Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture
One of the great legacies of postmodern philosophy is the idea that human identity is a series of performances. As social beings, we rely on the world around us as our audience, and each interaction ushers in a new performance. As we dress the children for school we play mother; as we stand at the top of a classroom, we play teacher; as we sit and listen, we play student. If this has altered how we conceive of individuality, it has profoundly changed the way we think about the theatre. If life itself is the ultimate performance; theatre is only a pale imitation. It has also changed the way in which theatre is made, as it has begun to stretch its boundaries in compensation for the challenge that the performative postmodern life posed to its very purpose. Thus confessional and performance art began to make theatre from the fabric of real life, while actors started to strip back all illusion from their performances by introducing themselves before introducing their characters.
As theatre-goers we have accepted these once-radical interventions. We will wait for the kettle to be boiled (The New Electric Ballroom, Druid Theatre, left) or the bread to be baked (The Crumb Trail, Pan Pan) before the play ends, accepting, indeed marvelling, at the mapping of real time. We will accept performers warning us as we take our seats that they are going to get naked near the end of the show and that they will stash their clothes underneath our chairs (Phaedra’s Love, Loose Canon). We will happily acknowledge that the collage of dances and photographs and sounds and found objects from which a performance is composed are connected to the life of the director’s mother in ways that we will never truly understand (Basin, Anu Productions). We will understand that the challenge is up to us, the audience, to put shape and meaning on the performance offered up to us, whatever its form.
But how have the deeper philosophical meanings that fuelled these aesthetic and theatrical possibilities affected the way in which we read the rest of our lives? This is a question posed and answered by the various contributors in Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture.
The evocative metaphor of crossroads provides both a title and a theme for this collection of essays on cultural performances. Exploding the hermetic discipline of Irish studies – which has primarily confined itself to post-colonial discourse in the last one hundred years – the wide-ranging contributors to this expansive volume apply the logic of performance studies to a variety of cultural and social performances, from parades to political speeches, from pilgrimages to beauty pageants, and, of course, the theatre. What editors Sara Brady and Fintan Walsh are interested in probing is the flux and “between states” of modern cultural practice and historic cultural performance, but also “the friction, tension and risk inherent in the process of crossing, where established routes are disturbed as new paths appear and invite us on journeys to unknown territories.” They are interested not just in how the logic of performance studies translates events of the past, but in how it points in new directions for performance in the future too.
While some of the material in the book will be of academic interest only, there are also some key essays on contemporary Irish performance, which discuss at length the work of artists and performers whose work is rarely given critical attention. These include an essay on the performance artist Amanda Coogan by Gabriella Calchi Novati, which discusses how Coogan’s work finds a feminist critique within traditionally gendered voyeuristic tendencies. An essay by Fintan Walsh on how pageants such as Alternative Miss Ireland and Mr Gay Ireland have been vital in “queering” or deconstructing concepts of femininity, sexuality and beauty. And an essay by Eric Weitz on how Arambe Theatre Company has used laughter as a means of making new spaces for migrant cultures, both on the stage and with wider significance in Irish society. Crossroads also encourages us to expand our theatrical vocabulary to allow for the significance of oral storytelling practices (Mike Wilson on Jack Lynch) and festivals (Holly Maples on St Patrick's Day) within contemporary performance culture.
However, it is an essay by Charlotte McIvor on Tom MacIntyre’s play What Happened Bridgie Cleary, and how it marked a transition in how the life of the real-life victim of social conservatism in the late 1890s has been interpreted throughout the 20th century, which really embodies the expansive and inclusive inter-disciplinary nature of performance studies, and the vital ramifications it has for the future of understanding Irish culture. As McIvor looks at how “retellings of the story” of Bridget Cleary in theatre, documentary, fiction and historical studies, “should not be understood merely as attempts to set the record straight about her life and death, but also occasions to perform constantly revised versions of Ireland’s own history... through her shadowy figure", she provides a sophisticated reading of the complexity of human identity as a constant negotiation with the past and the present. In the process, she illustrates the vital meeting point at which Crossroads becomes an important new reader in Irish theatre studies.
Sara Keating writes about theatre for the Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.