John B. Keane talks to the Monday Circle
JOHN B. KEANE was born in Listowel, Co. Kerry, in 1928 and educated at St. Michael's College. At twenty-one he was the editor of his own newspaper, which lasted for one issue. During his varied career he has been chemist's assistant in England, a furnace operator, assistant fowl buyer, street sweeper, labourer and barman. When he had saved a few hundred pounds, John B. Keane came home to his native Listowel and bought a public-house. His writing up to that time had consisted of short stories, poems and.a few articles. "He turned to the theatre and here his natural sense of characterisation, coupled with his gifts as a storyteller, created the atmosphere for so many years lost to Irish letters." He wrote Sive in ten days. It swept the country, and since then Keane's talents as a playwright have entertained, informed and been appreciated in many corners of the globe.
One does not have to be in the presence of John B. Keane for long to realise that here is a shrewd, perceptive man. He is strikingly honest-sometimes literally so! As he says himself, " I admire a man who will stand up and fight for what he believes in. If you stand up and fight they can't beat you. You might be knocked down but you can always come again!" John B. Keane believes in a lot of things. He believes in John B. Keane, not through any arrogance or false pride, but with a self-respect and faith in his own judgment which is likeable and admirable. He believes in Ireland and the Irish people with a love-hate curiosity and affection which goad him unceasingly to question and comm.ent with humour and candour, sometimes" too near the bone" for those who do not have his honesty. He is a controversial figure; his plays have received rave notices and condemnation but they never fail [0 fill the seats of Irish theatres. But John has learnt [0 discriminate where his critics are concerned, and knows what to take as constructive, and what to eschew as narrowmindedness, and" sour grapes" carping. In his autobiography he says, "Nobody ever accepts a writer. He accepts himself. To be a writer, a recognised writer, you have to dream about it from the age of reason onwards.
You have to hold this thing into yourself and you have to listen to taunts and jibes far removed from clinical and detached criticism. You have to be conscious of jealousies and the criticism that arises from them but you have to have the consciousness to realise that you are not without jealousy yourself. You have to listen to, and read, things about yourself far removed from the truth and you must say nothing whatsoever about it. You'll be called anything from communist to anti-clerical and if you dare to deny it you'll succeed only in hanging yourself."
A visitor to this country recently remarked, " One thing the Irish love is a failure. They are suspicious of success and in many cases resent it, especially in their fellow countrymen. It's a question of 'If at first you don't succeed you'll probably have more friends'.
John B. Keane is a success and he has many friends. If you meet him and he likes you, he will show it, just as you won't be left in doubt if he dislikes you! Among his best-known plays are Sive, Sharon's Grave, The Year of the Hiker, Many Young Men of Twenty, The Man from Clare, and more recently The Rain at the End of Summer and his recordbreaking Big Maggie. His Letters of a Successful T.D.-a hilarious correspondence between a T.D. and his family-is a best seller. Here in this extract from the Monday Circle discussion with him, John B. Keane talks about himself and his views on many subjects.
Letters of a Successful T.D.
Yes, but Tull McAdoo does not emerge as a bad character. He is no better or worse an Irishman than anyone here toight for example! He is a negative T.D. and epitomises most of the Irish T.D.s of today. There is a lot of rubbish talked about patriotism today. ., I think patriotism is the greatest killer of idealism that was ever born. "Letters" is a satire about the jobbery that goes on in Irish politics. I think every country should have a Minister of CultUre and the Arts to protect the rights of the writer and artist who wish to express their views and the views of others."
J. B. KEANE on
The Catholic Church in Ireland is adjusting itself. It has (because of the detachment of its senior priests and prelates) lost much of its power. That it should lose control of people is good because the Church should not control. It should guide, assist, instruct, etc. Its efforts to control have placed it in a precarious position. And whatever about the clergy, the people will rescue the Church.
Change of Environment
No, I don't need any change. I was offered a post in the University of California where I would write the title of a play on the blackboard and sit down with the students and work from there. But I turned down the offer. I don't want [0 leave Ireland. I love the place. Just this evening driving into Cork I was marvelling at the trees along the way. Irish trees which you will find nowhere else-tall stately trees, nodding at you, intelligent friendly trees. They made me happy. I think I am going deeper into my own people and deeper into myself. There is always something new to discover, something new to comment on. I suppose you could say I am maturing. \X'hen you are a young man you say daring things with only a certain element of truth. When you are older you make the comments with more thought and experience. In playwriting you have to think and consider more deeply than ever.
