Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre

Eight years ago Irish Theatre Magazine looks at the vexed question of dramaturgy for the first time with the intention to demystify it (ITM, Summer 2002). Rosy Barnes surveys what is a recent development in Irish theatre and hears time and again how dramaturgy is the bridge to the professionalization that Irish theatre needs. ITM revisits the issue with a formidable article from Jocelyn Clarke (ITM, Spring 2007). Here, Clarke with great clarity articulates best practice for dramaturgs and sets out a gold standard for writer as opposed to play development. He gives a needful shape to what is as yet emergent and disorganized in Ireland. Come 2009 and we notice that two productions in THEATREclub’s mini-festival, The Theatre Machine Turns You On, cite dramaturgs in their listings. In this, as in much else in the festival, are we seeing the shape of things to come? Again we might think to hold our breaths. However, this time I'm persuaded we may have more grounds for confidence.

For all that, we are still nervous to value dramaturgy in the theatrical process, in part from a hesitancy to know what it is. In Clarke’s article, an American dramaturg offers the following working description: “I look for patterns in things.” Referring specifically to play development as this does, all the same it proves an apt description for Eamonn Jordan’s approach to theatre criticism in Dissident Dramaturgies. Not just a tool for within the process, it evolves into a “critical tool… one for outside the rehearsal room.” Clearly, this volume testifies to the growing influence of dramaturgy as a way of looking at theatre. But just what is this way of looking?

Jordan approaches the task of defining dramaturgy generously and with an open mind. He cites four levels at which it works. He considers it to be the meeting point of research and rehearsal. Furthermore, as an abstracting of the literary text, he sees it as the theory and the act of theorizing drama. Then, as a consideration of performance, he reflects on the historical currents – sexual, political, socio-economic, aesthetic – with which a performance co-exists. Finally, as a decoding of ideologies in literary and performance fabrics, it becomes a tracking of the ceaseless negotiations between convention and innovation, between reaffirming a set of rules and breaking them that makes up every play and performance.

Pan Pan's 'Oedipus Loves You', 2008.Jordan cites the last such definition as the most suitable for his purposes. In practice, however, he draws variously on all four. He commendably understands dramaturgy at all times to contain within it a tension between outside and inside; that by its very nature it brings to bear an outside perspective on elements taking shape within the process of theatre-making. (However, that he should lean on a dramaturgy of performance while passing rather glibly over recent emergent autonomous theatre forms, that explore theatricality itself as something distinct from drama – coming from the independent dance and theatre sectors in Ireland, from Corn Exchange, Fabulous Beast, Pan Pan, Coiscéim, Blue Raincoat, Loose Canon, brokentalkers, to name but a few – becomes curiously problematic for the volume, not least for the inaccuracy with which a performance dramaturgy is understood and used – a point to which I will return.)

From fashioning such a platform, Jordan moves swiftly to outline the frames of reference by which he interrogates the plays under consideration. These frames of reference – patterns teased out across the collective fabric of Irish plays of the last thirty years – are impressive (if a little too close to canon-making) for just how sensitive they are to recent developments in Irish playwriting. The frames of reference are as follows: the historical play (the resorting to the past to refract the concerns of the present), the elaboration of innocence, the recycling and recasting of pastoral tropes (especially as they relate to the west of Ireland), the reliance on a mythic template, the framing of storytelling within the drama, the preponderance of the monologue. It must immediately be apparent just how potentially rich is the haul of insight available to Jordan from this approach.

Not content to leave it at this, however, Jordan refers these patterns to an overall dynamic of ‘play’. He sees the contemporary Irish playwright characteristically remould the received materials of tradition, genre, trope, etc. into something transgressive and liberating. So that, for all a playwright is resistant to earlier dramaturgies, she or he is not entirely free of them. This leads Jordan to contend that in these plays “the imagination … takes the shape of deviance and aberration only” and so, while they might not comment directly on the changes in society, in sophisticated and elusive ways they can reflect them. This idea gives rise to the ‘dissenting dramaturgies’ of the title.

