Thursday, December 10, 2020

Musings in Intermissions at 10: Where is the master playwright?

The past 10 years have been a struggle against an anxiety over who the next number one playwright is going to be. Photo: Anton Chekhov's summerhouse in  Gurzuf, Yalta

The disappearance of theatre critics from publications has become so widespread, the job seems like something from an old era of bustling news-desks and bright marquee lights, flickering in black and white footage. 

My first glimpse came from reading a collection of Walter Kerr’s New York Times essays from the 1960s, assigned to me as part of a college reviewing class. I was living in a new city, making theatre-going and filing copy a weekly practice, and Kerr’s office sat foggily in my brain. One essay “Back Home” was written shortly after the 1963 New York City newspaper strike, a period when Kerr had to adjust to appearing on television panel shows. He opens his readers’ letters expecting responses to his thoughtful criticism but instead gets observations of how awkward he looked onscreen, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to the shoulder and cigarette smoke covering his face. One letter comes from his optometrist, advising he might need a new pair of glasses.

When the newspaper strike is over, Kerr returns to his office and finds a pile of reader mail waiting for him. Unlike the previous distracted correspondences, these are the true, passionate, sometimes indignant letters from people who want to talk theatre, often opposing his stance on plays, written with love for the art. He leans back in his chair with the feeling that all is right with the world. “The words came crisp, well-typed, deeply outraged, and familiar as friendship,” he says. 

It is something of a theory in print journalism that the letters to the editor section is a construction of the public, or a public at least. It’s a way of that faceless readership becoming corporeal. I was fascinated by how the letters manifested Kerr’s audience, and by the invitation of his criticism to pull up a chair and speak to a worthy listener. I was no less taken aback by a pile of theatre mail than Kerr himself who, decades later in an interview with the City University of New York, still excitedly recalled the stack of letters he received after the appearance of his first ever newspaper article. He took it as a sign to pursue a career. 

The humourist Jean Kerr, Walter’s wife, wrote the superb essay collection Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, which in turn inspired a veiled biographical film of the same title. Watching it expanded my vision of how to be a critic in light-blinding New York, of going to cocktail parties, buying big houses, having celebrity showdowns with actors and producers, and even the oath-breaking tragedy when you allow your criticism to sour into wisecrack. It’s a shiny, ritzy film based on real events but to arts journalists working nowadays it’s a fantasy. 

I was someone who could not establish. I started off getting small commissions in respected outlets before freelancing for several publications over a few years. It’s no secret that rates of pay are morbidly low and salaries non-existent. Proving indispensible to editors and securing some regular sections is an elaborate hustle, and people succeed at it. A time came when security became my priority, so I got an office with a desk and letters but it was to do a different job. I didn’t establish as a critic but I wasn’t done with criticism either. I went back to writing on a blog because it felt like it could be anti-establishment. 

Writing can give you a life-mattering dopamine release but if it compels you to sacrifice your free time and do it for little or no money, is it actually a toxin?  It’s a debate that has constantly re-evaluated my self-worth, usually resolving to hold out for better success in the future. Samuel Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” may have become a mantra for start-up culture and can read as vacuously as a motivational poster but I was spun through its cycle and, while it sometimes emotionally wrecked me, it also gave me resilience. Why was this contradiction acceptable to me? If criticism led me to failure time and again, why did I still get a buzz from writing it? 

For me that fitted appropriately into the dark comedy of the past 10 years, a period where things that were expected to happen really didn’t. The promise of a “recovery” after years of austerity didn’t materialise, and a lethally disrupted flow of expenditure into the theatre industry, no less than the nation, left stretches of it to decay and vanish, with complex damaging effects lingering in the long-term. Parallel to these events were reported sightings of a strange anxiety, the jitters of an industry wrangling with its own creativity, panicking on how to fill an empty space. This nervousness didn’t influence the plays that got made but it has ended up defining my decade-long argument, in the form of the reviews and features I’ve written. One unifying impulse was to grapple with invisible biases about what a good play is supposed to be, the strong inclinations of cultural ideas that were long dominant. These biases may have been dressed up as aesthetic arguments (great likings for postcolonial period dramas, 20th century rural dark-comedies, Chekovian family sagas, Jazz Age farces) but they also drew lines under whose creativity gets to be considered ambitious and what art gets to have lasting power. 

The anxiety that theatre was changing was on the edge of my peripheral vision from the beginning. It was first put to me as a statement when, as a theatre studies doctoral student in 2011, I was interviewing an experienced playwright for my research. They spoke of a confusion that had enveloped all levels of the industry, from managements to artists to audiences. “There is no master voice right now,” they said. 

