23 SEPTEMBER 1960, Page 21


Stage Irish

By ALAN BRIEN The Playboy of the Western World. The Scatterin'. The Krcut- zer Sonata. The High- est House on the Mountain. The Voices of Doolin. (Dublin Festival.) THE Dublin Festival, like • ,‘ the Edinburgh Festival, had the advantage of opening with a master- piece. In Edinburgh a Russian classic with an English cast was occa- skuallY fumbled and once or twice almost dropped. In Dublin an Irish classic with an Irish east kept the ball. of words skidding like quick- silver from touchline to touchline. The Playboy 01 the Western World was once a controversial, disturbing play—indeed, it still is when one Plunges beneath the roaring, frothy surface of the language. The weapon with which Christy Mahon tries to kill his father is the golden bough. Ile is the young parricide of a thousand world ulYths who always destroys the old jealous father- lover and so frees the daughter-concubines for renewed sexual abandon. The dialogue is full of direct, brutal images of love and death which are easily obscured under the great avalanches of runaway rhetoric. Hanging is continually evoked and pictured, almost always with a sort of ecstatic masochism. Not only are the girls lathered with lubricity at the nearness of the father-killer, but the future father-,in-law, too, is overjoyed at the possibility of a murderer ill the faifiily who will one day make his death easy and quick. Christy's father, of course, is not really dead, so he has to undergo another flock execution before he, too, delightedly accepts the role of the defeated and maimed parent.

Synge continually lays on the romantic poetry with a trowel only to scrape it off again with a knife. Old Mahon is no stock comic tyrant but a dipsomaniac, tormented by DT demons in his straitjacket, who boastfully recalls 'seven doc- tors writing down me sayings in a printed book.' Widow Quinn is a backwoods Molly Bloom who has destroyed her own male ruler and aches for a young lover. There is no ambiguity about her physical desires—she groans at the sight of passing ships full of 'gallant hairy fellows.' It IS the widow who rebukes Christy for his 'poetry and points out that Pegeen Mike stinks of poteen and that when she itches she scratches. Almost everyone in this Mayo village accepts and rejoices in the violence and passion which erupts there with the arrival of 'the fine treacherous lad'--except for Christy and Pegeen, ‘o realise that the saturnalia must end. Both abandon the fleshy promise of a life full of mighty kisses with wetted lips' for a bare, lonely existence. As Pegeen says, when she exorcises the Pagan gods at last, 'There's a difference between a gallows story and a dirty deed.' The Playboy is a sour, sensual comedy drunk with laughter over the ironies of this tragedy of errors called Irish life. It ends in a mood of hangover with a bitterness in the air that the Irish still refuse to recognise.

Shelah Richards at the Gaiety gave the play a conventional, warm, roistering production which milked the theatrical cream from every turnabout and. twistaboin of plot and dialogue. She herded the action along at a brisk trot and with the Widow Quinn of Eithne Dunne and the Old Mahon of Brian O'Higgins pushed the laughter out towards the audience. It was only it Siobhan McKenna's Pegeen and Donal Don- nelly's Christy that the tragedy ever smouldered and smoked. Pegeen is a penetrating charac- terisation of an untamed shrew and Miss McKenna missed few of the subtleties. She could have been more sluttish perhaps in her appear- ance, but the brown egg-face with the eyes and lips rounded in a constant 'ooh' of emotion conveyed exactly the right feeling of a George Eliot heroine gone wild and native. She explored the dilemma of the passionate girl in a puritani- cal society who is encouraged to take the initiative with everyone everywhere except in bed with a touching, nervous honesty. (This is probably the strongest theme in the play—a theme half-uncovered in the spinster's plight in The Ginger Man and spotlit once in The Scatterin'.) Christy's role is not written with the same sympathetic insight—we never really know what guts are inside this runaway whelp. But Donal Donnelly's performance was so rich in texture and so inlaid with observation that the contrast was hardly noticeable. Indefatigably doggy, Mr. Donnelly followed his nose every- where as if afraid it would escape. He twitched, shivered, fawned, grinned, coughed, barked, leaped and frisked like a greyhound on holiday. He never knew which door would open or who would stamp on his tail or when to show off and when to come to heel. Because he trans- mitted his own sense of surprise and wonder to the audience, everything seemed to be hap- pening for the first time. Miss McKenna and Mr. Donnelly fitted like mistress and hound in performances which were worthy of this ruthless, outrageous, uproarious exposure of the Irish.

A second advantage possessed by the Dublin Festival, but not available to the Edinburgh Festival, was a new home-brewed play about old home-brewed problems. James McKenna's The Scatterin' is a ballad-opera about the latest wave of refugees in the Irish diaspora to sail from that holy shore to what one of the characters calls 'Arthur Guinness's other island.' It can scarcely be said to have a plot. Six Dublin Teds grind and gripe on the street corner in the first act while an old drunk sings 'A terrible dust hangs over the land, Sure most of the people think its grand.' They rant and sneer at the myths and manners which keep them squashed at the base of the pyramid—at 'them women factories called convents,' at 'St. Patrick, the Wyatt Earp of ancient Ireland,' the 'HP home on the range.' A girl strides through, Pegeen Mike in a trench- coat, and destroys their pathetically wolfish attempts at flirtation—`the biggest thing about you is your whistle.' More amenable girls appear to giggle and jive and date—'Sex is on the way says the Shan Van Vocht.' The police move them on with contemptuous brutality.

