They’re reviving an old Keane classic at the Everyman Palace in Cork this month. Many Young Men of Twenty was premiered in Cork 56 years ago by the Southern Theatre Group, which brought virtually all John B’s plays to world notice.
At the time, it was fashionable for those who saw themselves as theatrical intellectuals to look down on this new rural voice, regarding it as little more than peasant melodrama. How things have changed. Keane is now regarded, and rightly so, as a master of his craft, able like Shakespeare to capture unerringly the human condition and human character.
All this he learned from leaning calmly over the counter of his Listowel pub and listening, always listening, stowing away what he heard for future use. Because back then people talked to each other instead of adopting whatever they heard or saw in the media. They discussed events, situations, difficult decisions; asked advice, voiced strong opinions, gave way to despair. And John B. Keane remembered it all.
His plays are always being performed somewhere. And when the production is within reach, a man who will always attend is Flor Dullea, octogenarian Cork actor, who was part of that Southern Theatre Group for an incredible 21 years, and created original roles in practically every one of the Keane plays.
“All except Sive,” recalls Dullea, turning over the pages of his scrap book which holds the press cuttings from those heady days. “I wasn’t in that, I was teaching down in Rossmore at the time. But I knew Dan Donovan, and Michael Twomey who of course created the role of the tinker in Sive.”
The next play from Keane’s pen was Sharon’s Grave, in 1961, and the team were searching for a good strong actor who could carry a cripple on his shoulders throughout the action. “I have just the man for you,” declared Michael Twomey. And Flor Dullea was in. Life, he admits, was never the same again.
“I loved that role of Jack Conlee,” declares Dullea with satisfaction, slamming his hand down on the press cutting which shows him face-by-face with Eamon Keane who played the evil little cripple, Dinzie. “It was such a dramatic play, and you could hear the audience gasping when we appeared in the dark doorway, this huge shape twice as high as you expected.”
Many Young Men of Twenty premiered in 1961 with Dullea playing the young emigrant Kevin, to Siobhan O’Brien’s Peg, the girl fated to be left behind, waiting and wondering as the years went by.
The over-riding theme of the play is of course emigration, but there are a couple of other topics subtly introduced as well which only strike the audience on later consideration. The compulsory study of Irish in school, for example. Keane makes it clear in the play that Irish will be a fat lot of use to them when queuing up for jobs in London.
“He was a keen supporter of the Language Freedom Movement” says Dullea. “I remember one time playing up in Limerick, I saw him standing on the back of a lorry haranguing the crowd and things were starting to get nasty. Fortunately a cop came up who was from Listowel, and he got him away safely.”
The theme of men leaving while women are forced to stay behind and wait is also strongly expressed; indeed it’s one of the most poignant features of the play.
Catherine Mahon-Buckley, who directs the new production, sees Peg’s situation as all too typical of the time. “She has shut down her emotions, she doesn’t trust men any more. Society has hardened her and starved her of the love she needed.”
Keane’s insight into women was amazing, she says. “He was so in tune with humanity and the injustices of life.” And Ireland hasn’t changed much since the 1960s, claims Mahon-Buckley. Emigration, alcoholism, the status of women, politics, poverty are still very much with us.
“But look at the entrepreneurs that have come out of our last slump – particularly women. We haven’t lost that survival spirit.”
Strong women also feature in what is perhaps Flor Dullea’s favourite of all the Keane plays, The Year of the Hiker, which premiered in 1963. “He dedicated that play to me, you know,” reveals the actor almost shyly. “He said my portrayal of Joe (the son who has perforce to take on the duties of man of the house while still a child) simply couldn’t be bettered.”
And audiences loved the play’s drama as the Hiker reappears after twenty years, the sense of lost dreams, the unforgettable fireside scene where the old folks, temporarily forgetting the circumstances which ripped them apart, sit together and softly sing Red Sails in the Sunset. Dullea’s hands rest on the scrap book, his eyes gaze back at those many nights of cheering curtain calls.
Audiences couldn’t get enough. “We used to get busloads of American tourists coming down to the Father Mathew Hall.”
Soon the Southern Theatre Group added touring to its seven-week summer season in the city. “We were all working of course, so we’d finish on a Friday afternoon and head off to wherever we were playing that weekend – Waterford, Clonmel, Limerick, wherever.”
Dullea pulls out a sheaf of posters showing the company’s visits to all the West Clare theatres – Ennis, Lahinch, Miltown Malbay, Kilkee.
“It’s a pity the old railway wasn’t still running there – it would have made things easier!” He hums a few bars of ‘Are Ye Right There, Michael’. And that again reminds him of his long friendship with Michael Twomey. “Now he’s a great man to cope with onstage disasters. If somebody forgets a line, he’ll come in with one that will get everything back straight again. A real pro.”
Even Dublin’s noted insularity had to yield to the success of the Southern Theatre Group, and the company played to a packed houses Olympia. Of course travelling had its dangers, and Flor recalls a night in Tralee when half the cast were ready to go on stage while half were trying to deal with a car breakdown 20 miles away. “But we managed, the curtain went up on time, and the audience knew no different.”
And then they were invited to America and had a huge success there. “It was James N who organised all that. What a man he was, and what he did for Cork!”
Between James N, John B and a dedicated group of performers, it really was a golden era for Cork theatre.