In Conversation: Joe Dowling and Enda Walsh

Uploaded by walkerartcenter on 25.05.2010

Olga Viso: I'm Olga Viso, director here at the Center, and we're so pleased that you
could join us for the conversation today between acclaimed Irish playwright, Enda Walsh, and
the Twin Cities' most beloved artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, Joe Dowling. We actually
have a surprise guest, an additional guest, which is why you see three seats around the
table there. We have in town the drama critic for the Irish Times, Fintan O'Toole, who has
come here to see the production at the Guthrie. He's here today and is going to participate
in the conversation to talk about the theatre in Ireland and beyond. The presentation of
"The Walworth Farce" is actually the second time we've presented the work of Enda Walsh
here at the Walker Arts Center. In April, we screened the new film, "Hunger," which
he co- wrote with Steve McQueen, a visual artist. It was an incredible film and we did
a series of screenings. It tells the story of the hunger strike of Bobby Sands and in
2008 won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
It's really wonderful to be able to bring Enda here for the first time in Minneapolis
although we've presented his work here before.
Enda is really among Ireland's most successful and most widely performed contemporary playwrights,
and his plays have contributed considerably to the ongoing interest in new Irish theatrical
writing around the world. His plays have been performed world-wide and they've been translated
into 20 different languages.
In addition to "The Walworth Farce," his plays include "Disco Pigs," "Bedbound," "Small Things,"
"Chatroom," and his most recent work, "The New Electric Ballroom," opens in New York
this week.
Enda has received four Edinburgh Fringe First Awards as well as Critic's Choice Award and
the Edinburgh Herald Archangel Award for his contribution to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
In addition to his plays, he's written two radio plays and several screen plays and he
is currently under commission to write two more films: an adaptation of the children's
story "Island of the Aunts" by Eva Ibbotson, and a biography of the singer Dusty Springfield,
which I'm sure Joe will talk to Enda about.
Enda will be available after the talk at 1:30 outside, to sign his most recent book, which
we have for sale here at the shop which has "The Walworth Farce" as well as "The New Electric
Joe Dowling, of course, is so familiar to so many of us here in the Twin Cities, has
been the Guthrie's artistic director since 1995, and he's directed more than 35 Guthrie
productions during his tenure, including Brian Friel's "Faith Healer" in which he's currently
making his American acting debut. It's really been a busy week for Joe and we're just thrilled
that he took the time to be with us today to engage in this conversation.
Other directorial credits for Joe include for the Broadway Stage as well as prominent
theatres across the U.S., England, and Ireland. Joe has served as artistic director of the
Abbey Theatre, the Abbey Second Stage, the Peacock theatre, the Irish Theatre Company,
and the Gaiety. He also founded the Young Abbey, which is Ireland's first theater-in-education
group, as well as the Gaiety School of Acting, which is Ireland's premiere drama school.
Incredible talents, and among all of that he holds four honorary doctorates and is a
member of the Artistic Directorate of the Globe Theatre in London. Under Joe's leadership,
his vision for the new Guthrie Theater became a reality when the current three theater complex
opened on the Mississippi River in 2006.
In addition, we have, as I mentioned, Fintan O'Toole who's joined us today. Fintan is a
columnist, assistant editor, and drama critic for The Irish Times and he's been there since
1998. He was also drama critic for the New York Daily News from 1997 to 2001. He's a
literary critic, historical writer, and a political commentator who's just been highly
published. So, we're thrilled to bring these three individuals together to talk about not
only the "Walworth Farce," but Irish theater and beyond. So, please join me in welcoming
Enda Walsh, Joe Dowling and Fintan O'Toole.
Joe Dowling: Thank you very much Olga, it's a great pleasure for me to be back on Vinyl
in Place after an absence of some years and to welcome two really great guests. Enda Walsh,
of course, as Olga says one of the really great younger Irish playwrights and terrific
to have you here, Enda, as well with "Walworth Farce." And Fintan O'Toole, an old friend
and colleague from Dublin, now Deputy Editor of the "Irish Times" and in his role as drama
critic he and I sparred on many occasions and hopefully today we might get a few of
those sparks going again, you never know, you never know. [laughs] Good that you're
sitting between us, yes.
Fintan O'Toole: Yeah.
Joe: But, I mean obviously we're here today because of Enda and the "Walworth Farce" and
having seen the play in New York, I mean it's, it's an extraordinary piece of work, Fintan,
you've seen it as well, it's an extraordinary piece of work and so much that you write and
that the new generation of Irish writers write in a way, how much does it draw on what has
gone before because you certainly subvert many of the kind of shibboleths and ideas
that were sort of hugely important in the kind of classical Irish drama and how much
is that, are you conscious of that or how much of that is just?
Enda Walsh: I have done, but I'm not conscious of it, I mean, I'm a great, I love Irish theater,
you know, I'm very, very influenced by a number of playwrights you know throughout our history.
So, it's in your DNA and it's in your education and the things that you love and all that
type of thing. I didn't personally go out to, but you know you're always going to have
echoes of other playwrights. When you sit down in front of a piece of paper or a laptop,
you know you're like, you know it sounds so naff, but you feel like you are not alone
that there are many, many writers around you. And I do feel like that and I do feel that
there's echoes in it. I write fast so the play wrote in about four weeks and I got,
so I feel completely disconnected to the work as soon as I've written it. It's gone you
know so I can look at it very objectively, but I can see echoes of many, many playwrights
in there and images I suppose from Irish theater that we would know. The man at the door, the
girl at the door whatever is a wonderful image in Irish theater again and again and again.
I do a lot of work in Germany and they're always roaring, laughing and they're always
going, "What is this man at the door thing and woman at the door? And this family drama
stuff?" You know they're just like, "That's hilarious." I was going, "Well, that's just
our thing. We you know, we annihilate the family, you know, and it's all the big story."
Fintan: But, in the old days, it would have been the man at the half door. So at least
we've progressed to a full door now, yeah.
Enda: As soon as we can get the old sliding door, then we know we're in the twenty first
Fintan: Then, we'll really be, we'll definitely be in the twenty first century.
Joe: But you're, you say that these echoes are there, but you're not conscious of them
But I think you know, if you look at your work, at Martin McDonough's work, it is so,
you couldn't but be Irish writers, isn't that true, would you say so, Fintan?
Fintan: Oh yeah, I wrote an absolutely brilliant essay about fifteen years ago, which... [laughter]
Joe: I've read it online, yeah.
Fintan: You must've read it, of course you've read it, yeah. Which really explains in absolutely
convincing detail why Anna couldn't exist, you know, quietly, why this era of Irish drama
was over, you know. And actually it was about how we were used to, we're spoiled in Ireland
because we're used to sort of... here's the next great playwright coming along every couple
of years. And I explained to my own complete satisfaction really, why this really, that
was a version of the nature of a certain kind of Irish culture in a certain American society
and it was over. And I'm really happy to say I was completely wrong. [laughs] It was just
absolutely wrong.
Joe: Brilliant, but wrong.
Fintan: Yeah, yeah. And it is kind of remarkable the continuity, you know. And it's not a continuity
of the baton being passed on in some kind of straight line, but it's just bouncing off
of the past that is continually there. And I think part of it is that, in a way, is the
absence of a single fixed tradition. That may sound paradoxical, but if you have a single
fixed tradition, then you almost have to either reject it or be a part of it. You have to
make that choice. And for historical reasons, Irish theater and Irish play-writing - that's
supposedly what we're talking about here - is much more angular than that. Partly because
of its relationship with England, historically. The great Irish playwright tradition, by and
large, happened in London. You know, going back to George Farquhar, through Sheridon,
through Shaw, through Oscar Wilde... Of course, you're also directing at the moment, here
in [inaudible 0:10:04] ...
