Theatre festival-preliminary report
AS WE go to press the 1969 Festival has not yet reached the half-way mark, and so any evaluation or even any prophecy would be at best purely speculative, a judgment with but half the evidence heard. Yet some productions have a definite interest in their own right and may providc a foundation on which to build a subsequent, more complete assessment. The Festival, it can bc argued, is more than the sum of its parts, but every part contributes to the Festival as a whole.
Accordingly, let us look at three productions considering each as an isolated item subjcct to critical evaluation as such, and then, tentatively, we will consider it in relation to somcthing largcr, but as yet incomplete. The plays we have chosen-and be it noted this is an arbitrary, personal choiceare The Immortal Husband by James Merrill at the Gate, The Assassin by John Boyd at the Gaiety, and SWIft by Eugene McCabe at the Abbey.
"The Immortal Husband" by James Merrill (The Gate)
Everything we have seen of American drama in Dublin over the last ten years leads us to expect something consciously, aggressively revolutionary like the Antigone or the Frankenstein of the Living Theatre of America, something violcnt and strange like The Indian Wants the Bronx or Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool, Dry Place, something stridently searing like Virginia Woolf or something smoothly sophisticated like The Odd Couple or Two for the See-saw. We had no reason to look for anything as gossamer-like as Ring Round the Moon or The Second Kiss, yet that is what The Immortal Husband, presented by the Artists' Theatre of America isa play that can only be described as a poetic drama.
Fact, however, before comment; this piece, says the programme note, is based on a legend that the Goddess Aurora gives a young man immortal life without giving him what he really wants-immortal youth. Those who demand that the Theatre shall provide slices of life, or be committed to a philosophy, or serve as a piece of social engineering will fling up their hands in holy horror and ask what this mythological mush-mush has to do with anything, let alone why it should be presented at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The answer is deceptively simple-the thing happens to be intensely theatrical. To begin with, it is a delight to the eye and to the ear, to go on with it has a quality of excitement such as MacLiammoir and Edwards could evoke in the golden age of the Gate, but which has evaporated in these later, graver times. Back, however, to fact; the play is in three acts, the first set in England in 1854, the second in Russia fifty years later, the last in Southampton, U.S.A., in 1968. An immortal Aurora, ageless, beautiful, amoral, falls in love with a youth called Tithonus, a name which he will keep in all places at all times. When we meet him first he is the young Romantic rebelling against order, middle-age, everything except youth. In opposition to him is The Other, Older Woman, here a staid companion embodying level-headed cool-judging acceptance. When we see Tithonus for the last time 104 years later, he is bed-ridden, but in full possession of his faculties, sharp enough to realise that Aurora is about to leave him for a new young man, a fresh Tithonus, and that his best friend will now be the same Older, 0 ther Woman, once negative, dressed in black, a governess, but now transformed to a cool figure in white, a nurse. She cannot take away his immortality, but she can make his later days more tolerable. Young love, middle-aged love, old love, idealism, doubt, acceptance, our human seasons, these are all inherent in the mortal predicament. The play catches them with exquisite precision, tenderly, flippantly on occasion, compassionately always, and shows Man immersed in Time, his love changing its nature with his seasons. It is all fantasy, of course, but poets' fantasies have the distressing trick of proving the very stuff of reality. The characters, however, are definite enough, Tithonus self-centred, in love with love or with himself perhaps, Aurora, lonely in her immortality, failing to be human and for one terrible instant regretting it, The Other, Older Woman tranquil because she has rejected ecstasy and has accepted life and death as conditions of being mortal. The play, humorous, elegant, lyrical, belongs entirely to the stage and not to the pulpit, the printed page, or any other medium. What it has to say may be done indirectly but its impact is immediate. As a Festival offering this production has three great virtuesit reminds us that there is more to life than conventional realism, that there is more to America than mere stridency, and it has the indefinable but unmistakeable spirit of Festival, the very breath of Harlequin and' Columbine.
"The Assassin" by John Boyd (The Gaiety)
In sharp contrast comes John Boyd's The Assassin, no fantasy with ethereal Goddesses and eternal youth but a report on blood and violence in Belfast where fanatical evangelists enter politics and gentle idealists can suddenly turn into cold-blooded murderers. We are shown the electoral triumph of a certain Reverend Colonel Luther A. Lamb and how he is struck down in the very moment of victory, a picture of the present and a portent for the future. Mr. Boyd uses several comparatively modern devices, a series of short isolated scenes instead of a continuously developed argument in three acts, a number of flash-backs in place of a continuous time sequence. He brings in one of the oldest theatrical devices, the Chorus, using it just as the Greek dramatists did to comment upon and to point up the action while not directly influencing it, but his is a twentieth century Chorus, a single Television commentator instead of the traditional dozen or so citizens or widows or vestal virgins. He furthermore seeks to involve his audience actively by having his crowds shout from the stalls and the circle, and by showering the patrons with leaflets. Those looking for an immediate committed Theatre concerned with the politics of here and now should have been pleased with the piece, yet even the strongest supporters of political plays and the champions of documentary drama seem to feel not quite satisfied. The reason for this, like the reason for the success of The Immortal Husband, is deceptively simple. To begin with, The Assassin is not of itself theatrical, and to go on with, the drama presented by Mr. Boyd on the stage is far less exciting than the drama provided by the Bogsiders, the B Specials, Major Bunting and the Rev. Paisley in the streets. A theatrical experience involves concentration of fact, but here we have a dilution of it. The piece is an analysis, painstaking, sensitive enough if rather limited, of the factors which have led to the situation across the Border. The pieces are assembled, combined, and the result shown to be inevitable, much as one might assemble the pieces of a motor car, combine them and show how the completed machine must function. But no demonstration, not even of the Internal Combustion Engine, can transmit the urgency inherent in authentic drama. What happens in the theatre involves author, actors, and audiencedetachment means death, and here, we felt, Mr. Boyd is detached.He is nearer to his Chorus than to any of his characters and it is surely no accident that he himself should be a Radio and Television producer. The Assassin would probably be very effective in the cinema; in the theatre it lacks all the immediate impact to be found, for example, in Sam Thompson's Cemented with Love. There are a number of scenes in the lives of the Reverend Colonel and of his executioner, but these are "stills," not stages in development, illustrations, not actions. All the time we are conscious of the author as technician so that we remain unmoved or at best feel a little subdued at the spectacle on a stage in front of us of happenings which in real life are distant enough for us to ignore.