I don't think I have written a good play yet. The Year of the Hiker is probably the best, because it has the most charity, but that's not a great dramatic reason tp give for a play. I don't consider myself as a success. The Irish critics regard me as a fellow who can write a play but who has not written one yet. I am coming to terms with myself and trying to tie in my own crooked obsessions and dreams with my life, my family and my development. I may never do what I want to do. That is the great tragedy, but I keep hammering away all the time.
I am not a bitter man as people who know me and love me will tell you. Ninety-nine per cent of what I have written is comedy. Will you not allow me one per cent of kick? I hate injustice. I get angry at injustice. Such as a fellow running down a fellow who isn't there [0 defend himself. Or a bunch of thugs in a dance hall attacking a couple or a fellow on his own. And then if they are caught they are fined £1 in court, by some cowardly judge. It's a disgrace. Or a fellow with a bald tyre on his car who is a potential killer and he is fined 10/- if he is caught.
Why do you write?
I love people and I have to write. I cannot bear to see unhappiness in others. It makes me unhappy. I have to become involved. I believe in people. I love them and hate them because I know what they are. At times I hate this country for its hypocrisy and its dreams of the Irish language and the G.A.A. and we will rake up a thousand years of muck to produce one ideology which is not worth a damn. And everybody here knows this and you don't give a damn either!
I believe that all responsible people should be actively involved in politics. I am a member of the Fine Gael party and regularly appear on public platforms on behalf of Fine Gael candidates. I would have gone forward as a Dail candidate in the last General Election had it not been for the fact that an old friend was going forward. Someone asked just now whom I admire in Ireland today. I admire Pat Taaffe, and Noel Murphy. I admire the Taoiseach, although I am not a member of his party. I admire Gay Byrne because everybody gets an even break on that programme of his.
On being a Publican he says:
I wouldn't advise anyone to become a publican, and I really mean this. Your home isn't your own. It is a public place where any kind of scoundrel can enter and spend his time. A man can bore you to death if he wants to and you have to hear his confession too, if he feels like telling it. You have to i listen to "best friends" cutting each other to pieces when one or the other is absent. You have to listen to every sort of gossip or go out of business. You have to listen to every dirty story that goes the rounds. This is okay the first time you hear it, but when you hear it for the hundredth time and you have to laugh as much as the first time it's a bit irritating, but if you don't you'll find yourself losing a customer.In the
summer you get every type calling.
There was one occasion when two English reporters called in for a drink to break their journey. They spent an hour over one drink, but they missed nothing that went on around them. After a while a tinker woman, who was well and truly scattered, came in with a baby in her arms and she was looking for a drink. I refused her and she got annoyed. The two lads said nothing but they were so interested I was wondering what they were up to. The tinker woman left having conclusively proved my illegitimacy and after a while the two press lads left. Later that night the 'phone rang and it was a certain newspaper who asked, "Tell me, is it true that you, who wrote Sive, refuse to serve tinkers in your bar any more?" "Nonsense!" I replied, " I served two of your reporters here this morning! "
Michael MacLiammoir said that the theatre is an evil place for those who do not belong. Any place is an evil place for those who do not belong. I do not belong to the theatre, at least to the metropolitan theatre which claims tradition with portfolio. Anybody can belong to the rural theatre. It is not an evil place and nobody should try to tell us that the rural theatre is not truly international. Shakespeare was a country boy and so was Yeats. So was T. C. Murray and so was Lorca. But we must keep the rural theatre free from too much metropolitan influence and let it develop its own character. In many aspects it's still a sprawling adolescent but not for long because the theatre is experiencing the pangs of rebirth in rural Ireland. It is taking a strange shape but the stranger the better, and the more independent of outside influence the better. Gone are the days when a bit of fishing gut had to be tied to the legs of an actor to remind him that it was his turn to say something, or to stop him from saying too much!