It had that relationship with England, and then you had a reinvention around the turn
of the 19th century. You had the various conscious attempts to find an Irish theater rooted in
Ireland. Which, of course, set up this strange sense of, "Who's Irish?" Is Shaw Irish anymore?
What about Sheridon? What about Wilde? And this continues! Is Beckett Irish? Because
he's Irish, he writes in French. [inaudible 0:10:33] .
Joe: If they're successful, they're Irish.
Fintan: [laughs] Precisely. And you have this kind of...
Joe: But the interesting thing, too, though... I think that's a really interesting point
about the relationship with London. And you live in London, now...
Enda: Yeah.
Joe: And the play "Walworth Farce" is set in London, and yet it's a real Irish play.
And I'm reminded - and it's a very different play - but I'm reminded of Tom Murphy's "Whistle
In the Dark."
Enda: Yeah.
Joe: The Irish family transplanted to England. Again, that continuity...though what you've
done with this because of the way you've used this whole "Farce" thing, which is not an
Irish tradition.
Enda: Well, there's huge traditions in Irish of the immigrant play, isn't there? There's
many, many, many plays. The guys, the builders, the broad and all that other thing. "Whistle
in the Dark" and all of that. And I knew, you know, I knew sitting that I had to write
that play. You know, it is a sort of right of passage play to write, isn't it? You have
to go about doing it. But... I really, really dislike a lot of those plays. The [inaudible
0:11:34] sort of plays of guys sitting in pubs and just chatting to one another and
going, "Ay, Jesus. If only I was back home in the green," and all that type of thing.
And they can be quite mawkish. The really great one, Tom, Tom is like a hero of mine,
Tom Murphy, and he's an influence to all my generation. But, you know, I had to embrace
that and go, "What is it? What is that type of play? And what is that genre of play?"
So, after reading them and all that type of thing, I thought, "Well, I'll try my hand
in it," because there is something in it, you know. There's great lonesomeness there,
and dislocation, and all this type of thing. And, of course, there's this lovely, this
very silent, you know, lonesome drama in it. A real heart, a real aching and yearning and
you know, that I wanted to do. I don't have any of those sensibilities myself, as a person.
[laughs] You know, I tend to like, a sort of, "Phhbbbt," after myself. Which is a reason
enough to actually , to investigate them and investigate those characters and try and feel
that for them and, you know, let it on its way. But, the whole sort of "Farce" element
thing was a complete shock that it turned out the way it turned out.
Joe: But, the whole other part of "Walworth Farce" which is so intrinsically Irish and
you take it to a whole new level is the whole question of storytelling. Because storytelling
is so intrinsic to the Irish culture. And yet, you take it in the play to a level where
it's actually quite dangerous, because while it's a very funny play, it's also extremely
dark in so many of those areas, and Irish stories tend to be...
Enda: God, I was sort of, I was drinking in the Sackful Lounge and about like a month
ago which is a pub in Dublin for late at night and there was a guy beside me, you know that
sort of thing and he was really, really, really in a dark place. I think he was drinking since
about twelve. And we came in after you know opening up the new electric ballroom in the
peacock and I knew that I was about to just hear his story. You know that's where, I was
about to arrive you know, but from a really, really harsh sort of place. But, it was that
sort of brooding thing in the corner that there's, you know it was going to be big stuff,
it was always going to be, you know he was going to proclaim something. And Irish people
by Jesus love sort of proclaiming like that and history and family and where we are and
you know politics and all that type of thing and sure enough you know, like and I live
in London now and you know I forget about it and you go back and you go, "God, this
is quite raw, this is really, this is big stuff."
I mean it was the drink talking of course, you know as well. But, like it was a very
sort of, it was a real, real, real, real, fear and big Irish moment for me. I was like
reminded of this person in the room who's just about to go, right? And he just annihilated
me because now I don't have an Irish accent, I'm talking as a Londoner so he just went
into the whole thing of identity. And why am I over there? And how can you call yourself
sort of an Irish writer when you're over there and you have this sort of, you have this English
twang to your accent? So, he completely, he was holding onto the, you know the history
of Ireland and then fucking attacking me.
Joe: But, you know, you were talking Fintan, earlier of the no fixed tradition and that
somehow or other, but there are dangers that are there also which Enda has avoided and
I think you know Connie MacPherson has avoided and others, of getting rooted in that history
and in that tradition. It's a really dangerous line you walk between honoring somehow the
kind of the righteous of the past and what has happened and actually creating something
new and you know it's an interesting thing to watch in your work and in the others.
Fintan: Well, it is actually fascinating because you know, there's no doubt about the fact
that there's, it's both a source of great strength I'd imagine as it is to say, "You're
not alone," but also, backing along, you know, you've got all these ghosts brooding around
you and there is this sense of how can you recreate the territory. And I think it's absolutely
remarkable, I think it is an incredible achievement by Enda and handful of other people there
over the last decade really to completely contradict my own sense, you know, that actually
we've kind of reached a certain point where this sort of literary tradition of Irish theater
was no longer adequate and was no longer capable of sustaining itself. And in fact, it has
sustained itself, and it's sustained itself in really interesting ways, actually. And
one of the ways I think, and maybe this is part of the way that the escape has been possible
is that because you've had this very fractured sense of a tradition, you have these huge
figures, you know you've always got a great, male deities up there, but a lot of their
work, very strangely has been unproduceable in Ireland.
So, for example, William Butler Yeats, you know, perhaps the greatest poet of the twentieth
century, the key founding figure in the Abbey of which you know you worked as Senior Director
for so long, most of Yeats' plays are completely unproduced and some could argue unproduceable.
Joe: Unstageable.
Fintan: But, they've also, I think have had a huge influence on younger writers. Not necessarily
that they're going to be looking to read Yeats and say, "OK, I can write poetry like Yeats,"
because you don't, but there's really two ways of doing theater to be absolutely crude
and generalistic about it. One is to enact, you know to play out in front of you a story
and the other is to evoke. And I mean it's very interesting that you're doing "Faith
Healer," which I suppose is a classic piece of evocation. And the evocative tradition
that is Yeats, you know, the opening line of one of Yeats' plays is "I call to the eye
of the mind," and you know that's summing up that poetic tradition, it is also there
but kind of buried because the mainstream tradition has been a sort of naturalistic
And I think whether consciously or unconsciously there's a great kind of resource for Irish
writers in being able to sort of rediscover or bring together these different strands
of Irish theater and in doing that it's because you don't just have this one string; you can
draw on tradition and at the same time, be subversive of a lot of what's gone before.
And I think, also, the very simple thing, which is humor. Your work, it's incredibly
funny. And the antic spirit of humor means that you just can't allow yourself to get
caught up in reverence for a tradition.
So usually, when a tradition is being used, say in MacDonald's work or in Enda's or wherever,
it's being used with that great anarchic, comic spirit, where it's being parodied and
at the same time being shaped and reshaped, and I think that's a lot of the energy comes
from that.
Enda: Whenever we're in the rehearsal room it sort of best, you always get a sense...
because I look at it and I think that it's an incredibly traditional play. It's a very,
very traditional play. But, an abstraction sort of happens and you can actually watch
that sort of abstraction. But it is, effectively, looking at a sort of a realistic sketch of
something, and then begin to see it just break and fold... disjoint and all that sort of
thing, and fracture and all that other thing; rereferencing itself and folding in on itself
until it's like... poof, it's nothing, you know? Like it doesn't exist.
Joe: You came into theater... it wasn't in your family background was it?
