By Joseph Hurley
Actor Richard Harris believes it all started with the rise of U2. Others claim the current renaissance in Irish performing arts can be traced to the earliest indications that Ireland would become involved with Europe’s Common Market. Whatever the reason — and the truth is probably vastly more elusive than either suggestion might indicate — Ireland is very definitely riding the crest of a creative wave that shows no signs of breaking or even diminishing.
Despite official censorship and a certain tendency of the Dublin theater-going public of earlier days to rise up and protest ideas they didn’t like, the Irish theater, given a few temporary dry spells, has always shown distinct signs of life.
In 1928, for example, the year of the founding of the Irish Echo in New York, Sean O’Casey’s "The Silver Tassie," in which the great Dubliner confronted the horrors of World War I, was written and produced. Not, however, at the Abbey, where O’Casey’s first three plays had been produced, and not even in Dublin.
The Abbey Theatre, under the direction of William Butler Yeats, had rejected "The Silver Tassie," which was the first work in which the fearless O’Casey had attempted to break ranks with realism and move in the direction of expressionism. The play was produced in London, and while the run was brief and relatively unsuccessful, the mere fact of its having been given a hearing in Britain solidified the playwright’s conviction that he could no longer live in censorious Ireland, and it was at this point that he moved to England, where he lived until his death in 1964.
It’s probably safe to say that no writer would be treated that way in today’s Ireland, either by the public or the nation’s producing organizations. Indeed, consider the presence in the recently completed 1998 Dublin Theatre Festival of County Offaly playwright Marina Carr’s "By the Bog of Cats," a kind of Midlands version of the "Medea" legend. This is at least the third major play by the well-subsidized Carr to have been given significant Dublin productions, the earlier pair being "The Mai" and "Portia Coughlin," both of which were digested by the Irish public fairly easily despite what would, in an earlier time, have been considered very large amounts of unacceptable language, not to mention fairly rigid protofeminist views.
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And, wonder of wonders, "By the Bog of Cats" was produced on the hallowed stage of the Abbey Theatre at 26 Middle Abbey St. It was, of course, at the Abbey’s earlier home, destined to be destroyed by fire on July 18, 1951, that, in 1926, O’Casey’s "The Plough and the Stars," dealing with the 1916 Easter Rising, was met with the most violent rioting the Dublin theater had experienced since John Millington Synge’s "The Playboy of the Western World" had debuted in 1907.
Synge’s antic comedy, now beloved and recognized as a modern classic, outraged its first audiences with its free-wheeling depiction of the deviousness of a group of rural Irish villagers, not to mention its references to women’s undergarments.
If actor Harris is right, and the success of U2 did signal the start of the ongoing boom in productivity and world acceptance being enjoyed these years by the Irish artistic community, important years might be 1981, when the group began to experience major success in Ireland, and ’83, by which time they were known around the world.
"There’s something in the Irish that really won’t allow us to believe we’re any good at anything," he said, "even with all the bragging and carrying on we may do. Then, suddenly, there was this rock group that the world loved, and we had to take another serious look at ourselves, and we had to admit that maybe we weren’t as bad as we’d been telling each other we were for all these years."
Add to that the astonishingly positive image the U2 had cultivated from the very beginning. They were drug free, and they weren’t at all the sort of lads to trash hotel rooms and end up in jail. Moreover, they maintained a decidedly healthy world view, responding endlessly to appeals to participate in charity concerts and benefits designed to raise funds for people in the world’s trouble spots.
In addition, the group gave away a good deal of the money made by their concert tours and by a recording history that started with "Boy" in 1980, and which recently produced a "best of" double CD covering the decade 1980-90, with two albums commemorating the current decade scheduled for future release.
A rising tide
There’s a credible truism that maintains that a rising tide lifts all boats, and the overall healthy condition of the Irish arts scene would appear to offer solid evidence attesting to the validity of the adage.
The past couple of decades have witnessed a marked increase in activity in the area of moviemaking in Ireland, with respect to films that could be said to be genuinely Irish, involving Irish financing and Irish artists, and others which basically use Ireland as a location, with the financing, and most of the talent, originating elsewhere.
