Owen McCafferty: Performing Post-Conflict
Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 there has been much debate about whether or not, and in what form, Northern Ireland might develop a process for dealing with the legacy of a violently divided past. The theatre has historically played a significant role in Irish and Northern Irish social movements. W. B. Yeats writes that, with the fall of Charles Parnell, ‘disillusioned Ireland turned from politics, to cultural nationalism; the arts became a political tool as plays were used to rouse audiences to national action and to envision new freedoms and possibilities’. Martin Middeke finds that theatre could be the tool for ‘reconciling the memory of the troubled past’ and the medium to ‘enjoy an apparently successful present’. The relationship between the past and the present remains both an important thematic and structural constituent of Irish drama and one playwright documenting the social and political shifts of Northern Ireland currently is Owen McCafferty. Born in Belfast in 1961, McCafferty has been viewed as one of the most important and original playwrights working in Ireland today’. He has worked extensively throughout Europe premiering award-winning plays at the National Theatre in London and his impressive body of work has been produced by ‘every major theatre company in his native Belfast (the Lyric, Tinderbox, Kabosh, Prime Cut) as well as Galway’s Druid Theatre Company.’
This essay examines McCafferty’s dramatic work, having as the starting point, his first major success; Mojo Mickybo (1998). From close and contextual readings of Closing Time (2002) and Scenes from the Big Picture (2003), wider issues relating to the representation of the Troubles and McCafferty’s response to post-conflict Northern Ireland will be examined. Finally, the essay observes the prevalent theme of hope in McCafferty’s play’s and concludes with a critique of McCafferty’s most recent play Quietly which deals with idea of reconciliation and forgiveness.
There is nothing more challenging than writing about the work of a contemporary dramatist – especially one that has been grievously neglected by scholars and critics. One has to explore a region which has not been mapped yet and with McCafferty’s work this is applicably true. Dr Mark Phelan finds that ‘scholars who have written about plays and playwrights from the North almost exclusively concentrate on those whose work deals explicitly with the causes and/or consequences of political violence’ and as Mick Gordon purports ‘the Troubles are very far in the background’ in McCafferty’s work. The author himself states, ‘I’ve not often felt the pressure to deal directly about The Troubles’ and while McCafferty has never shied away from the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, or indeed any other issue he has explored in his writing – alcoholism, masculinity, loneliness, identity and dealing with the past – the Troubles come second to the stories of interconnected individual lives. McCafferty has produced a substantial body of work in twenty years as a playwright – with early monologues such as I Wont Dance, Don’t Ask Me (1993) and The Waiting List (1994) both launching his career, the playwright’s first success came with Mojo Mickybo in 2003. McCafferty’s fast-paced play presents a child’s-eye view of the Troubles in 1970’s Belfast: best friends – Mojo from ‘up the road’ and Mickybo ‘from over the bridge’ build huts, attempt to avoid bullies Gank-the-Wank and Fuckface and act out their fantasies of being Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. However, their different addresses has negative outcomes on the boys’ friendship and when Mickybo’s father is murdered, Mickybo blames his friend. It is only in the final stages of Mojo Mickybo that McCafferty, tackles the religious divide and the sectarianism which is veiled throughout the play;
‘MICKYBO: orange bastard – yas killed my da, ya dirty fuckin orange bastard.’
Moreover, the news of a school boy’s leg being blown off barely raises an eyebrow between the two boys, thus evoking how violence became an everyday occurrence for that society:
‘ MOJO: a wee lad in our school was in town with his ma an a bomb went off – an it blew one of his legs off
MICKYBO: right off in one go like?