Enda: No. Well, my Ma acted years and years ago, but before I came around. There's six
in the family, so before I came around she had said, "I'm getting out of the theater;
there's too many drinkers." [laughter]
Enda: So she got out of the theater. No, I don't...
Joe: So, how did it happen? What was the impetus?
Enda: Well, I went to a community school, Kilbarrack in North Dublin, and two of my
teachers were great writers, but they were starting their career. And when I think about
it, they were only about 24, 25, when they were teaching me. They were kids.
Joe: One of them was Roddy Doyle?
Enda: Roddy Doyle, the novelist; and Paul Mercier who's had a massive influence, who's
an amazing, and I think, a great, great playwright.
Joe: Brilliant theater practitioner as well. Brilliant.
Enda: Oh, so great. And so they had a huge influence on me, particularly Paul. But, they
were good guys. They were always really good guys. And really sort of naively I finished
college and studied "communications and right minds," wanting to be a filmmaker in a time
when there was no film in Ireland. I liken to it, it was sort of like training in dentistry
in a country where people don't have any teeth. [laughter]
Enda: But, it was a really, really stupid thing to be doing. But anyway, I knew I wanted
to make stuff. I wanted to be in a band, and I was in a band. I sang and all that. But,
I just wanted to say something, and I suppose theater was the cheapest thing to do. And
I ended up down in Cork, working on the Trisco stage with a company where we gave ourselves
two years; lived on Guinness and crisps, and you know, lived in abject poverty on schemes
and on the dough. But, I was quite brave and brilliantly sort of naive, and a little bit
We used to do this devised work, and I was the "writer" of the group of 15, the designated
writer because I liked spending more time by myself than any of the rest of us.
Joe: Coming from a family of six, I can understand why.
Enda: [laughs] We used to produce this terrible work, absolutely appalling work. But, I used
to come out to the audience afterward and I'd go, "That was terrible. I know it was
terrible. Why was it terrible?" [laughter]
Enda: And over two years, they actually were our drama turk, they shaped us...
Joe: I just want to warn the audience, that will not be something we'll be taking up at
the Guthrie, I assure you. [laughter]
Enda: You could fly me over. I'll do it for you. "Right, ladies and gentleman?" [laughs]
Fintan: You're really putting theater critics out of work there; I have to object. If you
want the audience to tell you why it was terrible, why have theater critics? [laughter]
Joe: Well, nowadays, we have blogs, they tell us in no uncertain terms.
Enda: This is pre-blog.
Joe: I'm interested, and this is a very exclusively Irish conversation when I say, here we are,
three Dubliners, and, you went to Cork.
Enda: Yeah, I did go to Cork. Which is like going to China.
Joe: Well, there's a kind of a betrayal there, that's really kind of serious. [laughter]
Enda: Well, I didn't know, and I didn't realize what Cork was until I arrived down there.
I'd never been there before and I went, excuse my language, "Why the fuck are people talking
like this?" They had the maddest accent. I was going, "I have no idea what they're saying,"
and it's only two and a half hours on the train or whatever it is. But, it was wonderful
for me, because I had aspirations of being a writer, but I was no writer, and aspirations
of making theater, but I was no theater maker. But, it was sort of like trying to learn a
And I wrote this very naive play called "The Ginger Ale Boy" about a ventriloquist who
has a nervous breakdown. And I played the part [inaudible 0:22:57] . But, it actually
had something. It was a terrible, terrible piece in many ways, but it had something in
And then I wrote "Disco Pigs" directly afterward, which was my dialogue with Cork about, "Why
are you talking like that?"
Enda: "Why do you always see yourself as the smaller person?" It's a piece about identity
and about striving for something bigger than you are. Cork, as the second city in Ireland,
dramatically, it's very interesting for a playwright. The city itself, the shape of
it is very interesting. The fact that it sort of sits in a basin, effectively, and there're
lots of houses around it and it's just sort of down here, and it feels quite sort of damp.
And the people are aggressive.
Joe: And a great literary tradition too, with Sean O'Faolain, and Frank O'Connor.
Enda: Yes.
Joe: I mean, the rivalry between Dublin and Cork is more manufactured than real, but it's
Enda: Great attitude. I suppose it's the equivalent of... it's probably Ireland's Texas, isn't
it? It's that type of carry on. [laughter]
Joe: Somebody will have to help me with that reference. [laughter]
Enda: I just plucked that out of nowhere, it doesn't mean anything. I'm just going to
throw it.
Fintan: It's the oil wells.
Joe: It's the oil wells in Cork. [laughs] There's another point that we were talking
about backstage too: the lack of opportunity that you found as a young person wanting to
get into theater. I'm a generation before you, and when I started in the Irish theater,
you either got into the Abbey Theater as an actor, or you didn't work. That was it; there
were no other alternatives. Or you got into the radio, there was a repertory company in
the radio.
And those two entities were literally all that there was before subsidy really took
hold with the Gate. And it's a whole different scene now. That's why I was surprised in a
way that someone of your generation didn't have more opportunities in Dublin.
I mean, you've watched, Fintan, the evolution of theater over the last 25 years, and it
has shifted dramatically, hasn't it? I mean, Irish theater.
Fintan: Oh yeah. I mean, you're right, I suppose it's become a lot less institutionalized.
I know you were obviously part of that process yourself, in terms of the very painful process
of changing the Abbey. There was a link, I suppose, between the way in which you have
these state sponsored institutions; you either have the state radio company which had a repertory,
or you had the Abbey which was the national theater, which had a full-time repertory company.
Which was never big enough. It was like a kind of Soviet Union model, but without the
Joe: [laughs] With the Polit Bureau.
Fintan: With the Polit Bureau, so you have all of the drawbacks of having this permanent
company. Usually you had to go on about 40 actors, didn't you?
Joe: With 40 actors on salary, yes.
Fintan: Which, for running two theaters permanently, isn't easy. Some of it was wonderful. I suppose
it's very hard for Americans to understand. I remember when I came here first, when I
was in New York, someone asked me about Galloway. And I said, "Well, Galloway's on the other
side of Ireland."
And he said to me, "So, how long does it take you to get there?"
And I said, "Well, it takes about two and a half, three hours."
He said, "You call that a country?"
Fintan: So to you, it's so strange, so Enda was talking about somewhere that's two and
a half hours away on the train, and he doesn't know how they speak. It's a small place, and
one of the extraordinary drawbacks of Irish theatre, when I would have started writing
about, and going to Irish theatre first, was, it really was effectively a Dublin based institution.
And effectively, in professional terms, it was two places, it was The Abbey, and The
Gate. The Gate was run by the two greats. It was started by a gay couple, the great
actor Micheal Mac Liammoir, and the director Hilton Edwards. The Abbey was kind of the
national theatre, with the traditions of O'Casey, Yates and Lady Gregory. So, they were conventionally
knows as Sodom and Begorrah.
Fintan: That was what you had, it was that very enclosed little world, which of course,
also did produce extraordinary work, almost because of the enclosure, because of the sense
that this was local. And what you were saying on stage resonated very immediately with the
audience, or could do if it was powerful enough. But, I think the great shift was the realization
that there was more to Ireland than Dublin, and Cup Cork, Galway in the West becoming
particularly important. Enda has been working with The Druid Theatre Company there, which
was a really important development.
It's hard to imagine this, you're talking about this place that has this great theatrical
tradition. Galway, which is a significant city in Ireland, had never in its history,
had a professional theatre company, until the 1970s. So, you get both the poverty that
comes out of that, which itself can be extraordinary - because with the poverty, what do you do
- you say, well, what have we got. We've got this weird fellow down from Dublin, who
doesn't know how we speak, but has these ideas, who's interested in, the language becomes
important. If you don't have the big institutions, what have you got - you've got language.
