By Joseph Hurley
In early February, when the Irish Repertory theatre began previewing its production of John B. Keane’s light-hearted epistolary comedy, “The Matchmaker,” with Des Keogh and Anna Manahan starring as the titular character and any number of his mate-seeking correspondents, the Kerry-born playwright was invited to come to new York, something he’d done at various times in his life, always with pleasure.
“He’s just not well enough” was the answer given to producers Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore by the beloved writer’s wife, Mary.
Author of 18 plays and numerous volumes of short stories, essays and personal memoirs, the prolific and unpretentious Keane, famous as he was for his writing, was almost better known, at least in Ireland, as an author who was also a publican, proprietor of a popular drinking establishment in the Kerry village of Listowel, where he was born July 21, 1928, and where he died.
Keane lived and wrote in modest rooms above the public house he had owned and operated for several decades, and which he ran until he died, a victim of prostate cancer, on Thursday, May 30, at age 73. His condition was diagnosed in 1994 and recently worsened.
Keane’s pub was vastly more than merely an idiosyncratic detail in the life of a productive writer. It was, in fact, key to much of his vast output, a fact he often openly and candidly discussed in interviews, saying that the germ of works such as “The Field,” “Big Maggie,” “Sive,” and other works could be traced to pub conversations.
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“I listen to what people tell me in the pub,” he told a New York radio journalist a few years ago, “and I listen to what I hear them telling each other. That way, I can’t see myself ever running out of ideas.”
“The Field,” written in 1965, and probably Keane’s best-known play, began with an account of a land dispute that the playwright heard in his pub. The play’s impact was enhanced by the successful 1990 movie version, produced by Noel Pearson and directed y Jim Sheridan, the team that had done “My Left Foot” in 1989.
The stars of the film version of Keane’s play were Richard Harris as “the Bull McCabe,” one of the Limerick-born actor’s finest roles, working alongside John Hurt, Tom Berenger, Brenda Fricker and Frances Tomelty.
Sheridan’s film, dealing with Berenger’s Irish-American character’s attempts to make a life in Ireland, has been described as presenting “the dark side of John Ford’s ‘The Quiet Man.’ ”
Keane’s career as a playwright began in 1959 when his folk fable, “Sive,” after being rejected by the Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre, was produced by the Listowel Drama Group and then went on to win the All-Ireland Drama Festival’s first prize the same year.
Keane was particularly productive in the 1960s, with “Sharon’s Grave,” also folk-derived, in 1960, followed by a musical “Many Young Men of Twenty,” in 1961, and then “The Man from Clare” and “Hut 42” both in 1962, “The Year of the Hiker” in 1963, the aforementioned “The Field” in 1965 and “Big Maggie,” another of his most successful works, in 1969.
The following decade brought “Moll” in 1971, “The Crazy Wall” in 1974, and another musical, “The Buds of
Ballybunion,” in 1976.
Keane wrote three novels, “The Bodhran Makers” in 1986, “Durango” in 1987, and “The Contractors” in 1993. “Durango” was eventually filmed by Hallmark.
One Keane play, “The Vigilante,” dating from 1991, remained unproduced and unpublished at the time of the author’s death.
In addition, Keane’s prodigious output, particularly early in his career, embraced biographies, short stories, essays and journalistic writing, the last-named resulting in “Letters of a Successful T.D.,” published in 1967.
Keane’s plays were produced in New York, but never on Broadway. The Irish Players, a defunct troupe run by Helena Carroll, daughter of playwright Paul Vincent Carroll, and her partner, the late Dermot McNamara, produced “Sive” and “Sharon’s Grave” off-Broadway, an “Big Maggie” had a two-month run in 1982, also off-Broadway, with Donal Donnelly in the cast.
A few seasons ago, “Sharon’s Grave” was produced and directed by actress Geraldine Fitzgerald as a musical. It had only a very brief off-Broadway run.
“Moll” gave a single performance at New York’s Town Hall in the winter of 2001-2002 as a benefit designed to raise money for a Dublin hospital. The benefit committee, however, moved by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, turned the evening’s proceeds over to a fund to help survivors of the victims of 9/11.
Prolific as John B. Keane unquestionably was, he was dismissed in some quarters as a “bog playwright,” and certainly, although his plays were frequently done in Dublin theaters, the Abbey included, his reputation never approached the recognition accorded other Irish playwrights, Brian Friel and Samuel Beckett among them.
Nor was he given the sort of respect accorded others, such as Tom Murphy, Frank McGuinness and a few of their peers.
His place in Irish letters doesn’t appear to have concerned Keane very seriously. He wrote for the people he knew, and they loved him for it.
Keane was a member of Aosadana and had received awards and honors from such institutions as Trinity College, Marymount, Manhattan College and Limerick University.
In addition to his wife, Keane, who was known casually to nearly everyone as “John B.,” is survived by three sons, Billy, Conor and John; a daughter, Joanna; and several grandchildren.
The annual Listowel Writers’ Festival was about to begin its one-week schedule when the playwright died, and it opened on schedule. On Thursday evening, only a few hours after Keane died, one of his plays was performed.
John B. Keane, as he wished, was in Listowel, where a circular road ringing the village bears his name.