Eugene McCabe is a chronicler of borderlands, his writing both informed by and excavatory of the Fermanagh-Monaghan region where he has live and farmed for most of his life: its social codes, its barely buried histories, its uneasiness.
His reputation is somewhat liminal too, though. He has written a novel widely regarded as a classic, Death and Nightingales, and a play of mythic proportions in King of the Castle — works of the first rank, yet from a writer who is sometimes overlooked or half-forgotten.
Perhaps it’s to do with his output, which does not run deep, and which features predominantly short stories, that oft-neglected and unconsidered genre. Or perhaps simply it’s a case of out of sight and out of mind. He may be too far from the metropole for his own good.
“He can be overlooked,” agrees Garry Hynes, who is directing King of the Castle in a new Druid production with Sean McGinley in the lead role. “Some of that might be down to his output, there is not a great long canon of work there.
"But for me King of the Castle is a great play, a really great play of the 20th century. So if this production serves as a reminder of the greatness of Eugene I’ll be glad of that.”
King of the Castle was first staged during the Dublin Theatre Festival, in 1964 (a year that also featured a more widely renowned classic, Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!), so it is fitting that, in the festival’s 60th anniversary year, it will feature such a fine example of its literary and dramatic heritage.
Irish theatre history has its controversy, often arising from a cultural prurience or censoriousness, as with the infamous scandal around the Pike Theatre’s 1957 staging of
Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. And, from the vantage point of 2017, it’s tempting to wonder what a 1960s audience made of McCabe’s play.
It’s plot, one of Greek concision and intensity, turns on the antihero Scober MacAdam, the resented big farmer of a poor rural area, engaging a farm labourer to impregnate his wife. Yet the play, despite such material, and its less-than-flattering portrayal of Irish society, was much-lauded and awarded at the time.
“There was a bit of a frisson,” says Hynes. “There might have been some discussion but that was it, because the play is so strong. It honours its characters and its story so well.”
Hynes herself burnished the play’s credentials with a 1989 staging at the Abbey that is widely regarded as one of that decade’s highlights. So how does she feel about revisiting it
almost three decades later?
“Well you’re not revisiting really,” she says. “You discover a play in the course of rehearsal and even if you’ve done it before, all the circumstances are different. You are working with different people, in a different mode, at a different time, and your audience is different because it is the audience of today not 30 years ago. Any time I’ve done a play more than once I’ve discovered different responses to it.”
Hynes gives as an example a staging of Translations about a decade ago in the US. “All my research and reading around it was about the pre-Famine time it was set,” she says.
“Then three months after a production in Princeton, it went to New York and was about to go on Broadway and I met Brian for a chat.
"We didn’t even talk too much about the play, but with him I realised how much it was about 1970s Derry, and how the metaphor of the play was the real goldmine. I don’t know how much that affected the production, but what that does show is that plays, when you are staging them, are like stones you keep turning in your hand – endlessly reflecting different lights.”
Going back to King of the Castle, Hynes says, was a reminder of being in awe of its great writing. “He tells a great story — a great love story, I think it’s true to say. It’s also a play that is epic in its scope, but he does that with an economy of means both in language and visually, which is incredibly accomplished.”
That epic element is one of the key challenges of the play — to reach that level while at the same time staying true to the social realism that comes from McCabe’s own direct experience, as someone who has lived and farmed in a community like the one depicted.
“In terms of the epic and the detail — that is precisely the thing we are talking to ourselves about in the rehearsal room,” Hynes says. “How do you release the full power of the play? That is the challenge. I can’t tell you how, because that is what I am doing. That is what we call it rehearsal.
“But while the play is set in the 50s, and is of an Ireland that has changed beyond recognition, the issues are as urgent now as they were then.
"It is about life, it is about ambition, it is about balancing a decent personal life and community life. That question of how do you balance your needs with the needs of community — I think that is more urgent now than I can remember at any time in my life to be.”
As we continue to talk about what a modern audience might take from the play, we come to an unexpected relevance: the border between this Republic and Northern Ireland. While as strong a cultural divide as ever, perhaps, it nonetheless had, since the peace process, become somewhat invisible.
Now, the running shambles that is the UK’s engagement with the Brexit process means the future status of the border is uncertain again.
“It’s one of the things that haunts his work,” says Hynes, “the nature of living in a border area.
His own house is right on the border. He has a strong sense of living where things are fluid, where codes change. And all that, after a time when the border almost disappeared from sight, Brexit sees it all reemerging again.
It just feels so extraordinary that this could be happening again. And I lived in Monaghan for six years when I was going to primary school, so the names of the places, the families, those things have resonance.”