Irish Lives and Livers

From Opposite Sides of a Small Island, Two Small Sad Plays

"What a foolish thing it is," said one of Bernard Shaw's characters, "to call people Irish because they live in Ireland. You might as well call them Airish because they live in air." Shaw, of course, was that typically Irish paradox, a Dublin Protestant. Redoubling the paradox, he was a member of the ruling elite but too impoverished, growing up, to see himself as such. Then, too, he got away from Ireland as a young adult, and only turned to look back on it when his gaze had taken in the rest of the world. Perhaps this triple circumstance explains why he was able to see more broadly, and search what he saw more deeply, than most of the playwrights Ireland has turned out since.

As evidence, take two Irish plays currently being given their New York premieres. Both playwrights have been widely produced outside Ireland. And yet the two plays under review are relentlessly provincial. Stuck to the notion that their Irishness is somehow their quintessence, they repeat old, wearily familiar dramatic material as if it could be made new with a little Gaelic accessorizing—yesterday's leftover stew with a fresh chunk of soda bread on the side.

Frank McGuinness's play, set in Ulster and France during World War I, is much the more ambitious and richly textured of the two. Unhappily, it's also the more factitious, a chronicle of one platoon's march from naïveté to death in battle that echoes practically every play and movie you've ever seen about the inglorious Great War, from its carefully varied "bomber-crew" collection of types to its guilt-haunted lone survivor. Its only flicker of innovation is to offer a pair of reluctant gay lovers in place of the traditional romance with a French farm girl. And even this isn't so new to those who know J.R. Ackerley's The Prisoners of War, with its famous exchange: "I understand, Captain, that you do not care for the fair sex." "The fair sex? Which one is that?"

Jason Butler Harner and Justin Theroux in Observe the Sons . . . : Somme nerve
photo: Carol Rosegg
Jason Butler Harner and Justin Theroux in Observe the Sons . . . : Somme nerve

Details

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme
By Frank McGuinness
Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

Dublin Carol
By Conor McPherson
Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street
212-239-6200

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In fact, the script evokes so many predecessors that it's difficult to keep your mind on the action, despite Nicholas Martin's taut staging and the spot-on, pellucid acting. When the new recruits nearly brawl in the barracks, you think, isn't this from All Quiet on the Western Front? When they wait till daylight before moving out to attack—awfully cordial of them to give the Germans such good targets—you remember the endless head-down plowing through the mist in The Big Parade. The profanity and feuding suggest What Price Glory?, the toff whose presence among the lower ranks is viewed with suspicion comes from Journey's End, and about the only thing lacking is the healthy vituperative cynicism of Nathanael West and Joseph Schrank's wholly forgotten Good Hunting, which has the best first-act curtain line of all World War I plays. (As their barracks is strafed by German planes, the Colonel yells at the Major, "Goddammit! I told you not to paint that red cross on the roof!")

In between the barracks roughhousing and the fatal disillusionment, what McGuinness fills his play with is Ulster, with emphasis on its piety and its religious strife. World War I was famously the pivotal event during which the modern world lost its faith, at least temporarily, in God, nationalism, and other 19th-century moral values, but this does not seem to have happened in the northern reaches of Ireland—at least not as seen by McGuinness, who's Catholic and, with all due respect for his effort at sympathy, seems to have a somewhat shortsighted view of Protestant experience and concerns. New Yorkers should probably be grateful, these days, for a play whose Orange allegiance is not to an alert, but this is a very small scrap of newness in the face of so much uninspired rehashing.

Apart from the toff, who has caused a woman's death in Paris and therefore ceased, by longstanding Irish dramatic tradition, to have any faith in anything, all of McGuinness's characters believe that they are fighting to defend Ulster from "Fenians." The concept of world war never touches them; the word "Kaiser" has no notable place in the script, and nobody remarks on the irony of Ulster Protestants fighting alongside Belgian and French Catholics against German Lutherans—a funny way to keep Northern Ireland British and un-Catholic. The troop's idea of pre-combat horseplay is to re-enact the Battle of the Boyne. And this grotesquely blinkered view is not presented as comic in any way: The framing scene from which the play flashes back shows us the lone survivor in 1969, now an embittered old wreck, still railing about what the "Fenians" have done to Ulster, having apparently failed to learn that it takes two sides to make a war—preferably with good vicious incompetence at the head of each. Which reminds me that a really useful thing for some theater to do right now, both as a warning to our politicians and a fitting memorial to the late Joan Littlewood, would be a revival of Oh, What a Lovely War!

Martin's eight excellent young actors occasionally slide out of their accents, but never out of emotional focus. Dashiell Eaves as a man with combat shakes, Christopher Fitzgerald as the one who's secretly half-Catholic, and Rod MacLachlan as the one who, having bucked up his terrified buddy, crumples himself, make the strongest impression, but this is really a case of strongest among equals, having as much to do with the relative unhokiness of their roles as with skill and talent. I only quibbled with Martin's staging at two points: a sound-and-light interlude that makes war seem something like a salsa-rock concert video (or like a war moment from Movin' Out minus the dancers), and a final tableau that features the soon-to-be-dead platoon posed facing upstage, silhouetted against a red sky, making primo targets that look exactly like ducks in a shooting gallery. Since that's essentially the way English and French commanders used their troops in the early years of World War I, I suppose I shouldn't grouse at its literal inaccuracy.


Down in Dublin, where a small nation's economic and personal woes have, after decades of independence, displaced the historical injustice-collecting that still poisons Ulster, people forget their troubles much as they do in other parts of the Western world—by drinking, bullying their children, and complaining to sympathetic acquaintances. That's what they do, anyway, in Conor McPherson's Dublin Carol, which I'm tempted to describe as his first play. It is, anyway, the first of his works I've seen that does not consist almost entirely of a series of narrations being recited for no particular reason, a form that's occasionally diverting but rarely dramatic. In Dublin Carolthe three people actually talk to each other, and only tell stories when driven to do so by some emotional need of the moment. That's the good news. The bad news is that their dialogue reveals McPherson as a writer who, apart from his ability to keep a narrative in motion, has precious little to offer. Nothing in Dublin Carol seems false, nothing seems dramatically rigged or (as in McGuinness's script) stuck in the characters' mouths by someone of superior education to drive home some philosophic point. It all seems true and humanand terribly familiar.

The time is Christmas Eve. The play's hero, or anyway its talker-in-chief, is a drink-sodden undertaker's assistant, long estranged from his wife, who is now in the hospital dying, as is his boss, who took him in and rescued him when he was on his alcoholic way down. He tells his troubles to a young part-time pallbearer whose rootlessness suggests that he might be starting on the same downward spiral; in alternate scenes, he rehashes them in battle with his long-neglected daughter, who wants him not only to visit his dying wife but to promise that he will supervise her laying-out for the funeral. This last motif, again the single twist that brings the play a step away from predictability, is the one most cursorily dealt with. The backlog of family miseries, endlessly rehashed, irresistibly suggests the personal agonies aired on daytime TV. Even though the three actors are excellent and the staging (by the author) reasonably convincing, I kept drifting away mentally, imagining a Celtic Misery cable channel which would present the familial torments of a different set of Dubliners every evening, their tongues loosened each night by a different brand of Irish whiskey. Only certified AA members of provable Irish ancestry could subscribe, and the rest of us would be left in peace to go to a theater where the events onstage were of dramatic interest, and the phrase "Irish play" meant something like Heartbreak House or The Silver Tassie or Purgatory—plays that take the audience somewhere other than the few most familiar, most overworked acres of old theatrical sod.

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