by Brendan Clifford

PART SIX—Theatre & Life. Part One.

Half a century ago, when Ireland was a stifling, claustrophobic, ignorant place but didn't know it, some of Sean O'Casey's plays were put on by a group of local amateurs in Slieve Luacra, which was the most obscure place in darkest Ireland, but didn't know it. The players were small farmers and workers. I lived in the kind of countryside that An Taisce (which aspires to be the National Trust for Ireland) now wants to abolish. I had no interest in towns and little interest in the village that was less than half a mile away. The hall where the plays were performed were on my side of the village, barely within it, alongside the Creamery where I worked as a labourer. Also, my mother had once been a waitress in the town of Mallow and she kept up an acquaintance with the village elements who might be described as bourgeois. She had a sharp mind and a sharp tongue and was immensely sociable, and the fact that she was propertyless was no barrier to acquaintanceship in that very egalitarian community. Although her favourites were what in this era of Dublin 4 we must call peasants—who were unequalled for intellectual discourse—there was a strain of refinement in her which led her also to keep up a degree of acquaintance with the refined. So I grew up between all possible worlds—because I think all possible worlds were present in embryo in Slieve Luacra. And I heard some bourgeois discussion of the O'Casey plays.

I was recently put in mind of this by a Thomas Davis lecture on the Abbey Theatre by Nicholas Grene, Professor of English at Trinity College (Radio Eireann, the Eleventh of the Eleventh, i.e. Poppy Day, 1994). Professor Grene spoke as follows about the first performances of Synge's Playboy and O'Casey's Plough & Stars:

"What was resented in Synge was the claim to authentic knowledge, the claim that he was able to represent the Western country people truly and accurately. Lurking here no doubt was class and sectarian resentment that an Anglo-Irish Protestant, a mere tourist in the Western counties, should imagine that he knew the people from the inside. That was why the reference to the chink in the floorboards in the Preface to the Playboy was so inflammatory. It only confirmed the nationalist conception of Synge as outsider, gentleman eavesdropper on the servant girl in the kitchen."

And on the Plough & Stars:

"Mrs. Pearse, …Mrs. Tom Clarke, …Mrs. Hannah Sheehy Skeffington… There can be little doubt that they were gathered there deliberately to provide a show of strength in the denunciation of the scandalous falsity of O'Casey's version of 1916… What this Free State subsidised theatre is showing is a grotesque travesty of the truth. Once again the row produced ludicrous-seeming arguments over authenticity, turning particularly on the 2nd Act with the notorious appearance of Rosie Redmond, the prostitute. Prostitutes! There were no such people in the Holy City of Dublin. Come again!…"

Professor Grene then reflected on the place of the Easter Rising as a sacred drama in the life of the nation, and its degradation in a Free State theatre:

"In that moment of transubstantiation it was essential for true believers to believe both in the reality of the bread and wine and of the Real Presence of God-ordained revolution. And here was O'Casey, Protestant that he was—though to be fair to his antagonists that was never used against him—denying the Real Presence, dramatising instead an inchoate human reality untouched by the Sacred, unredeemed by the Rising."

I must confess that I find both Synge and O'Casey intolerable. I heard Playboy on Radio Eireann in the early 1950s and later saw a stage performance of it (with Siobhan McKenna I think) and it grated on me on both occasions. And I could not see that picking up turns of speech by eavesdropping provided a warrant for authenticity.

As a matter of experience, the thing was not Irish at all, but stage-Irish. The lost intellectual found something to do by eavesdropping on the peasants. What he produced was a regional comedy for a British theatre-going public. It would be miraculous if he had produced anything else, given what he was. But stage-Irishism is far from being exclusively a characteristic of Synge's play. The art of giving theatrical representation to Irish life in a way that corresponds with actual experience of life is very inadequately developed. And it seemed to me, when I was interested in the matter, that people who wanted to see plays developed a selective mode of attention which filtered out the general medium of stage-Irishism and seized on the fragments which corresponded with reality‚ a thing which I have often done myself with philosophies, but cannot do with books or plays.

When I left Slieve Luacra I went to London where for a couple of years I lived amongst ethnics, chiefly West Indians. I suppose it could be said that I left Slieve Luacra because 'modernising' and bourgeoisifying Ireland—the driving force of the Catholic clericalism which has now broken down—was beginning to penetrate our half-pagan and Mariolatrous Christianity. And I found the spirit of the first major West Indian migration to England very congenial. Some years later I saw a comprehensive adaptation of the Playboy to a West Indian setting, and I thought that, insofar as it was a good idea, it had found its real home.