So, you deal with what you have. But, as that begins to change, you have this sense of excitement,
of novelty, of just beginning to open up. You have Friel setting up The Field Day Company
in Derry, you have this relationship between writers and theatres beginning to emerge.
It's an incredibly interesting period I think.
In many ways, oddly, I think that energy has carried through, that in a way you're still
working off that reinvention that was happening from the late 70s into the 1980s. Oddly, again,
you get this weird continuity, but it's a continuity of dislocation. Things have never
settled down sufficiently, to have this big, overarching, mainstream.
Everybody still has to reinvent, and every time they come to try and do it. What's fascinating
to me is, what Enda's just been talking about, what's he listening to, he's listening to
the way people speak. Language remains at the absolute core of Irish theatre. Why I
thought this wouldn't last is because theatre's becoming much more physical, much more visual,
and all of those elements have come in to Irish theatre. It was not accidental. Yeats
said at one point he wished he could put his actors in barrels, to stop them from gesticulating,
and they would speak his lines beautifully. And then Beckett came along, and actually
put them in barrels.
Fintan: There is a very anti-physical tradition in Irish theatre, and that's been reversed.
You'll soon see in The Walworth Farce, it's a very physical piece of work, as well. But,
one of the amazing things is you've got the physicality, and yet you still have the obsession
with language, as a self-conscious thing. In "The Walworth Farce," the people as they're
speaking, they're conscious of the way they're speaking themselves, aren't they.
Enda: They are.
Joe: That's our tradition from sort of Shannon Keyes sort of people standing up in hedges
and in like telling a story, the storyteller in the village and things like that. It's.
Fintan: It's also fascinating to me because you talk about Derry and Field Day and the
north-south divide being, I mean, the major dominant thing of twentieth century Ireland
is the division of Ireland in the 1920s and what had resulted from that and much of the
dynamic, indeed of, you know if you look at O'Casey and you look at Thuta Freeler, there's
a dynamic that goes about the politics. But, your work sort of just assumes the politics
of Ireland in a way without actually referring to it. It's a different, again a different
generation thing I think that we're not as conscious now of those divisions that really
did motivate a great deal of Irish literature through the years. You know the north doesn't
really feature in your work, does it?
Enda: It doesn't, but I mean playwrights don't sort of live sort of like outside, you know
we live in the community, sort of everything is historically and socially, it's all sort
of implicit in you I suppose. You know it's all in you and it's going to come out in some
sort of way in sort of the strains and the work and the characters and the anger and
whatever the sort of love or their loss or whatever. You know that it's written in a
particular sort of period of time. I wrote a play called, "Bedbound," and I started looking
back at it and going, "Oh my God, why?" It was sort of like, in fairness it was about
this sort of, you know I can sort of see it now it felt like you know it was, it was meant
to be a play about me and my dad and it was effectively about me and my dad sort of relationship.
But, the energy and the sort of and what it was was more about the beginning of the Celtic
Tiger or was the sort of you know it was this man who just, who builds himself up and just
wants more money and creates a universe and has himself as center of a universe and you
know like, just annihilates everything and must sort of keep on sort of proclaiming how
wonderful and how brilliant his world is and what he's created and all this sort of thing.
But, he feels a very small man and he's shouting this sort of out all about this type of thing
and it all crumbles of course, all this type of thing. But, you know what I mean?
Yeah, my playwrights live in a society and live in, you know, I can't, I can't write
sort of polemic, I can't write sort of anything like that. Although I know it will sort of
come out in some sort of way.
Joe: But, it's interesting because that period you're talking about from the late seventies,
early eighties, which was some probably, the worst period in terms of the violence in Northern
Ireland, and the issues about how this was ever going to be resolved, and the hunger
strike which I know you've dealt with in the movie and so on. And writers sort of almost
routinely felt it necessary to write their Northern play. And we got a lot of really
bad writing, too close to the time, and too. And somehow or other your generation and when
you came along, it was kind of liberating that in fact these were no longer going to
be the, you know the issues, they're there, as you say, they're intrinsic, but it's much
more free.
Enda: But, it's also our times, I look at sort of English theater and they have this
great, I mean this thing of doing verbatim theater of doing like political theater or
David Harr, you know this is very, you know, and we don't, we don't, we don't really have,
we don't have that. We don't have that. It's too sort of, it's too, it feels too soon or,
to talk about it, you know to talk about it in that way and that's sort of evocative sort
of political art, it feels too, it's too soon, all right?
Fintan: Yeah, I think there's a big element to that I mean, but again it's partly to do
with the lack of a realistic tradition that and again, you know this because you've directed
O'Casey so wonderfully, you know, our social realism keeps getting pulled into the man
at the door, the language, the farce, all of those kind of things operate within it.
I've often talked about this because it's, it goes against the grain of what people tend
to think about Irish theater, they think it's all about Ireland, you know? And of course
in a way it is, you know, we're, and we probably talk about Ireland but the point of Irish
theater is the theater bit that actually what is implicit in it is this kind of playful,
Ludic spirit, which is why we're talking about it. That's why it has a sort of international
reputation is that it keeps spinning off, away from the subject, you know.
So, just to give you an example, right? Brian Friel, whom Joe's performing here, wonderfully,
at the moment. Friel lived on the border between Northern Ireland, and still does, between
Northern Ireland and the Republic. Grew up in Northern Ireland, is absolutely deeply
shaped by the conflict, by everything around the conflict. He's, in some ways, a very political
man, a very traditional Irish nationalist in a lot of ways.
He made one attempt to write a contemporary play about the conflict, which was a kind
of response to a particular infamous incident in the conflict, called Bloody Sunday, where
the British Army opened fire on demonstrators on the streets of Derry and killed 14 people.
Friel wrote a play called "Freedom of the City," and you think, OK, this is the Derry
playwright. This is, you know, the great spokesman for nationalist Ireland is now writing the
play about this atrocity. And what's the play about? The play's about... well, I can't really
write a play about it because who knows what happened, anyway? You know?
So, his instinct is to write a political play... almost a polemical play, for once in his life.
But the theatricality takes over. It's about language. It's about, you know, how can we
represent, in language, the truth behind the ways in which this is perceived? So, I suppose
my point is simply that you could say that one of the great weaknesses of Irish theater
actually is that thing, you know? We don't have that English tradition of...
Joe: No.
Fintan: ...of being able to intervene directly in political affairs. And it is a weakness.
And I think it's been a particular weakness over the years of the Celtic Tiger. So, we've
just been through this boom time, you know, when we were the great poster-child for free
market globalization around the world. This huge kind of transformation of Ireland into
this very, very wealthy, globalized society. We're now reverting, thankfully, back to the
19th century, which is going to be interesting...
Joe: [inaudible 0:37:18]
Fintan: Yeah, but there are no Celtic Tiger plays, or no successful Celtic Tiger plays.
We actually couldn't write about it because of this thing about the closeness but also
because when anybody sets out to start writing at the... the impulse is so metaphorical...
Joe: It is, yeah.
Fintan: ...that someone immediately starts thinking "maybe this could be a version of
'Antigone'" or, you know, maybe this is like "I'm going to use the Irish Sagas to try to..."
you know? Just, I don't know, just actually write a play about, you know, somebody working
in an IT factory. No, I can't really do that.
Enda: And even "Pass Machine," even "Pass Machine" and "Studs," when you think of that,
I mean, written at the time of the Great Recession, like in the 1980s. And the wonderful... but
it's metaphor, right? I mean, it is, and it's [inaudible 0:38:02] and it's buried there.