In past years, films falling into the second category far outnumbered those in the first, with examples ranging from Laurence Olivier’s classic film version of Shakespeare’s "Henry V," shot in part on the Powerscourt estate in 1944, to Mel Gibson’s "Braveheart," photographed on various Irish locations three years ago.
Although a film such as "Braveheart," whose story was laid in the English past, provides behind-the-camera and logistical employment for a considerable number of Irish nationals, including even a few actors, mainly cast in minor supporting roles, it’s stretching a point to call it an "Irish" film.
Olivier’s "Henry V," made from the most jingoistic and bellicose of Shakespeare’s chronicles, was made, or at least planned, at a time when England appeared to be in very real danger of losing the war against the Axis, and making a movie out of this particular history play was a conscious gesture on the part of the English government, hand-in-hand with the British film industry, to give the country’s populace a reminder of their past greatness, and, in short, something to cheer about at a moment when there seemed to be little or nothing about which to feel jubilant.
An example of a purely Irish film might be the recent "I Went Down," a caper comedy with a script by the Dublin-born playwright, Conor McPherson, whose one-actor play "St. Nicholas" was an off-Broadway hit of the 1997-98 theater season.
The film’s director, Paddy Breathnach, had enjoyed a small success with a 60-minute film, "Ailsa," made from a short story by Joe O’Connor, who is, on the one hand, the brother of singer Sinead O’Connor, and, on the other, a close colleague of Breathnach’s at University College Dublin.
"I Went Down," whose title refers to doing a term in prison, was here and there expected to repeat the freak success enjoyed a year or so earlier by the low-budget British hit "The Full Monty."
However, that dream never became a reality, and, despite the film’s considerable charms, including a captivating central performance by Brendan Gleeson, "I Went Down" played a brief initial engagement in New York and quickly went to the video shelves.
Actor Gleeson, by the way, will almost certainly become better known than he is at the moment when John Boorman’s film, "The General," opens before Christmas. In the new work from the director of, among other films, "Deliverance," the actor gives a spectacular performance as Martin Cahill, the notorious Dublin crime figure.
Director Boorman, an Irish resident for some 30 years, told the audience at the press screening for the 1998 New York Film Festival, where the movie was warmly received, that one of the reasons he made "The General" had to do with the fact that Cahill had robbed his Dublin home, making off with, among other items, the platinum disc Boorman had been awarded for "Dueling Banjos," part of the musical score of the 1972 "Deliverance."
Whatever critical and popular fate awaits "The General" when it opens to the public a little before Christmas, the main Irish contribution to the waning year’s movie menu will almost certainly be "Dancing at Lughnasa," director Pat O’Connor’s mainly meticulous film version of Brian Friel’s award-winning stageplay. (A decade ago, O’Connor made an outstanding 60-minute film from William Trevor’s story "The Ballroom of Romance.")
Whether or not "Dancing at Lughnasa," which stars Meryl Streep, will find anything resembling a mass audience is open to question. Surprisingly, this is the first of playwright Friel’s plays to be turned into a major film, although "Philadelphia, Here I Come," the play that brought the writer to the world’s attention in 1964, was made into a little-seen movie in 1975, with Donal McCann, Eamon Kelly, and the late Siobhan McKenna in the leading roles.
Friel wrote his own screenplay for the "Philadelphia" film transfer, but in the case of "Dancing at Lughnasa," the job was entrusted to Frank McGuinness, who appears to have pulled a few of the sharper teeth of the original stage story of five lonely County Donegal sisters, living a hard-pressed truce-like existence in the summer of 1936 in a cottage not far from Ballybeg, the imaginary village where the playwright has set so much of his work.
Beautifully photographed amid the low, rolling hills and meandering roads of Brian Friel’s native Donegal, "Dancing at Lughnasa" has, in an odd way, become "Meryl and Her Sisters."
The fall and early winter schedule brings another promising Irish film, "Waking Ned Devine," a comedy from writer-director Kirk Jones in which a couple of canny villagers, Ian Bannen and David Kelly, cook up a swindle when the national lottery is won by the recently deceased title character.
The "news" about Jones’s film, beyond affording a major role for the long-neglected Bannen, is that it proves a big party for actor Kelly, a Gate Theatre Dublin stalwart who, two summers ago, in Lincoln Center’s Festival ’96, performed a "Krapp’s Last Tape" of staggering resonance and enduring impact.
