THE man on the radio said Niall Tóibín could be regarded as Ireland’s Billy Connolly, which established that the man giving the tribute was probably less than half Tóibín’s 90 years and, as a result,recalled the performer mainly from appearances on The Late Late Show, where he did the equivalent of stand-up before stand-up was cool. Noting a commonality with Billy Connolly made sense, in that context.
That’s one of the oddities of being dead. You can’t choose who remembers you or what bit of you they remember — and that extends to mainstream media selectivity. If you fought on the allied side during the Second World War, for example, the place to die is in the Daily Telegraph.
Now and again, the weekend obituaries pages in that papers are occupied only and completely by WWII guys, looking fearlessly out of black and white pictures, the text recording the theatre of war in which they served and the particular actions for which they won their medals.
Infinitely said, those obituaries, when they record the heroic young life of someone who never did much thereafter. At 30, they were heroes for their generation. Then gone. Men like Wing Commander Guy Gibson did themselves the great favour of dying young. They never got found out. This is not to suggest their heroism was fake, only to propose that, over the long haul, life tends to tarnish extraordinary figures, fading them back into the rank and file.
Sometimes, the phrase “he was a man of his time” has an attached corollary: He was a man of no other time. The men (nearly always men) who stand to attention, uniformed and ready for action, in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, are heart breakingly evocative of the prediction, in the song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, that an Australian parade of veterans would die away because at some point “no one would march there at all.”
That capacity to be overwhelmingly famous for a brief period of time, followed by the complete extinction of your notoriety, is never more present than in the lives of stage actors. For one brief shining moment, they are monarch of all they survey, with peers doffing their caps and younger folk worshipping and trying to learn from them. Just one example would have been the Abbey’s Angela Newman.
Sean O’Casey, when he was livid with Ireland, banned the Abbey Theatre from performing his plays. In the 1960s, he decided to lift the ban and the Players staged and toured the three classics: Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars, and The Shadow of a Gunman.
O’Casey didn’t go to the shows when they were staged in the West End, sending his wife instead and publicising her judgment on which he relied. It was not madly positive. She didn’t think much of any of the productions. However, she singled out Angela Newman as the exception who “got” what O’Casey had written.
In this, her critique matched that of most of the critics of the time, who viewed Newman’s portrayal of the sex worker Rosie Redmond in The Plough and the Stars as a breakthrough move away from the yelling crudity of the traditional interpretation into a more nuanced study of vulnerability.
All of which surfaces in histories of theatre. And nowhere else. Glancing blow excerpts from black and white films, where the syncing is annoyingly off tempo, are just about the only evidence we have, today, for the greatness of past performers.
In theory, then, Tóibín was lucky in that his career happened at a time when he could become famous because of TV and stay accessible because of YouTube. Yet that, too, can be a limiting factor to how we remember him. For most Irish people in their fifties, sixties, and older, he was a guy who looked like an aging mid-level civil servant on The Late Late Show and did funny imitations of different accents around the country.
An entertaining curiosity. It’s not the worst way to be remembered,given that the alternative is not to be remembered at all, but it is,nonetheless, an etiolated version of a truly great actor.
What follows would be name-dropping of a minor sort, if I could remember the name of the character. She’s a middle-aged woman who appears in a doorway in the opening moments of the play that made Tóibín: Borstal Boy. It’s not even a speaking part. More a screaming part.
She’s there only to receive the news that her son has been blown up by an IRA bomb. She’s gone offstage permanently two minutes after curtain up. The play then reveals that the young Brendan Behan was culpable in the bomb placement and in the first production, the audience then watched the Young Behan, brilliantly played as a passionate naif by Frank Grimes, survive a British Borstal penitentiary.
The story of the night was essentially driven by the Older Behan, played with eerie resemblance to the playwright by Niall Tóibín.
As a teenager, I played that woman and then lashed out into the street, tearing off the grey wig as I went, and ran down the stairs into the Peacock Theatre, to join the cast for an all-singing, not-much-dancing review entitled The Sound of the Gong.
The curtain came down in the Peacock ten minutes before curtain in the Abbey, so it was possible to go back into the Abbey and climb the stairs to get into the lighting control room in time to watch the final scene of the play, where young Brendan,having completed his sentence, is on the deck of a ship sailing into Dublin Bay, watched by his aged counterpart, who recounts what the young man is seeing in the great semi-circle, starting with the mountains:
“There they are, as if you’d never left them, in their sweet and stately order around the bay.”
HE STOOD, for that speech, did Niall Tóibín, scruffed up as the bibulous overweight Behan, leaning against a wall, mixing poetry and prose, recollection and observation, in a sweeping summary of a home, a life and a future.
Every night, other actors crept in behind me and we watched from above, facing forward and down lest any of our colleagues see the tears bulging and falling at the sad hopefulness of it, each of us certain that Tóibín would be remembered for the understated magnificence of his performance.
That, perhaps, is why it was so jolting to hear him compared to Billy Connolly. Because, while the comparison is valid and indeed earned, it nonetheless reflects only one aspect of a multifaceted genius. Gay Byrne was better served — undoubtedly because positioning him, correctly, at the fulcrum of Irish social change made commentators feel good about themselves for having known him.
Whereas Tóibín was simply an entertainer who made us laugh or cry and in the process imprinted members of the audience with a view of him they fondly believed would last.