Arrah na Pogue: The Alternative Programme Note
[Chris Morash wrote the programme note for the production of Arrah na Pogue that opened at the Abbey Theatre on December 21, 2010. What follows are a few reflections written the morning after opening night.]
Writing a programme note is a curious enterprise. It involves writing something reasonably informative and entertaining (for which people will pay good money) about a theatre production that the author has not only not seen, but which no one has seen, because it is usually being written at about the same time that the director is sitting down with the actors for the first time. So, when I was writing the note for Arrah na Pogue (Abbey Theatre, Dublin; previews Dec. 15, 2010; runs until Feb. 5, 2011), I had to make an educated guess that whatever Mikel Murfi would do with Boucicault’s script, it would be marked by the kind of wide-eyed inventiveness I knew from his production of Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey, or from his acting work with Barrabas… the company, or with Druid. I also started from the assumption that the Lecoq-trained Murfi would put his actors, and his actors’ bodies, at the heart of his production.
Most of these guesses turned out to be correct, although not necessarily in the way that I had anticipated. Given that Murfi is a performer for whom theatre starts with the actor’s body, I thought from the beginning that he was an interesting choice to direct Arrah na Pogue, if only because he was tackling a play whose appeal for its original 19th-century audience was as a vehicle for spectacular mechanical stage effects. In some respects, the whole plot can be seen as a device for getting to the climactic final scene in which the hero, Shaun the Post, thrillingly climbs a tower to save the heroine, Arrah Meelish. When the play was first staged, this scene was the pay-off for audiences, the equivalent of the exploding car chase in a Hollywood action film. Indeed, the stage machinery that Boucicault used for that big sensation scene, in which a tower rises up out of the stage while the actor climbs to what seems like dizzying heights, is still in use today in pantomime (you can see it regularly in productions of Jack in the Beanstalk).
One way to think of the history of the theatre over the centuries is as an ongoing tussle between actors and the set for possession of the stage. Sometimes (in Jacobean masques, 18th-century pantomimes, or in the work of some contemporary theatre-makers like Robert Wilson), the set wins; at other times, the actors win. From talking to Mikel (and from knowing his earlier work), I knew that the odds in his Arrah na Pogue were stacked in favour of the actors, and that he did not want the machinery of the stage to overwhelm the actors. And if you look carefully at the script, you can see that he is right.
Like many of Boucicault’s other plays, the plot does not revolve around the characters who should be the romantic leads, whether leading man, (the noble rebel Beamish McCoul, played by Rory Nolan), the aristocratic romantic lead, Fanny Power (Mary O’Driscoll), nor even around a possible villains like Major Coffin (Michael Glenn Murphy, doing what sounds like a David Norris imitation). Instead, the play is built around a trickster character: Shaun the Post, played by Aaron Monaghan, whose sinewy energy fills the Abbey stage. This was the role the Boucicault wrote for himself. Shaun the Post is a purely theatrical creation, a born improviser. Whether in the dock in a courtroom, or locked in a tower, he is a character who can use language, his body, and his wit to make the situation his own. As such, apart from anything else, Shaun the Post is a figure for all actors, who within the physical confines of the set (or, indeed, the limits of the script), have only their words and their bodies with which to create something new, night after night. The play may create a physical prison on the stage, but Shaun breaks free of it, and ultimately (quite literally) transcends it. As such, part of the pleasure of Arrah na Pogue is the pure pleasure of theatrical creation.
I tried to suggest a bit of this in my programme note; I also tried to give an indication of the way in which Boucicault’s “philosophy of pleasure” (as he once called it) had an interestingly ambiguous politics, so that a play like Arrah na Pogue, set in the aftermath of the 1798 Rising, could be applauded both by a Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, and by a politicised nationalist audience in Belfast or New York. What I had not really understood until I saw Mikel Murfi’s production is how these two things connect.
Any theatre historian who has ever written about Arrah na Pogue has mentioned the incident in which Boucicault first included, and then (under pressure) dropped an incidental scene in which Shaun sings a rebel song, “The Wearing of the Green.” In terms of the plot, or of character development, the scene is superfluous (as evidenced by the ease with which Boucicault was able to include or exclude it, depending on his audience). However, on the stage of the Abbey on December 21, it became the quiet epicentre of the play, as Aaron Monaghan sang it with an almost whispered intensity.
The streets around the Abbey on the opening night of Arrah na Pogue were deserted, as if Dublin were auditioning for a sequel of The Day After Tomorrow or The Omega Man, with only the odd taxi or bus skidding through the snow. Commuters leaving the city were like fleeing refugees, some taking five or six hours to reach the suburbs on roads blocked with jack-knifed lorries, while there was a quiet panic in the train stations and at bus stops. The airport was closed. On Marlborough Street, I stepped out of the way of a group of junkies huddling against the subzero cold, to be sprayed with slush by a Garda van. Earlier that afternoon, the President had signed the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Bill into law, as the economic Ice Age froze tighter. Inside the theatre, Aaron Monaghan sang:
I met with Napper Tandy, and he took me by the hand
And he said, "How's poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
"She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they're hanging men and women there for the Wearin' o' the Green."
For a long time now, the heritage of Irish rebel songs has been something of an embarrassment: an awkward, and potentially dangerous, cultural legacy; even before the Ceasefires, if we thought of them being sung at all, it was by arm-chair republicans to give sustenance to an increasingly futile campaign of bombings and executions. As a generation reach maturity in an Ireland in which political violence is largely a memory, these songs increasingly seem like a dark stain from another time.
In a curiously parallel way, Boucicault’s plays, at an earlier period, were also a kind of cultural embarrassment. While Arrah na Pogue may feature Irish rebels and British soldiers, the rebels are not terribly rebellious (the leader of the rebels, Beamish McCoul, is willing to live peacefully, if only he can marry his sweetheart); likewise, the soldiers are either decent skins, simply doing their jobs, or they are helpless buffoons. In Arrah, as in Boucicault’s other Irish plays, the real villain is an Irishman, in this case Michael Feeney, a debt collector (which, in 2010-11, many seem entirely appropriate). In an earlier Ireland of more orthodox nationalism, this kind of political ambiguity was suspect (and so Boucicault’s theatrical reputation languished through the middle decades of the twentieth century).
What Mikel Murfi unearths in his production of Arrah na Pogue is the utopian hope that is the political unconscious of Boucicault’s play, and, perhaps, of Irish republicanism as a whole, stripped of its specific political content. In the figure of Shaun the Post, the improviser who can rely on his words and on his body to create a world of love and hope for himself in the face of rigid systems of control and oppression, Boucicault goes to core structure of a rebel song: the ability of anyone to stand up and sing in the dark winter night, even if that song is of “the most distressful country that ever yet was seen.” And as Aaron Monaghan defied that dark, amid the pantomime sheep, hurroos and general craic of the production, there was one of those rare theatrical moments in which the performance answers the world outside the auditorium. For a few brief moments, Arrah na Pogue conjured into being just what Ireland in the winter of 2010-11 needed – the reminder that at the heart of what looked like an obsolete tradition, we can find a resource for the present.
Dec. 22, 2010