Nostalgia can be reassuring. (“Good times,” we say, exchanging nods). Yet, it was the name given to a clinical diagnosis for soldiers in the 17th century whose maladies were attributed to being away from home for too long. In the white light of that Dublin café in 2011, as at my work desk in 2020, there were worrying flickers of an old film projector, a troubling vision of a better time. Theatre seemed to be in a psychological struggle with its past.


A few kilometres northeast of Yalta, the town Gurzuf overlooks a picturesque bay curtained by dramatic rock faces at each end. In 2008 Brian Friel and Thomas Kilroy travelled here to visit a summerhouse that had belonged to Anton Chekhov. It was a pilgrimage made to satisfy an artistic obsession. “I felt that perhaps in Gurzuf we did lift the veil; there certainly was a presence there,” Friel wrote to Kilroy afterwards. It was a trip marking Friel’s 80th birthday, who, having carefully woven a playwriting career that was unmistakably modern in a very intellectually European mould, is sometimes referred to as the “Irish Chekhov”.

The white summerhouse sits above a secluded beach, a sanctuary where Chekov used to pace and write. Hanging on the walls inside are memorabilia from the Moscow Art Theatre, artefacts of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s productions and that meticulous era of Russian naturalism. It would have been difficult to picture how Friel’s emotions were stirred by the house, as he was legendarily private as an individual, but Kilroy later recounted details of the trip for an Irish Times article. There on the wall, protected within a picture frame, was the manuscript copy of the first page of Three Sisters. It was this that moved Friel the most. 

This wasn’t always the sage-like Friel. As a schoolteacher in 1950s Derry, he was enamoured by the short story section of the New Yorker and its milieu including Frank O’Connor, a rambunctious writer who had first been nicknamed the “Irish Chekhov”. In his short stories, O’Connor drew on fitting parallels from late Imperial Russia for his vision of post-Independence Ireland as priest-dominated, provincial, hard-drinking, in other words the stuff of great short fiction. When Friel first gained his international following in 1966 with the Broadway run of Philadelphia, Here I Come!, this grit was only background detail. A touching drama about a young man preparing to leave his silent father and emigrate to the U.S., it’s a play about gulfs: the longed-for connection between child and parent, a lone soul’s yearning for peers and romance, and the distance of the Atlantic Ocean threatening to sever those links forever. Its innovation is when the man’s “private” self emerges as a separate character, from the mould-green walls of his bedroom in director Hilton Edwards’s premiere production, to lash out at the oblivion of parochial small-town life and muted male emotion. The play resonated as an anxiety dream for Ireland but possibly wider afield too. Like all openings on Broadway, the fate of Philadelphia, Here I Come! would partly rest with Walter Kerr’s influential New York Times review. Helping secure its success, and in turn Friel’s international following, Kerr observed the “play’s power of openly affecting audiences - by openly I mean to unrestrained tears.”

Bridging a gap between Ireland and America was one of Friel’s early goals. The world-building powers of the American Dream had an intoxicating hold on Irish culture, and he would go to the Promised Land like O’Connor before him. Key to his success in finding audiences in both countries was his balance beam-nimble approach to Catholic masochism, the enthusiastic and tart jabs that appealed on both sides of the Atlantic. The decades of the rosary made eyes roll, chastity-preaching relatives were made into living nightmares, and unplanned pregnancy was the end of the world. But where Friel delivered this oppressiveness with a devastating intensity in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a follow-up play Lovers: Winners and Losers, premiered on Broadway the following year, was comparatively toothless. Showing two different couples and the problems facing their relationships, it tilts closer to Irish fetishisations for American audiences: a male scholar whose greatest joy is laying eyes on an exam paper; a religious mother standing sentry-like in the way of her forty-something son having sex. The short, fast-paced dialogue between the two teenage lovers fits the grooves of Hollywood screwball comedy, as if it had a young Jean Arthur and Cary Grant in mind rather than actors closer to home like Joan O’Hara or Donal Donnelly. Even if Friel’s wide appeal was tilting towards an exaggerated showcase of Ireland for American audiences, back home he was still an extraordinary success story. Philadelphia, Here I Come! augmented his connection between him and his audience, creating a remarkable following that would grow.