Joe: Yeah. I think the best political play written in Ireland in the last 50 years is
Brian Friel's "Translations." Which is a play that absolutely explains, in very clear and
very beautiful terms, the origins of the conflict in a way that, if he had written it in a more
contemporary vein, people would have found either polemic or would have been arguing
Enda: Yeah.
Joe: ...but he takes it back to 1832 and says the two things that changed Ireland in the
middle of the 19th century. One was the ordinance survey maps, changing the names of the places
and therefore destroying tradition that had come before. And the second was the introduction
of primary education for all children, and all taught through English. And suddenly he...
I think you were probably there, too. The first night in Derry, this play, in many ways
a deeply subversive play, played in the guild hall in Derry, which was the seat of Unionist
power in Northern Ireland, and of course gerrymandered power. And to watch the walls of that place
crumble under this play was an extraordinary event in Irish history, let alone in Irish
theater. And yet, it's a play that goes way beyond Ireland. I mean, it's done in every
culture in the world.
So, again, you're back to that thing. It's taking some distance, and it's also creating
a kind of a really metaphorical look at who we are, and what has created us, rather than
"Freedom of the City" where he tried to write the burning... he said he wrote it in a kind
of a burning anger as a result of the event that took place, and also the report, the
Widgery Report...
Enda: Yes.
Joe: ...that actually whitewashed the whole event.
Enda: Yeah.
Joe: Politics always comes up eventually, doesn't it? When Irish people get together.
Fintan: Oh it does; and of course what's fascinating... Translations, one of the reasons Translations
is so powerful is that it's about the politics of language. What you come back to again and
again in Irish playwrighting is that the language itself is political. The forms in which we
express ourselves contain, either consciously or, more often, subconsciously, a whole rake
of things about identity, about place, about dislocation. Even the way Enda talked about
his accent, or people talked to him about his accent, "Can you really be an Irish playwright
if you've got a little bit of English in your accent?"
In one way ridiculous. But, what makes it powerful theatrically is that language then
becomes a medium in which a whole range of other things get wrapped up. And then, I think
you get out of that then, and you get the impossibility of a realistic theater. Because
you can't get a slice of life when people are both speaking and thinking about the way
they're speaking at the same time.
So, what you get is a kind of inbuilt playfulness, an inbuilt self- consciousness, a tendency
towards parody, towards pastiche sometimes, but it's always playing on these echoes of
what's been said in the past, what's being said now. And of course it's not just Irish
theater; that's very much instinct as well in the approach of a lot of Irish prose writers,
that's the way Irish prose works.
But, I think it does make a particular kind of theater which is at the same time incapable
of mirroring directly Irish society at any particular time. And yet, it becomes one of
the ways in which that society defines itself and understands itself.
And you know, there's a simple metaphor here, which is, going back to metaphors: in the
19th Century, Stendhal, the great French writer, has a line in his novel Scarlet and Black;
he says "A novel is a mirror walking along a high road."
At the same time, in Ireland, you've got Maria Edgeworth; she's using the image of "Nobody
can hold a mirror up to Ireland, because if you do people wouldn't like what they saw
and they'd break the mirror." And this image of the cracked mirror, Oscar Wilde uses it,
James Joyce, of course, famously uses it in the beginning of Ulysses where Buck Mulligan
is shaving in the mirror that's cracked, and he says "It is the image of Irish art, the
cracked mirror of the servant."
The cracked mirror is really what you get all the time in Irish theater; it is reflecting,
but at the same as it's reflecting it's also fragmenting and making new shapes. And it's
that ability to make new shapes that makes theater interesting, isn't it?
Enda: Yeah.
Joe: Fascinating. Tell us about The New Electric Ballroom, because it's coming to New York
next week?
Enda: Thursday, yeah. This Thursday.
Joe: You started that in Galway as well, with the Druid Company?
Enda: With Druid, yeah.
Joe: With Rosaleen Linehan, one of our favorites here; she's played a number of times at the
Guthrie. Just tell us a little bit about it.
Enda: Well, where "The Walworth Farce" was effectively about the relationship between
me and my brother, strangely, "The New Electric Ballroom" is the starting point... Well, a
couple of things, primarily my mom's coffee mornings. I was interested in that. As a boy,
I used to love the company of older women, like much, much older women; and I just liked
watching them discuss things, and put the world to right, and all that type of thing.
And so as a starting point it was that, but I knew I wanted to write a version... I finished
"The Walworth Farce" and put it away and then directly wrote "The New Electric Ballroom"
the next week. Because I liked this notion of just creating theater in living rooms.
So, it's about these two elderly women in their 60s; they've got a much, much younger
sister who's about 40 or so. It's set in a rural village, you think, not that I know
anything about rural villages, but she sort of comes home and she dresses them up as their
18 year old selves, with costumes and wigs and makeup. And she gets them to play the
night that their heart was broken by the same man.
So, the play is about well why the hell is this 40 year old woman actually doing that
and what is she trying to sort of get at? And into it comes a man, a fishmonger, who
just keeps on bringing fish. More and more, more and more fish. And effectively it's a
story about a 40 year old woman. You don't know whether she's torturing them or whether
she's the nurse.
But, she is the sister and she's trying to learn about love. She's yet to feel anything,
feel anything. And she knows that actually she needs to sort of break out of that little
routine and begin to risk falling in love. So, it is back to sort of for me, I am amazed
that we actually live the way we live as human beings. That we do get up in the morning and
we go [clap] another day. I can't believe it.
Enda: I can't believe we do what we do. And we go to sleep and we get up and we get going
again. And we do it and keep on doing it. And it is that, it is the sort of, you know,
pushing open sort of a door today for me. The Hilton there hotel in Chicago airport,
of going oh God, I push open that door and I've got no idea what the hell is going to
happen today. I'm being really, really terrified of that, and loving it. I've always been a
sort of very, very anxious sort of little boy, and now big man.
Enda: But, it's probably a good thing as a play write to have that. It does amaze me,
it does sort of surprise me that we live the way we actually sort of do as people. You
know, so it is about that. It's about risk.
Joe: Fascinating. We're going to open it up to the audience now. And we have, I understand,
microphones and they're going to come to you with it. So, if you have questions, we would
love to hear them. And wait till the microphone gets to you because we want to make certain
that we all hear the question and that it's properly picked up by the sound system. There's
a gentleman over there.
Audience Member: Hi. I have a silly question to ask about "The Walworth Farce." You said
you work very quickly and it takes, the majority of your work is little work off and on to
what's taking place.
Enda: Yeah.
Audience Member: Does that mean we must both foresee a [inaudible 0:46:42] time before
we really get it because you wrote it spontaneously? Or is it OK not to understand it for the first
half of the first act? [laughter]
Enda: I think it's OK. I mean I think it's OK not to sort of understand it. But, it is
understandable. It does all completely make sense. In terms of the farce, because people
get caught up and they go oh my God, do I have to understand this bloody play, the elements
of this farce? But, it actually, it does all sort of hang together. But, I always really
feel for the audience at half time. Because oh my God, would I go? I would probably go.
But thanks be to Jesus a lot of people come back. Because you are only seeing actually
20% of the show. You feel that way. It begins to answer itself.
And that was, I've never written an interval before and they're the most difficult things
to write. It's sort of like the notion of people going out and having a drink and coming
back into the theater. But, farce actually demanded, demanded that it be written the
way it's written. You know?
So, really like there's no history of farce in Irish theater I don't think, or where ever.
