If you’ve been following along, you’ll recall that Irish Times theatre and social critic Fintan O’Toole labeled John Patrick Shanley’s “Irish play” OUTSIDE MULLINGAR “mystifyingly awful” and “unfathomably bad” last February. Not inconsequential words from one of the most important living English language critics and the man with the definitive word on Irish culture.
But behold! In O’Toole’s annual look back at the previous year’s cultural highs and lows, he has bestowed a rarely awarded (and fiercely contested) title to Shanley’s work. According to O’Toole, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR includes “perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theatre”.
Now O’Toole sees a lot of plays (many, as you may know, not to his liking), and he kind of had to hedge himself with that “perhaps” – because there are so many competitors vying for the designation and he can’t keep track of them all (maybe there’s an app for that). But still. Making it to the top of such a hallowed heap is no ordinary achievement. For any playwright.
American plays that are “set in Ireland” but actually have no understanding of the place is a kind of evergreen cottage industry in the US and no doubt keeps the interns at Christopher Guest’s office busy filing story ideas for future films.
Meanwhile, Shanley’s play is starting to pump through the mass-produced theatre industrial complex pipeline to many regional theatres that should know better. For example, lo and behold, to our north Seattle Rep has elected to do OUTSIDE MULLINGAR in April.
Last summer’s production of THE MIKADO with an all white cast by Seattle’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society drew hundreds of Asian American protesters onto the streets decrying stereotypes and cultural appropriation in the American theatre. Why wouldn’t Irish Americans similarly rally (or, in their more familiar format, riot) against a work that reduces the Irish to a series of greenface types? Not only is the Ireland of Shanley’s play a simple fantasy world that does not exist – it’s a bad play. A horrible play. A play so preposterously bad – that it almost becomes good in a way.
And the truly weird thing here is that actually existing Irish theatre (plays about Ireland by Irish writers) is some of the very best there is. How do you start with one of the mightiest theatre traditions the world has ever known, a stream of writers stretching back hundreds of years who have redefined live performance, and create a play so bad that it should be vetoed even at the junior high level (not to mention Broadway)?
Shanley can take solace knowing that, if ever done in Ireland, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR would go down in memory as one of the funniest “Irish” plays ever seen on stage.
But for all the wrong reasons.
+++O’Toole’s list below+++
Fintan O’Toole’s cultural highs and lows of 2014
Sat, Dec 27, 2014
What were your cultural highlights of 2014?
Michael Longley’s beautifully fragile evocation of life, death, nature and memory in The Stairwell. Bryan Cranston’s utterly gripping Lyndon Baines Johnson in Richard Schenkkan’s All the Way. Colm Tóibín’s intricate, moment-by-moment plotting of grief in Nora Webster. The wonderfully loopy Leonora Carrington exhibition at Imma.
Catching up with and being caught up in Eimear McBride’s ferocious and fearless A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. The unconfined joy of The Gloaming. Mikel Murfi’s deeply moving performance in Ballyturk and Ciaran Hinds’s in The Night Alive. Lorrie Moore’s impeccable and inimitable stories in Bark. The rapturous linguistic landscape of Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman. Finally getting to see some kabuki in Tokyo.
And the year’s biggest disappointments?
The Government’s malign neglect of the arts and culture: not a red cent extra in the budget; no action on the sale of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre; the John McNulty and Imma-board farce; allowing the National Library of Ireland and National Museum of Ireland to approach collapse. And perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theatre: “I think I’m a bee,” in John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar, on Broadway.
What caught you by surprise?
Lisa Dwan’s performance of three short Samuel Beckett plays – Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby was startling in its power, originality and virtuosity. There’s been nothing quite like it before. Also in Beckettland, Adrian Dunbar’s magical-mystery-tour production of Catastrophe at Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival.
And what will you be glad to see or hear the last of?
Ministerial blather about how much we value culture. Maybe “we” do, but you certainly don’t.
Who or what was 2014’s unsung hero?
Not quite unsung, but unplayed: the great Tony McMahon’s farewell to music leaves a silence in the air.
What’s your top tip for 2015?
The Druid/Mark O’Rowe version of Shakespeare’s Henry plays should be a dangerous walk on a high-wire strung between “these islands”.
2014 in three words?
In spite of . . .