'The big fellows can look after themselves. The small man will tell you the truth' - The genius of John B Keane as Sive turns 60
The very first play by John B Keane was the rule by which all his other works were measured, writes John Daly
In the same way it was often said that no home in Ireland lacked a text by John B Keane, a similar sentiment might well apply to generations of theatregoers who can recall the Listowel playwright's very first play, Sive.
Sixty years on this month from winning the 1959 All Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone, it represented the first output in a canon of work that would go on to span four decades and break new ground in charting the lives of a rural Ireland not previously portrayed with such lyricism and characterisation.
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"It was one of his seminal pieces of writing," recalls Danny Hannon, a lifelong friend and producer with local drama group, Lartigue Theatre Company, adding that the play brought to the stage facets of Irish life that had not been seen so dramatically performed in theatre up to that time.
"He captured in a way that nobody else had the essence of those who were living on the margins of life and the edge of poverty in rural Ireland of the time," he says.
Originally staged in the local surrounds of Walsh's Ballroom in Listowel, Co Kerry, the hard-hitting drama was set in the front room of an old cottage, focusing on three generations of the Glavin family, with Sive the pretty teenage schoolgirl in the care of her domineering aunt Mena and uncle Mike.
Through an arrangement engineered by wily local matchmaker Thomasheen Seán Rua, her hand is promised to the wealthy Seán Dóta - "an old corpse of a man who has the grass of 20 cows and money to burn". Despite the protestations of her only ally, grandmother Nanna, Sive becomes an ill-fated pawn in a business deal where love was always destined to come a distant second to the all-consuming imperatives of money and land. The idea for Sive, like so much of John B's work, emerged from an encounter across the counter of his pub on William Street, Listowel when a haggard old man ordered a drink and boasted to all within earshot that a match had been made for him with a teenage girl and the wedding would follow shortly.
"Sive was that rare thing in theatre, a story that touched a universal nerve," Hannon recalls. "John had this incredible grasp of humanity and country people, particularly. He conveyed something about these people that affected all audiences, both urban and rural.
"While much of his work was set in the country, it enjoyed enormous success in Cork and Dublin at the time, and later on in places like New York and London as well."
Initially rejected by Ernest Blythe at the Abbey as being "too melodramatic with a language too obscure," Sive's win in Athlone prompted the national theatre to relent its earlier decision and invite the Listowel group to perform the play on the stage of the Queen's Theatre, the Abbey's temporary home after the fire in 1951 - a first for an amateur drama group.
"John was a resilient man, and he needed to be on the back on that early rejection. I never heard him criticise them, but don't think he ever forgave the Abbey. He was realistic, and he had to be, he was a man with a young family and a small business and he didn't have the luxury of bearing bitterness at rejection. It certainly didn't stunt his growth as a writer, though; he went on to write books, plays, short stories and even a musical - we'd often joke that the only thing he didn't turn his hand to was the Book of Common Prayer."
Prior to her star turn as the first Sive in 1959, 15-year old Margaret Ward's first love was Irish dancing. "Though I had previously performed in a school play, I had no real interest in theatre up to that point," she says.
With the local drama group offering a different social outlet and a regular gathering of townspeople, she was tempted to an audition: "When I came down to read for the part of this young girl, I found myself surrounded by all these people in their 20s and older, I was really quite nervous. But, sure, really, looking back on it now, they were only young themselves."
A quiet presence
Regardless of any initial trepidation, she did rise to the occasion: "I must have passed the exam, because next thing I knew I was going to play Sive," she recalls.
It was an introduction to a new social orbit, and one that she quickly adapted to. "It was great, the banter and the fun of it all," she remembers.
Through it all, John B remained a quiet presence, offering encouragement and advice to the teenage ingénue. "He was always there, conferring quietly with (director) Brendan Carroll during rehearsals, never a hint of artistic temperament. He trusted us. And when we toured Sive around the country, he was always such fun, wonderful behind the scenes."
When the play eventually opened at the Abbey three weeks after its triumph in Athlone, it coincided with one of the hottest summers on record. Marked by a word-of-mouth excitement and the unexpected sight of continual queues for tickets, it prompted the Evening Herald to carry the headline: 'Sive Beats the Heatwave'.
However, it was not professionally produced on the Abbey stage until a quarter century later, in June 1985. Following the opening night, John B admitted to having a tear in his eye at finally seeing the work given its due recognition: "They finally got the harshness, the bitterness, the poverty of the period. At long last, a few elderly and semi-elderly Irish playwrights are getting cothrom na féinne (fair play)," he added. While his other equally successful plays like Big Maggie, The Field and Sharon's Grave tackled similar themes of land, emigration and the trials of love in a rural environment, Sive remained the rule by which all others were measured.
"It has endless appeal because it is so rich in characterisation, dialogue and idiom, it reached out beyond the world of art and literature to touch the hearts and minds of all who experienced it," concludes Danny Hannon.
John B wrote in 1964: "Nobody knows what kind of writer I am, least of all myself. My ambition is that people will say, 'He was a kind of writer who said things a different way from others'." On his death in 2002, the New York Times obituary called the playwright a writer who "embraced the power of myth and the irrational and complicated psychology of the Irish countryside".
His nephew, writer and broadcaster Fergal Keane, put it more succinctly when he recalled his uncle's advice on best conducting the writer's life: "Look out for the small man. The big fellows can look after themselves. The small man will tell you the truth."