Production image of I ♥ Alice ♥ I by Amy Conroy (photo: Ruby Washington). As the nation approaches a referendum on same-sex marriage, what has Irish theatre told us about marriage and gay lives?
Who would have thought that Dion Boucicault, the 19th century Irish melo-dramatist who nowadays fills seats for the popular and commercial theatre, is presently one of the most politically provocative playwrights in the United States? Or at least sharing the mantle with the rising Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who has adapted Boucicault’s The Octoroon for New York’s Soho Rep.
The 1859 play, written during America’s abolitionist movement, observes a young man who inherits a plantation and falls in love with a woman who is seven-eighths white, one-eighth black (or ‘Octoroon’). An examination of how varying degrees of skin colour lead to varying degrees of power, Jacobs-Jenkins’s revision of a play historically played in blackface now has players donning ‘whiteface’, ‘blackface’ even ‘redface’. These theatrical masks reflect the derogatory tools with which race is discussed in present-day America, calling for a discourse desperately needed amidst the hail of rubber bullets and tear gas fired upon Fergusson, Missouri.
Something Old, Something New …
In Ireland, Boucicault still makes himself useful. Audiences who attended the revival of The Colleen Bawn by Druid Theatre Company in 2013 likely didn’t walk out transformed like those at its Irish debut in 1861. This drama about an Anglo-Irish landlord’s affair with a Gaelic-Irish young woman was originally lauded for its accuracy of Irish scenery and character in a time when there was a scarcity of native playwrights produced in the country. Druid’s production was timely in another sense.
As conventional in romances, Boucicault solves the dramatic crisis by throwing a wedding. Yet, there was something revolutionary in the scene before the Dublin audiences at the play’s opening at the Theatre Royal on 1 April 1861. As the lovers made their vows, another kind of ceremony was being performed, one marking the resolution of deep and difficult political rifts derived from centuries of conflict. The Colleen Bawn’s truth-telling accent becomes universally adored, and as a result unifies both peasant and ascendency in a shared sense of Irish identity. Druid’s twee marketing certainly reminded us of Boucicault’s play as the first to be recognised as a ‘national drama’ in Ireland but in performance we might also take it as the earliest representation of the ceremony of marriage between two Irish characters in an Irish play.
Kelly McAuley as the Colleen Bawn in Druid's recent revival. Photo: Colm Hogan.
That ‘Marry’ Is the Very Theme
Theatre today may be a long cry from its origins in the myths and sacred mysteries of Ancient Greece but its make-up is still ritualistic in its elements of formalism, symbolism, performance and ability to transform the emotions and thoughts of an individual. Marriage is another ritual entirely and theatre has often bowed to its influence, not just because of the powerful spiritual and legal meanings that union has in the real world, but also because it is incredibly hopeful for the change that bond can bring.
In many dramas the unifying codes between two married lovers seem capable to extend and restore peace to a wider social order, as in The Colleen Bawn. Boucicault was not the first to serve this model to Irish audiences, Surviving prompt books from the 17th century Smock Alley Theatre show that the company had several of Shakespeare’s plays in repertory by the mid-1670s, many of which feature marriage as having the power to resolve conflict.
“That ‘marry’ is the very theme” pipes Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, soon to be revived at the Gate Theatre in a production directed by Wayne Jordan. During their secret wedding ceremony, Romeo asks Juliet to weigh the worth of their romance, a request she finds reductive: “But my true love is grown to such excess/ I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth”. Insurmountable as the lovers are in their passions, their survival against a conservative society that refuses to acknowledge their bond is less resistant.
The arch treatment of Shakespeare in recent Irish productions has complicated traditional readings of matrimony. If nuptials tell us anything in Gavin Quinn’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Abbey Theatre, playing its action in a retirement home, it’s that love is wasted on the young. In Jordan’s queer production of Twelfth Night last year, the close relationship between the sailor Antonio and shipwrecked Sebastian was played intimately and affectionately, and when the latter wedded a noblewoman in the once-optimistic conclusion, the former was left out in the cold. Marriage, once celebrated in theatre, was now referred to according to a consequence of its current definition in Irish law: exclusion.
The close relationship between Antonio (Conor Madden) and Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) was played intimately in Wayne Jordan's Twelfth Night. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
“This is Just This. It isn’t Real”
Long before the announcement of a referendum to grant marriage to same-sex couples in Ireland, Irish theatre artists were compelled to grant visibility to the marginalised lives lived by gay citizens. In the second half of the 20th century, Thomas Kilroy, Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness all dug deep into the shame and alienation of a homosexual experience afflicted by a conservative Catholic order.
If homosexuality has often been confined under the surface of Irish life, an underground world of shame and hidden signals, no play has ushered an audience there as bravely as Mark O’Halloran’s 2011 drama Trade. Inside the tarnished bedroom of a B&B off Dublin’s North Denmark St, we saw unfold the moments before a closeted older man has sex with a rent boy.
He delays their ‘transaction’ with expressions of genuine concern for the young man’s well-being and paced requests for him to remove parts of his own clothing, beginning with his hat and lastly his trousers. When finally faced with the image of a near-naked body, the older man’s feeling is more of affection than lust: “I wish I could be young again. You’re beautiful”. Despite the stark surroundings, it’s poetic when, extraordinarily, we learn that the young man has wandered into his dreams, frequently falling into an abyss, waking him up in tears.