So, you know, I had to learn it. And just the notion of these men living in London in
a flat and farce existing in the West End. And then sort of farce seeps down into the
mud and goes underneath the Thames and comes out and sort of grows up and then exists in
some sort of form.
That became sort of interesting to me. I completely agree, I'm sorry. You know, like I'm glad
I wasn't in your head. That's all I can say.
Audience Member: Enda, could you describe the difference in your creative process between
writing a play and writing a movie?
Enda: Yeah. Big difference. I mean when it comes to writing plays I don't like getting
in the way of it. I don't feel it's authored by me. Really, I think the logic of the play
has to sort of exist on stage. So, I do sort of write completely from the characters point
of view. I've no notion of where the play is going to go. It was a surprise to me that
there was a knock on the door and guys arrived in with a coffin. You know, a paper coffin.
I was going oh Jesus, it's a farce. I mean, that was a complete surprise to me. I've only
ever once set out to write a play and it was terrible. You know, to find the story first.
And it was a terrible, terrible play. And I'll never, ever do that again.
I think it's just the characters need to write it and they need to shape it and it needs
to feel very organic. With screenplays, by Jesus, I mean it's just all about craft. I
mean it's just you're writing this unwieldy sort of, in this big form. And I find it,
very, very difficult. And there're lots of hands on you, producers whacking you and all
that type of thing. It's quite sort of tough.
But, I like the discipline of it. I'm just much, much more aware of craft. While in theater,
I'm a fan of theater. I love it and I just write from the gut. I don't like to get in
the way of it.
Joe: Roger?
Roger: I was very struck with the tight choreography all through this play.
Enda: Yeah.
Roger: And I'm not familiar with your other work, so don't know whether that is a characteristic
of all your plays. But, it was very striking. Has this been something you've always done
or was this a new trick?
Enda: No, it was completely new. Previously, like Fintan said, previously it was just people
getting up there. And Bedbound was set in a bed, it was a father and a daughter in a
bed talking to one another. So, there was no stagecraft to it. But, the farce demanded
the shape that it was and it was a real sort of surprise to me. But, you know, I worked
with, I can see Mike. Hey Mike. The director's up there of The Walworth Farce. And he came
over to London when I had written it and we read it together. And we could sort of see
it in our heads and we had sort of great fun doing it. Now, he's worked really physically
before... He's a Lecoq trained actor and was going to always bring that to it.
But dramaturgically, really, really helped me and pulled the play closer together. And
found the ending that, you know, the ending was sort of... I was avoiding the ending because
I really didn't want to end it that way. Because it was just so heartbreaking for me to sort
of imagine that poor guy. But anyway, people are going...
Joe: Don't give the end away. Some people haven't seen it.
Enda: OK. It's really happy. [laughter]
Enda: And he goes to Broadway and makes a fortune. [laughter]
Audience Member: You mentioned working with the Germans and that they could not understand
this image of the girl in the door. Would you speak a bit more about living in England,
how long you've been there, and working with people of other countries? German, American
English, and Irish and how different cultures or countries may perceive or understand theater?
What are the differences, but what are basic human similarities that you have found in
your experiences?
Enda: OK. Wow. [laughter]
Enda: I'll just take off my shoes. What an enormous question. But, I directed Bedbound
in Italian before I directed it in English. Now, I don't have any Italian. But, it really
sort of, I can't stand words. Just talking words. As much as I'm sort of married to them
and I have to create these images and I have to use these bloody words. I would love to
sort of write something that doesn't have any of that, but I have to. And I can't do
dance, so I have to actually sort of use it.
But, I like the shape of drama and I like the shapes of narrative. And the emotional
arcs of characters. So, when it came to sort of in Italy and working in Italy and working
in German. My German isn't that good. But, I enjoy watching my plays where I don't actually
have to listen to them. I don't have to understand the words.
It makes me sort of appreciate or see the weaknesses of where the play is emotionally.
And how the sort of arcs of the character sometimes and when the audience fall out of
it. And I can sense that without any sort of words involved.
I'm interested in very physical presentations of roles, and I love American actors, American
stage actors, and they seem quite fearless. It's quite similar to Irish actors I think,
in many, many ways, but they really inhabit roles, and are quite brave, and all that type
of thing. I've done work in London, everyone knows it's a different thing; it's more of
a technique thing.
I don't think my work feels right, a lot of the time, in their mouths, not just the sound
of it, but just the way it's performed, and the energy that it demands. There're more
similarities than there are differences, like culturally. I've done a lot of work all over
Europe with different people, and seen my work performed, in various different languages,
and I'd like to think, and I think there is. In terms of theatre practitioners, it feels
quite similar to me.
It's the degree of emotion on stage, and the degree of risk, and the physical risk, that
does vary. So, the Germans just completely get my work, but they think it's quite peculiar
that I'm still writing family dramas effectively. They think it's very, very strange, but they
like the deconstruction of them, the extraction of it. Sorry, it's such a huge question you
Joe: This lady here, and the gentleman there.
Audience Member: That actually leads perfectly into my question. I saw the show last night.
I liked the way Fintan said about enacting and evocation, but I find enacting last night
was also a provocation. I was provoked to think of many, many, many different things.
And the thing that struck me most was the question that I bring to you today. How is
it that you, and you mentioned Conor McPherson earlier, I was thinking of some of his plays
versus his Antigone, which opens up - how is this insularity, this familial insularity,
how does it at the same time, in some paradoxical manner, open up beyond Ireland? Especially
as you just described the new play, which sounds almost like a feminine counterpart
to this one.
Enda: It is.
Audience Member: Do you even think about that?
Enda: I don't think about it. I mean, you were having a dialogue with yourself. You
were trying to reach into yourself, of course, and shake up yourself, and ask big questions.
And so the work tends to be very insular, and folds in on top of itself, and has nowhere
to go. A lot of the time, I'm aware of the big stuff of actually being a writer, and
it's all been written before, and what the hell am I going to being to the table. Am
I bringing anything at all? So, I do like to pour a lot of anxiety in terms of: I'm
nothing, I've got nothing to say, I don't exist, I'm not bringing anything to the party
here. And in some way, that way makes me investigate myself a lot.
So, all the plays are effectively about theatre, about writing, about what's the point of it;
that it just begins to eat itself into nothing. And so a lot of it is about me, actually getting
through the day. It's my relationship with bloody words that I can't do anything outside
of what I can actually do.
I enjoy it, but it frustrates me that I'm not a bloody plumber, where actually I could
really bring something to the world, like real good stuff.
Enda: Do you know what I mean? But that is the dialogue that I feel as if I'm having
a lot of the time with it. And also wrestling with the medium, the characters need to be
playing and playing and playing, but to what? And construct societies, and construct rules,
and mechanisms within their living room, to what end? Only to try and escape them again.
But then, probably build more and more routines, and patterns, and all that type of thing.
So, I know it's very, very universal. And the biggest influence in my life, of course,
would be my father. And he was a furniture salesman, and living in Ireland, furniture
is the first business to go in a recession. And Ireland just constantly lives in and out
of a recession.
And that was my theater, growing up, was seeing this man who was wonderful on the shop floor,
could adapt to different situations. But, I was aware of this bigger machine, and this
political sort of... The huge thing of just collapse; things could collapse at any moment!
I used to have a paper round when I was a kid. A very successful paper round, around
Raheny. And I used to count my money on a Friday. In the middle of the recession, I
used to look at my dad counting his money, and I'd have more money that he bloody had.
So, I was just aware as a boy of how real those sort of strains upon the nine to fivers
- the people who have to go out there and do a living.
So, all the plays are effectively about routine. About people caught in patterns and routines,
and the larger threats that they feel. That they have to either stay in the job, stay
in the world, or actually try and break out of that.