In the second act, Mr. McKenna has aban- doned two of his Teds. The other four drink and dream and lie to each other at sunset in the mountains. They tell stories of cruelty and oppres- sion in the free state—of a famous local foot- baller crippled by the rival team, of the illegiti- mate children starved and scabby in cliaritable • homes, of Biddy the Whore whose lovers never loved her. They parody television melodramas and burlesque Western songs and rock-'n'-roll traditional ballads. And they protest angrily and emptily against Ireland's destiny as manufacturer of cheap labour to the Western world.

The final act is on the North Quay as the old and the new emigrants ship off for Liverpool and Camden Town. Here the plot suddenly raises a sleepy eyelid again. One boy has stabbed a policeman and is arrested as the gangway goes up. But again the aim is an impressionistic picture of a group rather than a realistic narrative about an individual. The Western backwoodsmen in their dark shiny suits dance like stout bottles with glassy faces and agile boots to the old tunes while the gaudy young Teds and their molls weave in and out in lithe West Side Story pos- tures. The boat leaves and the play ends.

Now The Scatterin' gains rather than loses by this kind of prdcis. Most of Mr. McKenna's points are made rather in intention than in execu- tion. A great deal of the dialogue is incredibly crude and repetitive at one moment and at the next subtle and telling. Exposition is often non- existent and motivation is regularly ignored. The tough girl in the trench-coat (played with aggres- sive plump disillusion by Eileen Colgan) comes on in the first and third acts to lament the death of all the big men and croon her thirst for a land 'where loving is no crime.' But she makes no real connection with the boys and is clearly almost an afterthought. The play is directed by Alan Simpson to make its impact from moment to moment despite all the limitations of a shallow, uncurtained church-hall stage. The Scatterin' is the raw material of a work of art, the dramatic notebooks of a bitter and bright young man, rather than a coherent dramatic work. But Mr. Simpson and Mr. McKenna see that those moments strike like a hail of blows with a lead- loaded shillelagh. The six young men have a freshness of feeling and a sharpness of attack which cuts through the clumsiness of much of the writing technique. Young Ireland today, as Mr. McKenna has been the first to recognise, is in the first flush of a doomed love affair with the noisy, sexy, greedy materialism of juke-box America. Ireland is melting, England is frozen solid--only America is alive and hot. But Eng- land is the stepping stone, the better alternative to gaol and dole, an anonymous land where an Irish youth can escape from the dark, depressing shadow of dead priests and patriots.

It does not matter that these attitudes may be silly or even contemptible. They exist in Ireland today. They have been strikingly epitomised by an Irish writer on the Irish stage. And the Dub- lin audience greeted this exposure of their half- conscious wishes and fears with almost frighten- ing enthusiasm—so much so that one usually crotchety Dublin critic described the play as the best since The Plough and the Stars. If Mr. McKenna could feed The Scatterin' back through his intellect and regurgitate it shaped, and chopped, and polished, then here would be something to stand alongside The Hostage. Already The Scatterin' has many rare virtues. Mr. McKenna's lyrics sometimes have a bite and compression which are the nearest things to Brecht 1 have seen written in English. A. J. Potter' s music for dances also has Weillian affinities. The author himself has written sonic of the songs. And 'Just Dust,' an affectionate cowboy parody, could go straight into any catalogue of pop recordings.

The Dublin Festival has rightly been mainly Irish. Among the foreign offerings is a fascinat- ing adaptation of The Kreutzer Sonata as a duologue by Roderick Lovell and Hannah Watt. This is perhaps the most unnerving, probing, shameless dissection of a marriage ever crammed on the boards—it makes The Rose Tattoo sound like Ann Temple's Casebook. And it contains a pavan of thanksgiving for the miracle of con- traception which seems so far to have escaped the wrath of the hierarchy. Unfortunately, such writing and such ideas need virtuoso playing. Mr. Lovell and his wife are not quite up to their own dramatisation. Miss Watt especially too often falls into a soubrette coyness which grates against the clinical toughness of her lines.

The other two main Irish plays were a dis- appointment. The Highest House on the Moun- tain has led its author, John B. Keane, to be hailed at home as Ireland's Tennessee Williams. Visitors from abroad were more likely to find him Ireland's Emlyn Williams after a diet of O'Neill. It is really too late to do the drunken son who brings home a prostitute wife to the cabin in the hills any more. Walter Macken's The Voices of Doolin is an old-fashioned story about a commercial family trying to wrest the business from the dipsomaniac father. Cyril Cusack Productions, starring Cyril Cusack, gave plenty of opportunities for this great actor to blink and sniff, and reel and start, as the drunk. But the dialogue is written with deadly predicta- bility, the supporting cast are below par (or Pa) and weighed down with roles of leaden dullness. and the production is as mechanical as worn-out clockwork. Still, the Dublin Festival is alive and courageous and modern—which no one has been able to say about Edinburgh for many a year. More Power to its elbow.