Almost a century ago, WB Yeats attempted to revolutionise the modern theatre with a concept so simple it was audacious: he would write plays designed to be staged in people’s drawing rooms.
I was at a play in a drawing room recently. It was Silent, by Pat Kinevane, and it was staged for one night only in the Pillar Room of the Mater Hospital, by Fishamble Theatre Company, as part of the Phizzfest community arts festival (in Phibsboro). It occurred to me that perhaps Kinevane had achieved something that had evaded Yeats: a theatre that combined drawing-room intimacy with an ethereal strangeness, and did so without sacrificing simple entertainment.
Yeats’s earlier work in the theatre had focused on establishing an Irish national theatre that would help define the emergent nation. But by 1916, he had grown disillusioned: the riots at The Playboy, and Dublin’s indifference to Hugh Lane’s art bequest, had helped convince him that what was needed was an elite theatre, not a democratic one.
He had studied the ritualistic Noh theatre of Japan, and wrote a series of plays inspired by it, intended to be staged for private audiences in the drawing rooms of the wealthy. This was a new type of theatre, he said, “an aristocratic form.” He meant that literally: At the Hawk’s Well premiered in the drawing room of a London society hostess, Lady Cunard.
That kind of elitism would be anathema to all those involved in Silent. Rather than excluding the public by staging the play in a private space, they used the play to open up a normally-private (and beautiful) space to the public.
And where Yeats’s plays were dominated by myth and the search for eternal truths, Kinevane focusses, to sometimes disturbing effect, on the troubled present.
His character is a Cork man, McGoldrig, homeless in Dublin. The source of McGoldrig’s troubles appears to lie in the (particularly grim) suicide, years before, of his brother. Slowly, McGoldrig lost his own mind, and his family with it. His own story emerges amidst banter with the audience and quirky forays into ballroom dancing and silent movies.
The remarkable range of styles and devices used by Kinevane would be alien to Yeats, but there were intriguing echoes of Yeats there too. Kinevane, too, has been influenced by Japanese theatre. On stage, he often looks like a character from one of Yeats’s Noh plays – silent, mysterious, graceful, ghostly.
Most obviously, though, Yeats must have wished for something like the effect Kinevane achieved with his audience in the Pillar Room.
“I hope to create a form of theatre which may delight the best minds of my time,” Yeats wrote to a friend on the morning of the premiere of At the Hawk’s Well, in 1916 (before going for a nap to ready himself for the ordeal). Amongst those in the audience was the poet TS Eliot, who was reportedly inspired by it.
All very worthy – but did they leap to their feet, cheering? That was the reaction to Silent. To be in that audience was to experience a rare synergy between performer and the performed-to.
Kinevane’s brief, witty exchanges with audience members acted as an invitation to us all to join him on his journey. The extreme intimacy of the drawing-room setting makes it impossible to refuse.
There was no “fourth wall”: there were just the walls of the room, and we were all inside together. We may not have been aristocrats, but I think Yeats would have enjoyed it.
Kinevane continues on his meandering way: see www.fishamble.com for tour details.
Published in the Irish Independent, September 2011.