Sunday 18 August 2019

Declan Lynch: In the valley of the long-lost women

The Abbey stifled the voices of women for a century, but it seems to have been noticed only now, writes Declan Lynch

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

One of the most startling documents we have seen for some time was the list of plays produced by our national theatre since 2006, and released last week by Waking The Feminists.

On the left there is a long list of the 97 plays written by men, and on the right there is a short list of the 11 plays written by women - with the dark little punchline that on closer examination, four of the eleven were written by Marina Carr.

And this is not 1936, it is 2006 and onwards, a time in which women have been otherwise doing quite well in certain areas, going to pubs on their own and so forth.

In this, as in many things, I turn to the words of James Baldwin: "Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent."

Looking at that list, it would seem that the world into which "he" was born does not conspire against his talent to quite the same extent as the world into which "she" was born - and we might also note that even Baldwin, an openly gay black man who would have a profound understanding of exclusion and how it works, articulates this sense of universal unfairness only as it pertains to the male.

Now we could rattle off a few lines here about the world being a rough old place for anyone who writes anything, that maybe all those invisible women, for all sorts of reasons, were just not prepared to go through whatever the men went through to get a play on at the Abbey, and that the tormentors of that poor unfortunate Abbey majordomo Fiach MacConghail should just GET OVER IT - but giving out about "political correctness gone mad" and suchlike has become one of the defining features of the eejit in our culture, it would just be too boring, and it would only steer us away from the remarkable strangeness of this story.

For a start, it tells us much about the strangeness of the Abbey itself, which consciously or subconsciously, has been running a policy which has effectively stifled the voices of women for more than a century, with hardly anybody noticing this until about lunchtime last Tuesday.

That this vision of a world without women writing plays in it should be given to us by our national theatre, an institution with a supposedly progressive cast of mind, is a disappointment for some.

But the fact that there have been so few complaints until now, or at least nothing on such an organised level, is the real killer.

It's almost as if nobody would be expecting any better anyway.

And then I think of those happy days when I first came to Dublin, when on any given night I could go to the Abbey Theatre, or I could go to the Baggot Inn or the Magnet or McGonagles, and invariably I would find myself in those places watching rock'n'roll bands, because that was where the true spirit of this young country was emerging.

Indeed it is a plain statement of fact that a man such as Charlie McGettigan, who tended bar and who booked the bands at the Baggot Inn, was a far more influential figure, and more of a force for good in our culture, than whoever might have been running the Abbey at that time.

So in an odd way, we hardly even noticed that this august establishment which was supposed to liberate us from backwardness by the transcendental power of drama, had a role for women which was not unlike that of the Church.

They would be permitted to engage in all sorts of useful but secondary functions - just as the Church would have women cleaning and cooking and decorating the chapel with flowers and raising money by holding Sales of Work, so the Abbey would have women as make-up assistants and costume designers and running the box office and even acting in the precious few important roles written for them, but they would never be allowed to say Mass, as such, except in cases of the most dire emergency.

And faced with such a forbidding monument, it seems that women's writing tended towards prose or even poetry, towards the novel and the short story, which would undoubtedly be banned if it was any good, but which they couldn't actually be stopped from doing.

For practical reasons also, when a woman was finished the important work of her day - the cooking, the cleaning, the rearing of many children - and she felt inclined to do a little bit of creative writing, it must have appeared easier to a Mary Lavin, for example, to throw together a short story than to engage in the far more collaborative procedure of writing a play for the Abbey, which, even in the unlikely event that it was accepted by someone such as Ernest Blythe, would require rehearsals and castings and which might well involve meeting various men wearing cravats.

Which would involve, essentially, leaving the house.

Indeed the advanced intelligence of women would always have detected a certain strain of bullshit in our national theatre, which is the small encouragement we can take from these discoveries.

Now is there anything else we may have overlooked?

Sunday Independent

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