The Queen's English, what we speak

The Queen's English, what we speak

It seems a shame that Queen Elizabeth II should make her first, historic visit to the Republic of Ireland – an occasion that inevitably summons up the tension, reconciliation and interdependence between two neighbouring nations – and for her not to take in a single theatre production. True, she is attending a performance in the National Convention Centre, with a carefully vetted audience of two thousand people, where the entertainment runs from the classical Irish repertoire (Westlife), extends to contemporary Irish revivals of the international cannon (Mary Byrne) and resolves in the stirring representation of our ancient heritage (Riverdance). This brand of Royal Variety Show seems to have been carefully designed to cause a minimum of offence but it also numbs the potency of her visit at a time when so much of current Irish theatre seems to be addressing issues of history, colonial inheritance and language; the Queen’s English, what we speak.

“Why can’t they just speak English like everybody?” Rosaleen Linehan’s cantankerous Mag says of the incomprehensible Irish babble of her radio in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. So begins a brief debate on the cultural dispossession and economic opportunities of linguistic imperialism in Martin McDonagh’s first play, currently at The Gaiety in a touring production from The Young Vic. The production alone is enough to keep postcolonial scholars in hybridity and inversion until it’s to home the cows will be coming. Here is a play about Ireland by a London playwright in a British production performed by an Irish cast to a Dublin audience. Its language owes something to JM Synge, who curled English around an Irish syntax in a way that seemed both rooted and unreal: “a strange mixture of lyric and dirt”. Through McDonagh’s ear, though, it becomes a dirtier exaggeration, a placeless dialect that seems comprehensible and bankable in any place where English is spoken. “When it’s there I am, it’s here I wish I was,” says the Irish navvy Pato of England and Ireland. “But when it’s here I am… it isn’t here I want to be either.” Those may be the words of the lost, but their appealing twist has secured his play countless homes. (He never mentions how he feels on Broadway.)

If the Queen wishes to see how the class boundaries that she epitomises are mere constructs enforced by speech, merrily subverted by an Irish stenographer, there are few plays that deconstruct them better than Pygmalion (pictured, with Risteárd Cooper). “It’s aw rawt: e’s a genleman,” remarks one Cock-er-ney bystander of Prof Higgins (who is really anything but); “look at his bə-oots.” In this London, appearance is everything. A Covent Garden flower girl, made to respect the divine authority of English as “the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible” can be passed off as a duchess providing she speaks “properly”. Perhaps it would be too unsettling to see her majesty’s namesake, Eliza, commit class treason, but Shaw, the self-described “social downstart”, played his word games to undermine all intellectual and social certainty.

That production is running at the Abbey, which recently staged a rehearsed reading of John Bull’s Other Island, Shaw’s 1904 satire about Home Rule and Anglo-Irish relations. Commissioned by the Abbey as its inaugural production, but passed over by W.B. Yeats, legend has it that King Edward VII laughed so hard during its Royal Command performance in 1905 that he broke his chair. “No Irishman ever talks like that in Ireland, or ever did, or ever will,” the Irish émigré Larry Doyle says of one honey-tongued stage Irishman, before Synge and McDonagh suggested that they do, they did and they would. Then again, John Bull’s Other Island was more prophetic: it ends with the transformation of an Irish village into a twee themepark, a dark prognosis on international capitalism and Irish acquiescence. (The Abbey did finally stage Shaw’s play, first in 1916 then annually until 1935, when “the Irish question” moved forcefully towards its answer.)

Last week, the launch of Irish Theatre Institute’s Playography na Gaeilge drew attention to more than a century of drama in our native tongue – with a telling gap in new Irish-language plays between 1916 and 1922, when its writers were otherwise engaged – but the struggle for independence and the right to self-definition are no less conspicuous in what Synge would have described as “work in English that is perfectly Irish in essence”. In their own modest ways, Phillip McMahon’s Pineapple and Gavin Kostick’s Fight Night bear its legacy, each using the naturalism of recorded speech and finding imaginative possibilities in its use.

In McMahon’s Ballymun, characters trade apparently artless details – “Ragin’, she was”, “Scarlet for her” – that later swell with playful Dublin embellishments – “Nancy Ragin’” “Scarlet Church” – that give its language a geography, a home. When someone describes a drunken wake for a young man who has taken his own life, the words become more loaded and lyrical: “Hard shaws huggin’ each other and cryin’ into the ground. Thugs, screamin o’ the injustice. Wolfe Tones, and the Dubliners. Rebel songs an’ all. Songs about freedom, or whatever they could get heads to. Their voices breakin’ with the whiskey and the hurt.” The energy of Pineapple is female – women talk to each other while men can barely express themselves. When personal pain and anger reach for whiskey and rebel balladry, or when an implacable father admits in Gavin Kostick’s Fight Night“me brains were always in me fists”, it’s a reminder that language can be a prison, but its use can offer us an escape.

That the Queen is unable to attend any of these performances is a shame. After all, recent screen dramatizations of her own life and those of her family, such as The Queen or The King’s Speech, have been keen to peer behind the pomp and ceremony to discover the eloquence of their internal lives. The Queen’s own performance is steeped in resonant pageantry, such as the balm of yesterday’s cúpla focal (which received as much attention as her overheard, endearing preference for a “clinky” glass) or her laying a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance: a politically potent piece of street theatre which security crackdowns largely stripped of an audience. Should she join them, in the auditorium of her choosing, she would hear another symbol of the mature accord between neighbours. Not, to adapt Shaw’s maxim, of two nations divided by a common language, but mutually informed and distinguished by the character of their own voices.

Peter Crawley is Theatre Critic with the Irish Times and News Editor of ITM. 





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