Mr. Boyd's analysis of the tragedy of Ulster is not very profound-he is content to leave it as a matter of childhood background and religious prejudice while he ignores the social and economic implications and only occasionally does he attempt any direct confrontation of ideas. When this happens, as in the scene where a wise but utterly unglamorous Rector questions Lamb's evangelical fireworks with a group of parishioners who have just been having bayonet instruction from the Reverend Colonel, the play becomes more alive, but having stumbled on this dramatic confrontation, Mr. Boyd tiptoes silently away from it. The play has the same consciously defincd, immensely competent relation to the T.V. medium and the T.V. audience which one dislikes so much in thc work of Mr. Hugh Leonard. Thcre is something just too clever about the scenc between Stevie, the assassin, and his girl-friend Bernie, something too glib in the sybolism of her gift to him of a scarf which he is inclined to rcject, even as he stresses his independence and conscquent rejection of marriage. This is not above the heads of the average T.V. customers; if they miss it, no matter, if they spot it, they feel pleased-but this is not honest Theatre.
All of which having been said, should The Assassin have been put on at all, and is it a proper play for a Festival? To both questions the answer is an unequivocal" yes." It may not be a good play, but it servcs to show what the Theatre can do; it attempts to handle a serious issue seriously and in a way which will set the audiencc thinking. One of the great defences of the Dublin Theatre Festival is that it lures into the theatre people who might ncver come during the rest of the year; such patrons will find in The Assassin a fine demonstration that thc Theatre is not a highbrow pleasure far removed from life, but that it must come close to the passions and concerns of ordinary people.
"The Immortal Husband" presented by the Artists Theatre Group
of New York at the Gate Theatre. " Swift" Eugene McCabe (The Abbey) And lastly Eugene McCabe's Swift at the Abbey. Of the three pieces we arc considering, this is the most difficult to tie down, to state what the author is trying to do. We see the dying Swift alone, conscious of his own precarious mental balance, aware of where his life has failed, of how close at times he has come to his own despised Yahoos. We are made to share his frustrated tormented feelings with him, his inability to do anything constructive for any of the peoplc he loved so passionately, his cosmic anger against mankind which recoils upon himself. The play is not an analysis like The Assassin; it is direct experience. It grows on us, gaining strength and urgency as we plumb for ourselves the depths of darkness in the Dean. The production has many irritating features; often Michael MacLiammoir loses his words in his distinctivc style of speech, always Angela Newman 7remains her unmistakeable self, the willing suspension of disbelief is made about as hard for us as possible because our Dublin actors seem to know only one way to play. Yct in the end the play hits us; those who could speak uncharitably at the end of Act 2 of the combined ages of the players enacting Swift and his mistress, came out after the final curtain speaking of Hamlet and the Book of Job. Here is the Theatre once again making a direct lyrical impact, tightening our awareness, rousing our compassion whether we like it or not. Yet by most standards Swift should have failed, for the dramatist's purpose was by no means obvious. \Vas he seeking to explain Swift, to investigate human relationships, or to show the ultimate, inevitable, human isolation? There was an uncertainty in construction which inevitably transmitted itself to the audience but which in the cnd made precious little difference. Hilton Edwards has always maintained that Irish actors have an innate quality, usually undisciplined and unknown to themselves which in its direct application has all the virtues of Primitive Art. Other Irish actors, he believes, if truly dedicated and susceptiblc to discipline can be trained into the finest professional performers in the world.
But there is a hinterland, the realm of semi-professional companies and West End comedy for example, in which we wallow lamentably.Pos sibly something of this applies to Swift. It has a direct fundamental power and succeeds precisely because of this basic sincerity, precisely because it is not a well-made play conforming to the sound traditions of historical drama. If Mr. Boyd is too much the detached technician, Mr. McCabe is the agonised creative Primitive achieving by instinct far more than discipline and technique could have brought him. So in its weaknesses, and in its strengths, Swift emerges as peculiarly and distinctively Irish and so a proper Festival offering.
\Vhat conclusion then can we draw from this preliminary and limited examination? We have seen three plays differing completely in matter and manner, yet each providing at least one pointer to what is a good play, and which in conjunction, scen as three parts of one larger entity, gain from their setting inside the framework of the Festival. Every evening has set us thinking about the ideas in the individual plays and about the Festival as a whole; on this evidence alone we can say that this year's Festival has already proved its vitality.