by Peter Byrne
(Swans - May 3, 2010) American writing would famish without the Mafia. Similarly, British entertainment would show its ribs if deprived of Irish lard. George Bernard Shaw called Ireland -- and indeed dramatized it in a play of that name -- John Bull's Other Island. But that was already well into the centuries-old script of the Irish tragic-comedy. Indeed Irish theatrics look like never ending. The latest plot twist came in an episode we could call The Globalization Follies.
The deflated balloon that was this high-flying epic now encumbers the Irish landscape. A small, colonized country kept in poverty and bled by forced emigration from time in memoriam suddenly turned into the snarling Celtic Tiger. (Embarrassing now just to hear the silly phrase, isn't it?) The new puffed-up posture turned arrogant as exiles returned along with a flood of an unheard-of species, immigrants to Ireland. Reckless lending then reduced the bingeing property market by half its value in two years. Taxpayers were dragooned to save the banks. This blip in the story line, a mere sunburst in dark skies fore and aft, has already vaporized into myth. The carnivorous big cat couldn't gum a mouse today. Bankruptcy has become the national dirge and brought back the old monotonous beat of austerity.
Subplots of the Other Island's soap opera were also coming undone. The wishfully-named Northern Ireland peace process suddenly went into reverse. Sinn Féin and the Unionists, cat and dog, squabbled over the composition of the new police force and courts. If they couldn't agree, it meant that the Brits would have to take in hand the reins of government again from the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Apart from a rabble of benighted Loyalists, it was hard to imagine anyone actually wanting Westminster back driving the donkey cart, least of all butter-fingered Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Politically he was already a hold-your-nose cadaver, presiding over John Bull's home base that only avoided the dunce cap of insolvency by verbal and statistical sleight-of-hand. Heavy-hoofed Gordon -- the thought of whom hurrying to the rescue of anything at all makes for tears of laughter -- plodded across the Irish Sea and managed to stick another band-aid on a peace process that has never stopped smouldering with mutual resentment.
The Sinn Féin president and West Belfast MP Gerry Adams had only just added his own soapy bubble to the Irish melodrama. After years as a strictly-business political negotiator, Adams turned out to be -- as the delighted press and Nietzsche have it -- all too human, or simply soiled like the rest of us, save journalists and philosophers. It wasn't his soul-searching that produced Gerry's revelation. The police were chasing his younger brother Liam. Liam's daughter Aine accused her father of sexually abusing her since she was four.
The news out, Gerry could hardly not appeal to Liam to turn himself in. But, with the door opened, Gerry, not new to political spin, realized it couldn't be closed again without a thorough inspection of the Adams's residence. He felt compelled to admit that his deceased father had been a roving sexual predator among his numerous brood. Gerry seemed to suggest that this was news to him. But for years Adams senior had been known around Belfast as "the Dirty Wee Man" and "the Babysitter."
Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Northern Irish Protestants contributed a juicy tidbit. Peter Robinson, First Minister at Stormont, Ulster's leading politician, and his wife Iris, both MPs, have been a showy double act for years. One of their best performances was to buy a piece of land from a building contractor for five pounds sterling that would turn out to give access to a priceless development site.
All by herself, Iris recently denounced homosexuality as an "abomination" that she insisted could be "cured" by psychiatry. Her own heterosexuality has now been established in a big way by the news that at sixty she was having an affair with an aspiring young restaurateur of twenty-one. Iris secured several loans for her lover, which she neglected to declare to the authorities but never forgot to demand a percentage cut of in the way of a kickback.
Kirk McCambly -- for that is the name of the youth Iris first bedded when he was in his teens -- eventually had to feign testicular cancer to elude her embrace. In an effort to lend nobility to this low comedy Iris resorted to a suicide attempt that routinely failed and morphed into the usual stage-managed tearful apology that may be our epoch's only contribution to political science. The Robinsons no longer talk of family values but of "great personal trauma," their own "devastation" and, that old favorite of politicos caught with their pants down, "rebuilding their marriage."
