Visceral force and haunting lyric beauty
Working with Thomas Kilroy was an education in diligence and judgment, writes DECLAN HUGHES, in the run-up to a celebration of the playwright’s work in Dublin
WHEN I co-founded Rough Magic Theatre Company in 1984, I didn’t think much of Irish plays, or of the bogmen, IRA men and “heart-of-the-rowl Dubbalin” men who seemed exclusively to populate them. They said nothing to me about my life, as Morrissey sang of the music played by the DJ who needed hanging. I felt I had more in common with the plays being written by English and American dramatists, because as a suburban Dubliner, that was the culture I had grown up in: English and American fiction, movies, music and television. The Irish theatre seemed stuck in the past, hidebound by tradition, peevish and belligerent, obsessed with reopening and endlessly licking the wounds of identity, nationality and “me da, me da”.
Of course, I was 21 and I knew everything. I was amazed at how much better so many of those offending plays and playwrights grew as I got older and knew mercifully less and less.
But for all that (and there was an awful lot of it, including, if memory serves, a manifesto), the first evening show Rough Magic produced was neither English nor American. It was Talbot’s Boxby Thomas Kilroy.
You could say this was because Kilroy is not so much an Irish playwright as a playwright who happens to be Irish. You could say that Talbot’s Boxis one of the great masterpieces of modern theatre, and happily we were not so hypnotised by theory or ideology that we couldn’t see this. I wouldn’t disagree on either count. But the play explores similar thematic terrain to many I had deemed beyond the pale. Moreover, at its centre stands Matt Talbot, Dublin labouring-man and penitential Catholic mystic – hardly a totem for metropolitan youth with “something to say”.
But that was just it. At some unconscious level, we must have understood that it ain’t what you say but the way that you say it. The sheer theatricality of Talbot’s Boxwas unusual, perhaps unprecedented, on an Irish stage.
Talbot, an entirely naturalistic figure, a spiritually racked everyman, is set down to walk among a carnival of earthly distractions – priests, politicians, businessmen and family members – all demanding a piece of him. The style shifts continually and fluently from realistic to music-hall, absurdist to expressionist, pastiche to post-modern.
“He saw the rest o’ the world dressed up for a circus,” Talbot says at one point of St Anthony, and of himself. And there he is, the ringmaster without a whip, his intense sense of self mediated through a Dublin dialect of visceral force and haunting lyric beauty.
The stage directions stipulate that the playing area be encased in a box made of timbers with slots through which light can shine out. We built the box, and the tiny Players’ Theatre in House No3 at Trinity College Dublin smelt of pine, resin and sap. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that we were building far more than just the set for a play. Talbot’s Boxhad the overwhelming effect on me that great art is supposed to have: it changed irrevocably the way I felt about 1) theatre; and 2) everything else. It is long overdue a revival.
I later discovered that Kilroy had been something of an angry young man himself. When he was 25, in what amounted to a manifesto of his own called Groundwork for an Irish Theatre, he had enthusiastically urged the demolition of the distracting monuments to the dead and glorious past of politics and art that were cluttering up the view. And he had looked for inspiration to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and to the Royal Court of George Devine and Joan Littlewood at Stratford East.
I got to know him a couple of years later. He wanted to revise the text of Tea and Sex and Shakespeare, a play he felt hadn’t worked to his satisfaction in its first incarnation, and I leapt at the chance to work with him. The play is a very funny, surreal farce about Brien, a blocked playwright haunted by waking dreams of impotence, infertility and betrayal (“Where’s the f***ing biro? How can I record experience without the biro?”).
Working with him over the summer of 1988 was a pleasure and an education in diligence and judgment, as he converted our wide-ranging and, on my part, highly excitable exchanges into rewrites that refined the play into a fearsome and deranged comic thoroughbred: Groucho Marx by Edward Albee out of Luis Buñuel.
Kilroy told me the play was about the dangerous consequences of Brien’s misguided and excessive passion for control. As it was before I had begun to write, I didn’t really understand what he meant. I understand only too well now.
Kilroy’s version of The Seagullis a landmark in Chekhov adaptation, countering the willowy, linen-suited, “Chekov is sublime” brigade with an inspired transposition of this great, impure, comic to late 19th century Ireland. The result is truer and more revealing than any other version I know.
Christ Deliver Us!, last year’s adaptation of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, was a similarly bold exercise, setting the play within the harsh confines of an Irish industrial school in the 1950s. It’s hard to imagine any other writer who could have accomplished this so deftly. A potentially turgid evening became curiously inspiring, because as ever Kilroy, the light-on-his-feet optimist, was looking to the future.
If I had space, I’d talk about the other plays, and about The Big Chapel, easily one of the 10 best Irish novels ever written. Let’s end with this. Much is rightly made of Kilroy’s theatricality, of the intellectual fireworks, but we should not neglect the sheer beauty of the writing.
The closing speech in Talbot’s Box is a soaring dramatic aria. In its mythological resonance, in its crisp lyric force, there is little to match it in Irish drama:
“The old man worked at the bench, shavin’ the yella timbers in the sunlight. They niver spoke. No need for words. Nuthin’ was heard but the sound of timber. Then wan day . . . wan day the boy left. He put down the tools outta his hands. Again, nare a word. The old man came to the door with him. They kissed wan another. Then the mother came like a shadow from the house an’ she kissed the boy too. Then the boy walked down the road in the dust ’n the hot sun. ’N way in the far distance of the city he could hear them, the sound of the hammers ’n they batin’ the timbers inta the shape o’ the cross.”
Across the Boundaries: Talking about Thomas Kilroy