Joe: There's a question here. Could we get a mike down here? There's a question, this
gentleman here. And then there's over here, as well. We'd like to take one here first
and then we can get the mike down here. Yes?
Audience Member: You were talking about the mechanisms, architectures of a living room
space, and that kind of insularity. I feel like, in the "The Walworth Farce" there's
the ghost of Joe Orton and Luke just waiting to emerge from the center of the stage. So,
I have one question just about how that influence - as you were working on it - that kind of
tradition that's outside of explicitly Irish tradition.
And then I have a question about "Hunger," which is intensely visual and visceral. What
it was like to collaborate with Steve McQueen, how much you were involved in the visuals.
And the really striking 15 minutes sequence that's purely dialogue - the only real dialogue
scene in that whole film, between Bobby and the priest.
Whether you wrote that entirely or what kid of collaboration was really involved throughout
the film, but particularly in the moments where we get to hear what is spoken.
Enda: Yeah. Well, the Joe Orton thing, of course, would it be a... We don't have a tradition
of farce, and I didn't really actually read any farce. Moliere or Anthony, anything like
that. When I was a kid, I was interested in Irish theater and that was about it. So, I
actually had to pick up books and begin to learn the constructs of that. So, the farce
isn't mathematics. It's just learning a lot, and Joe Orton presumably, and Michael Frayn
all learned from someone else. I just got in there and learned it and it's quite, actually
it's quite liberating - writing within a mechanism as tight and rigid as that. You really feel
as, "Oh, God!" It feels quite strong.
But, in terms of "Hunger" yeah, it was a very nice experience to work with Steve McQueen.
But, it's, yeah, all the images. But, you see, I deal with images every day in my work
in theater. It was actually just a matter of...
The dialogue sequence itself was the easiest part to write in the movie. Outside of that,
the images all had to be, of course, constructed and down to crumbs on the handkerchief, or
whatever that had to be.
They were the very difficult thing, because it's silent. I think the first half an hour
is silent, so how do you create some sort of narrative, sort of strain, so you feel
as if the story is actually moving in a forward trajectory as opposed to just an artistic
sort of installation piece in a gallery.
It's a very conventional movie, actually, but because it does move forward through the
conventions of film, but he pulled it off good.
Joe: This gentleman here.
Audience Member: I have two quick questions. The first one is, I just want to make a comment
that it was a fantastic, very moving picture. I've never had [inaudible 1:01:47] before
in watching a play. And so I did talk to Michael after the play, how do you, what did you do,
I could hate you right now. [laughter]
Audience Member: But, what do you go through - you said you wrote it in four weeks -
what do you go through when you write the play? What was the fundamental motivation
of the play? You said it was a relationship with your brothers, and you showcased that.
So, that is my first question: what was the fundamental motivation that made you write
this play?
The second question is a little towards the later half of the play, the introduction of
colored character in the play and a very deliberate attempt to actually make it white. So, was
that a reflection of London society or is race an issue in Ireland, Irish theater? Has
that [inaudible 1:02:30] or what's the accomplishment of that?
Enda: Well, on that one first, on the race thing first. To me, it was just that she doesn't
fit into his narrative, she doesn't fit into his story, into what he has constructed. But,
of course, it's a huge moment in the play. It's a hugely strong moment, and I felt as
if it was important to have that in there, that outside of what he knew there was nothing.
His prejudice is all based upon his creation of farce, his little country, his little society
as this mechanical thing. Outside of that he doesn't see her as anything other. You
do not fit in this. You do not look like Maureen, my wife. But, from an audience point of view,
it's quite a shattering piece to look it. But, it is the mechanisms and the small societies,
the small communities that we all create all the time and live with, and that anyone outside
of that, we prejudice them in some way.
On the other thing, in terms of the motivation, for about two years, I suffered with obsessive
compulsive disorder, this recurring sort of thing. I had problems traveling in London.
I was living in London at the time, "Disco Pigs" was on in the West End and it was the
time of the World Cup. And the play was dying a death. No one was going to the play. But,
I thought, Oh, I've made it. Is this what theater is? I don't know what theater is.
I was partying a lot at the time.
And I fell into these things where I couldn't actually travel anywhere. I had to have a
routine whenever I traveled. If I got on the Tube, I had to sit in a certain seat in a
certain carriage. I had to get up at a certain time and drink a glass of water and put a
piece of chewing gum in my mouth. And that would work for a while. And then I'd have
to bang my leg for a while, eat the chewing gum, drink the water, and then get up at a
different thing.
And this would go over a month. By the end of it, I looked like some German folk dancer.
I was like this...
Enda: ... as I was running up the steps of wherever it was, Green Park, crying my eyes
out going, I'm going insane, absolutely going insane. I used to eat in a particular restaurant
everyday. I was staying in Shepherd's Bush at the time and I'd pass by this house. I'd
be walking by and bang, I would see a window. So, they were doing what they were doing everyday,
and I was doing what I was doing everyday, at exactly the same time. So, it was always
a man, and woman and her son, always seated in the same position in this room. And I would
see them all the time and go, it's them again. They're obviously looking at me and going,
God, there's that guy again.
But as I walked by it became this little picture. I could see the Irish shellaly, the JFK picture,
the picture of the Pope, all these Irish things. I thought, these are immigrant people. This
is interesting. And I thought, I'm going to write that play. But, it took me 12 years
to write it because I didn't have the chops to do it.
So, when I say that I wrote it in four weeks, I wrote it in 12 years, because I wasn't thinking
about it. I just knew I wasn't good enough as a writer. I started working on this play
about two years ago. I said, Oh, I think I'll be ready for this in 15 years time, but I
definitely don't have the intelligence or the instinct to write the bloody thing now.
So, it's based probably on that and it's based upon how myself and my brothers get together
like we all do. We sit down in my Ma's kitchen, and come 12 o'clock, you know, telly goes
off and we all start telling the same stories. And you know like when we tell, you know I
tell the story about whatever and John tells a story and Darrin and Alton and like we're
all telling exactly the same stories every year because we don't see one another.
"Tell that story about Dad and how he was in a couch and the doors of the van door opened
and the furniture, and the van door opened, the van was going up the hill and Dad was
on the couch and he fell onto the street and it went down." Which was a great story and
through and you know and so John would tell that in great detail. So, it was all this
sort of you know, you know this is our family history, we must keep it together. We have
to keep our sort of you know our childhood sort of you know alive to us, but we have
to keep us together, this is our community.
You know outside of that, you know boogerdum, you know this is us as four brothers. Not
even my poor two sisters were involved in it. But, you know it was like just about us
and you know proclaiming these stories again, and again and again. And just feeling you
know, you walk away from these sort of nights just feeling like that's it, that's good enough
for a year, now I don't have to see them for a year, but top in the year there's that.
Joe: Do we have a question over here? Where am I looking for the mike? Up there, yes.
Audience Member: Enda, thank you so much for coming. I was wondering if you could talk
about Irish sense of humor, in theater?
Enda: Well, I don't know, I don't know what it is, but I'll tell you what, I live in London
now and I really, really love going home. I mean I forget just how much bloody Irish
people talk. I mean I've worked with Michael Murphy over there now. Michael's in the new
Electric Ballroom he's acting in it and I directed the bloody thing for my sins, but
he talks more than me, right? And I'm a bit of a yapper when I get going. But, I really,
really like being around people who are just chatterers who talk and annihilate things,
you know, and just keep on sort of like talking. And yeah, there's great sort of you know,
wild sort of levity in there. I think Irish people like the surreal.
