Three foreign critics discuss the theatre festival
WE IRISH frequcntly strike our visitors as an introspective lot, highly sensitive as to what others think of us, especially when we are on exhibition, as at the Theatre Festival. Towards the end of the Festival's first week NUSIGHT had the chance to discuss it with three eminent visiting critics,'
Eric Shorter of the Daily Telegraph, Wolf Kauffman, who writes a column syndicated in about a dozen major American papers, and B. A. Young from the Financial Times.
It was too early in the Festival for much discussion of individual plays, or for the constrUction of orders of merit. So, the conversation ranged rather widely. How often had these gentlemen come to Dublin for the Festival? Shorter wasn't sure if this was his ninth or tenth campaign. Kauffman claimed all but one of the Festivals, and Young admitted himself the new boy of only five years' standing.
Why did they keep coming, we asked. Partly, as Kauffman said, because this was the only festival of its kind in the world, the only one devoted exclusively to drama, and partly because this was Dublin.
The two ideas seemed to intcrreact, to produce a third incentive; there was always the hope that here in Dublin at our festival some major dramatic event might happen, and that there might be some moment of treat excitement.
Somewhat to our surprise they were manimous that by and large over the Tears they have not been disappointed. Kauffman's approach to the theatre and the festival was almost lyrical. " Those of us who make our living in this strange and dubious professioncalled critics-we are called assassins, we're called all sorts of things, but actually we spend up to twenty hours a day being excited by the prospect of going to see another play, because we always hope that it is going to be something very wonderful.Unfortunately, I frequently go away disillusioned. But there is that thing which builds up, five o'clock, six o'clock, seven-at eight I'm going to see a new show and that's the one that I shall remember, and I'll be able to say good things about it, for not only tonight in my copy-but this is the thing that is wonderful for me-here in Dublin, during this two weeks evcry year I havc this very concentrated feeling that I'm going. . ." All of them insisted on two things. The astonishing amount of theatre in Dublin compared with any city of comparable size in the world, and the value of the fcstival as a concentration point. Kauffman stressed the first: " There arc four theatres in Dublin regular full time theatres-that's about twice as many as you have in most other cities of the world, with the exception of London, Paris and New York. Most cities the size of Dublin have one theatre, if that, and they're happy."
Shorter dealt with the second idea: "I don't know whethcr we're looking for new plays. It's the activity which is important, isn't it? I don't think it (the Festival) does much for tourists. The main idea is that it brings a lot of dramatists or would-be dramatists, actors and producers together, working intensely for a fortnight, and we come and look at it. But that's because we're connoisseurs of the theatre."
Young supported this: "I don't think it would matter if you didn't have anything outstanding each year. You've got so much encouragement to native writers to write, that their plays will be mounted in favourable circumstanccs. This is an extremely useful and important thing, which you haven't got in London at all."
Yet this year's festival had inspired some misgivings that too much was being attempted. Young felt the most strongly on this. "You have 18 productions this year, which to my way of thinking is far too much. Now we don't get 18 good new plays in the 35 theatres in London in a season, or anything like it. If we've had 12 good new plays this year, that's an optimistic count." He wasn't happy about the three-day programme at the Gate and the Abbey. "I don't know if it means that you couldn't fill the theatre for six days, but what it does mean is there is so much opening. It seems to me you're not going to have enough time for preparation and rehearsal to get a really tip-top production."
One comparison led eventually to another and inevitably the talk turned to Edinburgh.Young had a very interesting point to make here: "It's very interesting to compare the two (Dublin and Edinburgh) because the Edinburgh Festival this year consisted entirely of touring productions." This, as Kauffman admitted, was one of the reasons why he hadn't been to Edinburgh for five years. "Whatever is good there I'll eventually get to see, just by sitting still. Whereas here I'd miss it."
He went on to say that while as an American he was happy and proud to see an American company playing at the Gatc, this wasn't what he had come to Ireland to see. Young also seemed anxious to see work by Irish writcrs and Shorter pointed out: "A bad Dublin play doesn't seem as intolerable as a bad London comedy. Mainly because it belongs to where it came from. It's got some connection or roots in Dublin or Ireland and there's a certain interest in tracing them."
While Dublin audiences should, of course, be given the opportunity to see overseas productions, as well as indigenous products, Young, in particular, felt that the two kinds of work should be kept separate.
The critics all seemed to feel that Irish playwrights are at their best when young, and as Young pointed out, it seemed a pity that at present there was no avant garde theatre flourishing in Dublin. Inevitably the talk turned to the Abbey. Characteristically, perhaps, Kauffman claimed to have sensed a real revival therc this year, singling out The Dandy Dolly and Swift for special mention. Shorter, however, could not agree: "I haven't been hopefully to the Abbey for 10 years. The standards of the Abbey seem to me to be as low as they've ever been."
All in all the feeling seemed to be that so far this year's festival had not produced anything remarkably exciting, though there was praise for Roc Brynner's Opium, and James Douglas's A Tale after School. As Young said: "It was an absolutely typical short story-it could have been written by James Joyce, although I dare say he would have written it in a more polished way."
We were left with the impression that while all three critics regarded the Festival as something unique and tremendously worth while, this was for reasons which would strike very few native Dubliners. It was not as a tourist attraction, as a place to see lavish imported productions or even as somewhere to watch the accepted Irish classics; instead the festival seems to justify itself in their eyes as providing a platform on which the occasional piece of inspiration might alight. And, above all, as a concentrated period of living theatrical activity.