Friday 19 April 2019

Collection makes too much drama of McGahern's art

Plays: The ­Rockingham Shoot, John McGahern, Faber & Faber, ­hardback, 352 pages, €22.99

Master: McGahern's talents lay in novels and short stories
Master: McGahern's talents lay in novels and short stories
The Rockingham Shoot by John McGahern

I'm not sure who this book is for. Unless studied for exams, play texts aren't much read and so it's hard to see the appeal, perhaps even the point, of reproducing six dramas that very few people will have seen - or heard of. John McGahern's literary gifts lay elsewhere, and his reputation rests on the novels and stories that made him the most cherished Irish prose writer of our time.

McGahern scholars and completists, though, should welcome the volume and, indeed, it contains quite a lot of interest - mainly in the 55-page introduction by editor Stanley van der Ziel, which is full of intriguing biographical and other titbits.

A lecturer in Maynooth, Van der Ziel previously edited Love of the World (2009), a splendid collection of McGahern's essays and reviews and an essential companion for anyone who loves his work.

In this new volume, the academic pays particular heed to what he sees as one of McGahern's abiding preoccupations, "the unresolved legacy of Ireland's colonial past", a theme that runs through his 1971 BBC radio drama Sinclair, which was in fact derived from an early story, 'Why We're Here', published in the collection Nightlines.

Cyril Cusack and Norman Rodway were the actors in this story of a Protestant man who had been trapped in the cruelty of a Catholic mixed marriage - or, as he puts it himself, "dragged into your barbaric Church... by my male member". Since the BBC long ago wiped the tape, no verdict on Sinclair is possible, though Van der Ziel gamely suggests it might be "a potential classic of the genre". From a reading of the text, I'm afraid I thought it a poor man's early Pinter.

It was interesting to read of McGahern's 1972 radio drama version of his first novel, The Barracks, that it was in reaction to Hugh Leonard's 1969 stage adaptation. "I dislike the successful Hugh Leonard stage version," McGahern wrote in a letter to the BBC, though no copy of his own BBC version survives.

He also did a screenplay of Joyce's The Sisters, with additions to Joyce's story, and a screen version of his own short story, 'Swallows'. But his most significant script was for The Rockingham Shoot, made by Kieran Hickey, screened by the BBC and featuring McGahern's preoccupation with the fate of the Protestant Irish in an emergent nation with no tolerance of such traditions and with its own stiflingly repressive Catholic agenda.

As a master of prose fiction, he himself had also come to realise and acknowledge that "dialogue has a completely different function in television or the cinema...It's all to do with movement, because it's the pictures that really tell the story, not the dialogue".

Yet he spent decades trying to write his own English-language version of Tolstoy's play The Power of Darkness, a savage tale of lust, adultery, murder and infanticide among the Russian peasantry. What drew McGahern to this particular story is left unclear, but it began as an unfulfilled BBC commission before being rejected by the Abbey in 1972 and by Field Day (pleading financial constraints) in 1988, at last getting an Abbey production in 1991 under director Garry Hynes.

This was savaged as melodramatic farce by most critics ("Sadly risible drama debut" lamented the Irish Times, while the Irish Independent found "No good points in the murk") and there was frequent laughter from the audience.

McGahern himself had always envisaged the play as "harshly comic as well as violent", but his main bone of contention with Hynes, according to van der Ziel, was "her attempt to exploit the play for maximum shock value". Certainly, as conversations I had with him bore out, he felt bruised by the whole experience. Happily, he then chose to focus entirely on what he did best.

He has now been dead more than 12 years, which is hard to believe, though the Ireland he knew has changed greatly - and for the better in ways that would have cheered him, especially concerning personal freedoms and the waning of Catholic power amid a succession of clerical sexual scandals.

So where does the passing of years leave his literary reputation? Well, he's the author of two outstanding and enduring early novels (The Barracks and The Dark) and of one great later novel, Amongst Women.

But he's also, along with William Trevor, the great Irish short-story writer of the age, and it's to these stories many readers will find themselves constantly returning.

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