...this volume testifies to the growing influence of dramaturgy as a way of looking at theatre. But just what is this way of looking?

Trouble arises from the application of ‘play’ to dramatic text, however, as it inclines Jordan to treat as performance strategies what are strategies in the playwriting, a task that is certainly possible, but one that requires a grasp of the autonomy of performance that just isn’t in evidence here. Laughter, for example, is treated as the one thing whether it originates with the performer or is required of a stage direction. Indeed, all too often the stage direction is taken for the actual performance itself.

And so when it comes to discussing the plays, the task of criticism isn’t quite as radical as the groundwork would give us to believe. To take two examples, Jordan refers to social studies to say Marina Carr gets it right when it comes to sexual abuse within the family in On Raftery’s Hill. He then refers to political studies to say that Martin McDonagh gets totalitarianism right in The Pillowman. Both propositions are problematic as readings of plays given his own stated dramaturgical lens.

The volume feels slightly out of focus, for all the inspiration of its critical lens. There are the imprecisions for one: revealingly, the misspelling of Suzan-Lori Park’s The America Play and actors’ names – Karl Shiels, Ruth Negga, Frank McCusker. For another, there are the elisions. It misses out on the Deirdre parallels in Faith Healer, when it finds them in so much else – even, inappropriately, in Paul Mercier’s Diarmuid and Gráinne. For all that it advocates for a “dynamic” response to plays “in performance”, all too often it resorts to formula when describing written text, cataloguing what “the play is about…” or simply synopsizing plays in an idiosyncratic fashion.

The imprecision also extends to the critical tools either put to use or referred to and then declined. As regards the latter, Jordan points us towards a “postdramatic” reading of Martin McDonagh’s work without saying what this could be. As regards the former he leans on the influential theories of Patrice Pavin to say how a production can’t ever truly be said to derive from the play. According to Pavin, a production is always a tissue of signs or codings to be read independently of the play and so theatre-makers and critics alike would do well to honour this. This isn’t quite lived up to in Jordan’s writing, however. (Just as, most certainly, it isn’t lived up to in the mainstream of Irish theatre-making.)

Jordan characteristically sets out with a postmodern sensibility but can be seen time and again to fall back to readings of a more conventional kind. In this, his writing might be said to share a condition with Irish theatre as a whole. (And that Irish theatre and academic criticism should share a condition – as well as ambivalences, obeisances, hesitancies and horizons of risk – must surely be something encouraging if not heartening.)

The Mundy sisters dance in their kitchen in 'Dancing at Lughnasa' at the Lyric Theatre, 2007.And so while the volume might be imprecise, it is on to something. Of Dancing at Lughnasa Jordan says, “what gives it a hard focus is its enactment of the unreliability of memory in the face of traumatic loss.” He refers to Translations as having the convention of a “language within a language”, while Lughnasa has the convention of “a memory within a memory”, Double Cross “a character within a character”, and The Sons of Ulster “a history within a history”. He cites three forms of horror – the uncanny (that which can bear rational explanation), the marvellous (which requires the supernatural as an explanation) and the fantastic (which defeats all explanations) – to show how all three operate in The Weir. He claims that while “McDonagh deals with things that have a very vague resemblance to the real … the plays operate almost totally within the co-ordinates of the dramatic spaces only.” Yet, for all that “there is something energetically abundant and buoyant about the work.” He is again on to something to find in Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie a self-generating identity, a “hypertext” – and intuits in the original Bush production the meeting of text and presence in rhythm.

As must be abundantly clear, our misgivings about Dissenting Dramaturgies notwithstanding, it is the sorry director, or dramaturg for that matter, who fails to arm herself with this volume before getting into rehearsal with any of the plays to which Jordan brings his critical lens.

Thomas Conway is Literary Manager with Druid.

Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre
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Dissident Dramaturgies: Contemporary Irish Theatre

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Irish Academic Press, 2010

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