The triumph of artifice
Three writers came up from the country in the 1960s, all teachers, all fascinated by the ancient magic of the stage: Brian Friel (b. Tyrone, 1929), Thomas Kilroy (b. Kilkenny, 1934), and Tom Murphy (b. Tuam, 1935). Remarkably, all three wrote brilliant plays right from the start. The O'Neill (1966) and The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche (1967) were Kilroy's. They sent their plays to Ernest Blythe at the Abbey, who rejected them. All of them. To paraphrase Kilroy, they had absorbed history and begun
It is welcome that Anthony Roche has devoted one of the Irish University Review's "special issues" to Thomas Kilroy. His plays are not now typical of Irish theatre. The trend at the moment is for contemporary, narrative, realist drama of character, often nationally self-involved, if not self-infatuated; his work is historical, scenic, and full of artifice, often deeply critical of nationalism. In order to cast a light on present conflicts between the exceptional individual and society, he puts on stage historical figures - Hugh O'Neill, Matt Talbot in the great Talbot's Box (1977), Lord Haw-Haw and Brendan Bracken in the perhaps greater Double-Cross (1986), Constance Wilde in The Fall of Constance Wilde (1997), and (in an unfinished play, partially published here) Blake. A Kilroy play cannot be mistaken for a TV sitcom, or a short story told directly to the audience; it communicates an experience only to be understood in theatrical terms.
In an important interview in this issue, Kilroy admits he is in love with the stage and its "wonderful box of tricks": discoveries, sound effects, masks, symbolic lighting, multiple acting levels, stilts, puppets, actors doubling in parts, choruses, stage attendants as parts of the cast. As Nicholas Grene puts it, his plays are the theatrical equivalent of the Pompidou Centre: the engineering is all on show. This is especially the case in the 1997 production of The Fall of Constance Wilde, where the central triangle of "real" characters - Oscar Wilde, Constance Wilde, and Lord Alfred Douglas - are conducted about the stage and supplied with props by "Six Attendant Puppeteers".
Yeats would have loved it. It seems that only Kilroy is carrying on that dream of the founder of the Irish National Theatre: a total theatre that combines all the arts, and, while dealing with issues both national and philosophical, addresses itself through the senses to the intellect. He admits to a sense of kinship with Anglo-Irish writers - a minority, aloof from the sweep of history, creating amid their various works a sense of personality, and playfully using a language happily shared with Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Americans. Kilroy's version of Anglo-Irish modernism is modified by Joan Littlewood and Peter Brook, whose ground-breaking productions he saw during 1950s summers in England, while working to make money to get through UCD.
In his plays, Yeats never overcame the obstacle that audiences no longer accepted spoken verse as truly human utterance. Kilroy has sometimes encountered in reviewers a similar resistance to artifice. In a fascinating report on their director/author collaboration on Constance Wilde, Patrick Mason observes that Kilroy has "a remarkable ear for the different registers of spoken language, from the rhetorical to the vernacular," and one might add, the registers of different classes in a variety of historical periods. Yet, because the dialogue was not in contemporary idiom, some reviewers spoke of that play as "academic", "sterile" or "clunky".
There is a great difference between the serious, respectful essays in The Irish University Review special issue, and the thumbs-up thumbs-down style of play-reviewing, which so often bears no relationship to a play's ultimate standing. Yet it is Kilroy's way to go his own way regardless, and the plays will still be around, and still be respected, when fashions change, and some contemporary styles of "realism" seem both artificial and obsolete to a later generation.
Adrian Frazier teaches English at National University of Ireland, Galway
Thomas Kilroy, Irish University Review. A Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 32, no. 1 (Spring 2002). Edited by Anthony Roche. 214pp, €10