Social Buttons

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Irish Tumbleweed

by Jonathan Kalb

Mark O’Rowe—Irish playwright and screenwriter—has said that he was inspired to write his remarkable play Howie the Rookie by Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy (1947). In a funk back in 1999 after a failed effort to write a conventional “Abbey Theatre play,” O’Rowe says he read Beckett’s book and immediately snapped out of his slump by borrowing its unusual two-part, two-protagonist structure for Howie. Both works consist of dual lengthy narratives by different men engaged in ambiguous quests who more and more come to resemble one another as their stories unfold.

Howie the Rookie's Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.

Those who know both works may well believe that their similarities end there. Molloy is a landmark experimental novel that seems like a detective story but moves quickly into much more difficult terrain. It subjects imagination and the act of writing to constant, self-conscious scrutiny, introducing malleable and unstable characters whose names and backgrounds sometimes change from page to page. Events are buffeted by mysterious forces that can’t always be located in the slippery plot, and Beckett never clarifies how the narratives of Parts 1 and 2 relate to one another.

Howie the Rookie, by contrast, is a logical two-hander drama—performed by a single actor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) in the version at BAM Dec 10—14, directed by O’Rowe—that tells a madcap but wholly unified story with characters who are all integral and stable, including the two narrators. No one morphs into anyone else, or fades away because the narrator is confused, uncertain or forgetful, and the story is singular and continuous through both parts. The plot culminates in a thrilling and violent scene that provides clear-cut closure, as in a classical tragedy. O’Rowe may be an extraordinary vernacular poet, but he is no formal avant-gardist. So be it.

Despite all this, Howie and Molloy may yet share a deeper essential quality, in their use of language. Both authors write chiseled, thoroughly unpredictable, imaginatively galvanized sentences that often feel physically propulsive and that generate action rather than merely report it.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Landmark Production's Howie the Rookie. Photo: Patrick Redmond

This is the fundamentally theatrical quality in Beckett’s nondramatic prose that has made his stories and novels so ripe for dramatic adaptation over the years, even though he abhorred adaptation and tried untiringly to forbid it while he lived. Molloy itself has been adapted for performance several times—once in 1969 by the avant-garde theoretician E.T. Kirby and later by a series of silver-tongued Irish actors including Conor Lovett, Jack MacGowran, and Barry McGovern, as part of their unforgettable Beckett solo shows.

The speeches of O’Rowe’s hapless, brutal yet sharply observant and uncannily inventive protagonists also cry out to be rolled, twirled, and vaulted off a consummate Irish tongue in exactly that Beckettian way. In the mouth of Vaughan-Lawlor, the monologues career along like verbal tumbleweed, gathering shards of chaotic reality as they barrel and crash through the play’s seedy landscape. The effect may seem strange, but it will glue you to your seat.

Jonathan Kalb is a Professor of Theatre at Hunter College of the City of New York.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.