By Joseph Hurley
TOM PAULIN and THE RIOT ACT. At Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, Lexington Avenue, NYC. April 10.
Poet Tom Paulin, longstanding member of the Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, describes his play "The Riot Act," a version of Sophocles’s "Antigone," as having been written "in the vernacular of Northern Ireland."
The drama, lasting just under an hour, was produced by Field Day in 1984, part of a double bill on which it was paired with a Moliere adaptation by Belfast-based poet Derek Mahon, touring Ireland for a full season.
Last week, "The Riot Act" received its first New York exposure in a staged reading at the 60-year-old Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue.
For the event, which took place before a capacity audience on Monday evening, April 10, Judy Friel, literary manager of the Abbey Theatre, flew in from Dublin to act as the evening’s director, bringing with her actors Catherine Mack and Lloyd Hutchinson.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Friel’s cast was filled out with local Irish performers, including Rosemary Fine, Terry Donnelly, Ciaran O’Reilly, Colin Lane, Malachy McCourt and Etain O’Malley, in addition to Andrea Irvine, who is in town with the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Sebastian Barry’s "Our Lady of Sligo," which opens tomorrow night at the company’s home on West 22nd Street, with Sinead Cusack in the leading role.
Before the actual staged reading began, Paulin stepped up to the Y’s microphones on his first ever appearance at the Poetry Center and, after introducing himself to the audience, read, rather shyly, a few brief examples of his own work, plus a poem William Butler Yeats had written on the subject of Antigone and her plight as she defied Creon’s dictums in her determination to provide her slaughtered brother, Polynices, with a suitably dignified burial.
Paulin, who was born in 1949 in Leeds, England, but was taken at age 4 to Belfast, commented on the extent to which Irish poets of his generation have been influenced by the American titan Robert Frost and then read a selection from his own recently published collection, "The Wind Dog," a book whose title, he explained, came from a folk reference to a partial rainbow, or a fragment of a full rainbow.
In an interview the evening before the reading at the Poetry Center, the affable, intensely blue-eyed and slightly shambling Paulin examined his background and his long involvement with the politics of Northern Ireland.
"My mother was Scottish," he said, "and from a family which had migrated to Belfast in 1912. Since my father was English, I suppose, technically, I don’t really have a drop of Irish blood in me."
True or not, that hasn’t stopped Paulin from becoming something of a patriot in terms of the ongoing Irish political situation, as well as a ranking authority on what has come to be known as the "Hiberno-
English language," the English language as it is spoken in Ireland.
When he returned to England in 1967, Paulin took degrees first at Hull University and then at Oxford, where he now lives and lectures at Hertford College. Had things worked out differently, he might easily have ended up at Queens College, Belfast.
"I tried to get jobs teaching in Belfast," he said,"but I wasn’t successful." The job he did get was in Nottingham, where he stayed for 20 years before switching to Oxford’s Hertford College.
Paulin attributes his political fervor to his parents. "My parents were Labour Party voters," he said. "They belonged to an organization aiming to abolish capital punishment. They read the New Statesman, and they read the Manchester Guardian, as it then existed. They talked about politics all the time. They talked about public issues. I think my father would have liked to have gone into politics."
Instead, the elder Paulin was a teacher in secondary schools, for much of his life.
Paulin considers Northern Ireland "a politicized society. Right from fairly early childhood, in the ’50s, with the IRA campaign going on, it was all around me. When I was 15 or 16, I joined a group of Trotskyites, and read a lot of Marx and Lenin. We didn’t realize that the analysis was all wrong, and that various forms of nationalism were really at the center of what was wrong with the society. The left wing position didn’t understand that, with the result that my parents and their friends who supported the Northern Ireland Labour Party were effectively in a left wing unionist party. And then everything changed with the Troubles."
A prolific poet, Paulin published "A State of Justice" in 1977, "The Strange Museum" in 1980, "The Book of Juniper" in 1982, "Liberty Tree" in 1983, "Fivemiletown" in 1987, "Walking a Line" in 1994, and, most recently, "The Wind Dog." Almost everything he writes reflects his commitment to politics.
In 1986, he edited "The Faber Book of Political Verse," and, in 1990, "The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse," reflecting his fascination with language, as does "A New Look at the Language Question," a celebrated pamphlet he wrote in 1983 for Field Day, of which he was then a director. It was, in fact, Stephen Rea, along with Brian Friel and Seamus Deane a founder of Field Day, who asked Paulin to come up with a version of "Antigone."
Paulin wrote "The Riot Act" between January and March of 1984. "It went on in Derry in September," he recalled, "double-billed with Derek Mahon’s ‘High Time,’ which was a version of Moliere’s ‘School for Husbands.’ Stephen Rea played Creon, a character not unlike Ian Paisley."
Among the reasons Paulin wrote "The Riot Act" was to refute some of the ideas of the Irish statesman and essayist Conor Cruise O’Brien.
"I greatly respect him in various ways," he said, "and I particularly liked things he wrote during the 1970s, including something called ‘The States of Ireland,’ in which Antigone figures. By about 1980, I’d come to the opinion that O’Brien had got Antigone wrong. I’d come to think of what he’d written about Northern Ireland as emotional nonsense."
At that time, Paulin wrote a long piece challenging O’Brien’s views. "That essay," Paulin said, "is collected in a book of mine, ‘Ireland and the English Crisis,’ which came out in 1984. I went through most of what O’Brien had written about Northern Ireland and tried to make the point what he was actually doing was fighting a rearguard action to defend unionism."
"The Riot Act," Paulin said, "is, in a sense, pitched against O’Brien’s view of the North of Ireland."
One critic wrote of the original production that the City of Thebes, in the author’s view, was "a small, tight, closed community," which is more or less exactly how Belfast must have seemed to Tom Paulin, growing up with guns in the streets, and fear etched into every face.