All this, on top of its entertainment value, reminds us that Ireland, decried for waging a medieval civil war of religion during the 20th century, has now earned a place among the mature, tabloid-driven nations in the 21st. There's no better confirmation of this promotion than Chronicles of Long Kesh, a new play by the fluent and prolific Irish playwright Martin Lynch. (1)
Long Kesh prison, or the Maze, played a key role in the Northern Ireland "Troubles" that began in the late 1960s. Even in an age that boasts torture laboratories like Guantánamo in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, Long Kesh's mix of brutality and politics merits the attention of serious artists. There have been in fact impressive attempts to memorialize the prison that disappeared in 2008 like a family skeleton into Ireland's closet. Louise Dean's 2006 novel The Human Season got above sectarian conflict and showed every part of the community torn by what took place at Long Kesh. (2) Dean portrayed those enforcing the law as much victims as those who bore its brunt. Nobody in Ireland or Britain went unmarked by the deaths of the 1981 hunger strikers. Hunger, visual artist Steve McQueen's 2008 film, brought home the physical ordeal of Bobby Sands. (3) The first of the strikers to die, Sands's political line, as made clear by McQueen, split the Republican movement.
Martin Lynch's play comes only thirty years after these cruel events. But his remoteness from them seems like centuries. He could be Stephen Sondheim sending up the Roman Empire in the 1960s musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Mel Brooks invented Springtime for Hitler in 1968, a play within his film The Producers, afterwards a musical, that made light of the Fuhrer. But that was a joke within a joke whose bad taste was deliberate. In the 1960s, Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War had sung and danced the senseless slaughter of WWI, but her satiric intent was never in doubt.
Lynch's Chronicles of Long Kesh doesn't come from the vaudeville/music hall tradition that let Zero Mostel and Frankie Howerd do their stuff in the Sondheim musical. Comedy it may be, but not based on an overriding joke like the one Mel Brooks deployed for a couple of hours. And it certainly isn't a biting satire on the ruling class like Littlewood's.
Chronicles is a lads-together feel-good story. They are bad boys, tough but good-hearted withal. For some undisclosed reason they have formed two antagonistic groups. The figures of authority over them, though occasionally unnerved, are also tough, and nasty to boot. The boys are in a confined space and situation. They could be the crew of on an off-shore oilrig, or doing a stint in the army. They would like to go home forthwith.
In his program notes Martin Lynch says he has "always been fascinated by prison stories" and that the first book he read through -- he was fifteen -- was Brendan Behan's autobiographyBorstal Boy. (4) Now, Behan's prison play The Quare Fellow was staged in 1954. It was full of lively dialogue pitched in a sour comic mode. While it decried capital punishment and took the part of plain folks, it also reflected Behan's disenchantment with militancy. (He had left the Irish Republican Army in the late 1940s.) Lynch's Chronicles stays in Behan's vein of prison comedy but without the ex-IRA man's bitterness. Behan, after all, paid his dues by spending 1942 to 1946 in prison on a murder charge. He was released in an amnesty and can be forgiven his a-curse-and-a-plague-on-both-your-houses disgust with manipulative militant politicians.
Lynch doesn't curse anybody. He stays above the fray, which is not the same thing as Behan's turning aside from a struggle that had all but destroyed him. Lynch's comedy revolves around the character traits of a few inmates, their quirks, alliances, and fallings out. We are not far from a sprightly and innocuous TV comedy skit. Lynch seemed impressed in his program notes by the fact that many prisoners jailed for political reasons don't spend all their time inside talking and thinking nothing but politics. Armed with this banal truth he feels justified in writing a play about a jail that was created specifically for political prisoners -- Long Kesh came into being soon after the introduction of internment -- and leaving out politics altogether.
What he gives us is "pure" entertainment, pure here in the sense that his play bears no taint of ideas, political or of any other sort. As entertainment it's admittedly a snug, stage-worthy vehicle, conceived and produced with skill. Six actors -- one a woman, Jo Donnelly, unisex in mime terms -- command a stage prop-less save for oblong boxes that serve as drums, coffins, a podium, and what have you. The actors establish six principal characters but move readily into any other personae that the story might call for. Their deftness and fluidity provides the charm of the show and accounts for half of why it's entertaining. The other half originates in the group's a capella singing. For Lynch has in fact concocted a musical complete with dance numbers. Seizing on Motown's popularity in 1970s Ireland, he makes his prisoners fanatic devotees of Detroit's Smokey Robinson.
