JOHN B KEANE lived a double life.
His dual role as pub-owner and playwright allowed him access to different levels of society and would ultimately lead to his becoming the great playwright of the Irish people, expressing the zeitgeist of 20th century rural Ireland through plays that were clever, humane and often uncomfortably honest.
But let’s begin in the early days of Keane’s writing career, at a time when he stole precious hours after closing time in his Listowel pub in which to stitch his impressions of the humour and petty cruelties of the locals into his first plays. Sive, written in 1958, was rejected by the Abbey’s artistic director Ernest Blythe — who later said of Sharon’s Grave, that it was “too grotesque for words”. However, with the encouragement of Michéal Ó hAodha, Sive was performed by the Listowel Drama Group and won the All-Ireland Prize at the Athlone Festival. Noting the play’s success, Blythe invited the Listowel Drama Group to perform it for the Abbey at its temporary home in the Queen’s Theatre. It ran for a week in 1959 to packed houses. The Irish artistic community began to take notice of the Kerry playwright whose work struck such a chord with audiences throughout the country. This production of Sive was the first time an amateur company had been invited to perform on the Abbey stage. An interesting journey had begun. It strikes me now how fitting it is to be writing this so soon after the 2012 All-Ireland Drama Festival, knowing that the Abbey’s relationship with amateur dramatics had such an auspicious beginning.
Keane’s double life is mirrored in the complexity of his characters, who seem, on a surface level at least, to operate as typical rural people, embroiled in gossip and squabbles. It is a mark of Keane’s intelligence that this is so, and he lulls us into a false sense of security before skilfully exposing the repression and sorrow that lurks beneath the veneer of charming rural banter. Only Keane, with his talent for combining local colour with poetic expression, could have got away with this in a society so concerned with its image. In the 1980s, a more self-conscious society suffering a spike in emigration reminiscent of the darker days of the 1950s began to examine the subversive nature of Keane’s plays, and Sive, The Field and Big Maggie were seen on the Abbey stage. What had once seemed ‘grotesque’ was now being re-evaluated as truthful, blackly funny and, ultimately, cathartic, and would serve as an inspiration for an emerging generation of playwrights such as Marina Carr and Martin McDonagh.
1988 saw the Abbey tour The Field to Russia, alongside Tom MacIntyre’s The Great Hunger, prompted by an invitation from the Soviet Ministry of Culture. The plays were performed in St Petersburg and at the Moscow Arts Theatre. There are photos of the actors muffled up against the cold in Red Square, smiling at the cameras before they return to the theatre to anatomise Irish rural culture of the mid 20th century for Russian audiences. It was the first time Russian audiences had seen a production by Ireland’s national theatre. How fascinating to think of these two cultures, both in times of intense transition, sharing meditations on the power of land, the damaging nature of materialism, and the scars left by famine.
In the same decade, the GAA centenary was celebrated at the Abbey with a revival of Keane’s 1963 tale of football and match-making, The Man from Clare. Here was a playwright who could speak both to and for Ireland’s culture; who could speak with equal eloquence about matches won and lost and the desperation of a culture threatened by external change and internal stagnation — all the while maintaining a sense of affection for the people he described. As Brendan Kennelly says of him: “Keane deals with such matters as the difference between law and justice; the frustrations, fertile squalor, congested crassness and genuine love of family life; the fears and loneliness of old age; and the seething, vicious comedies and maladies of a small community.”
The 1990s saw a number of Keane revivals on the Abbey stage and also, in 1999, the awarding of an Abbey Gradam for Keane’s contribution to Irish culture. By his death in 2002, the man from Listowel had forced Irish theatre to re-evaluate itself and engage with local theatre-makers at a grass roots level. Along the way, he created a modern folk-drama which probes the Irish psyche.
As was written in Keane’s anonymous obituary: “His plays had an uncomfortable reality at a time in Ireland when the raw side of rural life was frequently ignored for the more acceptable version of Éamon de Valera’s vision of happy maidens and cosy homesteads.”
Keane took his audiences to the wilds of north Kerry and gave them a theatre which resonated all the way to Russia and beyond.
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