I gather from a biography of Synge (by D.H. Greene and E.M. Stephens) that the play was a satire, and that it set out to ridicule the people of Mayo. My idea of a satire was got from Samuel Butler, Anatole France, Swift, Sophocles and Euripides, so I could not see it as one. And, if its purpose was to ridicule a community, that explains why it did not give credible representation to that community—and why it was resented. In its Caribbean form, as I recall, it was a gentle satire on the foibles of individuals, high-spiritedly enacted, and with Synge's political purpose discarded. (And I might remark that English culture, which was a dismal thing at the drag end of the old Empire, has been reinvigorated chiefly by the 'ethnics', and above all by the Caribbeans among them, and that while poetry in Ireland has been following the dead post-Eliot English fashion, what I would recognise as poetry—words flung about with vigour and skill and gusto and actually saying something as well—is being produced by West Indians in England.)

With regard to O'Casey, I never heard mention of the fact that he was a Protestant until I strayed into Irish Communist circles in London in the mid 1960s. He was a member of the British Communist Party, and was the Party's prize literary man. I was for a while drawn into the fringes of Unity Theatre, the Communist Party's theatre in Camden Town. O'Casey was hailed as the great playwright of the epoch. It was even said that in him the Greek drama had found its continuation. But I could no more participate in the spirit of O'Casey's plays than I could in that of the Communist Party.

I take it that he did not eavesdrop on low life and take notes as Synge did, and that he lived in the Dublin he represents. But I would judge that his theatrical representation of it is in the wrong direction, and that the more it gropes for seriousness the less authentic it becomes.

Professor Grene suggests that the Playboy riots were "sectarian", as were the demonstrations against the Plough, "though to be fair" the issue was never actually raised against O'Casey. If it was not actually raised, but Professor Grene still mentions it, he must have grounds for knowing that it was in the minds of the protesters but that they suppressed utterance of it. And, since he does not qualify his statement in the case of Synge, I take it that he has evidence that it was raised. I can only say that it is an allegation I have never previously come across.

With regard to sexual impropriety represented on the stage: I heard the matter discussed in Slieve Luacra by the refined people I mentioned. The peasants put on the plays and some of the village people with refined bourgeois sensitivities discussed whether matter-of-fact theatrical representation of sexual immorality was right. It was not suggested that what was represented did not occur in real life. The issue for them was essentially whether sexual immorality should be normalised by matter-of-fact representation of it.

The peasants apparently had no problem with realistic representation of life. My direct experience was rural. Village life was something I only overheard. One of my closest acquaintances while I was growing up was illegitimate, and so little was made of it that it was only much later, when I got to know progressive urban life, that the fact registered with me. And the girl who played the daughter in Juno was a nice girl, though well aware of the facts of life, and she was not unbalanced by her theatrical pregnancy outside marriage. But there were some in the village who questioned the adviseability of it.

And so: "Prostitute. There were no such people in the holy city of Dublin. Come again!"—I assume that the Dublin women who protested against the appearance of Rosie Redmond had no intention of denying the actual existence of prostitutes in Dublin, only of questioning the propriety of having a prostitute on stage in that particular way.

The curious thing is that, while England is the norm behind the ridicule of the Irish sense of what is proper, theatre in England over four centuries was either abolished or subject to strict political control. In Ireland, on the other hand, it has apparently been free to do its own thing, subject to the sanction of public opinion. I don't know if Irish theatre came under the Lord Chancellor's office during the period of the Union. But, if it did, it seems that his controls cannot have been enforced as strictly as in England.

The Church of Ireland Gazette presented itself in 1922 as the organ of Protestants in the 26 Counties as a Unionist political community. The one bright spot it saw in the setting up of the Free State was the prospect of censorship:

"We are glad to see that the Dublin Corporation has invited the Archbishop of Dublin to nominate a few censors, who are to act, in co-operation with others, in the supervision of films for the city's picture houses… censorship already exists, but it is insufficiently strict… “Love” dramas, above all, should be kept for grown ups, and even then they should be catered for with more discrimination. Eroticism should be eschewed. There are plenty of healthy subjects for film dramas without drawing on lurid imaginations of neurotic sensation-mongers, and our picture houses would be more wholesome places for everybody if a strict censorship were exercised over every film" (6 Jan 1922).

I don't know if the Gazette had commented on the Playboy, or if it went on to comment on the Plough. The attitude of the actual Protestant community to such matters is a neglected field of study.

There was strict cinema censorship in England, both sexual and political. And the British Film Censor prevented Hollywood from making films on Irish historical events—which Irish America would willingly have done—by letting Hollywood producers know that he would stop their distribution in Britain. Ireland got films which had been pre-censored by Britain and sometimes did a bit extra. An uncensored film was a British-censored film. And the difference between the versions shown in the two states was negligible. There were also films which could not be shown at all in Ireland. And so there were in Britain.

No live play could be performed in England without a license from the Lord Chamberlain. And I doubt that a play, with comparable political content with relation to the British state to what the Plough had to the Irish state, could have been performed at all in Britain. (For instance, a play in the 1920s casting the English principals in the World War in a bad light, or demeaning the war effort.)

The theatre was suppressed in England as part of the English Reformation.

