Archive for October 20th, 2012

Conversations on a Homecoming, The Druid company

Dear friends and readers,

Last night at the Kennedy Center I saw Tom Murphy’s grim effective play called Famine (set in Glanconnor Village, County Mayo, West Ireland, 1946), one of three traveling about the US put on by an Irish company, Druid. The other two are A Whistle in the Dark (set in Coventry, England, 1970); Conversations on a Homecoming (County Galway, West Ireland, 1970). The trilogy played at Lincoln Center where it gained strongly favorable reviews.

The first half introduces us to our group of absymally poor, near starvation Irish people, living in the filth of a moor near a huge fence where their iron corrugated shanties lean against that fence. Their potatoes have failed utterly for a second year and we see them frantically digging in the dirt to pull out black inedible soil. They talk and we get a picture of their dire circumstances, set up by the English gov’t, their unreal hopes for some help, and who each is in nature (a cripple, a drunk, the leader male John (Brian Doherty) and his wife, Maeve (Beth Cooke), their daughter, other family groups and friends. It was spoken too softly for me and I had trouble at first with the Irish accents.

We learn of the hedge schools, the lack of any protection for tenants, the rules against any Irish owning anything, against voting, the lack of allowed public space. How the 1% own all. The phrase 1% is not used but the analogy is clear. Even stronger for Greece and Spain today. (Oh have you heard the Nobel Committee gave the European union the peace prize! after engineering depression, violent riots, the destruction of a country so the wealthy can keep their huge incomes and as bankers fork out niggardly loans. I suppose peace will come when all are dead or pacified.) The people around the fire, the women cooking awful stuff are quiet. They are told of where they can go to get meal (Indian, imported in) or bread centers. They fear ending up in the workhouse and not being able to get back to one another. A funeral for one woman goeson and the mother keens.

The second act hit hard. It somehow back louder and the clashes between groups of antagonists to these people ensued. This revealed showed why Murphy is so important a playwright today. We watch them destroyed in scenes where they go for work, denied it without work permits and are confronted by the arrogant impatient but (at some level) intensely guilty compassionate English. The real purpose of demanding permits (which they’ve not got) is to drive them to emigrate: to Canada, Australia, wherever. Where there is no provision waiting for them they know. Grating ironical dialogues where the Irish refuse to go, and are mocked, or talked to “reasonably”. John holds out and so does his group. He won’t go. We see the “peelers” come in (reminding me of US cops on the streets today) come in and bully. Happily (yes happily) they are murdered by maddened Irish men coming from behind with heavy spades. But what good does that do? except avoid more deaths and beatings of the Irish. We see individuals come back with meal in bowls or huge pieces of bread, which others grab.) Quarrels erupt as they are forced off their bits of land between one another and the English. They build a coffin and practice putting children in it. The scenes are just heart-wrenching — and comic too By the end of the act all but John and his wife and child and one mad man and his dead corpse of a wife are left on stage. Finally the wife protests and behind a corrugated iron he beats her to death with a pick of some sort to shut up her grieving and demands they too emigrate. A horrific moment as she screams and he banks away frantically:

An earlier moment

John last seen wandering up a pile of dirt, deranged. A young couple we have seen before emerges, lovers, they express hope, though they do not want to leave. They will stay, find a town somewhere. Walk.

I found my body and arms begin to writhe a scene followed scene. Yes this is famine. The music was perfect as it came on and off, lighting effective.

I wrote the first two chapters of my book on Anthony Trollope, Trollope on the Net, on his Anglo-Irish novels, two of which center on the famines: Amarta Sen taught us at mid-century that famines do not result from their being no food, but rather that the entitlement to food of a group of people is highly precarious and if some of their supply is taken away they begin to starve. The solution is easy: ship some in and give it to them direct. But this is not done; in the 19th century powerful people argued it was disrupt trade, teach poor people not to work, was part of God’s plan for ridding the earth of excess people and to punish all for their sins (the last three Trollope actually argues in his Castle Richmond, a novel set in 1847). Now bandits in the country, its gov’t steals whatever charity organization try to bring in; we are told war is going on and the starving are “the other side” (maybe terrorists?)

The auditorium was at first full; at the intermission I’d say numerous enough people left that it was felt. This was not light entertainment. Some Americans might have trouble with the accents; I heard a couple of people nearby us say this. We were not that close, in back of the orchestra.

There was no equivalent of Romney, but then does he visit the Baintown workers camping out in Illinois where Sensata a division of Bain has played the vulture capital game, bought the company, demanded a ransom to pay the stockholders, and then closed down the factory and sent the jobs abroad. After feasting on the labor of these people’s whole lives, they dump them. He doesn’t visit the Chinese workers who now make Delphi driving wheels; he and his donors, Singer got millions of gov’t money when the auto bailout happened by the same process inflicted on Delphi. In the debate not one person objected to his praise of bankruptcy as a way of making companies stronger.

“‘Is it the poorhouse, yer honor?'”, an illustration to the recent Folio edition of Castle Richmond (by Rod Walter

As it happens on Trollope19thCStudies we are about to read and discuss his Castle Richmond. We read The Kellys and O’Kellys this past spring. Trollope will alas show us the Anglo-Irish gentry at this time with only occasional scenes of the Irish at centers where the Indian meal is given out. Trollope’s Anglo-Irish gentry find themselves scolded and shouted at by these Irish. They are not grateful! how can this be.

Scene from Castle Richmond (Rod Walter): these people giving out meal are the only authorities the Irish woman can meet

How unfair Trollope’s characters think. To be fair he includes scenes where his males visit the hovels of the Irish and we see the dead babies:

“‘Cowld, she muttered with a vacant face . . . ‘”

So now we have what’s left out in Trollope but these are marginalized to the main plot which concerns young thwarted lovers too:

Anglo-Irish catholic landlords (there were some apparently) who had been ekeing out some sort of minimal living (a subgroup in the novel) and a desolated Protestant heir:

Undergoing austerity measures too.

Trollope ends on the flight of a probably homosexual hero from the brother of the young heir belongs to the young couple and the quiet disappearance of heterosexual Anglo-Irish countess who loves him. For the posting-essays from the previous reading and discussion of this novel on Trollope19thCStudies, see Castle Richmond.

No such erotic romances and side social issues color Famine. It concentrates on hunger, on abjection (the people keep talking and talking, driving John to wild frustrations). The dialogue is sometimes didactic but at its best it’s a lyrical kind of half-imbecility. We don’t lose sight of the central paradigm:

All three are not so grim. The two others are set in the later 20th century, just before the so-called Irish miracle of the 1990s which has since collapsed.


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