Friday, September 25, 2009

Day 20 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Irish theater edition

A friend up in points Northwest is revising her Irish culture & folklore course, preparatory to the spring field-trip they take, not unlike our own. We were knocking around ideas for additions from the world of theater, and here's what I came up with:

Several sources occur to me, and they all come out of my (limited) experience of Irish folklore. So, with full disclaimers about my lack of theatrical knowledge:

1) Henry Glassie's work, particularly in All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming, the extended preface to his Irish Folk Tales book, and certain chunks of both Passing the Time in Ballymenone" and Stars of Ballymenone", talks about the relationship between folk drama, storytelling, and "modernist" trends in Irish theatre during the Celtic Renaissance. Henry has made some, I think, very interesting connections between the "abstraction" of, say, Beckett in Godot, and the starkness and ritual gesture in the Fermanagh Mummers' play. And, like Dick Bauman, Richard Schechner, and Mukarovsky before them, Henry has thought a lot about the performative semiotics of conversation in folk cultures, stories, puppetry, and ritual.

2) Synge's own fieldwork is, it seems to me, a hugely important part of his plays: not just the the stories upon which he based Riders and Playboy, but the way in which he, like Yeats, thought that Irish folktale and custom could be a tool for revitalizing Irish theatre. That was the whole premise behind the Abbey, right? To create a venue in which "new Irish plays" by playwrights writing on nationalist themes could explore that nexus. There's a certain "objective" stance in Synge's plays that, it seems to me, is reminiscent of the "dispassionate reporting" of murder ballads and such like.

3) I think Beckett is hugely important here. Though he is typically understood (as I perceive it) as a rather challenging, abstract, "modernist", I think things like Godot are very much reflective of the seemingly-aimless, non-directional, "passing the time"-style conversations that neighbors who've been neighbors for 10 generations have.

4) I don't find Yeats's plays particularly persuasive, but I do think that he saw a legitimate and very interesting connection, potentially fruitful for new experiments, between various forms of ritual or folk drama and a modernist expression. Somewhere between folktale, Noh, and Picasso's experiments, Yeats found possibilities for masking and a non-representational "ritual" drama. Another interesting one to look at here might be the "corporeality" that the American avant-garde composer Harry Partch was working on at nearly the same time, where dance, instrumental music, song, mime, and intoned speech could all work together.

5) No doubt you've read Heaney's modern translation of Beowulf. Thought that's written epic, not theatre (though theatrical in origin, and you've got to see the American Benjamin Bagby's solo tour-de-force of the thing in Anglo-Saxon!), it was spoken epic poetry first. And I love that, as the General pointed out, Heaney starts his version not with the usual translation of "Listen!", but rather the word "So..." Which he explicitly relates to his hearing his uncles open folk-stories.

There's something about that incipit "So..." that conveys, much more than the imperative "Listen!", a sense of entering a story, mid-stream, that is going on, has been going on, and will continue to go on, flowing like a river into which the storyteller, and his/her audience, can dip at any point.

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