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Power to the Imagination

James Harpur writes:

They [plays] are quite contrary to the Word of Grace and sucked out of the Devil’s teats, to nourish us in idolatry, heathenry and sin.
Elizabethan preacher Philip Stubbes

It’s fifty years since Beckett won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969 and 370 years since Cromwell laid waste to Ireland in 1649. The two seemingly disparate anniversaries are linked by drama, the puritan mind and the soul of theatre. If Cromwell wasn’t himself a brutish iconoclast – it is recorded that he had a keen appreciation of music – it was under the contemporary puritan government’s dispensation that theatres were closed. Conversely, Beckett, who made his name and achieved his greatest brilliance in the theatre, was a minimalist at heart, a puritan (and purist) of language, surely more of a Roundhead in temperament than a Royalist. His last poem, “What is the Word” is a staccato ode to wordlessness, a breathless dirge that celebrates or mourns the ability of language to be ultimately evasive and yet tantalisingly provide sufficient words to acknowledge it. Jallaludin Rumi once said that “the language of God was silence, all else is mere translation”, and he would have resonated with Beckett’s poem in which the “word” is like a hare running into silence:

… what is the word –
there –
over there –
away over there –
afar –
afar away over there – …

Even Beckett’s slim, spare linguistic probings might have been too ornate for Cromwell and his confreres, for whom the theatre represented not merely God-diverting pleasure and levity but wantonness and disorder. The sort of author they had in their sights was the pro-royalist playwright James Shirley, a dramatist not constrained by puritan asceticism: “We have no Greeke wine in the house I thinke, / Pray send one of our footemen to the Merchant, / And throw the hogsheads of March-beare into / The kenell, to make roome for Sackes and Clarret, / What thinke you to be drunke yet before dinner?” (The Lady of Pleasure). But what would Cromwell have made of Beckett’s thought and language, with every syllable delivered on a Stanley knife and quivering from the effect of its own linguistic diet?

VLADIMIR: Thank you.
POZZO: Not at all.
ESTRAGON: Yes yes.
POZZO: No no.
VLADIMIR: Yes yes.
ESTRAGON: No no.
Silence.

The struggle between the puritan’s via negativa vision of art – as in, say, St John of the Cross’s poems and Mondrian’s canvases – and that of the via affirmativa (as in, say, Homer and Joyce) is a constant throughout the history of culture. Cast in a different form, the struggle appears between, for example, purists and pragmatists, between those for whom ideals are paramount at the cost of popularity, and those who believe financial viability is the greatest good, at the cost of integrity. In recent weeks, three hundred Irish theatre workers have complained to the Minister for Culture about the Abbey Theatre’s reduction of in-house productions in favour of co-produced shows. Their gripe is basically that while independent producers make use of the Abbey stage and enjoy some of the pickings, home-grown talent is being left to rot on the trees. The counter-argument is that box office receipts are healthy: pragmatism for the moment trumps ideals.

This not just a matter for actors, directors, designers, agents and playwrights; it raises questions about cultural policy, Arts Council directives, and the use of the public purse. With a €7-million subsidy keeping the Abbey afloat, the public has a right to know that the money is being spent wisely (on something more, one hopes, than the gentleman’s wig curler and wine bottles found in the remains of Dublin’s seventeenth-century Smock Alley theatre in 2009). Even more, they should be reminded of why theatre matters, as well as the rich tradition of Irish theatre and how theatre, generally, is a barometer of a nation’s psychic health. Plays, musicals and other dramatic performances are manifestations of the imagination in its most live, energising and present form. The works of Friel, McGuinness, Carr, McDonagh, Murphy – to mention only a clutch of contemporary or recent Irish playwrights – present a pageant of life that makes us laugh, cry, reflect on moral truths and challenge our own cultural conditioning. Every good play is always more than just a good evening out. And a country with a weak theatre is merely one vast theatre in which the actors and audience wear the masks of lost souls.