Lynch's entertainment machine only falters when some of the many shifts of the actors to and fro between characters are so abrupt they jolt us. The play's structure is weakened by the fact that one of the six key characters, a jailer, serves as a narrator. This voiceover incarnated before our eyes, as it were, regularly gets in the way of the action. Moreover, what he tells us doesn't come near putting Long Kesh in context. It merely sorts out the shenanigans of the obstreperous boys.
To give us an understanding of Long Kesh, Lynch would have had to inject his play with history. If he wanted to forswear documentary and use drama, he would have had to build more information into the very structure of the play. He did neither. His compulsion to entertain leaves us more ignorant of Long Kesh than before we sat down to his play. All we have learnt is that the prisoners were unhappy to be incarcerated and were crazy about Motown music. Their occasional dutiful allusion to what was happening on the larger scene -- always accompanied by an actorish, pained frown -- seems like an interruption that they and the playwright would have preferred to avoid.
A prefatory note tells us that the action of the play took place in Long Kesh prison between "1971 and 2000." It's well to recall some of the events Lynch only refers to obliquely if at all while his actors belt out Smokey Robinson numbers.
In 1971 the army and police arrested individuals from the Catholic community who were eventually jailed in Long Kesh. In 1973 the first Loyalists were interned with them. In 1974 most of Long Kesh was burnt down in a protest over bad food. In 1975 internment ended after having imprisoned 1,874 Republicans and 107 Loyalists. In 1976 the removal of political status for prisoners provoked the on-the-blanket protests, a refusal to wear prison uniforms. In 1978 the protests intensified, prisoners refused to empty their chamber pots and began smearing their cells with excrement. In 1980 there were 3,000 prisoners in Long Kesh and the first hunger strike began. In 1981 the second hunger strike got underway. It ended only after the death of ten prisoners. In 1998, a truce of sorts, the Good Friday Agreement, was signed. In 2000, Long Kesh, latterly renamed the Maze, was permanently closed. In 2008, it was demolished.
Lynch shouldn't have called his play Chronicles of Long Kesh, but something like Shaking A Leg At the Local Hoosegow. That wouldn't have trivialized thirty recent years of pain and death. It wouldn't have made us wonder if Lynch never understood a series of political events of historical consequence, or if he simply found them too difficult to deal with.
Other artists, following Louise Dean and Steve McQueen have not been averse to giving Long Kesh/Maze a hard, steady once over. Among these are the photographer Donovan Wylie. (5) Between 2003 and 2007 he photographed the disused prison. We are far from Lynch's tuneful roughnecks, Dean's anguished visitors, and McQueen's desperate men using their bodily waste and self-immolation as weapons of last resort to preserve their dignity. Wylie strips the prison of incidental drama -- of people but not of human significance.
Long Kesh occupied a huge space of 360 acres. That space was isolated in unbounded nature. The immensity was meant to be oppressive and succeeded. Built in a single story, the prison was contrived to prove that repetition could destroy the spirit of the strongest. Its walls gave the impression of a geological formation. There were areas baptized "steriles" and "inertias" as if to undercut the determination of the inmates. And the force of nature -- of inevitability -- was what it strove to suggest. In a word, the photographs show us imperial power: the self-hypnosis of the imperialists using their delusion of strength as a bludgeon. Wylie opines that a prison like that of Guantánamo is only a "souped-up" version of Long Kesh/Maze. Of course, after viewing Wylie's work nothing prevents the musically inclined from going home and playing some Smokey or the Supremes.
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4. Lynch's remarks can be found in the program to the Chronicles of Long Kesh that had its world premiere in Belfast, in January, 2009, and then toured Ireland. The same production, directed by Lynch and Lisa May, then went to the Edinburgh Festival. In March 2010 it opened for a run at London's Tricycle Theatre. (back)