Theatre and Performance in Small Nations

Theatre and Performance in Small Nations


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Theatre and Performance in Small Nations by Steve Blandford

Arguing that the cultures of small nations offer vital insights into the way people relate to national identity in a globalized world, Theatre and Performance in Small Nations features an array of case studies that examine the relationships between theater, performance, identity, and the nation. These contributions cover a wide range of national contexts, including small “stateless” nations such as Catalonia, Scotland, and Wales; First Nations such as indigenous Australia and the Latino United States; and geographically enormous nations whose relationships to powerful neighbors radically affect their sense of cultural autonomy

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841506463
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 03/15/2013
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Steve Blandford is professor of theatre, film, and television, and director of the Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations at the University of Glamorgan.

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Theatre and Performance in Small Nations

By Steve Blandford

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-646-3


Location, Location, Location: Plays and Realities: Living Between the Pre-modern and the Postmodern in Irish Theatre

Cathy Leeney

This chapter is part of a broader argument about how Irish theatre and performance confronts the post-human condition in the twenty- first century, how it reflects upon and explores the experience of living after humanist values. Here, I try to deal with more specific issues of space and identity in plays written during and after the Celtic Tiger period in Ireland, the period of economic hyper- development that is often dated from the early 1990s to about 2008.

In Ireland it is commonly understood that the history of theatre has been closely associated with the assertion of national identity. Dion Boucicault, in the middle of the nineteenth century, created challenges to colonising English stereotypes of Irishness, while reassuring audiences that a modus vivendi was possible and desirable between landed and peasant classes and between the neighbouring islands. Later, theatres staged new visions of the myths and images of a self-consciously separate Irishness, and, even when playwrights had other issues on their minds, Irish audiences and critics stepped in with some consistency seeing identity everywhere as a defining theme. Conflicts resulting from the partition of the island of Ireland into the Republic's 26 counties and Northern Ireland's six counties have prolonged concerns with identity as they applied to the culture clash between Unionist and Nationalist interests and agendas; issues of identity turned inwards, were often defensive and focussed on exclusion.

Through the latter part of the twentieth century (and powerfully at play long before then) influences from the wider world have impacted on the experience of being Irish. Declan Hughes, who was born in the 1960s, is one of the first critics specifically to articulate the gap between official versions of Irish identity and the felt experience of growing up with Americanised or internationalised culture as the key reference point. Seeing that the pressure on national identity had already won the contest, his argument is that

[t]here are two ways of reacting to the perceived collapse of cultural identities [...] One is, literally, to react: to insist on national and regional identity authenticity [...] the second way of reacting [is] to reflect it, to embrace it, to see it as liberating. It's the condition.

(Hughes 1999: 11, 14)

Although Mary Manning and Tom Murphy, amongst others, had earlier dramatised Irish people's passionate and sometimes painful ties with other cultural contexts, Hughes expressed a generation's alienation from the national identity values promoted by state agencies, and he described a growing sense of disjunction between an ideological localism and an actual globalism. Aspirations towards the images of internationalism had, for Hughes and his peers, replaced the hegemonic prescriptions of church and state, which in Ireland's case were deeply and damagingly integrated. There is nothing unusual about this development, as most small nations feel the pressure of new colonising forces, and probably nothing unusual about its effect on Irish playwriting and theatre making. From a conservatively nationalist Irish point of view, the colonising pressures of England had merely been replaced by those of international capital and multinational enterprise. But is some more radical and complex change taking place that goes further than another kind of colonisation from another source? Is Irish theatre, sometimes tacitly sometimes explicitly, enquiring into human identity as it grows out of rootedness, place, history and community by exploring how it is uprooted, displaced, adrift in the present moment and amidst new definitions of place and community?

The difficulty of totalising analysis in this postmodern context is obvious. It is not possible to reflect the range of kinds of theatre being made in Ireland, to include a properly representative range of plays, dance theatre, devised performance, outdoor spectacle and live art. The material here makes reference to the work of a limited selection of playwrights whose plays bear relation to the idea that identity has migrated from the idea of nation to become a shared concern circling the issue of place and its role in contextualising identity and connecting individuals into communities.

The writer, journalist and theatre critic Fintan O'Toole has argued convincingly that in the twentieth century, Ireland jumped from being pre-modern (or pre-industrial) to being postmodern/post- industrial, missing out on the intermediary stage (O'Toole 2003). He is describing how, in Ireland, the unselfconsciously traditional might be found cheek by jowl with the latest high technology systems and communications. The phenomenon is not unique to Ireland and has been noted across the developing world. In the 1970s an English author told me that his visit to Dublin felt to him like travelling to any regional English city trapped in a time warp in the 1950s. To him Ireland merely lagged behind. But since then time has become far more fractured. During the Celtic Tiger period of economic boom, the Irish may have begun to believe their own publicity – that not only did Ireland offer an unparalleled quality of life and unrivalled opportunities for enjoyment and 'craic', but that they could also wield economic power matching the audacity, greed and high earnings of any other national élite. Those who won success at that time might move with ease between the pre-modern world of their grandparents, perhaps materially poor but supposedly rich in cultural and spiritual resources, and the postmodern sophistication of highly technologised communication, travel and international business and property interests. This sense of movement, this 'betweenness', has, I will argue, become a key image in Irish theatre. Its impact on the setting and structure of plays places new emphasis on a new enquiry: What is it to be one of those who can shrug off one world to enter another, without any burden of commitment, history or vulnerability? There is also a new question: Who are we without a sense of place and how does theatre deal with this?

