OVER the past decade, the renowned Irish theatre company Druid have engaged uniquely with the work of John B Keane. Since 2002, the Galway outfit have revived four of Keane’s plays, beginning with Sive, then Sharon’s Grave in 2003, The Year of the Hiker in 2006, and Big Maggie in 2011. Each production has toured to great acclaim.
The company’s recent revival of Big Maggie brought Druid’s director Garry Hynes full circle. In 2001, Hynes was at the helm of a scintillating version of the same play at the Abbey theatre.
That production — delivered just a year before the great Kerry writer’s passing — very much marked the final stage in his reclamation by the national theatre, a gradual process that had been taking place since the 1980s.
Hynes believes that Keane’s circuitous route to the centre of Irish drama, the fact that he had to plough along as a writer on the margins, gave him a unique power and identity.
“What was interesting about John B was that, while in later life his plays were successfully revived professionally, he was initially rejected — as many great writers were — by the professional theatre world, and most notably by the Abbey,” says Hynes. “But he found a home in the amateur drama movement, and I think that particular relationship and that context was incredibly important. He spoke directly to people through their own communities rather than being mediated by the professional theatre.”
Famously, Keane, from his central place in the community, the pub, was able to observe the stress-points of social change and the many things that were known but not spoken about in Irish society of the 1950s and 60s, and he re-channelled these into his plays in often very subtle ways. What has marked Druid’s productions of Keane’s work is the manner in which they have made these less explicit subtexts of Keane’s plays yowl with a contemporary resonance.
“When we were doing Big Maggie we discovered that the Women’s Liberation society was formed in 1971, two years after Big Maggie was first produced. That shows you something,” says Hynes. “I’m fascinated by the way the perception of his plays is changing. I was acutely struck by that change when doing Big Maggie this year.
“The last time I did it, in 2001, there were only whispers of the abuse scandal emerging. We always had this benign view of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s in Ireland, when it was very holy, so then to see the abyss of evil that was Irish society at the time, and to look at Keane’s work in that context, it’s quite shocking.”
Keane was not a literary writer in the conventional sense, says Hynes, but he was a great theatrical writer. “He had a big, bold imagination and he wasn’t constrained by any sense of rules,” she says. “He was hugely ambitious. If he had an image he’d put it down on the page and as a director you have to grapple with that. You have to grapple to find a way of doing his plays.”
Certainly, the striking images that recur in Keane’s work are invested with a hypnotic mythic power. Perhaps the most famous, in that regard, would be the provocative image in Sharon’s Grave of Dinzie, a malevolent and wretched man who is carried around by his stout brother.
“It’s true,” says Hynes. “He knows the language of myth. But he also presents this deeply unhappy marriage and this deeply disturbed relationship between the members of a family, and then puts that within the realm of myth. And that is what is fantastic about him. John B knew no rules, which was to his cost sometimes but it absolutely led him to write some of his greatest plays. Sharon’s Grave is one of my favourite plays of all time, really.”
What Keane will always be remembered for is his ability to register provincial life in all its density and complexity, says Hynes. You can still feel Keane’s world when you’re in Listowel, she says. “When we were down there with Big Maggie the Keanes had us out for a night in the pub and it’s quite an experience, you know, because the very roots of the plays are still living and breathing down there.”