Saturday 16 February 2019

Drama without context fails to capture the essence of Haughey's self-created myth

Actor Aiden Gillen as former Taoiseach Chariles Haughey in the RTE drama 'Charlie'
Actor Aiden Gillen as former Taoiseach Chariles Haughey in the RTE drama 'Charlie'

John Waters

The fundamental problem with 'Charlie' is that it starts in the wrong place. The decision to skip the Arms Trial and go straight to the 1979 "comeback" is inexplicable. For the sake of another half-hour of scheduling time, the story is blown from the start in a way that renders it all but impossible to rescue.

Without this vital scene-setter, the Haughey story is just another power play in an overly self-conscious backwater. Leaving the Arms Trial elephant to be dealt with by occasional allusion deprives the story of context, energy and grandeur, rooting the story in careerism rather than history, and leaving the actors floundering to understand why they are there.

We the audience are placed in a similar position. Without a clear context, we don't know what we're supposed to be watching. What's to be won or lost? What did this man achieve or betray? Why does any of it matter?

Overall, 'Charlie' feels like an educational docudrama, or one of those videos you come across in interpretative centres filling in the life story of someone slightly tangential to the overall theme. The script plays like a disconnected series of one-liners plucked from the record and forced into the mouths of unwilling and unmotivated actors. Though chuffed by an allusion to my father's "fat chieftain" parable (from my 1991 book 'Jiving at the Crossroads'), I couldn't help hearing the clunk. The script constantly breaks with the cardinal rule of drama that the story must occur in a self-contained, self-explaining world. And sometimes it's the very reaching for authenticity that lets things down - like the image of Brian Lenihan Snr clutching a silver teapot on the way to meeting Margaret Thatcher. The teapot is "true", possibly even "iconic", but in Lenihan's arms it's an esoteric prop that winks at the initiated but has its dramatic implications thrown away.

'Charlie' is all trees but no wood. It assumes the significance of everything to be self-evident, when half the viewing public was at most barely out of nappies when Haughey relinquished the public stage.

Aidan Gillen's Haughey has hints of a frustrating promise, suggesting he might have got his man with just a little more to go on. There are beguiling flashes here and there, but also innumerable bum notes. The sense is of an actor hoping his character will emerge by osmosis from events. Haughey had totally reinvented his personality for public consumption as a kind of mechanical public man, so to get him requires a robotic quality which Gillen hasn't consistently captured. He smiles too much, moves too fast. His Haughey is too ordinary. The most convincing parts are where he recites directly from the actual speeches of the real-life duce. Here, what might be called the 'mystery' of Charles Haughey becomes tangible in that stilted sense of an actor playing an actor playing a reimagined version of himself. Otherwise, the character slips into an overly matey jocularity, from which the aloofness that delineated Charles Haughey from mere mortals is missing.

It was perhaps both too late and too early to attempt a definitive drama on the life of Charles Haughey. The prevailing present-centred mentality offers a poor instrument for judging someone who divided a culture as no other figure in the history of the Republic has done or is likely to do. Our public conversation is bedevilled by a choking moralism, largely migrated from an evaporating Catholicsm, which reduces everything and everyone under the glare of a right-or-wrong perusal with no capacity to comprehend, discount or forgive. The atmosphere in which 'Charlie' is being viewed is defined above all by a deadly tribunalism, characterised by sanctimony and the absence of tenderness. These conditions spell death to drama, and 'Charlie' tries to sidestep the dilemma by dint of a spurious objectivity which seeks to 'balance' Haughey's implied sulphuric core with an excessive attempt to render him likeable.

Charles Haughey was in many respects a likeable human being. But before that he was a self-created myth which traded off the myths of a history from which the Ireland of his time had become unmoored.

A post-colonial country has behind it a space with just a question mark representing the history that might have happened. The first four decades of Irish independence were characterised by a misguided attempt to define Ireland as 'Not England'. This was counteracted in the 1960s by Sean Lemass, who insinuated a dry technocracy as an alternative to tribal passions. Haughey intuitively felt this to be a useful but inadequate approach, especially in the context of the unresolved historical snag-list.

The figure of Charles J Haughey was made up - partly by himself, and partly by the public imagination of his time, struggling to find a new way of being in the world when all the old maps had crumbled and decayed. His persona and CV, then, emerged as a possibly unconscious attempt to fill the gaps in our culture, to join up the dots of memory and history. Haughey was fixated with the way Irish history seemed to bog us down in an almost comical subsistence and wanted to project a different possibility for the rest of us to follow. In Fianna Fail historical terms, his philosophy was reactive - against both Lemass's technocracy and Eamon de Valera's asceticism.

He therefore created a fiction of himself that extended most familiarly (to tribunaland) in the financial arena. But he also offered his lifestyle as a sort of modern mythology to which the 'mystery' of his personal prosperity was essential. This is the meaning of the "fat chieftain" parable: the fat chieftain's girth inspires confidence in his people that he can make them as fat as himself.

It is no happenstance that Haughey's lifestyle came to be prophetic of the Ireland that would follow on his departure from public life.

Even those who excoriate Haughey tend to praise his ability and intelligence. But I sometimes wonder if such even-handedness (which also besets the script of 'Charlie') may be no more helpful to understanding than the rigid moralism it reacts against.

Haughey was well educated, well read under certain headings, and highly intelligent, but he lacked one vital element of a great leader: imagination. His self-creation as a mythical figure for the modern era therefore lacked depth or visionary facility. He had become aware of the lacuna in the national psyche which left us bereft of recent heroes, and sportingly offered himself up to fill the gap. But his sense of the possible was restricted by a narrowly mercenary outlook and an overabundance of backwards-directed sentimentalism. What he came to represent, therefore - and the lead he offered us - played to our material senses only. His rhetoric promised to make us whole again, but his tragedy - and ours - was that his personal foibles already announced that he would lead us down the wrong road.

Irish Independent

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