Friel wasn’t a pioneer for Irish playwrights on Broadway. Bernard Shaw, Paul Vincent Carroll, M.J. Molloy and Seán O’Casey (who licenced a musical version of Juno and the Paycock) had all been there before. None of them received as much momentum from the venture though, which Friel used to evolve his ideas into impressive new forms. It may be surprising to see him write in 1972, for the Times Literary Supplement, that Ireland still had the psyche of a peasant country. The state’s economic focus may have shifted from agriculture to foreign investment in the late 1950s but the transforming effects weren’t widespread. This so-called peasant psychology - defined by relationships with land ownership; agitated by a multi-generational, historical sense of restlessness and insecurity - would go on to form his most original ideas as part of a new career-defining metamorphosis. 

After the violent assaults against civil rights protestors sparked the Troubles in 1968, there was an urgent refocus in Friel’s plays. Unlike his contemporary Seamus Heaney, whose timely poems for his collection Door Into the Dark had been presciently written before conflict broke out, Friel didn’t have a strategy in place. Turning his attention away from America, an idea for a play about a group of protestors shockingly murdered by the British Army was given shape by the real-life events surrounding the Bogside Massacre, and premiered in London as The Freedom of the City. The play switches between the protestors’ final moments hiding from soldiers in a city hall building and the inquest into their deaths led by biased authorities warping the truth of what happened. It’s a very stylised play using many techniques that don’t all work; the use of a sociologist character to give lengthy explanations of working-class poverty is one of Friel’s clumsier narrative devices. This response strategy to real occurrences was deployed again in Volunteers, which used the furore over the Wood Quay development in Dublin as its premise. It sees a group of IRA prisoners working on an archaeological dig where the excavated artefacts reveal to them the historical conflicts that shaped their lives.

While both The Freedom of the City and Volunteers show a searching inventiveness, neither are the best remembered of Friel’s dramas from the Troubles era. The celebrated plays are bound up in his transformation into a prestige playwright. In theatre the word “virtuoso” is used to describe an exceptional artist but its inference is showier that we think - after all, it’s a musical term from the Baroque period, a ludicrous age of unrelenting dissonances and key changes. “Virtuoso” can refer to someone of unusual abilities, who has mastered extra-mechanical elements in their art, including the import of recognisable techniques by famous artists.

The ancient Greek tragedian Euripides was cited as the inspiration for Living Quarters, premiered in 1977. While there are mythological undertones to the solider returned after a long mission only to discover fateful revelations about his family, it was the lining up of the man’s children and their hopeful escape from the military town that glimpsed the playwright’s major influence going forward. It’s no coincidence that this sounds like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; Friel was preparing to write his own translation of it. At the same time, he was tracing the schema of The Cherry Orchard, a comedy about a leisured family’s waning fortune in the years before the Russian Revolution. Like Chekhov, Friel saw how a family saga can be made into something more epic, how people’s dead ends can be given the towering dimension of history, their personal loses fitting into larger axis-shifts. His next play Aristocrats has the attractive faded grandeur of The Cherry Orchard, set among Catholic gentry in a county bordering Northern Ireland. There are passing references to the Troubles but the family’s denial has to do with their own false mythology as a legendary estate, associated with court judges and famous writers; a fiction they have escaped into to avoid their secret crises. 

The first decade of Friel’s career was marked by subversive transatlantic plays but it was this reinvention in his second decade that would make him long remembered. To address shattering atrocities at home, he matured into the high-art seriousness of modern European theatre. Coinciding with this artistic shift was the establishment of his company Field Day with the actor Stephen Rea in 1980, launched urgently by Friel’s masterpiece Translations. A cross-section portrait of a school in a 19th century garrison town (à la Three Sisters), it’s an intensely romantic love story between an English cartographer and a local woman, surrounded by political violence and the sad erasure of native culture by the Ordinance Survey. It’s where parts of Friel’s importance to his audiences - the symbolism of the truth-telling earth; the far-reaching links to a previous generation’s trauma - find their most powerful expression, making it the history play about the colonisation of Ireland. 

Audiences didn’t just think they were in good hands with Friel; they knew they were in the best hands. He was a clarifying voice in a time of upheaval. Field Day continued to make sense of The Troubles through collaborations with other reputed artists and Friel’s status as an exceptional artist grew through the enterprise by making his connection with Chekhov more explicit. His translation of Three Sisters kept its Russian period setting but the play’s military occupation had obvious resonances. (The playwright Lucy Caldwell would eventually transfer its drama to pre-ceasefire Belfast, in what is the best Irish version of the play since). More importantly, the script short-circuited other English-language translations to make it more organic for Irish actors to deliver. 