Gone are the days too, when forgotten plays had to be unearthed for last-minute productions. New plays by country boys are springing up like mushrooms. Maybe some of them are crude and clumsy but it must be remembered that you cannot build a new native drama in a generation. The rising generation should bring the harvest of plays which the theatre needs to give it life and vitality and exuberance, to give it hilarity and lunacy and bustle because these are the things that a rising generation has in abundance.
Anonymous letter writers
I get about thirty of these a year. I have often asked myself what prompts people to write anonymous letterswhy people should deliberately set out to hurt people who have done them no harm. A while ago I got a letter from one who calls hcrself "Good Catholic Mother." How does she know she's a good Catholic mother? Someone else will decide that for her at an unexpected date. Anyway good Catholic mothers, or good any kind of mothers do not write anonymous letters. Of course the alleged" Catholic mother" may be nothing more than a small jealous little man! They used to upset us but now when I
open a letter I look for a signature. If there is no signature it goes straight into the fire.
You have asked me to recite one of my poems. Here is "Church Street" -the street where I was born in Listowel.
I love the flags that pave the walk, I love the mud between
The funny figures drawn in chalk; I love to hear thc sound
Of drays upon their round,
Of horses and their clocklike walk; I love to watch the corner people gawk
And hear what underlies their idle talk.
I love to hear the music of the rain; I love to hear the sound
Of yellow waters flushing in the main; I love the breaks between
When little boys begin
To sail their paper galleons in the drain.
Grey clouds sail west and silver tips remain;
The strect, thank God, is bright and clean again.
A golden, mellow peace for ever clings Along the little street;
There are so very many lasting things Beyond the wall, of strife
In our beleaguered life;
There are so many lovely songs to sing
Of God and His eternal love that rings
Of simple people and of simple things.
Communism? A menace with no room for love,
charity or free thought or speech.
Irish Women? I love them!
The Moon Landing? A good thing since there is no life
there for men to corrupt.
Name a better way to raise a family.
There is no such place.
Christmas? I'm all for it.
Death? I never discuss subjects which are too
Bernadette Devlin? A likeable sparrow.
I hope nobody
John B. Keane? I like him-not
always, but I like 47
Likc all the rest,
We wore slogans on our sleeves
And argued military trust
Across dinner-table lcaves.
Outside that game now, you warn: Two fingers raise in hope, or scorn.
So they put you to the test,
To see how much one man will resist.
ON THE NEW PEACE PROPOSALS MARCH, 1969
Outside, in a vacant Lot, bulldozers fight With the frozen earth. Everywhere, it seems, March will not give in To our hovering April.
One year gone and still No closer to peace Thacl a fool's forecast Might figure us to be. I stir, drawn from one Window to another, Self-conscious, aware That all Spring pacing Is awkward and almost Beyond any repair.
My days may all hang Heavily like this
I am allowed that grace. No doubt one of these Days would seem a year In South Vietnam. That is my grace too. The fact that I don't Understand how
To accommodate it
Is one month's spell, One season's vacancy.
LETTER FROM A DRAFTRESISTER
Today breeze-swept rains washed Spring through my bones. Letters opened the day,
as they can;
I was grateful
to learn of your late reprieve.
Still, it seemed that this
was like so many
othcr breathing days
one more pause
full of transparent
calm-which you cannot control.
I, the paralytic,
the helpless friend, must watch this ancient Spring
carry you in descent, in the vortex of its rage.
Swnmer spends heat, Autumn's embers fallno other season
is at war
with itself like Spring, and you will wear its mark,
Now, as you thread choice
so painstakingly, you uncover
all that's lost between situation and the self.
4. ANIMAL DROPPINGS FROM THE MEKONG DELTA
His old lady was a problem at first, But they
Shot her with sedatives
Like a wild elephant,
For nearly 48 hours.
Later, they bought her off
With the usual S9.00 worth of Medals and laudatory double-talk.
No other military operation
Is carried out with such precision.
He was like a plague, noisy, Depressingly naive and gullible. At some point, a virgin still, He wandered into choice
And so chose to enlist.
Within eighteen months he was Ripped apart without grace.
His pieces were clumsily
Shovelled together and shipped back.
In his summer's town The air is thick as paste, The streets ripple
Like sheets of flypaper.
Later, in its time, Everything will freeze.