Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Theatre and Me

On this blog, I've written a lot about the cinema, but I've never really written about the theatre. This isn't that strange, since I've been to the cinema hundreds of times, and I've only been to the theatre (or indeed, seen any kind of play) a handful of times. Nonetheless, I found myself thinking about this subject this morning, and I thought it might make a good blog post.

I'll admit straight away: I have a prejudice against the theatre. It's quite silly, because the world is big enough for every art, and there's no reason the theatre should be seen as a competitor with the cinema. But there it is.

I think this is because I can't help defining the theatre against the cinema. The permanence of movies is one of the things that appeals to me most about the art form; a movie is timeless, down to every last frame. Theatre is the opposite. I completely understand that, to a great many people, this is part of its appeal, and I can even understand why it would be appealing. Every performance of a play is a unique, unrepeatable experience. But I can't help feeling it's a deficiency.

One of the most delicious aspects of the cinema is the "fourth wall" of the silver screen-- a one-way window into another reality, a heightened reality, outside time and space as we know them. A play might evoke this to some extent, but ultimately, we remain aware that the characters are people breathing the same air as us, standing mere feet away. Perhaps it is a want of imagination on my part, but to me, this lacks the cinematic sense of a portal to another world.

Then there's the snob value of the theatre. I'm the kind of person who always wants to slum it with the proles. I prefer commercial cinema to art-house cinema, milk chocolate to dark chocolate, paperback to hardback. (I think this is one of the many reasons I've never felt at home in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.) The snob factor of theatre may be an accident of history, but I can't help being aware of it. Some of this has to do with all the actors I've heard gushing about how much they prefer theatre acting to film acting.

I can vividly remember the first film I saw in the cinema; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. I can't remember the first play I saw, in the theatre or otherwise.

Brendan Grace

It might have been a pantomime in Dublin Airport in my childhood, which featured the Irish comedians Brendan Grace and Twink. I only have very vague memories of the performance-- there was also a magic show which featured a disappearing rabbit. I can still, however, taste the burger I ate at the same event. (As to why there should have been a pantomime in the airport-- God knows. From my recollection it was in a hangar. I can also remember gingerly touching the Northern Irish soccer goalkeeper Pat Jennings, who also made an appearance at this event. I was standing behind him as he signed autographs for a load of other kids. I didn't even know who he was before that day, having no interest in soccer-- but he was somebody famous, so I was star-struck.)

Then there were school plays. In the late eighties I was an extra (I was always an extra) in a musical about global warming that our teacher (a hippie) wrote for an Irish language arts festival called the Slógadh (pronounced slow-ga). I was one of many zombie-like figures who wore red rags, and make-up to represent skin cancer. We had some songs to sing. I've sometimes wondered whether, all these years later, my class could reconstruct the songs from memory. We certainly sang them often enough-- we rehearsed the piece into the ground. It paid off, as we won.

On another occasion, a year or two earlier, my class put on a much more informal performance of A Christmas Carol, for the rest of the school. I had one line to deliver and I managed to forget it. All these years later, ironically enough, I can remember what it was: it was "You are a rich man, Scrooge, aren't you?". (In Irish, of course, as it was an Irish language school.)

I never went to the theatre proper in my childhood, and I don't feel at all deprived on account of this.

When I was about sixteen, my school was one of the pioneers of something called the Transition Year, a year focused more on personal development than academic study. This involved "modules" in which we tried out different subjects-- one of them was drama. My class (with the help of a professional theatre person of some kind) produced an early Sean O'Casey play called The Halls of Healing. This was a satire on the Irish health system of the time. I was given no role whatsoever in this play-- during one rehearsal, the theatre woman told me to watch it and tell her what I thought. That was my role. I remember finding this extremely insulting and patronising. On the other hand, I didn't exactly put myself forward.

The funny thing is, even though I had minimal involvement in the production, the magic of the whole thing is vivid in my memory. It's difficult to describe this without indulging in clichés... "coming to life", "losing yourself" "the wonder of make-believe", etc. etc. When I remember this whole experience, certain images come to mind; kids standing around an empty class-room, all the tables and chairs pushed to the walls, holding scripts; one of the girls in the glass dressed as a man in a heavy coat, scarf and hat; one of my more extroverted class-mates camping up the role of an angry patient for all it was worth; the bright lights of the stage when we were rehearsing it, etc. For some reason, I don't remember the final performance. I took a strong dislike to the woman who was guiding us-- my encounters with theatre people have not endeared them to me, on the whole.