The struggle to establish a vibrant Irish theatre has been a long and valiant one, even centuries before Yeats famously defended Synge’s Playboy. The first formally recorded play performed in Ireland rejoiced in the name of Gorboduc, was written by Norton and Sackville and put on by Lord Mountjoy at Dublin Castle in 1601. At a time of political tension the play’s plot fittingly revolved around the division of the legendary King Gorboduc’s British realm and the ensuing civil war. But it wasn’t until about 1635 that the first dedicated Irish theatre opened, in the vicinity of Werburgh Street, near the Castle. Its first performances featured the plays of James Shirley, then resident in Dublin. His output included Saint Patrick for Ireland, a play described sneeringly by his Dublin rival Henry Burnell as being full of smoke and mirrors, or “flames and fire / Tempests and whirlwinds”, as he put it. The nascent Irish theatre was Castle-centred and politically directed, but at least it was functioning: with the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the puritan dispensation, theatres and other entertainments became public enemies.

In 1649 Cromwell led his notorious expedition in Ireland, and his ruthless treatment of local populations, especially in Drogheda, derived from the same puritan mentality that despised plays. In the English imagination the Irish had long had a reputation, initiated by Gerald of Wales, for being “wild”, “barbarous”, “immoral”, a crude racism that would have a tragic tenacity. The Irish “hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion”. That was written by Benjamin Disraeli in 1836, but it could equally have applied to Cromwell, because the puritan mind hates challenges to its cult of psychic neatness, and of course its “pure religion”: law, order, regulation, discipline are indispensable to fasting, penance, prayer, the life of the spirit, the mystics’ via negativa. The puritan mind is frightened by the imagination – that world of mysterious and endless possibilities that distracts the pious soul from a higher zealous truth.

Not surprisingly, the theatre became the puritans’ bête noire, their Jezebel. They hated its frivolousness, the cross-dressing, the “lies”, the masquerading. They hated the crowds that gathered around theatres, the thieves, gamblers, pick-pockets, prostitutes and beggars. The Elizabethan preacher Philip Stubbes summed it up: plays are “sucked out of the Devil’s teats, to nourish us in idolatry, heathenry and sin”. In 1642, the English Parliament suppressed stage plays in the theatres. In 1644 the puritan authorities demolished London’s Globe Theatre. In 1648 it was ordained that theatres must be torn down, actors jailed and whipped, and playgoers fined.

When Cromwell gazed on Ireland with its “unruliness” and its pageant-like Catholic Mass, he saw a giant theatre performing a tragedy that had to be closed down. Humankind cannot bear too much imagination. Conversely, the nurturing of imagination is the most effective way of ensuring the spiritual health of a society, of ensuring that totalitarian or extremist governments are reminded of life beyond their unremitting attempts to stifle individual expression and freedoms. This country has long taken up theatrical arms under the banner of imagination, from the Smock Alley theatre to the Gaiety, Abbey, Gate and many others. And not just in the distant past, nor or course solely in Dublin.

To give just one small local example: one of the unheralded gems of contemporary Irish theatre lies in West Cork, where Kinsale College’s Amphitheatre, modelled on the Globe, has put on critically acclaimed plays since 2005. The original Globe in London was demolished by the puritans in 1644; Kinsale’s riposte, nearly four hundred years later, is a victory for the imagination against the dead-hand of puritanism. Under the visionary tutelage of Liz Moynihan, the Kinsale principal, and drama course directors Belinda and Ian Wild, spiritual descendants of Oscar, the Amphitheatre lays claim to being Ireland’s only dedicated outdoor theatre. Elegantly shaped in a pleasing O, and built from natural materials, sourced locally and chosen for their low environmental impact, the cedar-beamed theatre has over the years entertained thousands of playgoers with a repertoire of Irish and international plays, from The Shaughraun and The Importance of Being Earnest to Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Molière’s The Hypochondriac, as well as contemporary experimental drama.

The Amphitheatre has helped to make Kinsale into a cultural hub, a place that honours the imagination and which by osmosis contributes to the creative atmosphere that draws thousands of visitors to the town each year. It’s a template for cultural, social and economic success. More than that, it provides a potent reminder the country that will always hold out against the likes of Cromwell and his puritanical descendants, if the theatrical imagination – in all its glorious wildness, unruliness and lack of borders, and manifested through theatres big and small, national and local – is truly honoured, nurtured and supported.

6/2/2019

James Harpur is a poet who lives in West Cork and is a member of Aosdána. His latest volume of poetry, The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018), was an Irish Times Book of the Year.