By Andrew Hinds
Since the early years of the twentieth century there has been a
battle in Ireland between the dramatists and the political class
for full possession of reality. The problem was effectively emphasised
by Yeats and Lady Gregory who offered "Cathleen ni Houlihan" to
the public, with Maud Gonne as the eponymous heroine, in 1902. The
young zealous nationalists, full of solemnity and what Yeats would
later called passionate intensity, filled the theatre night after
night. This was the only time their dreams and the dreams of the
The terms of the divergence between the political idealists and
the writers was set soon afterwards by "The Playboy of the Western
World". Just as the Irish peasant and the life of the west of Ireland
were being idealised by Patrick Pearse and Douglas Hyde, by Yeats
and Lady Gregory, Synge wrote a play in which Irish peasants were
presented as brazen and pagan; the anti-heroic impulse of the play
drove the nationalists to riot in the theatre. So, too, less than
twenty years later, when the nationalists had fought their war and
were hungry for glory, Sean O'Casey offered them a version of their
Irish revolution which was less than glorious.
Both Synge and O'Casey were lucky to have a ready-made opposition;
the Ireland dreamed up by the politicians offered them an intense
need to tell the real truth, to show on the stage a version of things
which was missing from the official version.
The Irish theatre in the twentieth century has sought to create
a world which is in opposition to the accepted political rhetoric.
It has been, for the most part, a public theatre, concerned to show
how damaged and disturbed the private self has been by public life.
The plays of Andrew Hinds, "October Song" and "The Starving", attempt
to establish terms for our understanding of the Irish past which
have enormous political resonance. These two plays attempt to redefine
our politics: they insist that the personal is political. And in
Ireland in the 1990s when these plays were written, this remains
an explosive idea, and one which continues to be resisted.
His Derry is a place with a resonant history, full of ballads and
heroes, monuments and long memories. The intensity of his two plays
arises from the size and scope of the opposition to what is being
dramatised. Hinds's plays are attempting to push through the boom
by suggesting that it is private life which has been most maimed
in the city, the most private self which needs to cry out in these
plays. And this is done using the city's public history as background.
Maggie in "October Song" appears as Medea and Electra merged into
one fearless and wounded voice. She seeks revenge and she will damage
her son as she prepares to kill her father. The burning city will
be placed as parody and masque while she stands in the foreground.
What changes everything is the knowledge that the hurt done to her
was not done in the public sphere, but privately at home by her
father. And yet her anger fills the stage as public anger. Her banishment
from the city becomes in the theatre the hidden truth, the truth
worth knowing, about the city whose public life her father sought
to serve. Her sisters, in all their acquiescence and timidity, appear
as Chrysothemis does to Electra, or Ismene to Antigone.
Maggie's tone and voice take their bearings from the Greek theatre;
the play also owes much more to certain works by Ibsen and Ingmar
Bergman than to any of Hinds's Irish contemporaries. In general,
the Irish dramatists have resisted the relentless intensity which
these two plays offer. In Ibsen's "Ghosts" or Bergman's "Autumn
Sonata", the sins of the parents cannot be forgiven because they
have not been aired, the conflict cannot be resolved because it
has not been dramatised. The play then takes place in the time when
words are uttered that have never been said before. These words
"The Starving" takes this and pushes it further. There is a gnarled
intensity in its tone, a sense of things being said in both the
1990s, when the play was performed, and the 1690s, when it is set,
that would have equally serious consequences. The personal here
is all that matters, the pursuit of forbidden love becomes more
pressing and urgent than the battle for the city between Catholics
and Protestants. This is an explosive idea, as explosive in the
Ireland of the Celtic Tiger and the Peace Process as it was during
the siege of Derry. Once more, a battle rages in the theatre, requiring
a virtuoso actor, who will make love and pain seem more urgent than
anything else in the world.
History then, the history that matters, is here in these plays.
What happened to Maggie nineteen years before "October Song" begins,
or what happens to the love that dares and dares not speak its name
in "The Starving", these manage what we ask all good writing to
do. What they enact stirs us and haunts us and makes us afraid;
these two plays remind us of the plight of others, and, miraculously,
while we are not noticing, they remind us of our own plight.
Andrew Hinds's Derry is not an imagined place. It is the real city,
with its history and politics. What he has done is put a new flag
over it. What he has imagined and what his plays enact seem more
real to us and more true and more urgent than the official history.
He has brought two broken lives out to the front of the stage, two
figures broken by the fear of sexuality, whether a young woman's
sexuality or a man's love for another man, and with the help of
the shaping imagination and careful crafting, has made them public
and relentless and unforgettable.