When we were studying The Merchant of Venice, in second year (I was about fourteen), our teachers arranged for a drama company to perform several scenes from the play in our school. I can remember Bassanio looked like William Riker of Star Trek fame, and our class making "woooh" noises when the teacher commented on how good-looking he was, afterwards. I thought the acting was very hammy.

Even though I didn't find the enactment very appealing, I can remember my imagination being stirred by the idea of theatre, when we were studying The Merchant of Venice. There was one lesson in particular, in which the teacher described the various ways in which character can be revealed in drama-- posture, costume, voice, vocabuluary, etc. etc.-- which greatly excited my imagination. Perhaps I have never been more excited in a class-room setting, than in that single lesson.

(However, there is a bit of a shadow on that memory. The teacher who taught us The Merchant of Venice was the best teacher I had in school-- an English teacher who really encouraged and challenged me. I'd always had it in mind that, if I ever had a book published, I would like to send her a copy. When my book Inspiration from the Saints was in the pipeline, I contacted my old school asking if they knew her address. Not only did the secretary give me her address, but she told me-- they must have been friends-- that my old English teacher remembered me fondly and still kept one assignment I'd written. But it's months since I sent her a copy of my book and she never wrote back-- I included my work address. I keep wondering why. Was the accompanying letter too gushing? I tried to be restrained. Did she disapprove of the book's conservative Catholicism? Did she find the book unreadable? Is it languishing unread on her shelf? I don't know. I wonder.)

In one of my later years in school, I saw another class perform A Midsummer Night's Dream, and once again it was a rather magical performance. My favourite Shakespeare play is The Tempest, because the whole theme of the play is artifice, magic, and the shimmering line between reality and unreality-- a theme I find endlessly fascinating. A Midsummer Night's Dream has much the same appeal. The play is as much about the theatre as it is a piece of theatre. It's also very suited to adolescence, with all its lovesick and hot-blooded young characters.

One of my English teachers (a different English teacher) suggested I might write a school play, when I was about sixteen. I wish I'd given this a go. I was tempted, but too nervous to try.

In my early twenties, the manager of the Axis theatre and arts centre in Ballymun contacted me with the suggestion that I might write a play for it. When it was first set up, he'd put out a call to locals, asking them for their suggestions for the centre. He was rather impressed with my submission, and he invited me to write a play, working with two actors of his acquaintance. It wasn't a success. I came up with an idea for a play called The Golden Girl, loosely based on a girl in my year in school. She was beautiful, brilliant, popular, and apparently blessed by the gods in every possible way. My play was a two-act play, the first act set in the present, in which the golden girl has died of a drug overdose, and her old school friends are attending her wake. The second act was set in the past, at the height of her success.

It was a terrible idea, and what I wrote of it was terrible. One of the actors said: "It's not the worst first draft I've ever read". He was probably being kind. I didn't much like these theatre people, either-- although they were perfectly nice people, they certainly fulfilled the stereotype of the "luvvie". One of them said to me: "An actor can tell straight away if a line of dialogue is going to work". I was very intimidated by this comment. The project fell apart pretty quickly.

But what about the theatre proper-- going to see a professional production, of my own volition?

It's a strange thing, but I can't say for sure when I first saw a professional play, even though I'm sure it wasn't until my twenties.

It may have been The Secret Garden, which I went to see in the Helix theatre, beside Dublin City University. This would have been in my late twenties, I think. The book had a big effect on me in my childhood-- I may write about it in a future blog post. I didn't enjoy the performance, however. I was the only adult there who wasn't accompanying a child-- it was mostly schoolchildren in attendance. Considering men on their own at such occasions are stigmatised as probable perverts in today's society, I couldn't enjoy myself. The whole thing had an air of anti-climax-- the audience was very small and the cast didn't seem to be taking it very seriously.

Dublin's most famous theatre is the Abbey. W.B. Yeats played a big part in its creation. As part of the transition year previously mentioned, my class went on a trip to the Abbey-- not to a performance, simply to the theatre itself. I was quite impressed by this, especially the framed painting of an old W.B. Yeats in the lobby. By this time, I already idolized Yeats. There were several trips to plays during my school years, but I never joined them.