MOJO: aye – but his trousers was still on him ’
Stefanie Lehner in Post Conflict Masculinities finds that ‘playwrights often feel the urge to go back to the Troubles and offer a panoramic view of society that existed at that time’, McCafferty, however, wisely opts for something different, something more personal in his approach. He depicts the absurdity of sectarianism through the eyes of innocent children and it is through the child-like, caricatures that McCafferty illustrates the destruction of sectarianism in society and the loss of innocence in his two protagonists. Mojo Mickybo involves two adult actors playing children, who at during intervals throughout the action play adults too, it is this dimension that is essential to the piece’s power as the audience see matters primarily through the prism of boys’ play, and only subsequently reinterpret them more seriously. Victoria Rudland finds ‘McCafferty’s play hides its bleakness behind a curtain of laughs but the sectarian violence is never far from the plays surface.’
Two years after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, McCafferty was one of seven Northern Irish playwrights involved in Tinderbox Theatre Company’s site specific production Convictions, which was staged in the Crumlin Road Courthouse. McCafferty’s play, Courtroom No. 1 was a dialogue between a victim of the Troubles and the disembodied voice of an unseen administrator. The short scene depicted a victim of the Troubles, waiting in limbo for his perpetrator to be convicted. Phelan writes that the play ‘metaphorically embodied the fates of all the victims of the Troubles and the suffering of their families whose experiences had been cynically sidelined during the peace process in the name of political expediency’. McCafferty again, focuses on the private stories interweaving them with the public history of Northern Ireland and looks at an act of violence through the eyes of the victim. Closing Time (2002) followed next, set in a hotel on the back streets of Belfast, the former site of a bomb blast: now rebuilt, but barely alive, the play tells the story of ‘those who didn’t cope, those who didn’t move on’ from the Troubles. The play focuses on the lives of married couple Robbie and Vera who own the bar, their alcoholic regulars Iggy and Joe and the brain damaged handyman Alec. McCafferty presents the people on the periphery; all of them are unaffected directly by the Troubles but existing in their own little worlds. Described by several critics as ‘depressing’ and ‘too sombre,’ McCafferty finds that Closing Time is ‘hopeful; the characters do move on, if only in a tiny way.’ He adds ‘I don’t understand the notion of something being bleak or depressing as a criticism of something. In that world… that means plays are supposed to make us happy.’
Perhaps the most redemptive character in Closing Time is Joe. He is the hotel’s only resident as he can’t bear to set foot in his own house since his wife left after the explosion years ago. In one of the final scenes, Joe offers the keys to Alec in the knowledge that the house will be burnt down. McCafferty finds that ‘there is nothing bleak about that – that is redemption.’ Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington found McCafferty’s play ‘a metaphor for Northern Ireland’s own political stasis.’ and while such a reading may be justified, it is far from definitive. The twin demons of Irish culture, alcohol and politics, are present in McCafferty’s world as they should be but they inform the action rather than define it. The effects of paramilitary violence are felt by all of the characters, yet, as is revealed, the Troubles which affect them are far more personal and immediate.
McCafferty’s main success came in 2003 with Scenes from the Big Picture, which earned him the ‘John Whiting Award, the Evening Standard’s Charles Wintour Award for New Playwriting and the Meyer-Whitworth Award’; the first time any playwright had won all three awards in one year. The play presents twenty-one characters, over three acts, set in a Belfast which, while theoretically new and fresh, is still mired in the mindset and legacy of a Troubles-led life. Scratch the surface of the domestic and you find Theresa and Dave Black – the parents of one of the Disappeared. Dig up an allotment and you find a sinister paramilitary secret or step out of line and you’ll lose your kneecaps. Scenes from the Big Picture reproduces the richly textured language of Belfast streets and presents a snap shot of post-conflict Belfast. McCafferty writes in the notes of the play; ‘There is a constant hum of the city in the air’
This sound which evokes the noise of the helicopters flying over Belfast during the period of the Troubles is the thread with which the text has been sewn. David Grant finds ‘there is no dominant plot or narrative, rather a kaleidoscope of vignettes,’ but as always with McCafferty’s plays; characters and their situations are delivered and the audience are asked to figure out what the bigger ‘picture’ might be.
