Ireland has long been the kind of place where theatre can be and often is about much more than entertainment or diversion.
In this tiny North Atlantic country so central to the English language theatre tradition, the dramatic art form has functioned as chief social and critical channel of discourse. And that’s part of the reason why it’s so good.
Theatre has stood in for nation, liberation, rebellion. When issues could not be discussed elsewhere, they found their way to the stage.
And people have often not liked what they saw up there. The riots around the opening of Synge’s PLAYBOY in 1907, while more complicated than the standard explanation, are the classic example of popular uproar caused by theatre.
Of course, once you’ve had a good riot you need a dozen plays to reinterpret and relive it.
The cycle reinforces, and today there is a relatively healthy sub genre in Irish theatre academia around theatre riots.
After a long and unique history that has produced scores – hundreds – of dramatic writers, Ireland is still the kind of place where an important new play will receive headline coverage (and endless back room criticism) of the kind usually reserved for sports stars or celebrities.
And for the last few decades, on the morning after a world premiere by an Irish writer, when it came to decoding the importance and stature of the latest work, the Irish reading public has relied on one critic above all others to say what it means: Fintan O’Toole.
O’Toole is a critic in the old style – manically smart and wide-ranging, passionate about his likes and dislikes, and savage with the pen and keyboard when something doesn’t measure up. In person he speaks at top speed and always has a lot to say.
If you’re an actor, and you had the good (mis)fortune to be in the show under review, you carefully, slowly turn (or load) the page with O’Toole’s response, wondering if you were about to be praised, ignored, or dismissed.
If you’re the playwright, you might do well to put on a helmet and seat belt first. And maybe smoke a couple hundred cigarettes to prepare yourself.
Across the land, as a new O’Toole review hits the screen, a chorus of wails, laughs, snorts or cackles (depending on your relationship to the production) can be heard. Theatre practioners stare archly at each other on next meeting, not even needing to verbalize what everyone is thinking: “Jaysus, did you see what Fintan said!” Complaining about O’Toole’s reviews is second in popularity only to complaining about the weather.
But in a country where theatre and criticism thereof have played such a central role in the national discourse, it should come as no surprise to find a theatre critic now leading the latest popular uprising against the crushing financial burden the Republic’s government assumed in 2008 when it accepted all responsibility for the huge debts of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide.
Rebel leaders tap into popular cultural types. In the US an underdog iconoclast decrying excesses by the elites is more likely to be a laconic cowboy type or pickup truck-driving everyman, harkening back to basic values. In Poland, it was natural that Walesa, a shipyard electrician, would build popular support against the Soviets.
In Ireland the public’s outrage and desires are best channeled by a hyper literate theatre critic.
And that is just what is happening on ourcountry.ie.
Four years after the Free State essentially ceased to exist as a functioning financial entity, popular protest against the siphoning away of 3 billion Euros a year (scheduled to continue until 2023) to pay for real estate debts incurred by a criminal (and now exiled) billionaire uber class is FINALLY reaching critical mass.
O’Toole is in the middle of it. From his perch at the Irish Times, he has ceaselessly railed against the inbred and corrupt system that still resists any real reform or accountability. In such an economically divided society with so many powerful people with so much to lose, it’s kind of a miracle this bomb thrower has not found himself disappeared in the night, and that could still happen a la Veronica Guerin.
Maybe partly thanks to O’Toole’s high volume hectoring, the extreme public apathy of the last few years seems to be yielding to action at last. And as it would be incomprehensible for the ruling class to change anything until they absolutely have to, it seems likely that Ireland is going to soon see some popular protests on the streets.
Which is good news.
Because in Ireland, when riots break out, good theatre cannot be far behind.
And vice versa…