O’Halloran conveyed a society that has strangled a man’s ability to live and love freely, who can manifest his desire only in the cold form of commodity. “This is just this”, reminds the young man. “It isn’t real. It’s money”. It’s also a resounding line for the audience. Was it just a play and not “real”? Was it just “money” we invested in seeing this? If the title of the play asks anything of us, it’s for us to trade in our complacency for action. The sad social and sexual histories of Catholic Ireland are still playing out today.
Philip Judge and Ciarán McCabe in Trade. Photo: Fiona Morgan.
A Nation Left Searching
Trade played during the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011, when revelations of institutional abuse in the Church were still painfully recent. Other productions in that festival tapped into a nation coping with the fallout: Laundry by ANU Productions unbolted the former Magdalene Laundry on Sean MacDermott St and led us tightly through its soap-fumed and tear-stained history, and The Blue Boy by Brokentalkers was a ballistic bricolage of documentary, dance and music that scorched the horrors of industrial school Ireland into our minds. Accumulatively, it was almost too much to process.
A nation was left searching, sorting through its beliefs, and when artists in the theatre manipulated religious symbols and iconography it seemed to be in hope of creating alternative rituals. The edgy titles of Neil Watkins’s plays The Year of Magical Wanking and Whichever1ufeed didn’t suspect their daring feats of subversion, adapting biblical tales to uncover shameful (and sometimes personal) sexual histories. There’s a scene in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear Mc’Bride’s novel about a youth beaten down by puritanical Ireland, adapted for the stage by Annie Ryan – when the Girl swears blasphemously in an open field. The air becomes primal and pagan.
A statue of Jesus is placed on the kitchen table in Amy Conroy’s disarming I ♥ Alice ♥ I, a documentary-style drama about two bashful middle-aged lesbians, revived at Project Arts Centre last week in association with Marriage Equality. The lights dim and a voiceover has us hear the Alices, significantly more fearless, telling the tale of their first time having sex. The statue is slyly moved to the back of the table, and the two women almost ritualistically exchange cups of tea in a serene image, as if performing a sacred rite.
Marriage is of course a ritual with immense religious meaning, but we’re not to forget that even way back in Boucicault’s seminal drama the Colleen Bawn’s marriage certificate served as an important plot tool, confirming her position in society. Marriage has always been, at least in part, a civil matter in Irish theatre.
Niamh Denyer and Michael J. Kunze in The Baltimore Waltz, produced by Blue Heart Theatre Company.
“They Will Be Seen”
The revival of I ♥ Alice ♥ I isn’t the only performance hoping to resonate in the approach to the referendum.
Blue Heart Theatre Company present a rare opportunity to see Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, currently running at The New Theatre in Dublin. Partly a farce that exposes the extreme myths and misconceptions surrounding the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the U.S., Vogel’s play is also a personal ‘dreaming up’ of the European trip she was supposed to embark on with her brother before he died from the disease. These mixed absurdities and affections are deftly spelled out in Blue Heart’s production.
Absurdism is an appropriate mode for artists in a society that can often seem irrational and chaotic. When a man retreats to Leitrim to escape a failed relationship in Sean Denyer’s upcoming comedy The Equals, he doesn’t suspect the area to be run by a powerful group called ‘The Lesbian Alliance”. It is the regime’s acquisition of hosting rights to the world’s largest LGBT community drama festival that possibly makes the play the metaphorical centerpiece of this year’s International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, that is, a platform for gay theatre in Ireland ahead of a referendum garnering international attention.
Kate Gilmore’s Stella Full of Worms is also getting in on the action at the festival. A drama about a gay teenage girl who falls in love for the first time, Stella played to positive reviews last year.
Acerbic performances from the LGBT drama group Acting Out make a political evening of Standing on Ceremony, a series of short plays conceived in the backdrop of the U.S. Marriage Equality movement. Dropping the American accent in parts to relocate the action to Ireland, the event feels highly relevant, and you can tell that for the players it’s personal.
The diverse range of performance styles on display in Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s In On It, soon to be presented by Good Dog Theatre Company, may very well reflect the diversity of individuals presented: a dying man making amends, a gay couple trying to make their relationship work, a grieving writer struggling to write a play. But in their intertwining narratives, it could suggest something truly universal.
When audiences were ushered into the basement of an opticians’ for Cabaret Mattachine during last year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival, they were encouraged to wear drag and sip ginger beer from teacups while ‘faerie’ performer Stefan Fae strummed his ukulele and sung songs about alienation and community. Inspired by a trip to the U.S. to visit the Radical Faeries, a queer movement steeped in paganism, Fae’s magical performance about transcendence will be revived in May.
The timing of these performances suggests that they hope to connect with and make a positive impact on the referendum vote. You’d be pressed to find a piece of theatre that’s trying to advocate for the opposite.
For a long time, the marginalised lives of gay people have been represented in the Irish theatre. If there’s a reason to believe that the passing of the same-sex marriage bill can represent a Symbolic change for the better in Ireland, it is the powerful coda of I ♥ Alice ♥ I. “We will be seen” assure the lesbian lovers before the actors Amy Conroy and Clare Barrett remove their wigs, a Brechtian break reminding us of an un-passable reality, and utter one final and resilient remark:
“They will be seen”.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Abbey Theatre until March 28th.
Romeo and Juliet opens at the Gate Theatre on March 31st.
The Baltimore Waltz runs at The New Theatre until April 4th.
Standing on Ceremony is at the Granary Theatre, Cork on March 28th.
The Equals and Stella Full of Worms run as part of the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival (May 4-17th)
In On It runs at Smock Alley Theatre from April 20-25th.
Stefan Fae: Cabaret Mattachine will play at Pacinos, Suffolk St in May.