The English Reformation was the revolutionary act of an absolute state, which was totalitarian rather than merely authoritarian. It was in that respect very different from the Reformation at its source in Germany, where it had more the character of a social event, a cultural evolution. The Tudor monarchy broke with Rome when the complications of Continental politics made it impossible for the Pope to grant Henry a divorce which he needed for reasons of state. Henry, who had been willing to take an army to suppress the Lutheran revolt, made himself his own Pope in order to grant himself his divorce. But he found he could not leave the Church as it was with himself as Pope. As King/Pope he was obliged by the logic of totalitarian power to set about the destruction of English culture which was closely interwoven with Rome in many ways. One of the first requirements was to close down the theatre, whose popular events, the miracle plays performed by tows all around the country, were subversive of the New Order.  His Minister, Thomas Cromwell, tried to foster a popular Reformationist theatre, but it never took. The best known of his playwrights was John Bale, Bishop of Kilkenny…I looked at some of them. They expressed little more than scurrilous anti-Catholic propaganda, which the English populace was not yet ready for. So theatre was just suppressed in the interest of maintaining public order.

There was a strictly limited revival of theatre in the later period of Elizabeth, who wanted plays for her own entertainment and had to provide scope for writers and actors to make them for her. There was a much freer development of theatre under the Stuarts, but its total suppression was part of the Puritan programme, and it was put down by the second Cromwell, who had John Milton as his Secretary of State. But Cromwell failed to make a settlement—in fact, as dictator he prevented a settlement from being made. The state fell into chaos when he died and the Stuarts, who in a military sense were altogether powerless, were asked by one of Cromwell's Generals to come home and set up in the monarchy business once more—which they did, bringing theatre back from France with them. But the Puritans remained a force in society, although excluded from government, and their rooted hostility to theatre caused it to be kept under license by the restored Stuarts and by the Glorious Revolution aristocracy which followed them. For more than 300 years after 1660 it was a crime to perform a play in England, which had not been censored by the Lord Chamberlain. And the censorship never became an empty routine. I saw John Osborne's Luther at an early performance in the avant garde Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea around 1960, and I seem to recall that there was hard bargaining with the Lord Chamberlain about it.

The job of the Lord Chamberlain was to ensure that sexual indecency was kept off the stage, and that nothing likely to stir up public concern on political grounds should appear in it.

Within the past thirty years an entirely new situation has come about in England.

Puritanism, having by relentless pressure over the centuries broken the traditional sources of communal life and created a kind of desert, and found further outlet for its energies in trying to do the same thing throughout the Empire, suddenly found itself without an Empire abroad, and with only a moral desert at home. It underwent a great change. The institution which it had hated for centuries, and which in power it had suppressed as blasphemous, idolatrous, and generally evil, became sacred to it as a substitute for a way of life which it had destroyed beyond hope of recall. Theatrically-represented life, in a country where community was extinct, began to supply a fantasy of community as the medium in which the actual life of the isolated individual, the cog in the machine, is lived. Life without soap opera is now scarcely conceivable. At times it might almost be said that real life is what occurs in theatrical representations.

In accordance with this development there is now a widespread opinion that everything must be performable on stage. As I write outrage is being expressed because a Birmingham theatre took off a play in response to public demonstrations against it. The play was set in a Sikh temple and, according to report, showed rape and general chicanery being carried on there. The spokesman for the Sikh community only asked that the Temple should not be the scene in which Sikhs were shown doing these things. The broadcasting media had little sympathy with their demands. And the upholders of the sacredness of theatre ridiculed the Sikh position and pointed out that Christians showed an example of tolerance in these matters as they did not demonstrate against Murder In The Cathedral.

I am not in possession of the theatrical history of Murder In The Cathedral. I assume it was played, but I have only read it. It is a verse play by T.S. Eliot and I imagine that would have counted for much in its favour with the Lord Chamberlain. But it is about a central political event in the history of the English state—the murder of Thomas a Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the unspoken wish of Henry II—and that would have counted against it.

The affair in the Sikh temple is invented. Its purpose can only have been to damage Sikh culture. And the Sikhs who, like other immigrants, are in England because England needs them (having ceased reproducing itself as a society generations ago), are not inclined to let their culture be eroded in this way. So the conflict is really between two forms of real life, one an actual community, and the other the English form which can now exist only in conjunction with theatre, as life imitating theatre.

The murder in the Cathedral had consequences for Ireland. Henry knew that the Pope was going to serve an Interdict on him so he hot-footed it to Ireland to bring it into submission to the Papacy. Having acted as the secular arm of Rome, he could of course make a better deal. And that is how our eight centuries began.


Part One:—A Wanton Dissipation Of Spirit.

Part Two:—Whores, Adulterers And Fornicators.

Part Three:—Hollywood And Humanism—Cars And Courtesans.

Part Four:—Sweeney Among The Fifth Monarchy Men.

Part Five:—Of Prods & Gods & Dancing Girls; Of Censorship & Things.

Part Six:—Theatre & Life; Part One.

Part Seven:—Theatre & Life; Part Two.

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