Friel would by no means be a Chekhov imitator from that point onwards. His most original successes were actually ahead of him. The much-loved Dancing at Lughnasa, an aching picture of a rural past slipping away, almost immediately transferred from Dublin to London and New York. Faith Healer, with its deliberately glitchy monologues about a travelling miracle curist, also found commercial success to match its acclaim. However, a late phase began tellingly with another Chekhov translation, Uncle Vanya, for the Gate Theatre in 1998. The institution was searching for a contemporary playwright to offset its classical programming, and Friel used the opportunity to dive even deeper into Chekhov’s repertoire, even producing an oddity such as Afterplay - an imagined meeting between different characters from Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters veering into fan fiction. New versions of plays and short stories, along with another Cherry Orchard-style family saga The Home Place, would seal Friel’s status as tied directly to the serious plays of Chekhov. 

This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon; around the world still, contemporary playwrights make their versions of Chekhov’s plays - because they are great, but superficially it can seem a rite of passage to become an “auteur.” The consensus held that this was the real stuff, and even a requirement for default ambition in Irish theatre. It helped make Friel into someone for everybody else to be compared against, as the master playwright. 


When I began seeing plays, much of the public contempt aimed at them was coming from theatre critics themselves. In 2007 the Arts Council commissioned the Sunday Independent’s Emer O’Kelly, whose printed views on theatre and social issues were sometimes openly vituperative, to write a pamphlet about the value of the arts. A polemic titled “The Case for Elitism,” it was an attack against community theatre and young people’s lack of knowledge about art history. (“We are by definition lazy and selfish when we’re young,” she says). In O’Kelly’s view the Arts Council needed to narrow its conscious-raising to the Great Works, not expand it. More astonishing was when the Irish Times’ much-respected critic Fintan O’Toole made a TV documentary called Power Plays, a thesis that artists ceased making political plays during the Celtic Tiger. It embodied his decades-long argument but also, sadly, its dead-end. In presenting a list of his favourite “big” national plays such as Translations - their prestige underlined by shots of the director Garry Hynes staging scenes in a studious rehearsal room - O’Toole revealed his bias as disappointingly traditionalist. For any new play to be considered ambitious, it would need to have the same kind of creativity as its forebears. 

This too seemed like an argument for a particular kind of play structure. It’s true the likes of Translations have a weightiness to them. They’re usually super-sized, running to over two hours, as if the length were required to hold their “big” topical ideas. It’s also understandable why a director would be drawn to giant complex plays. In an interview last year, Hynes explained why she wanted to direct Nancy Harris’s psychological thriller The Beacon. “It felt grown up. It had four or five stories running at the same time, banging off each other, but kept in balance,” she said. That’s a good definition of maturity, one measured by metrics of meticulousness and sophistication as opposed to politics. 

Theatre did undergo radical reinvention but the more stock put into the idea of artists being confused about how to make great plays, the more it revealed to me where the anxiety of influence really lay. When the book critic Clive James wrote about a controversy in American literature where the Modern Language Association, an academic syndicate, reprinted an important series of American classics only to encumber them with difficult introductions and footnotes designed to enslave future PhDs, he highlighted an important distinction. “The intelligence of the academy ceased to understand its relation to the intelligence of the metropolis,” he said. That’s not to compare the Modern Language Association’s project with the inclusive and contemporary theatre books recently written by scholars in Irish colleges. Rather, the bias represented by O’Toole's documentary seemed as if it were from the academy of yesteryear, out-dated and out of touch with audiences sitting in auditoriums throughout the country. The anxiety of influence, the worry over who is going to be the next master playwright, wasn’t inflicting artists; it was inflicting fans with the strictest ideas of what good theatre is allowed to be. 

The “metropolis,” as James knew it, is where arguments about art happen on the ground. It’s where book-smart meets street-smart, opinions formed and argued outside theatre doors, in cafés and bars. Artists are of the metropolis too, soaking Palmolive-style in social movements and changing fashions. It would be unrealistic to think that art as we recognise it wouldn’t change. Instead of being able to point to a long Chekhovian drama from the past 10 years, I found myself electrified by Sonya Kelly’s magnificent comedy How to Keep an Alien. It didn’t tick those default boxes for greatness; it is comic, queer, female-authored and biographical. A tender story about falling in love with a woman from abroad and searching for long-distance commitment, it also gave a genius portrayal of the state’s immigration system as self-punishing and shambolic, a Kafkaesque nightmare shot through with laughing gas. It doesn’t need to be two hours long; every second of it is crystal-cut, every expositional line disguised with a flooring bon mot.