With reference to the three plays discussed within the paper, McCafferty considers his most recent play; Quietly is ‘is in conversation with previous plays, like Mojo Mickeybo, Closing Time, and Courtroom Number 1, – each of which centers on the impact of an act of violence.’ He feels ‘Quietly is the end of that process’. Set in a bar on the Ormeau Road of Belfast, Quietly shows Jimmy drinking alone and trading easy jibes with the Polish barman, Robert. He tells Robert that ‘there’s a man coming in later on to see me… there might be a bit of trouble with him‘. That man is Ian, who, as a sixteen year old, threw a makeshift bomb into the very same pub twenty five years previous and killed Jimmy’s father and five other men. McCafferty’s play suggests how the ripples of past events create a tapestry of suffering and depicts just how difficult reconciliation can be. In many ways, McCafferty’s play is the epitome of the perfect peace process – one that is completely initiated by the individuals involved, and that happens on a personal and intimate level. The play doesn’t suggest a literal parity between its protagonists – but rather show their contrasting points of view. As Jimmy and Ian tell their stories, they listen to one another but this is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship. As Jimmy points out, it is not ‘warrior-respect’of an ex-paramilitary away day, but rather they have reached a human level of understanding. Captured poetically by McCafferty in the final lines of Jimmy,
Jimmy: ‘some good did come from it – we met – we understand each other – that’s enough’
Quietly wears its title ambiguously: A description perhaps of the silences that fall between men in an uneasy and uncertain truce like that of Jimmy and Ian’s. Or maybe a description of how skillfully McCafferty narrates the process of reconciliation in the play. Behind the scenes, removed from public, Jimmy and Ian reconcile in there own ‘quiet’ way.
The most common response to the violence in Northern Ireland has been somewhat depressing and negative and the legacies of the past have been dealt mainly by artists. Playwrights such as Gary Mitchell present a post-conflict Northern Ireland and the legacy of the Troubles more directly and overtly than McCafferty. Mitchell’s play, As the Beast Sleeps, presents a UDA foot-soldier left at a loose end by the peace process. Mitchell’s writing, like McCafferty’s offers a personal perspective but his representation of violence and the flawed peace process is inherently different to that of McCafferty’s. Martin Lynch’s addition to the post-conflict stage has been plays like, The History of the Troubles (according to my da) and Chronicles of Long Kesh both of which present the Troubles as nothing more than nostalgic fun. Lynch’s comic romp (The History of the Troubles) runs through 33 years of ‘the Troubles’, between 1969 and 1992, covers key events, such as internment, the Anglo-Irish agreement, the death of Bobby Sands, the Brighton bomb, power sharing and the super-grass trials. Unlike Mitchell and Lynch, McCafferty, ‘abandons the cherished cliches of thuggish gunmen’, and instead gives a new view on the country’s social issues of past and present.
At heart, McCafferty is an old-fashioned storyteller; interested in the stories of people that could be easily ignored. But unfortunately, McCafferty has become one of the ‘ignored’ – in Tom Maguire’s landmark study of Northern Irish theatre, McCafferty is only name checked twice and while Maguire devotes significant attention to some of Lynch’s plays (eight pages on The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty,) and significant sections on other ‘Troubles comedies’ (six pages on A Night in November) the neglect on McCafferty’s work indicates the dominance of Northern Irish theatre still lies with the Troubles plays. In a recent interview, McCafferty stated, ‘All I’m trying to do, in my half-arsed way, is get a story across.’And with the plays focused within this paper, McCafferty certainly gets his ‘story across’, all be it in a low-key and muted form. His plays are original, free from clichés and his earthy vernacular Belfast speech is void of political attitude. In contradistinction to his peers, McCafferty’s plays are inflected by his interest in the personal rather than the political. Concluding our interview, McCafferty states, “I am interested in the emotional baggage of real people rather than the political stories.’