Language UnBecoming a Lady

Myles Breen in 'Language UnBecoming a Woman' presented by Bottom Dog Theatre. Photo: Eamon McCarthy

Myles Breen in 'Language UnBecoming a Woman' presented by Bottom Dog Theatre. Photo: Eamon McCarthy

James Joyce maintained, through the voice of Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, that theatre was the most public of art forms. It’s only fitting then that the stage should air stories that have been of the most private nature mainly because they were a part of an oppressed minority. The history of a gay man or woman in Ireland was excluded from the public realm in Ireland by coercion, not by choice. Myles Breen’s Language Unbecoming A Lady sets about redressing that injustice. As such, it is eminently worthy but worthiness alone does not make great art. It doesn’t even guarantee successful art. Language UnBecoming a Lady doesn’t innovate; it doesn’t challenge theatrical conventions or stretch the barriers of its form. However, it is fabulously written, wonderfully acted, tells an extremely important story, and it is an undoubted success at what it attempts to do.

Myles Breen in 'Language UnBecoming a Lady'. Photo: Eamon McCarthyThe story appears very openly autobiographical. Myles Breen wrote Language UnBecoming A Lady and, as Bobby, a gay man, he performs it solo, aided only by the songs of the divas Bobby adores. Recordings of famous numbers by gay icons like Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Streisand deepen the emotional texture of Bobby’s story – Breen usually mimes the lyrics, often in an extremely camp fashion, though we are never treated to any one song in its entirety, the strategy of which appeared to be motivated by the desire to keep the play moving along at a snappy pace, which indeed it does do.

On the one hand, Bobby’s tale is quite predictable. Breen traces Bobby’s realisation in his early teens – and initial shock, horror and denial to himself – that he is gay. The language here is wonderfully frank as he talks about the heterosexual masturbation “fests” he and his mates would have. The story then moves on to Bobby’s move from Limerick to Dublin, where he can, at last, find a gay scene that allows him to finally accept himself and be accepted by others. This scene is headed by a 'queen' called Dolly Mixture and it’s here that the usual and fairly predictable gay coming of age story becomes a little more complicated as Bobby also ends up becoming a drag queen by the name of The Divine Diana.

There is heartbreak, family tragedy and even a tale of a heterosexual married man who falls in love with Bobby. However, stylistically, Breen’s performance is at its most interesting when he displays Bobby’s dual personality as a gay man and then as The Divine Diana. For most of the play, Breen addresses the audience directly, facing us and confiding to us. When he represents his alter-ego, The Divine Diana, though, he Myles Breen in 'Language UnBecoming a Lady'. Photo: Eamon McCarthyaddresses either one of two mirrors on the stage. Using this reflection device, there is then a dialogue between Bobby and The Divine Diana. The audience is not addressed directly; instead, it feels like we are a fly on the wall to Bobby’s split personality. Bobby’s split between his two identities and the acting out of it is not maintained throughout. All the same, Bobby admits that without his drag queen persona and other self, Diana, he might not have made it through to his forties.

The set design is in keeping with the confessional mode of the play. It’s like a star’s or an actor’s dressing room. In fact, it’s The Divine Diana’s dressing room. There’s a row of dresses hanging up at the back of the stage, publicity posters of The Divine Diana, and the humorous and somewhat incongruous appearance of a red Munster rugby scarf draped across the row of dresses – traditionally and certainly in the period of the play, rugby was vehemently hostile to gay people and rampantly homophobic, hence a rugby scarf seems out of place yet it ironically establishes the location of Bobby’s home city, Limerick. There’s also a wonderful soundtrack which further includes excerpts from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone and a clever and appropriate 1980’s sound file is used to enhance Bobby’s hilarious hedonistic period clubbing.

Language UnBecoming A Lady is both camp and very real and earthy. It’s a measure of the writing and Myles Breen’s performance – in particular, how he slips in and out of high camp and then into a more grounded, concrete self in order to distil the complexity of Bobby – that the play cuts the right balance between sentimentality and artistry. It not only tells the tale of a gay man’s progress into maturity but we also get a touching historical journey through the Ireland of the last 30 years and how our perspective and humanity has changed for the better. 

Patrick Brennan is a journalist, critic and lecturer and is currently writing a book on the theatre of Tom Murphy.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Language UnBecoming a Lady by Myles Breen

On tour.

Produced by Bottom Dog Theatre
In Dunamaise Theatre, Dunamaise Arts Centre

Written and Performed by Myles Breen

Directed by Liam O’Brien

Lighting: Dave O’Brien

Sound, Set and Costume Design: Bottom Dog Ensemble (Myles Breen, Mike Burke, Mike Finn and Liam O’ Brien)