To Eire Is Human

Two of my favorite anecdotes come from the film critic and essayist Dwight Macdonald, who seems to have had the gift of getting a pithy remark out of everyone worth knowing in the first half of the 20th century. Having the good fortune to be in Hollywood at the same time as Sergei Eisenstein, he met the great Russian director just after a screening of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, and inevitably asked what he thought of the movie. Eisenstein, according to Macdonald, opined that it would make a good Ph.D. thesis. Not long before that, Macdonald had been in Paris, where, as befitted his luck, he was taken to visit James Joyce. As he tells it, he conversed with the great Irish novelist standing by a window; at one point, Joyce gestured contemptuously at the crowds down below. "People goin' up and down the street," he declared, "and they don't know what they want."

Macdonald's two punchlines haunted me while I watched the musical that Ragtime's authors have made out of Suri Krishnamma's 1994 film A Man of No Importance. It is painstakingly crafted; everything about it has been done conscientiously, with careful adherence to style, substance, and sincerity. If I were judging a musical-theater class's end-of-term projects, it would definitely get an A plus. In other words, it would make a good Ph.D. thesis. But it doesn't make a good musical because nothing in it tells you why Ahrens, Flaherty, and McNally wanted to do it. When professionals of their stature take on a comparatively arcane piece of material like this, you expect to see something in the result that explains why they were driven to it, a passion for some aspect of the work that gets them excited and transmits their excitement to us. But passion, which rarely features in Ph.D. theses, is no more than a bare whimper here. The show's hero, a middle-aged Dublin bus conductor in 1964, has a passion for Art—yes, the capital-A kind—especially as embodied in the poetry of Oscar Wilde. People who've seen the film (I haven't) tell me that Albert Finney conveys this obsession with a naive insouciance that must look very appealing on his beefy, weathered face. Roger Rees, with his long, aristocratic mien and solemn resonant voice, gives Alfie Burns's joy in art the schoolmasterly distinction we associate with celebrities' introductions to Masterpiece Theatre; you wonder why he's reading poetry to bus passengers and staging amateur theater in a church instead of auditioning for the Abbey.

But then, the story of A Man of No Importanceis full of sidesteps that make you wonder, and I don't know if they come from the current authors or from Barry Devlin's screenplay. Surely in 1964, working-class Dubliners were not famous for being unobservant, or for keeping silent about their neighbors' eccentricities. (Were Dubliners ever famous for that?) And surely in 1964, though the city was then still comparatively small and old-fashioned, Dublin knew all about who Oscar Wilde was and what he had done; added to his being a local hero, there had recently been two noisily received, prestigious British movies about him. Just as surely, they knew all about changes being wrought in the world's view of homosexuality, with the Wolfenden Report prompting headlines and controversy all over England. And yet, apparently, nobody in this story has ever pointed out that Alfie Burns—an aging bachelor who lives with his sister, cooks better than she does, and calls the handsome young driver of the bus he conducts "Bosie"—is queer. He's barely able to admit it to himself by the middle of the show; his sister is flabbergasted when it's publicly revealed at the end. And yet he's the sort of man who, invited along to a workingmen's pub, orders a Virgin Mary. Where did he develop such tastes—at Greenwich Village brunches in the 1970s?

Roger Rees (center) in A Man of No Importance: literary omnibus
photo: Paul Kolnik
Roger Rees (center) in A Man of No Importance: literary omnibus

Details

A Man of No Importance
By Terrence McNally
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty
Newhouse Theater,
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

Say Goodnight Gracie
By Rupert Holmes
Helen Hayes Theatre
Broadway and 44th Street
212-239-6200

The Charity That Began at Home
By St. John Hankin
Mint Theatre
311 West 43rd Street
212-315-0231

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More significantly, why does he fail to realize that attempting to produce Wilde's Salome in a Catholic church—the crux of the story—amounts to a declaration of war? This invention amounts to a real piece of historical amnesia on somebody's part, since Salome spent a lot of the 20th century getting into censorship trouble. (Even as an opera, sung in German, it was shut down when it premiered at the Met in 1907, and kept out of London till 1910, while as a play it was banned there until 1929. Given the Catholic Church's opposition, Alfie may be giving the Dublin premiere; we're talking about a time, remember, when Joyce's Ulysses was not yet on public sale in Ireland.) Salome has other difficulties, too, including an enormous cast and the grueling, nonstop-flamboyant role of Herod, one of the longest speaking parts in the history of one-act plays. You can gauge the authors' comparative inattention to their story's underpinnings by their decision to make Alfie's antagonist the character who, besides him, has most reason to want Salome to go on: his amateur troupe's lead actor, Carney, a widowed butcher who dotes on Alfie's sister, and grumbles about not being given the lead role. Yet he's playing Herod; count the lines.

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