In what follows I wish to explore location in the dramatic space of plays, by which I mean the location and spatial contexts of the play as indicated in the text, but not as interpreted by a scenographer in a specific production. My argument relies on recognising how spatial organisation lies at the heart of the semiotics of performance, that spatial context definitively frames the engagement of the audience with narrative, character and the process of making meaning on stage. From Artaud to Copeau to Brook, space defines theatre and the act of performance, while the theatre semiotician Anne Ubersfeld famously equates theatre with space. Defending the analysis of the dramatic space of a play on the basis of the text alone, Gay McAuley argues that '[a] great deal of information about spatial function is contained in the written playtext, and [...] reveal[s] the importance of the category of space in theatrical meaning making' (1999: 9). A central part of my concern is the relationship between dramatic space and place, that is to say, as Ciáran Benson defines it, 'what human beings make of space and time'. The process whereby persons develop identity through their bodily and shared connections with space, 'the subjectification of space and time' (2001: 7), Benson argues, is key to the formation of self. He quotes E. S. Casey:

Where we are – the place we occupy, [...] has everything to do with what and who we are (and finally that we are).

(1993: xiii)

Yet, it seems evident that many Irish playwrights are no longer in the business of representing place as key to the workings of their plays, the rooting of character and the contextualising of narrative. How then do they express this field of uncertainty, where space takes over from place? How do they create opportunities for performance to embody, for audiences, the unstable relationship between space, place and identity?

If audiences live in a state of between-ness: between history and virtuality, identity and performativity, narrative and intertextuality, spontaneous action and self-conscious reflexivity, hierarchised structure and postmodern playfulness, between the pre-modern and the postmodern, how does contemporary theatre explore their quandary? Does the term 'liminality' suffice any longer to express the unresolved state of the human subject, detached, freed and exhilarated perhaps, loosed into non-place? The contemporary Irish playwrights here wrote in the shadow of their predecessors, for example, J. M. Synge, Sean O'Casey and John B. Keane, who exploited dramatic space to dramatise specific lives as lived in specific locations, linking, often in complex ways, the places with the lives and exploring how they are entwined. The representation of what were once unfamiliar, authentic places on stage however has become a problem. As Garry Hynes points out in relation to staging John B. Keane's plays, '[i]f you go for some kind of realism you're suddenly part of the heritage industry' (2001: 200). The imagery of Keane's rural way of life has been co-opted into the marketing of brand Ireland and can no longer be seen outside that frame.

Brian Friel's Ballybeg, the location of several of his dramas, is at once a locale and an archetypal community. Friel reveals the restrictions and the (mostly lost) potentials of such social formations, their disequilibrium, and the grip kept on individuals' dreams. Yet, building on his abiding fascination with fluid stage space, in Faith Healer (1979) Friel achieves a very different kind of dramatic space. Here, locales proliferate and become confused; their names are an incantation, an emotional contour rather than a geographical one, and crucially the play is acted out in an imagined space of performance. The key moments of the narrative are located in highly specific detail though; in this sense, place eventually catches up with Frank Hardy when his fate materialises with utter inevitability, outside Ballybeg:

[t]he yard was a perfect square enclosed by the back of the building and three high walls. [...] In the corners facing me and within the walls were two mature birch trees and the wind was sufficient to move them.

(Friel 1984: 375)

The uncertainties surrounding location as the audience try to piece together Frank's, Grace's and Teddy's versions of events give rise to questions of character, narrative and truth that mark the play as reflexively postmodern. As Declan Kiberd observes, '[t]he play turns out to be about itself' (1996: 631). The space of the play is the space of performance, and for the three figures on stage, each isolated in a pool of light, it is a kind of limbo. Faith Healer draws attention to a dramaturgical strategy that unfixes the figure from the context: direct address to the audience. The argument is sometimes made that the popularity of monologue performance has economic motives, but might playwrights choose the single speaking figure to express detachment from place and its contextualising power? Perhaps the solo performer signals the era of non-place and its contest with place? The metatheatrical impact of monologue places the audience as silent and self-conscious interlocutors, while it also reflects contemporary experiences of the irresolution of space into place through mobile phones and other digital communications.

Several of the playwrights discussed in this chapter require particular settings for their dramas, and yet build in a sense of unease with fixed and steadfast place. They achieve this in a variety of ways. Dramaturgically speaking, space and time are always closely relative: inconstancy in temporal reference has the power to disrupt the coherence of dramatic space. Contextualising settings may be interrupted by sounds from elsewhere, by darkness, or by illogical or incoherent elements that break the frame, creating gaps that destabilise. Settings may combine realist and expressionist elements in an ill-fitting jigsaw of signs, or may present a hyper-realist image where each individual object points towards its narrative use.

