John B: The Real Keane.

Actually, you could say he was immediately anti-establishment, writing along a generational fault line between 1950s repression and the dawning prosperity of the 1960s. Not as a teacher, like Friel or his direct contemporary Bryan MacMahon, but as a publican. It’s a satisfying distinction. Schools instil a sense of discipline. Pubs loosen tongues.

Asked what he would do with his inscrutable notebook, Keane shrugged. “I suppose I’ll send it to the Abbey.” The Abbey Theatre, then run by the notorious play-killer Ernest Blythe, rejected it. Instead, encouraged by Raidió Éireann’s Micheál Ó hAodha (who also passed on producing Sive), it found its way to Listowel Drama Group and the burgeoning rural amateur drama movement. The group asked for rewrites. Keane, never precious about his work, obliged.

On opening night it proved an immediate sensation, given a further piquancy by the noisy exit of a priest before the interval. (The priest had a prior engagement and an awkward seat, but try telling that to a suspicious audience.) From there it won the All- Ireland Prize of Athlone Amateur Drama Festival, attracted near-riots from those who couldn’t get into sold-out performances, and had its dialogue sporadically drowned out by spontaneous cheering and sympathetic jeering. The proprietor of a public house had captured the public mood, and the amateur drama movement helped him find that public.

THIS HAS ALSO proved to be the trouble with John B: being popular doesn’t help if you want to be taken seriously. Although the Abbey revived his work in the 1980s, the national theatre originally passed on all of his plays with the exception of Hut 42,an atypical and largely forgotten play set in urban England.

Even today, academic criticism of Keane is pretty thin on the ground, as though scholars are reluctant to engage with what many see as its compromising slabs of melodrama or Keane’s imprecise philology. (“The play had been rewritten on the backs of envelopes,” Brenda Fricker once said of Big Maggie.) You’re still likely to find his seminal works – Sive, The Fieldand Big Maggie– described, backhandedly, as “the last flourishing of the peasant play tradition”.

Where does that description leave amateur drama, which still carries a torch for Keane? (Such is the playwright’s box-office appeal that a recent production of Joseph Tomelty’s All Souls’ Nightwas advertised as “the play that inspired the late John B Keane to take up the pen”.) You discount amateur drama at your peril, but it often has a ferocity of conviction that can tip into overcompensation. One production of a Keane play had a kitchen set featured running water – hot and cold. The drip-drip consequence of such literal-minded associations and the apparent omnipresence of his work has been to place Keane into the pantheon of crowd-pleasers. Paradoxically, the more observed you are, the less attention you seem to command.

Keane is never going to reclaim favour on the basis of his plotting or his form. When Sive’s narrative revolves around the crucial delivery of a secret letter, or Big Maggiesilences argument with a shotgun, you don’t as much suspend your disbelief as strangle it. But the raw psychology, unflinching honesty and social criticism in his work can still shock. “The nationalist impulses which led to the foundation of the Abbey Theatre are no longer with us, and seemingly we have nothing to take their place,” wrote the critic (and later Abbey Theatre director) Gabriel Fallon in 1955.

Keane found that conflict within. His dramas are shot through with cultural hang-ups and spiritual hangovers; “values suddenly drained of their context” as Christopher Morash put it. Or, as one of Sive’s tinkers puts it, “The face of the country is changing. God help the land.” The resonance of those words, and of Druid Theatre Company’s compelling new production of Big Maggie, at a time of economic collapse, religious implosion, compromised sovereignty and a dreadful return to the phenomenon of emigration, remind you that national crisis is not a new invention.

When Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maggie Polpin sits down in the open boot of the hearse that carries her dead husband to say, “Like all wives, I kept my mind to myself. Pride and ignorance and religion! Those were the chains around me,” the message of grim liberation may be blunt, but Druid’s production is all the more effective for it.

When Garry Hynes directed Big Maggiefor the Abbey Theatre in 2001, it was a severe production threaded with elegant visual motifs, in which Marie Mullen’s iron-cast “hardness of concern”, more individualistic than protective, read like a wake-up call for a boom-era Ireland. Now, with minimal adjustment to the text but quite different considerations for the production, the play hits you like a sobering – and explosively funny – morality tale for a bankrupt nation.

If Keane was sharply aware of the economics of everyday life, from the land hunger that underwrites The Fieldto the marriage market that so oppresses Sive, Hynes and her designer Francis O’Connor discreetly make Big Maggieresemble a corporate satire. Maggie convenes her bereaved family for the reading of the will as though it were an egm. She marries off her eldest daughter with the brutal efficiency of a strategic merger. “Try to remember, there’s new management here now,” says O’Sullivan, in a fiendish performance, her head low and brow scrunched. In 1969, when the play premiered, this was a shocking introduction to a woman finally tasting freedom from marriage, church and social expectations. Today its echoes of a resilience, entirely stripped of illusion, arouses a very dark chuckle.

“She was all right at first,” reports the gravestone maker, Byrne. “ ’Twas the world hardened her.” Toughen up, buttercup.

For all its implied criticism of materialism, individualism and cynical expediency – when Maggie repeats that her son wants to marry a poor girl “for love” the words resound like a sour joke – Druid’s production enjoys a giddy pleasure of surfaces and some enjoyably glib elements designed for mass appeal. There are the clean lines of 1960s costumes and bouncy hairdos, for example; the retro chic of the era’s product packaging, lit with sickly fluorescence; or the casting of Keith Duffy in a significant role.

BUT THE THREE Keane productions Druid has undertaken – Sivein 2002, Sharon’s Gravein 2003 and The Year of the Hikerin 2006 – each treated Keane with a seriousness of purpose and the courtesy of irreverence. Big Maggieis no different. Is there anything as comic or, for that matter, as fearsome as the Irish mammy? Based, to some extent, on his own mother (who reprimanded Keane for the coarse language of Sive), featuring nods to his wife (“Mary has developed a nice jaundiced sense of humour working in the bar,” he wrote admiringly to his producer, Phyllis Ryan), and originally intended for the actor Anna Manahan, Keane’s vision of Mother Ireland offers a razor-edged vision of feminism.

For all her hardness, Maggie is unfailingly the most honest character in the play (“There’s enough lies written on the headstones of Ireland without my adding to them,” she responds when asked to embellish her husband’s memorial) and her rejection of social convention, of self-sacrifice, of sexual coyness and shotgun weddings is a model of resistance – enforced, sometimes, with her own shotgun.

Keane, whose work seems not only specifically of its time but also ahead of it, made Maggie an emblem of self-determination, a figure hardened by the world, distrustful of authority, sentimentality and family succession, a person both defiant and destructive. Neither he nor his alter ego in the play can bring himself to judge her. “I can’t say you’re right,” Byrne tells her, “and can’t say you’re wrong.” More than 40 years later, we still can’t. But whether you see the fiercely compelling Maggie as a protofeminist who has survived institutionalised oppression and understands the benefits of tough love or as a spirit-crushing psychopath with a steady line in acid put-downs, you would do well to remember one thing.

Maggie Polpin doesn’t care what you think.

Big Maggiecontinues at Town Hall Theatre, Galway, until November 19th, moves to the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from November 21st to 26th, then tours nationally until February 11th. See