I've been to the Abbey a couple of times. I went to see A Month in the Country by Turgenev, translated by Brian Friel. The other play I went to see in the Abbey was also by Brian Friel-- Translations. I wasn't much impressed by either, although I was struck by one line in the latter: "To remember everything is a form of madness." 

I also attended a play in the Peacock, which is a small experimental theatre attached to the Abbey. I went to see a play called The Grown-Ups here. It was quite good. It was set during Ireland's Celtic Tiger era, which was still ongoing at the time. One character, a ne'er-do-well older man in a relationship with a younger woman, kept referring vaguely to "the malaise" of Irish society. At one point, he reveals that he has booked an expensive holiday on credit cards. When his girlfriend asks how he managed to get a credit card, he replies: "You don't even have to ask for one-- they're giving them away!" The twist is that this ne'er-do-well character, who seems to be the laughing stock of the play at first, turns out to be author's voice and the character with the keenest insight into Celtic Tiger Ireland. (As the reader probably knows, Celtic Tiger Ireland turned out to be built on a credit bubble, and the whole thing came crashing down with disastrous consequences.)

This theatre visit was a memorable occasion, in several ways. It was a group visit arranged by a female friend upon whom I had a massive, painful crush at the time. I made no secret of my feelings and they didn't seem to bother her. Perhaps she was simply a kind person, or perhaps a girl likes to have an admirer around.

As I watched the play, I fell into a strange mood, which was quite appropriate to the theme and to the historical period-- I began to fret that I had an extremely tenuous grasp of reality, that I didn't have any real understand of the way the world worked, and that I was utterly lost. It was an extraordinary feeling, and very disturbing. It lingered with me as I left the theatre and stood at the bus-stop. I've been struck by this anxiety intermittently in my life, but never as powerfully as on this occasion.

I think the only professional Shakespeare play I've ever attended is Cymbeline, which I saw performed by the Richmond Shakespeare, in Virginia. I went there with my now-wife Michelle. The play was performed outdoors, in a reconstruction of a Tudor mansion. It's a literal reconstruction-- the mansion had been pulled down, its materials transferred to America, and rebuilt there. As we were wandering the grounds before the play, we came to a rose garden, and I was considering proposing to Michelle-- I had written a proposal in the form of a poem, which I had memorized. As regular readers might expect, the poem was very long, so I needed some time and privacy. I decided the rose garden wasn't the right place. It was also very hot. This was at the height of summer. Everyone was chugging huge cups of soda from the refreshments stall. I can remember very little of the play itself, except some mock fighting. The cast lined up to say goodbye to the audience as we filed out, and all anybody was talking about was the sweltering heat.

A Richmond Shakespeare production

The last time I went to the theatre was to see a dramatization of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire (on the outskirts of Dublin). It was terrible-- the central character, Stephen Daedalus, was played by a girl, for no good reason whatsoever. The entire thing was reduced to a bawdy farce. Someone was carrying a skeleton around the stage throughout the performance-- once again, for no obvious reason.

Recently, we've been treated to the announcement that Irish theatres are going to introduce gender-blind casting, and produce as many plays by female playwrights as by male playwrights. Indeed, there was much rejoicing when it was announced that an actress would play Hamlet at the Gate (the other major theatre in Dublin, which I've never attended). The triumph of PC lunacy in Irish theatre means that, while I previously avoided going to the theatre out of apathy, in the future I will avoid going on principle.

This blog post is much longer than I expected it to be. What to say in conclusion? Perhaps simply that the idea of the theatre has always appealed to me at least as much as the reality. The theatre as a dreamworld, as a cross-roads of reality and unreality-- or perhaps, different levels of reality-- has seemed just as potent to me when I've encountered it in a school play, or a rehearsal for a school play, or even an English class studying The Merchant of Venice, as when I've gone to a professional production. Indeed, it be even more potent. What the professional production gains in production values, in accomplishment, it loses in rawness, and naivety, and wonder.


  1. Having worked in university theatre, one of the things I like about theatre over films is that if you watch a play twice, even in the same production on successive nights, there will be differences! It adds to the enjoyment, at least for me, to watch for the little differences. Was it an error, a flubbed line, or did the director make a change? It's part of the fun.

    1. Yes, I can understand how that might be part of the appeal, that every performance is utterly unique, perhaps in a big way, perhaps in a tiny way. Especially with plays that have become standards and every choice is laden with significance and part of a tradition.