The general principle of uncertainty in space, time and narrative has been brought to a new level in the Irish theatre of Martin McDonagh. His hybrid Irish/English identity (he grew up in London with Irish emigrant parents and spent holidays in Sligo and Connemara) unsettles distinctions between Irishness and Englishness, and as Fintan O'Toole observes, McDonagh is 'part of a generation that has completely redefined the term "Anglo-Irish" [... as] a new kind of fusion that arises, not from ascendency but from exile' (O'Toole, 1999: ix–x). McDonagh's drama first hit Irish stages in 1996 and swiftly became a phenomenon in Ireland and England before The Beauty Queen of Leenane won four Tony awards on Broadway. It is not too much to say that Garry Hynes' Druid Theatre Company productions have become legendary in recent Irish theatre history as a defining marker of the process of globalisation (Lonergan 2009: 101–127).

From 1996 to 2001 McDonagh's plays had in common their west of Ireland settings, their use of Hiberno-English sentence structures and a series of intertextual references to Irish and other dramatic literatures. In 2003, The Pillowman was directed by John Crowley at the National Theatre (London), although McDonagh dates the play to 1994, prior to the staging of his other work; and a draft of the play was read at Druid's theatre space in Galway in 1997 (Lonergan 2009: 102). One way or another, The Pillowman, while it is significantly different in style and tone, contains dramaturgical strategies at their fullest development, strategies that are also present, in less developed form, in the work of the west of Ireland. Thus, the earlier-produced plays are usefully re-read through the later one.

The Pillowman operates in the interstices between show and tell, in theatre terms, between performance and narrative. Katurian is an abattoir worker and part-time story writer who is being interrogated by two policemen. Parts of the opening dialogue pastiche the clichés of television crime drama, but the scene quickly moves into a more threatening mood, echoing Pinter's One for the Road. From the moment when the '[s]ound of a man screaming hideously a few rooms away' (McDonagh 2003: 23) breaks the action on the stage, the relationship between what is heard or told and what is seen or enacted becomes more and more deeply unreliable and disturbing. A kind of contest is set up between the value of the story and the sacrificial value of human suffering. Finally, McDonagh twists the ending to play out a retrospective victory of story over sacrifice when Katurian's brain-damaged brother, Michal, says he would prefer to live and suffer his parents' torture rather than lose Katurian's stories, which were inspired by Michal's pain. Leaving aside the moral implications of the play, the space of performance operates in a bizarre way. It shifts between recognisable accessories such as police files and institutional furniture, and is taken over by Katurian as he tells the story of his parents' experiment, and enacts his own words assisted by them. In Act I, Scene 2, Katurian sits 'in an approximation of a child's room' (31); he narrates two versions of his parents' behaviour, which are acted out as he speaks. He presents the first version titled 'The Writer and the Writer's Brother' as if it were one of his stories. In the second version, 'The Truer Story' (34), Katurian finds his brother alive but physically and mentally damaged, and smothers his parents. Again, at the end of Act II, Scene 1, Katurian's story leads to him suffocating his brother, and Scene 2 comprises the story of the foster-parents and the girl who is Jesus; he 'narrates the story that the girl and the parents act out' (67). Act III begins with Katurian's confession and death, but both dead brothers are resurrected to tell the final story of Michal's choice. Story and the demands of narrative shape enactment; the play questions the playwright's power – not only to write a story but also to shape an enactment. In The Pillowman, Katurian's key role as victim and as protagonist/dramaturg makes explicit McDonagh's fascinated self-awareness as shaper and mover of the stage words and pictures.


Excerpted from Theatre and Performance in Small Nations by Steve Blandford. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents

      Steve Blandford

1. Location, Location, Location: Plays and Realities: Living Between the Pre-modern and the Postmodern in Irish Theatre
      Cathy Leeney
2. Processes and Interactive Events: Theatre and Scottish Devolution
      Ian Brown
3. Theatre and Performance in a Devolved Wales
      Steve Blandford
4. Contemporary Catalan Theatre and Identity: The Haunted Mirrors of Catalan Directors’ Shakespeares
      Helena Buffery
5. Tales from the Wild East
      Goran Stefanovski
6. A National Theatre in New Zealand? Why/Not?
      Sharon Mazer
7. Between Pride and Shame: A Dialogic Consideration of Honour Bound and Reconciliation! What’s the Story? in Pursuit of an Australian National Identity
      Rea Dennis
8. Under the Radar: Latin@/Hispanic Theatre in North Texas
      Teresa Marrero
9. Challenging Racial Categorisation Through Theatre: English-language Theatre in Malaysia
      Susan Philip
10. From Springtime Erotics to Micro-nationalism: Altering Landscapes and Sentiments of the Assamese Bihu dance in North-east India
      Aparna Sharma


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