Fintan O’Toole: No Oscar nomination for best supporting environment
The glamorous stuff that gives the nation a lift is a byproduct of a messy, dynamic creative ecosystem full of knowns and unknowns
“Nearly 20 years ago, I went to the Project Arts Centre in Dublin to see a play called Ladies and Gentlemen by Emma Donoghue, who now has an Oscar nomination for adapting her superb novel, Room. The play wasn’t all that good.” Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Put the word Oscar into a word-association test and most of our political leaders won’t say “Wilde”, they’ll say “nomination”. Last week, when the Oscar nominations were announced, Room, which began as a story in Emma Donoghue’s head, got four and Brooklyn, which began as an idea in Colm Tóibín’s head, got three. Which is thrilling. The problem is that the flashbulbs get in politicians’ eyes. They forget that the big prizes are exercises in astronomy – we’re now seeing the light that set out decades ago from cold obscurity. They forget that their own proper place on the credits is down between the key grip and the caterer: their function is vital but it’s not glamorous. Their job is to create and sustain an environment in which other people will do interesting things. And that’s an environment largely populated by people struggling to find a voice and shouting to be heard.
Nearly 20 years ago, I went to the Project Arts Centre in Dublin to see a play called Ladies and Gentlemen by Emma Donoghue, who now has an Oscar nomination for adapting her superb novel, Room. The play wasn’t all that good. Neither was her first play, I Know My Own Heart, which I had seen three years earlier. I described Donoghue in 1996 as “a writer of great skill, wit and intelligence whose style is cramped by a dutiful desire to tell other people’s stories”. There was something there, but it hadn’t come out yet.
Donoghue was, when these plays were staged, 24 and 26 – an obviously gifted young writer still finding her own voice. The plays were not masterpieces. But it was crucial that somebody put them on - in this case a small company called Glasshouse. Glasshouse in turn got a few bits of money from the Arts Council and from Dublin City Council. Just enough to struggle on and keep staging new plays by new female writers. Over six years, it managed to mount 10 shows. And maybe if there was no Glasshouse there would be no Room.
There may well be such a thing as born genius. Saoirse Ronan, who got a deserved nomination for her dazzling performance in Brooklyn, seems to have hatched fully formed from some golden egg of acting greatness. She was a star when she was 13. But it’s usually not like that. Mostly, creative talent emerges by trial and error, tentatively, gradually and through a process of what Samuel Beckett would call failing better. And those crucial steps are taken, not on red carpets, but in scruffy little theatres and even scruffier little flats.
I’m old enough to remember Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan putting on children’s plays in playgrounds and parks and beaches. I remember Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne and Brendan Gleeson as raw young actors. I remember reading Colm Tóibín’s early short stories in In Dublin magazine and Roddy Doyle’s godawful first attempt at a novel before he scrapped it and wrote The Commitments instead. I remember the amazement in Dublin that a theatre company called Druid had started up in Galway, of all places – good luck with that.
And even to use these names is misleading because we now know how they turned out and that makes international success seem inevitable. But in the arts inevitabilities are rare and international recognition is a wayward thing. There are very few straight lines – failures breed successes, boldly original artists spend their lives in obscurity, bright stars burn out. Chance plays a big part and there’s nothing we can do about that. But the bit that’s not about chance is support for the unglamorous work of getting obscure work produced. And the truth, for all the back-slapping, is that this support has been whipped from under many of our young artists.
The arts can’t be a eugenics programme, where you breed for Oscars and Nobel prizes and sterilise the rest. And Irish culture does not exist for international celebrity - anyone who has seen Adam and Paul and Garage and Prosperity already knows that Lenny Abrahamson is a brilliant director and he hasn’t become a better one because the Academy voters happen to agree. The glamorous stuff that gives the nation a lift is not a product, it’s a byproduct – of a messy, dynamic creative ecosystem full of knowns and unknowns, failures and successes, tentative beginnings and star turns, geniuses and chancers, stuff that everybody loves and stuff that nobody cares about – yet.
But the State loves the byproduct and neglects the product. It is mesmerised by the moments of triumph and careless of the long, slow processes that underpin a creative culture. Under the current Government, the most philistine of recent decades, funding for arts, culture and film fell from €92.3 million in 2011 to €75.9 million in 2014 and, if you strip out special 2016 commemoration projects, has remained broadly static since. New ideas and young companies are the ones that get squeezed out. We’re turning off the incubators: even the main national showcase for new drama, the Peacock, has been dark for long periods. If we’re getting Oscars in 20 years’ time, it won’t be for best supporting environment.