The old academy thinking seemed to have strong feelings about aesthetics too, with fourth wall realism considered the dominant, serious form for presenting a play. It probably wouldn’t allow in Veronica Dyas’s excellent My Son My Son, a touching contemporary play following a tireless volunteer in central Dublin. With face-front addresses to the audience, and industrial folk accompaniment by an onstage musician, its surfaces are more exposed than polished. That’s to be expected, given it’s a version of Bertolt Brecht’s “learning play” The Mother and Dyas recognises its lesson that a lone individual’s best interests and those of the community are one in the same. Set over two decades, going back through the “recovery” to austerity to the Celtic Tiger, it shows a working class neighbourhood tragically ignored by wider progress, being subtly imposed on by gentrification, and its heartfelt defence by passionate activists. 

To unravel the idea of the number one playwright is to reveal that theatre is really moving in thrilling directions, and not having to stick to one course. The first living playwright to have a close association with the Gate Theatre since Friel is Nancy Harris, whose plays don’t have any Imperial Russian interiors. Harris recently wrote two ingenious psychological thrillers - a genre usually dismissed - in Our New Girl and The Beacon, both aiming suspicion at targets that felt worthwhile, riding the recent aftershocks of true-crime obsession and #MeToo. If part of Friel’s importance was his intervention into violence, through his on-the-ground playmaking during the Troubles, there was a comparable flashpoint when Louise Lowe made Laundry in 2011, during the height of shattering investigations into the Catholic Church’s abuses of power. 

Lowe would be most likely to be pigeonholed as the master playwright right now, for the political seriousness of her plays, but she disrupts the idea’s construction at every turn. Her dual status as a director, specifically an innovator of a style of immersive theatre more intimate than the louder Punchdrunk shows, makes her an artist who doesn’t make plays for theatre buildings. The lifespans of the productions are tied to the sites they’re staged in, meaning they can’t tour or even be revived. Above all, Lowe’s influences don’t seem to come from the intellectual modern European school. Her love for the performance artist Amanda Coogan informs her plays’ fluidity, their stories taking place as if in a loop, writing historical events into patterns. The outstanding The Boys of Foley Street became my cipher for understanding the city where I live. Set in a 1970s Dublin gnawed by recession and penetrated by heroin, it’s a near-Dantean picture of state neglect feeding into criminality - the entangling of young men into the debt of brutal drug lords; the unsettling ionisation of male aggression into rape. Smoke from the Eden Quay bombing drifts over one unforgettable scene where a victim slides eerily down a car front-window. The safe everyday world get blasted - like Sarah Kane’s famous eponym - especially during a pummelling encounter in a flat, where the residents’ abuses come to light like poker-hot jabs, each one more searing than the last. 

Plays such as these sat at an important nexus-point for me, between being compelling important while without any classical prestige. In his final book Cultural Amnesia, Clive James wrote about his obsession with a lone sentence written by the literary critic G.K. Chesterson: “To set a measure to praise and blame, and to support the classics against the fashions”. Read straight this is a critic’s formula for conservatism, but Chesterson was complex. A lay theologian preoccupied with reasoning, he famously wrote paradoxes as a kind of precautionary measure, to have one side consider the thinking of the other. The sentence is designed to crack open the space between “classics” and “fashions,” uncovering the obvious truth that “classics” were “fashions” once. Great works of art couldn’t be judged by their agreed prestige on arrival because they didn’t have any. What’s always been required has been to judge art by its interior vitality, and not to run out of appreciation at a crucial time. 

Most stories have their silent twin. Long before he worked as a theatre critic, Walter Kerr taught in a Washington D.C. college where he became engaged to an Irish student named Maeve Brennan. Their mysterious break-up coincided with shock developments in Brennan’s life; she dropped out of college, left her family in Washington D.C, and moved to New York alone where she would pave an accomplished career as a journalist and short story writer. 

In the late 1960s, while Kerr was sitting inside theatres reviewing plays, Brennan was outside chronicling the transformation of Broadway from a community neighbourhood into a shabby entertainment centre. Her New Yorker column “The Long-winded Lady” had a beloved urbane, idiosyncratic style - steadfast and flâneur-like, the dispatches rarely get too close to other people on the street, usually only resting to sit at a restaurant window to take in the city-view. From that vantage point, Brennan could devastate when describing a bookshop that had closed or an art gallery that vanished. She gave a poignant sense of a version of the city that should be in place - a city that’s musical, arresting, transforming people’s moods - but isn’t.

As analysis about gentrification and city-culture, Brennan’s “Long-winded Lady” columns are fascinating, but what attracted me most is their sad urbanity. Critics are of the metropolis too, and I could hear those same industrial, jangling cranes moving in as the job of theatre critic gets demolished. The columns give an odd reassurance, as if even in the middle of a demolition site you can still find somewhere to write, and if the construction dust falls prettily like snow, I will admire it for as long as I stand out in it.  

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