Festival reflects health
A closer look at the 1998 Dublin Theatre Festival might provide something of an indication of the state of health being enjoyed by the Irish stage as the century lurches toward a close.
Brian Friel, whose most recent play, "Give Me Your Answer Do," was, at least as produced by the Abbey, not considered among his best works, was back, this time at the Gate Theatre in Cavendish Row, with a highly regarded new version of what many people think is Anton Chekhov’s finest play, "Uncle Vanya," with spectacular performances by Niall Buggy and John Kavanagh as, respectively, Vanya and Astrov.
Friel is, of course, often, probably too often, written of and referred to as "Ireland’s Chekhov," and some of the plays, "Dancing at Lughnasa" and Aristocrats" in particular, do reflect a natural affinity the Donegal dramatist clearly feels for the Russian writers. Writers plural, because on two occasions, about a decade ago and then a couple of seasons back, Friel turned not to Chekhov but to Ivan Turgenev as a source for adaptation.
The Irish writer’s "version" of Turgenev’s "Fathers and Sons" was first seen in Dublin and then in an excellent production by actor-director Austin Pendleton at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater.
More recently, Friel adapted another Turgenev play, "A Month in the Country," at least partly as a vehicle for actress Catherine Byrne, who had played Chrissie, the mother of the child, Michael, in "Dancing at Lughnasa," and then, later, had returned to New York’s Plymouth Theater, the scene of the "Lughnasa" triumph, in "Wonderful Tennessee," an Abbey transfer that proved to be one of the writer’s most resounding failures.
In addition to the contributions of playwrights Friel and Carr, the Dublin Festival hosted Jim Nolan’s "The Salvage Shop," originally produced by the playwright at the Red Kettle Theater Company, which he founded in 1985 in Waterford.
The leading "Salvage Shop" roles, a father and son locked in a difficult relationship, were played to great effect in Dublin, as in Waterford, by Niall Toibin and John Olonan.
Other Festival highlights included "Native City," the third and final segment of the Dublin Trilogy, written and directed by Paul Mercier, and presented by his Passion Machine Theatre Company. The premiere of "Native City" was done in tandem with revivals of the first and second portions of the Trilogy. Called, respectively, "Buddleia" and "Kitchensink," the earlier plays were presented in alternation with the concluding part, and, once and once only, on Oct. 18 in a marathon effort beginning shortly after noon and not finishing until nearly midnight, requiring the participation of more than 40 actors.
From Cork came Macnas, a radical, essentially non-verbal theater company, with their production, "Diamonds in the Soil," dealing with the life and work of the painter Vincent Van Gogh.
In addition, there were visiting companies from France, Spain, Russia, England, Ethiopia, Canada, Italy, and even the U.S., which contributed the Tamarind Theatre Company from Chicago.
Meanwhile, the New York Theater will soon receive "The Weir," the acclaimed five-character drama by Conor McPherson, known heretofore for single-performer works, the aforementioned "St. Nicholas," with which Brian Cox scored a hit recently, under the direction of the author, and the earlier 60-minute, one-character play, "Rum & Vodka" done at the Second Annual New York International Fringe Festival by Toronto-based, Dublin-born actor John O’Callaghan.
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane," by London-born, Irish-derived playwright, Martin McDonagh, continues its successful New York run, with actress Anna Manahan, who won a Tony Award for her work in the play, having recently been granted a second visa extension in the interests of keeping the production alive.
"Beauty Queen" won four 1998 Tonys, three for the actors and one for director Garry Hynes, founder and operator of Galway’s Druid Theatre.
The two remaining plays in dramatist McDonagh’s "Leenane Trilogy," "The Lonesome West" and "A Skull in Connemara," are promised for future stagings, although another of the 29-year-old dramatist’s plays, "The Cripple of Inishmaan," fared poorly in its debut production at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street.
Theatrical destinies are as hard to predict as, say, the price of pork bellies on the produce market, but, for now, Irish artistic abundance seems to be holding its own. And while it’s on this kind of a roll, there’s nothing to do, really, but sit back, enjoy it, and be deeply grateful.