I'm a big fan of sort of you know Flan O'Brien and all that sort of writing it's very dense
work, very strange and bloody funny. But yeah, I think my work sometimes and in the U.K.
people can go, "It's just sort of, it's you know the bizarre Irish people fucking yapping
to one another and telling sort of jokes and all that type of thing," plus I don't really
care and that's just the way it is, you know.
Fintan: I suppose if there's a defining characteristic of Irish humor, it's deadpan, you know? It's
the gap between the awful and the very funny is really narrow. So therefore, you know,
straight faced becomes part of the humor which is, is this funny or is it not funny?
Enda: I must tell you, you'll appreciate this, there's a very personal sort of matter, but
I don't mind it, you know. I don't mind sort of sharing it with you. When, my dad died
sort of like nine years ago and we were all in the room and as a family we were all into
this like, he died in hospital and you know he had cancer so he was out for about sort
of two days. But, as a family we weren't all together for years, for about sort of seven
years, I mean sort of like a whole sort of family, and we got together and finally got
together and he died. He died he sort of [deep breath sound] and he was out and we were all
there and we were all looking at one another, of course we were all crying and this, losing
it and losing it and just, you know for an hour or so, it was really, really quite upsetting.
And then, and then I said, "A man walks into a doctor with a strawberry up his ass. And
the doctor looks at the strawberry and goes, 'You could do with some cream on that.'"
Enda: And we just fell around the floor. And it was a wonderful, it was a wonderful, wonderful
moment. I mean because my Dad would have so sort of appreciate that joke, but it was brilliantly
and then the crying started again, it was like, but it was a wonderful, wonderful moment.
My best moment.
Joe: Perfect definition of Irish humor I think. This gentleman over here.
Audience Member: You talked a little bit about how families get together and tell stories
as a way of preserving this small community. And it seems to me that theatre also does
that. It's, historically, getting together and telling stories as a way people identify
themselves. With The Walworth Farce, and also the Brian Friel play, work as a repudiation
of that. The stories aren't to create community, they're to annihilate the truth, to hide something
that people don't want to talk about. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit,
and maybe about if that Brian Friel play also has it, if that's an ongoing theme in Irish
Joe: Sounds like a Fintan question.
Fintan: It's a really perceptive point. What you have to remember, and the reason why there
is this very, very fine line between the absolutely appalling and the very funny, is to do with
exactly that. It's to do with the way in which the energy of the storytelling is also an
energy of denial. You have Donald Rumsfeld, your great philosopher, who famously expostulated
about the epistemological questions about known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. And
in Ireland, I think we've had a special variation on that, which he didn't even think of, which
is the unknown known. It's a very screwed up society in a lot of ways, which is why
it's good at theatre. It has incredible capacity to both know and not know things at the same
So, for example, just recently, we're going through a recent period at the moment, where
it's like all this darkness of the history is washing over us. We ran institutions in
the Republic of Ireland for most of the history of The States, where we enslaved and tortured
children, in vast numbers, up to the 1990s. The Republic of Ireland incarcerated a larger
proportion of its population than any other known society, ever. Between prisons; industrial
schools where they locked up children; Magdalene homes where women, who were in moral danger,
or had babies outside marriage, were locked up; and mental hospitals, where huge numbers
of people who were not mentally ill were incarcerated.
So, the silence is the background against which the manic energy of the language emerges.
You don't have one without the other. If we were a healthy society, the energy of the
language - you have to think about Beckett. Beckett does encapsulate so much of this.
If you think of Winnie buried up to her diddies in the bleeding ground, as somebody says to
her, she's buried up to her neck in sand, and the language is coming out. That's a bit
of what you're getting is the sense that there is a buried silence, and you've got the language
on top of that, which is coming forth.
And there's a comic energy to that, which is, there's nothing else we can do except
speak, except use this language and let it come out. And the language becomes extraordinarily
interesting and playful, and acquires all this angularity to it. But, at the same time,
what you're not seeing and not hearing is the repression and the silence underneath
That, I think, is where what Enda's doing, or what's in faith he'll learn, I think you're
right, there are really interesting connections between the ways in which language is used
in both of those.
What makes those plays so powerful, actually, is that sense that repetition of certain stories
becomes a way not of expressing anything, but of encapsulating the silence, so that
the language is really a function of what you're not saying, rather than of what you
are saying. There's a real truth in that, because often the Irish linguistic gift has
been a gift of distraction.
Fintan: It's, "We're going to talk about this to avoid..." You know when you get a kid and
you say, "Did you just break that plate?" They'll start saying, "I was at school today
and something interesting happened and I saw this guy, there was a great thing, and I was
in the playground and I saw this other girl, and..." You know, they use language to distract.
And one of our psychic disturbances is that we use language as a distraction. As I'm doing
now, because I can't think of what I was going to say.
Joe: We'll take one more question. Oh, there's a gentleman over here. Can we get a mike up
there? Just one more question because we've got make sure everybody can get to the show.
Audience Member: I kind of have a double question. Maybe it's a slight statement and then...
Is the art director Tom Hicky? Is that his name?
Enda: Yeah.
Audience Member: I met him once, a few years ago. He was doing a play by Tom McIntyre at
the Art [inaudible 1:16:10] Center in New York. I remember him talking to me about the
road that playwrights, how it's a special calling, special thing. You can't be an actor
and playwright because that's just not the way it's done. There was this hugely romantic,
almost shamanistic projection of this figure of the playwright, which I feel Ireland has
both benefited and suffered from. I'm interested in this younger generation of Irish playwrights
who came up in a much more collaborative space.
But, at the same time, I'm wondering, is the way in which they're not writing these grand
plays that sort of project a nation, is that related it to a simultaneous reduction in
the ego or ambition or something?
And my second question is related to Beckett and to language and to this idea of language
as distraction. Beckett famously wrote in French to get away from the Celtic, just the
Irish way of writing. I'm wondering, Enda, if you ever feel like it's just too easy?
Audience Member: Do you want to... Is it too easy? Would you ever want to get away from
that language, and do you ever think you could, or would that interest you as a gesture?
Enda: Would it be easier to begin to write in French or German?
Audience Member: No, almost like, just not directly... To step outside - I'm curious
about this - to step outside, into the...
Enda: But I, to step outside the... Sorry, say that again.
Audience Member: Well, write a play set in Mars or somewhere. That's a silly suggestion,
but you know?
Enda: Yeah. Well, my favorite play of mine is called "The Small Things" and it's set
in Lancashire. It's sort of set in it, it uses Lancashire. Really, all of the plays
I've written I've got no notion about what it is to be those people, and that's why I
actually write them. I've got no notion of what it is to be a 65 year old woman living
in a rural village somewhere in Ireland, surrounded by fish. But, that's a good enough reason
for me to write it. And like, an 85 year old Lancashire woman who's the last person to
talk in the world, because everyone else in the world has lost their tongues.
That seems like... So, I always feel like I'm actually effectively a middle class sort
of boy from North Dublin. That's a very dull, that's a very dull person to be, and I would
never actually write a play about my life. Because it's a very, sort of, dull thing.
I always feel as if I'm actually... I am writing, I am performing. When I write I sort of tend
to perform the characters because I want inhabit different peoples, and different logics, and
different worlds. Of course, you're writing about your whatever. Tiny solar light or heart,
and like that, and the minuscule intellect that I certainly have.
But, yeah, I don't know. I always feel like I'm completely just observing where these
characters are going to go or how... What they're going to do. And that's a reason enough
for me to be a playwright - to step outside middle class and the world from North Side
Dublin, for a while.
Joe: Well, thank you all very much indeed for coming on, and thank Enda and Fintan for
joining us here this morning. And thank you. Well done. [applause]